Breaking the silence with bell hooks, Barbara Ehrenreich and Mary Gordon
It"s Fall ñ which means it"s time again for the city"s annual Spirit & Place Festival. This marks the seventh year for this gathering dedicated to exploring the character and quality of life in Indianapolis. The Festival"s cornerstone program is a public conversation involving leading thinkers from around the country. This year, Indiana essayist Scott Russell Sanders will moderate a discussion with writers Mary Gordon, bell hooks and Barbara Ehrenreich on Nov. 3 at 4:30 at Clowes Hall. NUVO was able to catch up with Gordon, hooks and Ehrenreich before the fact for this exclusive series of conversations.
A conversation with Barbara Ehrenreich
(from top to bottom) Barbara Ehrenreich, bell hooks and Mary Gordon
By Barb Shoup My nephew spent most of the past summer-his last before starting college-logging packages and loading them on to Federal Express trucks. When he complained that it was hot, boring, exhausting work, that he hated working nights-coming home wide-awake at midnight with nothing to do but watch TV, then finally sleeping so late that when he got up it was time to get ready to go to work again, we laughed and said, "Good! Remember that when you"re sitting in your dorm room this fall, thinking about partying instead of studying. Remember that you don"t want to have to do that kind of job forever." He"s a good kid, a good sport, so he laughed back. And he was glad to have the $8 an hour job, which meant money in the bank to spend later for books and basketball tickets. But what about people who don"t have something better to look forward to, people who struggle to meet the most basic housing, food and transportation needs working jobs that pay little above minimum wage? This is the question Barbara Ehrenreich set out to answer in, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, a book that should be read by every American who"s ever shopped at a discount store, eaten at a restaurant, employed a maid service, spent the night in a hotel or otherwise benefited from the service of the millions of invisible people working hard and getting nowhere. She could have answered the question by way of statistics that were readily available in 1998, when she began the project. For that matter, we could answer it now-in the abstract-by running the numbers ourselves: $8X40 hours=$340 a week, $16,320 a year. The Community Faith and Labor Coalition, which has spearheaded the Indianapolis Living Wage Campaign, estimates that a living wage for one person in our city in 2002 would be $17, 543.04. So if Ehrenreich were working my nephew"s job in Indianapolis, she"d be $1,223.04 short of a living wage. And that"s assuming she received medical benefits in addition to her hourly pay, which many near-minimum-wage workers do not. But numbers weren"t enough for Ehrenreich. She wanted to know what it felt like to be one of the working poor. So she lived the statistics, working stints as a waitress, a nursing home aid, a Wal-Mart "associate" and a maid-then told the story, providing deft sketches of the people, mostly women, she worked alongside. What surprised her? "I didn"t know how hard the work would be," Ehrenreich said. "And I mean that not just physically, but mentally. I didn"t know that I was going to be challenged-I, with my PhD.-by these jobs, and have a hard time learning them fast enough. I didn"t know how authoritarian the workplace is, that you check your civil liberties at the door when you go to work. That was a shock. And the behavior of some managers was a shock. It"s been a long time since somebody got six inches from my nose and yelled at me, or devised little punishments for my doing something wrong. Or having a wrong look on my face." She was surprised to lose her distance as a journalist sometimes, too-particularly during her time at Wal-Mart. She felt hateful toward the customers for messing up her area, angry and territorial when a fellow employee questioned the way she"d arranged clothes on the rack. "All I can think is that part of it was a desire to do really well, which I"m now convinced is innate in people," she said. Then added wryly, "But I lost the sense that what I was supposed to do well was write whatever I was writing. I was, instead, convinced that doing well meant having the ladies" wear department in perfect order." Readers have been surprised by Ehrenreich"s experiences in the workplace. The way the working poor live was news to them because-for the most part-we don"t talk about the working poor in America. "It would challenge some of our basic beliefs and values," Ehrenreich said. "An essential part of our social contract is that if you work you"ll make enough to live on." Remember? That American Dream thing. But that depended on the availability of traditional blue-collar manufacturing jobs, which have been disappearing since the 1980"s. What we"re left with is service and retail jobs that pay little over minimum wage. "I grew up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium, that "hard work" was the secret of success," Ehrenreich wrote in Nickel and Dimed. "No one ever said that you could work hard-harder even than you thought possible-and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt." In fact, in her view, the working poor are "Öthe major philanthropists of our society." "When someone works for less pay than she can live on-when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently-then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. [The working poor] neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else." And in case a smug little voice in your head is whispering, "If they had a better work ethicÖ" It"s not about that. "What I observed was people working very, very hard," Ehrenreich said. "Harder than made sense to me, because they were being paid so little and getting so little appreciation. What was missing was a pay ethic on the part of the employer." But employers aren"t likely to raise pay if they don"t have to. Nor are newspapers