NOVEMBER 14, 2017
MY MATERNAL GRANDFATHER, whom I call Tata, tells me stories about his days as a fruit picker on a crew with Japanese, Mexicans, Filipinos, and displaced Oklahomans from the Dust Bowl who labored from sunup to sundown. Tata would get blisters on his hands from planting acres of small trees and hoeing crop lines, and he’d get paid six cents per box of oranges picked. With the money earned, he’d go to the picture show to watch a Western double feature.
When I hear these stories, I feel as if Tata’s describing something foreign to me, a whitewashed person of Hispanic descent who doesn’t speak the language. But I get a new angle on it reading the essay “Fieldwork,” by Manuel Muñoz, which appears in the new anthology Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation. Authors of different classes and ethnicities, including Sandra Cisneros, Richard Russo, Joyce Carol Oates, and Nami Mun, tell stories of depressing circumstances, but also as bases of connection, strengthened by an unwavering core of hope.
Heartbreaking and thought-provoking, this occasionally uneven collection of nonfiction and poetry raises fresh questions on inequality in the United States and introduces readers to real-life characters they can care about.
In “Fieldwork,” Manuel Muñoz unpacks the distanced relationship between himself and his dying father. Recollection serves as a consistent theme throughout the piece as it attempts to connect Muñoz’s present to his father’s past, “to ask him about what I didn’t know.” Born in Dinuba, California, in 1972, Muñoz grew up in a period when being bilingual in Spanish and English was necessary for upward mobility and employment, and where cultural identity was sacrificed for butchered Anglicized name pronunciations; yet, these very things widened the divide between Muñoz’s generation and that of his parents.
The most powerful passage in “Fieldwork” is when his father tells a story about how a man with no place to go knocked on the back door while Muñoz’s mother was home and how she fed him tacos and let him drink from the garden hose. After hearing the story, Muñoz reflects,
I couldn’t bring myself to say anything about him dying, so I asked my father why he had remembered that story. Because that man was afraid and now he was afraid. I had never known my father to be afraid, to be a fearful man, and I told him so.
This shift elevates the essay from a simple narrative about fieldwork to one that touches on the qualities that make us human.
In “American Work,” Richard Russo (Empire Falls) comments on Donald Trump’s promise to the American people to create more jobs. Russo has plenty of work from a successful freelance career, but has managed not to feel like Trump’s target audience: “ignored, undervalued, denigrated.” But then Russo sympathizes with those receiving little to no recognition for working jobs that nobody wants:
Okay, but somehow we’ve taken that correlation between education and prosperity to mean that there’s something demeaning about unclogging drains and pounding nails, somehow less essential to our national life than, say, writing computer code. […] My own working class heroes, even when they’re standing hip-deep in muck, take a certain stubborn pride in doing jobs that are necessary, no matter how disgusting or dangerous. And though I’ve educated myself out of the necessity for doing such work for a living, I still share the pride of those who are less fortunate.
By developing a parallel between the current economic situation and that of Charles Dickens’s working-class characters in The Pickwick Papers, Russo humanizes a subset of American workers in an unexpected way.
Sandra Cisneros writes in “Notes of a Native Daughter” that “for home to be a home, you have to feel that you belong.” The Chicago streets provided her with education, while her immigrant father’s pride provided a sense of survival. But tension and fear did not make Cisneros feel at home — fear of being stuck as a lower middle-class high school teacher in the metropolitan quicksand, where hopes are suffocated by the mundane existence of living.
While some American cities remain skeletons of iron, brick, and mortar stuck in the 19th century, others take on new identity forced upon them. As Rickey Laurentiis writes of New Orleans in “Visible City”: “Later, this city washed more literally and more blue / With waters as close as cousin Cuba, as far as the far-walked shores / Of my playful Brazil.” Relying on strong sensory detail — green light, a musical chord, kissing and licking — Laurentiis conjures a familiar picture of New Orleans, but one that doesn’t feel overwrought with the party nature of the city. But what it left for its people after the waters of history have swept away what is temporary is a ghost of a city they must wear.
In his introduction to the collection, John Freeman recalls returning home to his native Sacramento, California, and walking the streets which in the past he only knew as a blur in a car window. He admits he feels out of place, that this Sacramento he walks now is not the one from his childhood, the one his father and grandfather knew; then again, he didn’t really know it himself. Just as New Orleans was left in a physical and emotional liminal state, so was Freeman from Sacramento, caught between a nearly forgotten history and the latest attempts at gentrification and modernization.
Nobody feels this more keenly than Native Americans, confined by invisible lines separating reservations from land which used to be theirs. In “American Arithmetic,” Natalie Diaz laments, “I do not remember the days before America — / I do not remember the days when we were all here.” Being in a category that includes less than 0.8 percent of all Americans, Diaz finds it ironic that the majority of the National Museum of the American Indian’s collection is provided by the United States, which was responsible for the death and ill treatment of her ancestors. With phrases such as “I am doing my best to not become a museum / of myself. I am doing my best to breathe in and out” shows her resilience to hold on to her identity, despite how easily it can disappear completely. Diaz’s poem is the most tonally somber piece in Tales of Two Americas. It earns its sadness from the raw emotion of several generations of Native Americans channeled through the page, while it also encourages readers to reflect on this history America has perpetuated for centuries. Native Americans make up 1.9 percent of police killings, for example, proportionally more than any other race in the United States.
Rebecca Solnit also takes aim at this festering social problem in her essay on the San Francisco police shooting of Alejandro Nieto, a 28-year-old Latino security guard. Her reportage gets to the heart of the matter: Nieto’s parents pursued justice through the court system and won, but it was the “vital force of real community” — the coming together of neighborhoods to remember those people it has lost and shelter those who need protection — that proved most important. It is this coming together to which Solnit holds the mirror up to show the compassionate humanity of these American citizens.
While the anthology showcases many strong pieces of writing, reading through it can be a challenge. Totaling 320 pages, the subject matter can be emotionally daunting if not read in moderation. In addition, sometimes less is more: 36 pieces are featured in the anthology; yet, its overall themes and scope could have possibly been achieved with 24, even 18 strong pieces. Some pieces, such as Jess Ruliffson’s “Invisible Wounds,” a graphic novel excerpt about a soldier adjusting to home life after completing a tour of duty, feels out of place among the surplus of essays, poetry, and fiction. Furthermore, some inclusions do not carry the same weight as others. In particular, the brevity of Annie Dillard’s “Soup Kitchen” makes it seem like a parable, but leaves one wanting more. Was this included only because of Dillard’s marquee name? Because of such variability, the collection can feel uneven.
The United States is a divided country, and yet, there is a counterforce of compassion. If Freeman’s collection has a keynote, it would be an appeal to the baseline Dickensian decency of the people reflected in writing. For the most part, this is successfully done; at other times, old truths are confirmed, yet nothing new is offered. However, Tales of Two Americas successfully puts readers into the shoes of its varied characters so that they may come away with a better understanding of their divided situations and the hope that our nation can rectify itself in the future.
Sean Woodard is a graduate of Point Loma Nazarene University and Chapman University. His work has been featured in The Cost of Paper: Volume Four, Found Polaroids, Drunk Monkeys, and Los Angeles magazine, among other publications.