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Q&A: USD 2019-20 Just Read Book Editor, John Freeman, 'Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation'

Q&A: USD 2019-20 Just Read Book Editor, John Freeman, 'Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation'

Each year, the University of San Diego community selects a USD Just Read! book inspired by a social justice theme. The 2019-20 book, Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation, is edited by John Freeman. USD’s social justice theme this year is, “Defining What is Home? Homelessness, Displacement, and Migration.” On Nov. 7, Freeman was on campus to meet faculty, students and to give a keynote address. Freeman was interviewed by USD News Center editor-writer Ryan T. Blystone to discuss the book and more.

USD News Center: What moved you to be editor of this project?

Freeman: A couple of things. Both of my brothers have been homeless even though we all went to college and grew up middle class. I realize in families there can be great stretches of inequality and If you look at that as a microcosm for the country at large, then we have a family issue about how we treat people who need help in the U.S. There’s a giant gap between the rich and the poor and in that gap is where everyone lives, except for a few lucky people. I put together a book about New York and its income and inequality and I went around the country talking about it and discovered everyone had the same problem. It wasn’t even close to a New York problem, it was a national problem, so I decided to do a book that addressed it because I wasn’t seeing it in the literature I was reading as a book critic and publisher. I felt it was something talked about in newspapers and on the news, but in creative writing there was a struggle how to address what America actually felt like versus the real America people lived in.

USDNC: What’s your experience with inequality?

Freeman: My parents were both social workers and spent most of their life with people who were poor or on some type of government assistance or needed government assistance they couldn’t get. From a young age I was aware that not only was I luckier than some parts of the population but there were things you could do. Within that doing was listening to other people’s stories. This is not a book of oral histories — though there are testimonies in it — and it occurred to me while making it that what I was doing was similar to the jobs my parents did when listening to their clients who told stories about what ailed them. My feeling as an editor is that the broader group of people you’re pulling from as a pool of who’s telling stories, the more the book you make, the more it will resemble the country you live in. I think right now, not only is there an income gap, there’s a kind of representation gap about what America looks like in the entertainment we watch and what it actually feels like to live here. I know that gap needs to exist so we can all relax and fantasize, but if it is too big then it causes these sorts of moments of shame. I think if you don’t live in the place that’s being reflected in the media that can also cause despair. If you spend more time in the fantasy world then go back to the real world, all of this is beautiful and looks nice, but there are a lot of problems that need addressing. My hope is that a book of stories can help people get ready for addressing them. How they vote, how they treat other people, how they imagine the world they live in.

USDNC: Did your involvement with this topic change your thinking?

Freeman: It definitely changed me. I think things you touch change you. I spent a lot of time going to places I don’t typically go in order to make this book and promote this book, places like Buffalo, Wichita and Albuquerque, and to parts of America that existed in my imagination, but were very different from what that image was when I got there. When I talked to people and talked to the writers who contributed, it absolutely changed me. It changed my sense of urgency for some kind of social change in America related to inequality. I wasn’t feeling that with the book about New York, but once I spent time working on this, I thought I can’t just go back to working the way I was, or working on things that were interesting as a writer/editor.

USDNC: How have your other books connected with this one?

Freeman: I have a new book, Dictionary of the Undoing, which are essays about language and the mangling of the language in civic spaces in our time and why its important, why words are still meaningful and why words need to mean something. It made me think a lot about public space, what creates and occupies that, who is allowed to be there, how we designate those who aren’t and what it feels like to not be allowed in public spaces. Language is a major part of the reality machine. It’s one of the fundamental things that links us in a culture, especially one with a designated language. When language itself and its meaning is attacked, we’re in serious times because you have to constantly redefend it. There’s a need to exist collectively and that very much grew out of Tales of Two Americas.

USDNC: What’s the biggest takeaway(s) readers should have for the book?

Freeman: Everyone is entitled to fundamental dignity. Part of that dignity is about imagining who they are and reading a book full of people who are from different parts of the world and different parts of the U.S., and have different circumstances isn’t just, hopefully, a necessary part of moral education, but also it can be an enjoyable part because you’re fundamentally imagining their existence. The process of imagining other people, to me, is crucial to living in a country as big and diverse and fundamentally multitudinous. The U.S. is essential, I think, to living in a republic. The republic says there are many dispirit hues but altogether we make one type of thing. That’s great, but it only works if you respect the many different versions of you. Reading a book like this is part of that. You look at it and sometimes there’s a big gap between you and me, but it doesn’t make you any less; it just makes you, you.

USDNC: What has been the USD community’s reaction to the book?

Freeman: When I met with faculty it was rewarding because it reinforced the fundamental mechanism of the book. This is a collection of individual stories, not a broad narrative, not told by one person or describes one circumstance. It describes many and professors and administrators I met with said it was effective in the classroom because it allowed students and allowed them as readers to connect to the story being told. I think with inequality we get a lot of statistics and when it has been in the news for sometime, it can start to feel hard to conceptualize. But that’s not the case when it is one person telling you their story. My brother graduated from college but he’s so poor he has to sell his plasma to a blood bank just to get gasoline. It’s only one story, but you don’t forget that.

USDNC: Did you receive any feedback you did not expect?

Freeman: A nursing professor talked about the story where a man was shot and killed in his own neighborhood which had been gentrified. He was shot by white police officers who had been called by white residents who had recently moved into the neighborhood. He was Latino, and had his neighborhood not been gentrified, he’d still be alive because people would have recognized him and not called the police on him for sitting in a park. I always thought of that piece as an essay about things such as class and ethnicity, but here it’s taught as a public health piece. It’s really mind-expanding to realize that fundamentally our existence in the world is connected to issues of public health. To think that nurses being trained on this campus are going to read this and use it to think about health and violence makes me feel the book has done its job.

USDNC: Can America still be civil? What’s necessary to reach common ground?

Freeman: That’s a fundamental question right now. Can we all exist in the same space? The things that knit us together, seemingly, not just geography but things like the Internet seem to be driving us apart. Because they present binary choices when that’s not the case in real life. You can be a Republican but also believe in compassion. You can be a Democrat and still be vindictive. These things, these categories, are false to some degree. There will need to be an immense amount of repair done which, A, doesn’t feel good; B, the way we’re going isn’t sustainable; and C, we’ll end up without a country if we keep going in this direction where one side calls people idiots, contentious and thieves, and the other side says you don’t belong and we’ll kick you out and put up a wall and throw you onto the other side. Those are dead-ends. What can we do? There needs to be a return of some degree of localized forms of engagement and encounter people. Go to church, school, volunteer center, Lions Club, or the beach. It’s about sharing space with people who aren’t like us, are different, but we need to be in close enough contact to encounter them beyond a superficial way. Be neighborly. People using the terms right-wing, leftist, Antifa, immigrants, or whatever, are just using them to divide us more. The people who are losing is almost everybody, except for people with power. We have to try a different way. We need to have a higher mode of engagement, or a smaller, slower one. I believe slowness is needed to read a piece like this to imagine that the other is fundamental to our ability to live in space with people who are not like us.

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For more information about the book, the USD Just Read program and ways in which the book is being utilized in classrooms and to promote discussion on the social justice topic campuswide, please visit the Center for Education Excellence website. The video above of John Freeman was found on a link from the CEE website.

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