or politicians likely to take on the cause. Newspapers are dependent on advertisers, who "only want to advertise in places that have so-called good demographics-meaning very affluent readers," Ehrenreich pointed out. "And that is interpreted by editors as meaning we don"t want a lot of depressing stuff." As for politicians-she figures there are two reasons they"ve lost interest in the poor. The working poor don"t make political contributions and they increasingly tend not to vote. "So politicians think, these people don"t vote so don"t bother with their issues; and the [working poor] then think why bother voting because the politicians don"t address our issues? We"re caught in that cycle." Meanwhile, the rich get richer. "Even in last year"s recession, while the middle class and the poor lost ground, the top 5% bounded ahead again," Ehrenreich noted. "We"re becoming one of those polarized societies, like the kind of thing we used to associate just with the Third World. Very rich people and a big gap and then a lot of very, very poor people." It"s an ugly, frightening direction, in her opinion. And not only for the poor, for all of us. "Who wants to live behind security guards in a gated community because the rest of society is so deprived and might steal your stuff?" Nice irony: that, ultimately, this will turn out to be a quality of life issue for the rich, too. As more and more Americans are in trouble, there will also be more and more people likely to cause trouble. Eventually, the poor will have had enough, Ehrenreich concluded in Nickled and Dimed. "They are bound to tire of getting so little in return and to demand to be paid what they"re worth. There"ll be a lot of anger when that day comes, and strikes and disruptions, and we will all be better off for it in the end." Until then, if you"re shopping at Wal-Mart, notice the carts near the dressing rooms, full of stuff shoppers have looked at and abandoned-and before you leave that pair of jeans you decided not to buy on the floor, remember that some real person has the endless, mind-numbing, underpaid task of putting all that stuff away. Tip your waitress at Denny"s more than she expects. Look at the people who serve you. Smile. Say, "Thanks." Don"t make them feel invisible. A conversation with bell hooks
By Summer Wood bell hooks has enjoyed a prolific and provoking career as a breaker of silences. Though her legal name is Gloria Watkins, hooks adopted her lower-case pseudonym both to memorialize her grandmother, from whom she borrowed the name, and to resist the egotism she deplored in many "superstars" of the feminist movement of the 1970s. She began writing her first groundbreaking book, Ain"t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism while an undergraduate student at Stanford University. When it was published in 1981, hooks drew both ire and acclaim for calling attention to the twin inequities of racism in the feminist movement and sexism in the civil rights struggle. In the two decades since that first landmark work, hooks has taught at Yale University and Oberlin College, and published more than 20 books, including insightful studies of race, sex, and class (Killing Rage; Where We Stand: Class Matters), essays on pop culture ranging from Madonna to gangsta rap, and blistering critiques of filmmakers Spike Lee and Jane Campion (Outlaw Culture; Reel to Real), self-help books (Sisters of the Yam), children"s books (Happy to be Nappy; Homemade Love), two volumes of autobiography (Bone Black; Wounds of Passion), and most recently, a trilogy of books exploring the subject of love: All About Love: New Visions, Salvation: Black People and Love, and Communion: The Female Search for Love, published earlier this year. Growing up in the small, segregated town of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, hooks was heavily influenced by the civil rights movement unfolding around her. The ethic of love espoused by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders shaped hooks" own philosophy, and her calling as a writer to challenge racism, sexism, and classism, or what she often refers to as "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy." In 1994, hooks wrote in Outlaw Culture, "I share that belief [in love] and the conviction that it is in choosing love, and beginning with love as the ethical foundation for politics, that we are best positioned to transform society in ways that enhance the collective good." Speaking last week from her home in New York about the motivation behind her trilogy of books on love, hooks explained: "I really tried to examine U.S. history and the history of radical movements for social change, and see where were the most successful moments. They all seemed to be tied to movements that had an ethic of love under-girding them." When she searched for an analogous contemporary example of the love ethic, hooks instead found a pervasive cynicism about love in American culture. "I was amazed at how enormously cynical about love people are," hooks said. "If people do not believe we can create love in our households, in our intimate lives, how can they believe in world peace as a possibility?" In Outlaw Culture, hooks chastised contemporary progressive social movements for failing to maintain a discourse about love following the civil rights movement, concluding, "Without love, our efforts to liberate ourselves and our world community from oppression and exploitation are doomed." Deciding to open her own dialogue on the subject, hooks began her best-selling 3-volume study of love, as seen through the lens of her own relationships, and in the cultural context of history, politics, and popular culture. Part autobiography, part self-help text, the books provide space for reflection, and a remarkably concrete analysis of the elements of love. "When I say "what do you think love is?" so many people are unable to say anything," laughed hooks. "Love is a combination of 6 things: care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect, and trust-this is a map a 