True grit polishes writers' tales of poverty's grasp

  • Article by: KATHE CONNAIR , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 17, 2009 - 10:03 AM

The difficulty of moving up from hardscrabble to middle class leaves an indelible mark - described here beautifully in a series of essays by women who have gone through it.

Chaos is a constant in the lives of the poverty-stricken. And while it may be a powerful motivator, it often leaves a mark on those who claw their way to success.

In her introduction to "An Angle of Vision" (University of Michigan Press, 216 pages, $22.95), editor Lorraine M. Lopez describes her own guilt at not providing a better early model to a now-grown daughter struggling with poor choices and bad breaks. She credits works by some of the writers included in the anthology (subtitled "Women Writers on Their Poor and Working-Class Roots") with showing her how to become the author of her own fate.

For many of the contributors, writing was a way to express their anger, pain and shame -- and it became their way out. Not that it was a trip without detours. Again, Lopez describes it well: "For me, lower-class status is akin to a pernicious genetic trait, a chromosomal aberration that can be managed like bad posture with exercise and a back brace ... only to resurface again and again when the spirit sags and defenses are low."

Sometimes those defenses are laid low by men -- fathers like Teresa de la Caridad Doval's, whose "pockets were full of holes ... that opened on payday," or, ironically, like Dwonna Goldstone's, who so impressed on her the need to develop her mind that she worries her heart is stunted.

But often plain old need or bad habits lead to a setback. In some ways, Lisa D. Chavez was following her mother's scrappy example when, after a divorce and a few ill-considered indulgences, she decided to moonlight as a phone sex operator. Although it cost her her job in academia, Chavez knows she's a survivor.

Sex is a currency that Mary Childers examines in her essay about a neglected baby sister who "grew up caked with sex grime" and managed to become a respectable massage therapist with clear boundaries. Several of the authors describe the dissonance they feel, having "made it" and hobnobbing with those who had it all along. Heather Sellers is floored when another academic is introduced to her simply as someone who "sails with good people."

Others, like Joy Castro, find that success -- or in her words, "jumping class" -- separates them from family members whose troubled lives colleagues regard as "material." For Sandra Cisneros, writing lovingly about her family's peripatetic existence was a way to attract attention in the literary world, but more important, from her father whose translation of hijos as "sons" always made her, the only girl in a family of seven, feel left out.

The true mark of success for many, like Dorothy Allison, is in putting to rest the shame of their hardscrabble beginnings. They take pride in being able to show the world, through their writing, that every person has worth, even those scavenging for basic necessities and doing what Maureen Gibbon calls "stink jobs."

Kathe Connair is a features copy editor at the Star Tribune.

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