Picking up Tara Clancy’s The Clancys of Queens is like accepting an invitation to dinner with her entire Italian- and Irish-American family. Full of equal parts bravado and mirth, the book makes you feel as if stepping out of line will undoubtedly provoke a slew of Italian curse words from Clancy’s grandmother. But the experience of living with the Clancys in this taut memoir is also a hilarious and warmhearted affair, each character as unique as they are relatable.
The anecdotes are drawn mostly from Clancy’s childhood and bounce around years frequently, but for Clancy, it’s all about capturing the nuance of voice—her own, of course, but also that of New York City’s working-class women. “I bought Richard Price’s The Wanderers at the Strand bookstore in New York and I freaked out,” she says, explaining why writing first became a serious endeavor. “I was like, ‘This is my father and my uncles. This is their youth.’ So I went back to the Strand and I held up my copy of The Wanderers to the clerk and I said, ‘I want this but about women. Give me any book written by a working-class woman, about working-class women.’ ” When The Strand’s clerk could do no better than to suggest Betty Smith’s 1943 classic, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Clancy’s only response was, incredulously, “ ‘How old is that book?’ That became my motivation.”
That motivation leads to some honest moments about real working-class women in New York City, their desires, and maybe surprisingly to some, their contentedness with the lives they lead. “I asked my mother and friends why our voice isn’t out there. I became obsessed with this fact. My mother said, ‘Because we’re too busy working.’ It’s a good answer,” Clancy admits. “I’m a butch lesbian who spent the first 10 years of her life essentially in a trailer, and I’ve had a great life. I’m happy! I’m okay. That’s the nuance. That’s what made it worth writing.”
What else made it worth writing is that many of Clancy’s experiences are laugh-out-loud yarns told with a sharp wit. Whether it’s her grandmother’s Italian-laced outbursts or visiting her mother’s friend at a sex-toy shop in California, each subsequent tale seemingly doubles down on Clancy’s natural storytelling abilities. As Clancy explains, though, it’s not always easy to get people to listen. Her heavy Queens accent and working-class background are frequently associated with a lack of education, her voice immediately cast as unworthy. With every story, she hopes to break this stereotype. “If people talk to you and listen to you, and you’re a peer of theirs regardless of your class and race differences, that is magic. The Moth, putting out voices like mine, we need it,” she says, referencing the popular reading series where many of the stories in this book have previously come to life onstage. “Coming from a demographic that hasn’t been represented, that hasn’t been heard, that’s everything to me.”
Despite the focus on her family throughout the book, the variety and worth of these underrepresented voices is evident. Statistically, Clancy explains, Queens is one of the most diverse counties in the country—a fact that she says makes “the outside world look homogenous” in comparison. Perhaps this is summed up best toward the end of the book when Clancy describes a group of friends she met in alternative high school, where, she writes, “We were the New Yorkers who never make it into the popular imaginings of our city: hard-ass Filipinos with thick Queens accents, loud-mouthed Koreans drinking Tropical Fantasy soda, Colombian goths, prudish Puerto Ricans hunched under enormous backpacks, their white uniform shirts buttoned all the way to the neck.” In other words: Welcome to Queens.
Alex Layman is a writer living in Austin.