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?