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Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation

edited by John Freeman

Pub Date: Sept. 5th, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-14-313103-8
Publisher: Penguin

A penetrating multidisciplinary collection attacking today’s social fissures of privilege and inequality.

Former Granta editor Freeman (How to Read a Novelist, 2013, etc.), founder of the eponymous literary biannual, expands on a previous anthology regarding New York City’s inequality with this follow-up. “This is not just an urban problem,” he writes. “In smaller cities and towns and in rural America the gulf between the haves and have-nots stretches just as wide, even if its symptoms are not so visible.” While these parameters seem broad, Freeman’s mandate is fulfilled by the uniformly high quality of the contributors. Most address the topic obliquely, avoiding bombast in favor of grounded social narrative or the perspective offered by formative experience. Rebecca Solnit begins with a meticulous journalistic look at “Death by Gentrification,” in which a flashpoint of police violence in San Francisco revealed corrosive changes within trendy neighborhoods. In “Trash Food,” Chris Offutt connects his unease with intellectual condescension toward impoverished rural people with his own conflicts about identity: “As [Southern] cuisines gained popularity, the food itself became culturally upgraded.” Novelist Richard Russo addresses current politics more directly, noting that literature used to reflect engagement with a working class that now appears dismissed. “One can be sympathetic to Trump voters,” he writes, “without giving them a free pass.” Some pieces are directly autobiographical—e.g., Sandra Cisneros’ “Notes of a Native Daughter,” in which she writes, “Chicago’s Magnificent Mile made others feel magnificent but only made me ashamed of my shoes.” Others use the working writer’s unique situation as a lens for particular subtopics: Karen Russell’s long, affecting “Looking for a Home” portrays house-shopping in Portland during a homelessness epidemic as a moral challenge. Eula Biss’ powerful “White Debt” deftly wields financial metaphors. The anthology is rounded out with fiction and poetry from Joyce Carol Oates, Edwidge Danticat, Joy Williams, Kevin Young, Ann Patchett, Annie Dillard, Roxane Gay, Timothy Egan, and others.

Urgent, worthy reportage from our fractious, volatile social and cultural moment.