7 year-old can use, as well as a 70 year-old." hooks is wary of characterizing herself as a public intellectual, but she very much intends for her books-especially those about love-to be lucid and useful. "I feel like I"m enormously practical in my hope for my writing. A lot of the joy in my writing is the practical uses people have made of itÖit"s a wonderful thing when you hear from people that your book changed their life in a positive way. It"s a moment of real ecstasy." "Invariably," hooks found, her examination of love "came back to the questions of personal integrity, responsibility, and truth-telling." This realization hit close to home, and hooks opens the first book in the series, All About Love, with an admission of the truth about her own family"s dysfunctional aspects: her father"s bouts of aggression, her mother"s passivity and frustration, and her own struggle to find acceptance of her precocious intelligence and aspirations at a time when options for young black women were significantly limited. hooks recounts her experiences of love and its absence in her family life candidly, not for the sake of what she terms "exhibitionist confessionalism," but rather using stories from her own life to break silences common in many families. "Breaking silence is always about trying to call into memory and voice that which we have repressed," said hooks. "Breaking silence is about moving into greater freedom or greater healing." For bell hooks, storytelling and breaking silence are inexorably linked: "The power of stories is one of the most universal experiences of humankind. I think of story as one of the great forces linking us together in the community." In recent years, hooks has shifted increasingly towards a story-based style of writing, which she believes makes her ideas more widely accessible across barriers of class, gender, and race. In Salvation, hooks turns her focus to loving relationships and self-love in the black community. She writes of a spiritual crisis that is "talked about by political leaders and community organizers as engendered by life-threatening poverty, violence, or the ravages of addiction." But hooks argues that "underlying these issues is a profound spiritual crisis. As a people we are losing heart. Our collective crisis is as much an emotional one as it is a material one. It cannot be healed simply by money." hooks analyzes the particular challenges facing black men, single mothers, and black gays and lesbians, concluding that "love is our hope and our salvation." hooks dedicates Communion to women searching for love in mid-life. She dares to re-imagine mid-life not as an end of women"s love lives, but rather as "the fabulous moment of pause when we begin to contemplate the true meaning of love in our lives." A time when women "begin to see clearly how much love matters, not the old patriarchal versions of "love" but a deeper understanding of love as a transformational force demanding of each individual accountability and responsibility for nurturing our spiritual growth." Currently single after a long-term relationship, hooks looks back on her own past lovers, and expands the traditional definition of love to include non-sexual love, companionship, and mentoring as modes of love that older women experience. Having finished her trilogy of books about love for adults, hooks is now hard at work on a series of companion volumes for children. hooks believes that children must be taught to love just as they are taught other intellectual and practical life skills, and that this crucial facet of human education must occur early and often. "I"ve been thinking so much about the foundational values that we offer children for their world," she mused. "What are we telling them about love, about how they can be in the world, and what matters?" For hooks, love matters above all else. Like Dr. King, hooks affirms that we must make a conscious choice to love. She writes in Communion: "If we remain unable to imagine a world where love can be recognized as a unifying principle that can lead us to seek and use power wisely, then we will remain wedded to a culture of domination." But if we can imagine that world, bell hooks believes it can be achieved. A conversation with Mary Gordon
By Barb Shoup Mary Gordon first told her secrets, filtering them through stories. Her parents" devotion to fundamental Catholicism, the constant presence of priests in their lives, her father"s early death, her grandmother"s long one, her mother"s prickly relations with her Irish family, their big, unmanageable house in Queens-these and other remnants of Gordon"s childhood made their way into her early novels: Final Payments, which tells the story of a young woman taking up her own life after years caring for her domineering father, and The Company of Women, which tells the story of a Catholic girl growing up as the beloved only child of a group of women whose lives revolve around a charismatic priest. In later novels, Men and Angels and Spending, and in The Rest of Life, a collection of novellas, Gordon widened her exploration of the experiences and ideas that shaped her, through characters whose lives reflect the complications of art, love and desire. Writing fiction has helped her understand her own life, to come to terms with the experiences that shaped her world-view. Reading fiction can have a similar effect, she believes. Entering the lives of fictional characters, having access to their thoughts and feelings, can bring insight to readers who are wrestling with their own secrets and the secrets of family and friends that have affected their lives profoundly. "Fiction has the courage to say that things are a lot more complicated than we imagined," she said. "And that the truth itself can be itself, its opposite and something in the middle simultaneously. That"s often extremely hard for people to endure. We"re much more comfortable with a single, monolithic, non-paradoxical truth. Ideally, [fiction] can give us the courage to endure paradox, to endure contradiction and to