Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation Edited by John Freeman (OR Books, £15)
WITH contributions from 36 contemporary writers, Tales of Two Americas explores what it feels like to live now in an inequality-riven US.
It’s a nation where, according to US billionaire businessman Warren Buffett, “There’s class warfare, alright, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war and we’re winning.”
Since the 2008 financial crash, class politics has taken on a renewed importance, especially in the past couple of years. “America is broken,” editor John Freeman argues in the introduction, noting that the unease created by the soul-crushing neoliberalism dominating US politics since the Reagan administration became the “pivot point” of last year’s presidential election.
Mixing short stories, journalistic essays and poems, the collection includes some literary big hitters, including Joyce Carol Oates, Ann Patchett and Richard Russo.
As with any compilation, some pieces are more memorable and insightful than others.Rather than reading it at a gallop, it’s a book to dip in and out to savour and consider each contribution and it’s a brilliant opportunity to discover new writers who have a deep concern for the wider social and political world.
Rebecca Solnit explores the connections between the 2014 police shooting of a Hispanic young man and the gentrification of San Francisco, while Roxanne Gay provides a piercing story of a working-class woman living in oppressive circumstances who’s determined to escape.
The stand-out is Sandra Cisneros’s moving and eloquent love letter, of sorts, to the Chicago where she spent her poverty-stricken childhood. “In the neighbourhoods we knew, booze was easier to find than books,” she remembers. Also impressive is Karen Russell’s long personal account of getting on the housing ladder in the liberal city of Portland amid some of the highest levels of street homelessness in the country.
Yet, in between all the misery, violence, wasted talent, resignation and desperation highlighted by the authors, chinks of hope shine through.
Fictional characters and real people endure, flourish, empathise, co-operate, resist and organise — precisely the qualities that will need to be seriously upscaled if President Trump is to be toppled and a fairer, more just and humane America finally established. Ian Sinclair