In “Without A Net,” Writers Share Stories Of Growing Up In Poverty

by Crystal Erickson

It’s easy to say the best things in life are free when you actually have money. Being poor is a crippling state of existence, something one will never truly escape, even after rising above the poverty line. In Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class (Hachette Book Group, out February 27), editor Michelle Tea compiles essays from various writers who’ve experienced poverty firsthand. Originally published in 2003, this is the book’s second edition, which contains new essays and an updated introduction. Tea explains the importance of the book’s focus — and getting these stories from the people who actually lived them — in the introduction, where she writes, “The class problem, the problem of poverty and the strange way it is regarded in this country, is not going away, and we need writers from low-income backgrounds breaking through the actual middle-class, often rich viewpoints and experiences that dominate the media.” 

All the common themes about poverty are present throughout the book: growing up in the projects, coming to the U.S. to chase that American Dream, hunger, violence, divorce and single parenthood, sexual abuse, alcoholism. For many authors, poverty is experienced as a full-time struggle in their youth, when children should be focused on learning, playing, and dreaming about the future. Instead, these kids get in trouble for heartbreaking things, like losing money while trying to get food from the corner store to fight off the ever-present hunger, as in Shell Feijo’s “There are Holes in My Mandarin Dog Biscuit,” which gets its title from instances when the writer had to eat dog biscuits because it was the only food left in the house.

A variety of writing styles are employed throughout “Without a Net,” giving essayists greater range to explore the topic. Silas Howard’s “Reverse” is written in a literary nonfiction style, where passages are collaged together that — in assemblage — tell a vivid, nonlinear story of the author’s experience with poverty. Another essay, “My Memory and Witness,” is composed from letters back and forth between siblings Lis Goldschmidt and Dean Spade that reflect on their shared past, seeking comfort from one another as adults after jumping class. Poetry brings art to the sticky matter at hand in “A Catholic Leg,” where author Terry Ryan sprinkles her essay with poems her mother wrote to win contest prizes like cars, cash, appliances, and other consumer goods. These all kept the family somewhat afloat as Ryan’s father struggled to support a family of ten children. This poem from her mother is particularly fitting:

Who’d trade
Peace of mind
(To most rich men
For all of their
Worrisome money?

Certainly, the grass is always greener on the other side — and there’s plenty of green on the rich’s side. Many writers talk about eventually jumping class later in life by going to college and eventually finding financial stability. But the road to stability is filled with sinkholes for a kid coming from such humble beginnings, and not even scholarships can save someone from poverty’s aftershock. From working so hard during college to afford food or rent that it’s hard to even concentrate on college courses, to being harassed by white students due to one’s ethnicity, kids coming out of poverty endure myriad challenges as they try to jump class and have a better future. Probably no one in the collection feels more stuck in between worlds as Wendy Thompson, author of “The Lower-Working-Class Narrative of a Black Chinese American Girl,” whose mother wanted a good little Asian girl, and father hoped she could escape the burden of growing up Black in the U.S. Being stuck in the gray area of a world that only sees black or white, Thompson finds herself in the middle of it all. In her essay’s conclusion, she writes:

The borders between the upper class and the working class stand to define more than just the amount on a paycheck. They classify language, culture, body, and self. It keeps us apart from one another while also keeping us connected in a never-ending struggle for social and economic balance. The middle ground is where I locate myself.

One minor complaint is that the book’s finale, “Passing as Privileged” by Lilly Dancyger, felt like a weak choice for a closing essay — Tina Fakhrid-Deen’s “Ghetto Fabulous” would have been a better choice. In the essay, Fakhrid-Deen discusses her struggle with the word “ghetto” yet strongly identifies with the loaded term, all while living a middle-class lifestyle and feeling like the gentrifier in South Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood (“I had become that middle-class asshole who moves in and pushes aside the poor residents, who are rightfully angry. They wanted the good life too.”). She writes about the importance of reaching out to one’s community, and respecting everyone in it — rich, middle class, or poor — since we’re all in this together. The essay offers stronger solutions to the book’s topic than another discussion about faking as the privileged class — a class that anyone who’s poor is sure to not ever identify with — so the argument loses a little steam in the end, after several reiterations throughout the book.

The essays in Without a Net are brutally honest, to the point where I feel like I’m stealing glances from these writers’ journals. And that’s what make them so effective — and relatable. I grew up in a working-poor family myself, and felt a piece of my own story told here. These stories brought me to both tears and anger, and will have me reflecting on these difficult emotions for a while. Woven together, these essays provide a diverse slice of life for those growing up in poverty in this so-called land of opportunity — and offer few silver linings — as it’s a problem no one can easily face or solve. Through these painful shared realities, Without a Net offers readers hope and truth in a time when both are increasingly hard to find.

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