Your Class is Showing
June 9, 2021 § 10 Comments
by Melissa Scholes Young
At a reading for my first novel, a reader waited patiently at the microphone and asked, “Why would someone like you write about people like this?”
My friend in the front row shook their head. The bookseller hosting me inched closer. I smiled and asked back, “Someone like me? People like this?” The audience laughed. It relieved the tension.
It was actually a good question, albeit loaded. My rural accent thickens when I speak into microphones or sit in rocking chairs on porches. My debut novel, Flood, is set in my hometown of Hannibal, Missouri where I reimagine Tom and Huck’s famous friendship as female. My second book, The Hive, traffics in the political divide of rural communities and tells the story of sisters, secrets, and survival. Both books are set in the Midwest and my characters look and sound like the country people who raised me. I write from my roots, but my roots aren’t always visible in my presentation.
The implication of the question was that I couldn’t possibly be the product of working-class people in rural America. She saw them perhaps as unsophisticated in their manner and uncouth in their behavior. She saw me as a successful author and esteemed university professor. Her question was innocent enough, though it revealed more about her own bias than about the many and sincere parts of my identity.
At best, it was a backhanded compliment. At worst, it revealed exactly why I write about the community that raised me. We all deserve to be complicated on the page. If you can’t imagine that a person without a formal education can be brilliant and nuanced in their thinking or that economically disadvantaged folks don’t also have desire, than maybe you’re not bringing an open heart and mind to the page. My people aren’t stuck in a life they don’t want; they choose to devote their talents to a life they’re familiar with and want to make better. I write worlds I know but I read worlds that I have never occupied.
My work in fiction and nonfiction traffics class because I have the unique vantage to do so. I move freely within the cultural divide. I was raised in a conservative community but I’ve built my career in a liberal one. I lean on my rural roots and cling tight to the values of self-sufficiency, hard work, and grit from guts. Shared stories are an invitation to challenging conversations. At the dinner table, it’s safer to discuss characters, their values, and choices perhaps more than our own. The discussions are possible when they are about fictional plot rather than personal story. It’s vital that readers have representation on the page. It’s important, too, that readers don’t only seek out stories from characters who share the same values. Books should challenge us to imagine beyond our own experiences and to inhabit a world we may not otherwise have access to. It doesn’t threaten my beliefs to read something I disagree with. It makes me think harder about my foundation.
On the stage, celebrating my debut novel, the question from the reader about the distance between my reality and my roots felt like an indictment. I grew up on a country road, speak with a Midwestern twang, am the first in my family to graduate from college, and make my living as an author and professor of Literature. Her question implied that those identities couldn’t coexist, yet they absolutely do and we should expect them to.
The real win of my reader’s question that day is that my publishing story provides perspective into a life she’d never live but could see more clearly. The truth is that I was in awe of her ability to even ask me such a question. I was taught to behave and to be quiet like good girls do. Not all of us were born into progressive families that valued our voice. We’re still clearing our throats.
Melissa Scholes Young is the author of the novels The Hive and Flood, and editor of Grace in Darkness and Furious Gravity, two anthologies of new writing by women writers. She is a contributing editor at Fiction Writers Review, and her work has appeared in the Atlantic, Ms., Washington Post, Poets & Writers, Ploughshares, Literary Hub, and elsewhere. She has been the recipient of the Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Foundation Residency Fellowship and the Center for Mark Twain Studies’ Quarry Farm Fellowship. Born and raised in Hannibal, Missouri, she is currently an associate professor in Literature at American University.