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Literature

Strangers No More: First-Year Students Read an Intimate Portrait of the American South

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Trees and shrubs in front of industrial site of an oil refinery.
An oil refinery in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Hochschild visited numerous Louisiana communities dealing with pollution and stagnant wages.

There’s a tired trope about writing that every school-age kid has heard. “Write what you know.” Sure, it’s worth examining matters of personal import, but it can also confine you. If writing is an exploration, it involves stepping outside your comfort zone to understand other people. Sarah Trembath, a writing instructor in American University’s Literature Department, encourages her students to do just that.

“It’s not sophisticated or academic to just write from your own point of view. You have to look into the so-called ‘other side,’” says Trembath.

That’s one reason why Trembath exalts Arlie Russell Hochschild’s topical book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. Trembath assigned it to students last year, and she’s now supporting AU’s selection of the book as part of the Writer as Witness program.

Through the Writer as Witness program, Strangers in Their Own Land is required reading for almost all incoming first-year students. It will be taught by Writing Studies instructors, such as Trembath, and utilized in other disciplines. The Writing Studies Program is directed by Lacey Wootton and is part of AU’s College of Arts and Sciences. Hochschild, an award-winning author and sociologist, will appear in Bender Arena on September 5 at 8:00 p.m. to discuss the text with AU students.

 

Empathetic Writing

 

Hochschild left her liberal enclave in Berkeley, California, to spend years interviewing white working- and middle-class Louisianans. She climbed “empathy walls” to ask why many Tea Party conservatives—on the surface—vote against their own environmental and economic interests. In her journey into “the heart of the right,” she probed their “deep story” and befriended them.

“A deep story is a feels-as-if story—it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel,” she writes. “And I don’t believe we understand anyone’s politics, right or left, without it.”

Empathy, Trembath explains, is not just a valuable human attribute. It’s an essential writing skill. And she believes Strangers in Their Own Land provides a solid road map for first-year students.

“I see students who enter a writing assignment with an opinion. And they express it for several pages, and then they pick and choose what fits their opinion,” Trembath says. “That’s not very academic. So, we want students to enter with a question, like Hochschild does, and then wrestle with what they find.”

Assistant sociology professor Molly Dondero, who’s incorporating the book into two of her classes, praises Hochschild’s rigorous research. “She’s not proposing empathy as this pass or this excuse of behavior that could be construed as prejudiced behavior,” she says. “She’s fact checking them all the time and showing this complicated picture.”

 

Somebody Has to Dump the Waste

 

Hochschild visited heavily polluted parts of Lake Charles, Louisiana, and an area known as “cancer alley,” between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Despite environmental damage wrought by the oil and petrochemical industries, residents usually oppose regulatory measures. They support candidates trying to gut the Environmental Protection Agency, and they often blame government for the region’s problems. After the colossal BP oil spill disaster, locals resented President Obama’s brief drilling moratorium, with fears of lost revenue and jobs.

“The spill makes us sad, but the moratorium makes us mad,” one woman said.

But Strangers in Their Own Land even manages to elicit the humanity of polluters. One anecdote that resonated with Trembath and Dondero involved Lee Sherman, a man who admitted to dumping toxic waste into a waterway for his employer, Pittsburgh Plate Glass.

“We think of these big corporations, entities, and institutions,” says Dondero, “but we don’t think about the individuals who are participating in this.”

“That confessional from him was just jaw-dropping to me, and how he worked through his guilt,” says Trembath.

Sherman also suffered a hydrocarbon burn, got sick from chemical exposure, and claims he was fired so the company could avoid medical disability costs.

 

Trump Voters and Emotional Currents

 

How did Donald Trump win the presidency? Few prognosticators saw his ascent coming. Journalists are still trying to decode Trump supporters, and Hochschild’s text—released just before the 2016 election—is a go-to source. In one memorable passage, she presciently channels aggrieved white voters’ perceptions about people “cutting in line” in front of them.

Trembath and Dondero felt racism was neglected in the book, and the author could have grappled with the race issue more thoroughly. Yet they still think it illuminates the Trumpian voter experience.

“Hochschild brings to the forefront this idea of feelings and emotions, and how they’re not always rational,” says Dondero. “That’s something that I think was overlooked in the last election, and it was part of what helped to get Trump elected. I think he seized on these emotional currents that other people missed.”

 

Closing the Divide

 

Beyond the corporate malfeasance Louisianans might overlook, Hochschild wades into what they do see. They have church and community. They have cookouts and jambalaya. There’s a celebrated fishing culture, albeit that’s feeling the impacts of pollution, too. By extension, she’s forcing readers—and now AU students—to move beyond caricatures and stereotypes.

“I think because she’s such a good writer, you are able to get closer to that community. So, they aren’t just voting statistics, and they aren’t just those clips of angry, rural Trump supporters,” says Trembath. “All of the sudden you see what they do value, and the fullness of their lives.”