Your Class is Showing

June 9, 2021 § 11 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.

§ 11 Responses to Your Class is Showing

  • Thank you for this.

    There is an absurd prejudice about intelligence and money—because a lot of this bigotry is rooted in the American assumption that “better” people are wealthy. I taught high school English and then college writing for many years and did not find that to be true. Generational poverty, like a regional accent, is not a sign of stupidity or lack of enterprise. Too often it is merely random, and teaching in my poor, rural school proved that to me.

    One of the smartest students I ever taught was determined to follow his father (and grandfathers…) into the woods, lumbering. It was possible to miss how brilliant he was, and many teachers did miss that, though his humor was sly and his writing off-the-charts. He took the minimum courses and passed classes with minimal grades, refused to take the SAT with his friends, and after he graduated from high school did what he’d intended. Later, when he realized that surveying was useful to his work, he bought a used textbook from Good Will and taught himself a year’s worth of Trigonometry in a few weeks. Yes, he could do that.

    A girl told me her Senior English teacher treated her like she was stupid. I thought she was exaggerating until that teacher actually stood in the hall and said she was stupid. No, she was bi-racial and overweight, and busy taking care of her mentally ill mother. When her SAT scores came back the highest in years, I was not surprised. Did she go off to college? No, she stayed to do what she could to support our community and her own family. It was not sacrifice, it was values.

    There was also plenty of evidence that advantaged family background (education, but mostly money) was a wholly unreliable predictor of talent, ambition, and compassion, but surely we should know that?

    All of this to show “a person without a formal education can be brilliant and nuanced in their thinking [and] economically disadvantaged folks [can] also have desire.”

  • Powerful piece. Thank you. I heard you read a couple years ago at a Barrelhouse conference, and I thought, oh, she’s not from here either. An Ohio native, I will never feel East Coast-y, as I call it. My nasally accent cuts through at dinner parties, where I never feel like I fit in–like a goofy step-child, only middle-aged now. Of course, I know so many people here in the D.C. metro area who aren’t from here. The glorious thing about writing fiction is living new experiences–even if on the page. How many of us came to the page because we felt like outsiders everywhere but?

  • Morgan Baker says:

    Loved this piece. Thank you for sharing. I have recently read five memoirs and my story isn’t in any of them, which is why I read them. I was engaged and entertained, but I also learned something about worlds I’m not familiar with. I’m so grateful for that. Our stories are important no matter who we are or where we come from. Thanks.

  • Fifty years ago I was a medical student taking my hospital rotation in internal medicine. The hospital was in Gainesville, FL at the University of Florida. I was on the ward with a professor and a group of fellow students. The prof was interviewing a patient who had been a farmer for years. My naive, urban perspective was shattered by the farmer’s intellect and clarity. It was a meeting I will never forget that brought reality closer to my heart and mind. The memory was quickly triggered by your blog. Thank you.

  • “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, then maybe you’re not bringing an open heart and mind to the page.” I so feel this. I grew up in the tri-state area where pretty much everyone was formally educated, but moved far and wide over the past 15 years to discover this same point. The truth is, I have learned a lot from people without any formal “education.”

  • […] all deserve to be complicated on the page.” Melissa Scholes Young on moving—and writing—across cultural divides. | […]

  • carolspindel says:

    As a southerner who does not have a strong accent, and because many people assume an educated Jewish person can’t be a southerner, I often find myself the audience for biased comments about white southerners. It amazes me how many people from other regions still hold onto the belief that most white southerners are uneducated, stupid, and racist. When I was young, I said nothing, because, like an unlike the writer, I had been brought up to understand that nice girls, even from progressive families, don’t say things to upset people. Now I speak up. Stereotypes abound, and they aren’t much help when it comes to understanding the complexities of real life.

  • Thank you for sharing. I was raised right across the river from Hannibal. I certainly get the middle class, rural, a redneck sprinkled in here and there, and education whether from school or culture.
    I will be sure to read Flood.

  • orangemike says:

    Have you read Barbara Jensen’s excellent Reading Classes
    On Culture and Classism in America
    ? Like all the best writing on this topic, it’s got an autobiographical element, and it’s worth fifty “Hillbilly Elegies”!

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