Elevate Difference

An Angle of Vision: Women Writers on Their Poor and Working-Class Roots

In An Angle of Vision, we are presented with a series of extraordinarily well-written essays centered upon one of the most taboo topics in U.S. culture: class. More specifically, we are presented with first-person, female-centered examinations of two groups who are steadily disappearing from both the public discourse and the popular culture of the United States: the poor and working class. As the myths of meritocracy and the “middle class nation” take up ever more space in the public discussions that the United States has about itself, the space assigned to these two groups shrinks. When the poor and working class do garner some attention, their stories are generally told from and distorted by a perspective completely alien from their own. They are spoken of or for, but do not truly get to speak for themselves.

This anthology is then both welcome and needed, especially since it grants us the perspective of a group far more diverse that can usually be expected. We hear the voices of Dorothy Allison, Bich Minh Nguyen, Angela Threatt, Sandra Cisneros, Joy Harjo, Mary Childers, and others in the dialects born of distinct cultures and subcultures from around the United States and throughout the world. Having only their gender and class background in common, these women writers represent a variety of races, ethnicities, sexualities, generations, and geographies and do so in a way that makes the foreign familiar and approachable.

However, their stories, written in the intersections between multiple identities, share common themes that emerge explicitly and implicitly throughout the book. Perhaps the most compelling is the lingering doubts of “authenticity” that plague those who find themselves moving into a world where discussions of the class in which they were born is deemed taboo and one is expected to achieve (or at least fake) fluency in the dialect of the privileged. Despite the cult of social mobility immortalized in the American Dream, one is often supposed to pretend not to have moved at all since such an admission may embarrass those who were born into their social status.

Having grown up in desperate poverty in the Deep South and finding myself suddenly part of the shrinking middle class, I found these essays in general riveting and deeply authentic. It is, perhaps, difficult for me to overcome my class bias enough to truly understand how they would be taken by someone who does not share the writers’ experiences with class. However, I hope that the appeal of truly great writing, filled with pathos and humor, might overcome any discomfort readers may have with the topic.

Written by: Melinda Barton, January 21st 2010