As a Writer, Who are My People?

Novelist Ayad Akhtar, interviewed in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers, was asked about being expected, as a Pakistani writer, to speak for “his people.” He replied that for him, it’s a mixed bag of all his experiences, including being Pakistani.

I think it has to be that way for all of us. We are not just any one thing. Any one box would leave a lot out.

I think of myself as representing the working class, people who come from families of construction workers, janitors, retail employees, etc., people who didn’t go to college, or if they did, it was community college or a state university. Princeton? Yale? Not in our wildest dreams. Fraternities? Too busy working. Trips to Europe? I didn’t even go to Girl Scout camp.

Our family didn’t fly to Hawaii; we went trailer camping at Seacliff or Donner Lake. We didn’t go to the opera or the ballet; we went to CB “coffee breaks” with barbecue, country music, and raffles of CB radio gear. My dad only wore a suit to weddings and funerals. He drank beer, not martinis. But he was a VIP to me.

Suddenly I remember a song, “Working Class Blues,” that I wrote when I was editor of the Saratoga News back in California and found myself hanging out with a whole different class of people, people who owned million-dollar houses when a million dollars meant something. I remember thinking none of my shoes were good enough.

The chorus: “We’re working class, just ordinary folks./We’ll never be rich, but we’re not exactly broke./We’re salt of the earth, and if nothing else is true,/look out snobs ‘cause there’s more of us than you.”

Simply put, if I lived at Downton Abbey, I’d be downstairs with the workers, not upstairs with the lords and ladies. And I’m cool with that.

I also represent people of a certain age with certain memories and experiences: The Beatles, Vietnam, wearing pantyhose and mini-skirts to high school, typewriters, phones attached to the wall, TV antennas on the roof. My first car was a blue VW bug, for which I paid $500, earned tutoring and giving guitar lessons. My parents did not give me a car for graduation; they gave me a sewing machine because girls were expected to be housewives and do lots of needlework.

Then there’s the ethnic part. I’m half Portuguese, on my mother’s side. On the other side, I’ve got some Spanish, Mexican, Basque, German, and a smidge of Scottish. A recent article in the Portuguese-American Journal cited a New York Times article that referred to Portuguese Americans as non-white. Really? That’s a surprise to me. I always thought we were Caucasian.

When writing my book Stories Never Told: Portuguese Women in California, many of my interviewees told of being harassed for being black or brown when they knew they were as white as any of their harassers. Were they wrong? Does it matter? If you add my Portuguese and Latin influences, can I accurately call myself a “person of color?” That’s fine, but what about the rest of me? Am I “mixed-ish” like on the TV show? Does it matter? If you go back far enough in history, we’re all a mixture.

Setting DNA aside, I’m a typical California blend of the various nationalities that settled there. I have black hair, brown eyes, and olive skin. So what? That’s just genetics. Sure, we tossed around some Portuguese and Spanish words at my house, but I never attended a Portuguese event until I decided to write my book about Portuguese women. Three generations in, my experiences were vastly different from those of recent immigrants.

So who are my people? Working class, part Hispanic, baby boomer women who never had children or grandchildren; widows; people who live alone; left-handed, ice tea-drinking, Honda-driving, guitar-playing, dog-loving, poem-writing, left-leaning, Netflix-watching Oregonians who came from California.

What one person can speak for all that? We are all mixed bags of histories, ethnicities, experiences, and feelings. I’m going to just write, and if it speaks for “my people,” whoever they are, I’m glad. I suppose if I get famous enough, the critics will decide who “my people” are. And they’ll probably get it wrong.

What do you think? Who are “your people?” Do you worry about representing them in whatever you do?

Portuguese-American novel lives again

AD new cover 6816 bigSummer 2016 is becoming the summer of revisiting and revising past writing projects. First I did a new edition of Stories Grandma Never Told: Portuguese Women in California. Now I have a new edition of my Portuguese-American novel Azorean Dreams. This is the novel I wrote while I was still trying to sell the Grandma book. One of the women I interviewed, who had published her own book, convinced me that a novel would sell better than nonfiction. I no longer believe that’s true, but since nothing was happening with “Grandma,” I started writing a novel. Some of the people, places and events came directly from my experiences researching Stories Grandma Never Told. Others stem from things that were happening in the late 1990s in San Jose, California. And a lot of it is from my imagination.

My protagonist, Chelsea Faust, is a newspaper reporter working for a local weekly but with ambitions to move up in the business. She’ll do anything to prove herself as a great reporter. Although her mother’s side of the family is Portuguese, with roots in the Azores Islands, she doesn’t know or care much about her heritage. Then an assignment sends her into Little Portugal, and she meets the handsome Simão Freitas, who has not been in the U.S. very long. Romance blooms, but they disagree on many things, plus an incident from Simão’s past threatens to ruin everything.

I never imagined anyone real could have the name Chelsea Faust, but there is a real Chelsea Faust, with whom I connected online. She’s okay with her name being in the book. I have not met a real Simão (sim-OW) Freitas, but there probably are several men with that name because it’s pretty common.

Anyway, my Portuguese-American mother got a chance to read Azorean Dreams before she passed away, and she loved it. For that alone, I’m glad I published it when I did. The first time, I went through a company called iUniverse, that offers “print-on-demand” publishing, meaning when an order comes in, they print a book. There are not boxes of printed books sitting around somewhere. You pay for the service and—here’s the catch with these companies—you pay for copies of your own book. Their designers decide what the book will look like. They also determine the retail price.

To be honest, I never liked the look, the size or the price of the iUniverse version. I have seen the same cover art photo used in advertisements for several products. The background is not even the Azores. I’m pretty sure it’s Italy. The print inside is huge, making the book itself huge. And they charged $20.95 a copy. Who would pay that much for a paperback novel by an unknown writer? Judging by my sales, almost nobody. But I had signed a contract and thought I couldn’t get out of it. I was wrong. As of last month, I am free from iUniverse. They’re not all bad, but it didn’t work for me.

A few years ago, I revised Azorean Dreams a bit and published it as a Kindle e-book. Same stupid cover. But now I have a new cover for both the e-book ($2.99) and the new paperback version. I used Amazon.com’s CreateSpace program, which allowed me to design the whole book myself, so now I love the way it looks. It’s a more reasonable size and price, $14.95. I feel so much better about it, and maybe a few new readers will take a look.

Now I’m immersed in another project that I will tell you about soon. Happy summer, everyone. Get some books and start reading.