“Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation” is an impressive collection of essays, short stories and poems edited by John Freeman.
The anthology examines what Freeman describes as “a lurking feeling of displacement in America,” through thoughtfully arranged reflections on the way so many of us feel disconnected from ourselves, from others and from place.
Brilliant essayist Rebecca Solnit kicks things off with an examination of how gentrification in San Francisco got a young man named Alex Nieto killed. Ann Patchett gets the final word and shares an encouraging story on the power of generosity. In between, a dazzling assemblage of emerging and established writers offers insights that are straightforward or subtle, but always compelling.
Danez Smith, a 28-year-old Minnesota poet, already established in the upper echelon of the art, pulls no punches, showcasing his fearless imagination in a poem contemplating a future without white supremacy. Sandra Cisneros pens a heartbreaking letter explaining why she left Chicago, noticing in one passage “wild morning glories climbing an electric pole, the first green pips of spring breaking through the crust of winter,” then explaining, “Something beautiful was necessary to keep one nourished for the inevitable grief.”
Claire Vaye Watkins describes an austere and chaotic childhood through every house she occupied. Eula Biss asks, “What is the condition of white life?” An Edwidge Danticat story is sad, then sexy. Kiese Laymon unpacks privilege within marginalization in an essay on how he has it better than a friend who is also black. Kevin Young continues to amaze; Natalie Diaz is mathematical, precise, potent.
An excerpt from a graphic novel, drawn by Jess Ruliffson, chronicles an Iraq war veteran’s experiences. There’s a Roxane Gay story, an Anthony Doerr essay, a Rickey Laurentiis poem and more.
Each contribution stands out. Each voice is unique. The only common threads in the collection are theme and excellence.
The white working class gets a lot of press at the moment, and, at one point, motivated by jealousy or righteous outrage, I found myself wanting to debate Chris Offutt, a country boy from eastern Kentucky who describes himself as having completed “one of the steepest social climbs in America.” But including his essay and a Joyce Carol Oates story and similar pieces on the white experience reminds readers that while we’re all impacted by marginalization differently and to different degrees, feeling displaced is a universal experience.
What we share might be fertile ground for community, but, somehow, our traumas divide us.
In “Tales of Two Americas” the tragedy of that missed connection becomes too plain to ignore. This anthology is spectacular and devastating and provocative.
Michael Kleber-Diggs is a poet and essayist. He lives in St. Paul.
Tales of Two Americas
Edited by: John Freeman.
Publisher: Penguin Books, 330 pages, $17.
Event: John Freeman, Claire Vaye Watkins and Lawrence Joseph will be at the Twin Cities Book Festival at the State Fairgrounds on Oct. 14.