If only we lived in a world where this was not news. If only we lived in a world where this was not something a person could prove only by discarding the way of speaking they grew up with and adopting “standard” English. But we don’t live in that world. And that’s what makes Megan Foss’s essay “Love Letters” so gripping.
From the first paragraphs, one wonders, Is this real? Is she putting us on? This is really fiction, isn’t it? Even though it’s in the pages of Creative Nonfiction? Reading Foss’s essay is an experience of profound cognitive dissonance. How can someone write so artfully and evocatively and be, not a novelist or a journalist telling us the story of a heroin-addicted prostitute, but that former prostitute herself? Our culture doesn’t give us a place in our brains for realities like this. Must not be real. Must be a trick. A scam. On the next-to-last page of her essay, Foss tells us that we are not alone in having this reaction: “The gentle elderly professor of my nonfiction class told me that he’d be more comfortable if I’d present my prose as fiction. Perhaps then such a voice would be acceptable. In real life, no one would ever believe that a twenty-dollar hooker with an eighth-grade education would know what hermeneutics meant. And when I tried to tell him that he was wrong–that I had known what the word meant–he told me it didn’t matter. No one would believe it.”
Foss’s essay leads us on her journey from the street, to jail, to the English classes provided to inmates (which allowed her to nurture a passion she’d already developed by writing on yellow paper she kept in her backpack while on the street), to the realization that avoiding the penitentiary was going to require a reinvention of herself, a reinvention that “would depend on how facile I could become with words.” She had been told she would only be let out if she could convince the authorities that she could become a part of “mainstream society.” That she could find a home, get a job, and generally look after herself. How, she wondered, did people do those things? Her life had been spent sleeping in cars; she didn’t know how to begin to get an apartment. And how could she and her fellow inmates get jobs without any experience? As she poignantly notes, “we couldn’t even get most businesses to let us in when we had money. How could we ever have gotten them to pay us to be there?” But finally she realized that language was the answer: “They might not let me go in their restaurants or pay me money to do a job, but if I used the words right, there was no way to tell that I was any different from any one of them.”
By the time she tells us this, we already know how true it is. Because we’ve spent the last seven pages struggling to believe that, despite her elegant prose, she does come from the seedy background she describes. And indeed, Foss’s linguistic reinvention of herself works. Speaking and writing like a member of the middle class, she finds herself on the outside, in a community college. Then at university.
And finally, she’s confronted with a new problem. A professor named Suzanne encourages her to nurture her native voice in her writing. To leave behind the educated style she’s so carefully cultivated and plunge back into the voice she would use to tell the story to a friend on the streets.
“I couldn’t do it,” says Foss. “I’d write the word ain’t, and it would feel like I was crossing a bigger line than it felt the first time I sold my body.”
But, slowly, she begins to find the courage she needs. She begins to feel less afraid of revealing herself as “trailer park trash” when she realizes that the problem is not with her. It’s not with the “lower-class” grammar or vocabulary she’s grown up with but the prejudices with which the rest of the world receives it. And then she says something so hauntingly true that it breaks my heart each time I reread it. As she approaches the last paragraph, she says, “I realized that it isn’t the broken language and the twisted syntax of the dispossessed that bothers the world. It is the stories they render. It is the fear that beneath the ain’ts and the sentence fragments are bright beautiful minds that would condemn the world for their alienation and exclusion if they ever got the chance to be heard.”