endure the complexity of being." Speaking of the silences surrounding her childhood, the sources of her fiction, Gordon said, "The Irish are great secret-keepers. People think the Irish are talkers and that they"re voluble, which indeed they are, but if you listen to what"s being said, very little intimate information is ever shared." She recalled, particularly, the silence surrounding her father"s death: the expectation that she would be silent about her grief, accept his death as God"s will. She couldn"t accept this, but for years she kept silent. To speak would have been to question the will of God. Still, Gordon began to wonder. She suspected that there were other traditions in the world that created people of virtue, that there was more than one way of achieving salvation. "I would get these hints from the outside world," she said. Doubts crept in. One day she suddenly thought, "Öit"s not possible for people not to go to heaven if they"ve never heard of Jesus or had any way of hearing of Jesus." As time passed, her sense of the silences surrounding her Catholic faith grew more disturbing. Of all of the silences Gordon ultimately broke, the most important, the most freeing, was the silence of sexuality and desire. She can laugh about it now. "The good thing about the church is that it"s an equal opportunity employer," she said. "It"s not just female desire. Nobody"s supposed to have desires." But as a young woman, Gordon felt she had to leave the church in order to survive. "So much of my early religious life was drenched with fear," she said. "I had to get away from it for a long time to dissipate that fear." Over the years, she found her way back, acknowledging, "Though certain realities of the church-such as its refusal to ordain women-appall me, it is the caretaker of a kind of spirituality that matters a lot to me." Nonetheless, she is a very different kind of Catholic than she was as a girl. "My whole relationship to authority is very different now," she said. "I"m not afraid of them anymore. I really don"t think that the people in control-the hierarchy-have control over my internal salvation. They are a group of people who are flawed, like any other people are flawed. I often think they"re wrong and I"m not at all afraid to say it." Most often, Gordon speaks out through her work. In fact, Gordon"s faith and her work as a writer are all of a piece-so much so that one reviewer, writing about The Rest of Life, observed "storytelling isÖfor this author, a religion." Gordon doesn"t disagree. "I do feel a religious, almost vocational, sense about storytelling," she said. "I feel an obligation to honor the calling in a way that a person whose life was a religious life-a nun or a priest-would feel about honoring that calling. I believe it"s a very important and honorable calling. It makes demands on me that are sometimes quite difficult, but that I"m honor-bound to keep to and to attend to." This sense of obligation eventually brought her smack up against secrets that fiction would not transform. The title of her memoir, The Shadow Man, refers to the fact that, doing research to write about her father, whom she had adored, Gordon learned that his life had been a lie. She thought he had attended Harvard; in fact, he was a high school dropout. He was born in Lithuania, not Ohio. His name was Israel, not David. Despite his Jewish heritage, he was anti-Semitic-a supporter of Franco and Mussolini. He wrote and published soft-core porn. "I didn"t even know how much truth had been silenced in my own understanding of my father"s life until I wrote The Shadow Man," she said. My Grandmother"s House, an essay she wrote as a way of beginning her work on the memoir, proved to be the beginning of Seeing Through Places, as well. A collection of essays about places of her childhood, the book further explores the secrets and silences of the past, and in doing so reveals the foundation of Gordon"s fiction. This is fascinating reading for anyone interested in how novels are made. At least partly from a love affair with an unaffordable house on the shore she spun Spending-a fictional meditation on what it might be like to get everything you want. From the priests she remembered from her childhood sprung the charismatic Father Cyprian, of The Company of Women. Remembered phrases and moments of being echo down through time, defining her characters" lives. "The places came to me very vividly, as images," Gordon said, recalling the process of writing the book. "That"s the genesis of all my work, whether it"s fiction or nonfiction. An image seems to lodge very strongly in my consciousness and then it flowers. "I don"t really make very large differentiations between the way I work in fiction and in nonfiction," she went on. "You have to make things more shapely in fiction, and you can make things up. So in creating the shape, you can change stuff. Whereas, in nonfiction you"re given the shape, which you need to be more or less-I believe-faithful to." Fiction or nonfiction, Gordon remains committed to telling the truth about life. The benefits of this commitment to her writing have been clear. She"s twice won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for fiction. She"s received a Guggenheim fellowship and a Lila Acheson Wallace/Reader"s Digest Award. She"s been cited by reviewers as one of the most important writers of her generation. But what about her personal life? "The liberation of telling the truth is that you don"t have to be afraid of the dark anymore," she said. "You don"t have to be afraid of being ambushed." Often, the monsters don"t turn out to be as lethal as she thought they would. "They lose their power in the light." There are limits, though. While Gordon reveals her own secrets in her work, she doesn"t reveal the secrets of others. "I just wouldn"t do it," she said. "I remember Elizabeth Bishop taking Robert Lowell to task for using Elizabeth Hardwicke"s letters and turning them into poems when he broke up with her. She told him, "Art"s not the most important thing.""