A Safety and a Reach: What We Talk About When We Talk about College Access
By Victoria Navarro and Keith Frome
When we – we policy-makers, funders, non-profit CEOs, educational leaders, academics – when we discuss higher education inequity, we speak the language of numbers. Sincerely and passionately, we express the urgency of mission by spewing statistics. We say things like: Only 58% of low-income students enroll in two-and-four-year colleges after high school compared to 71% of their high-income peers. Or: While 67% of high-income students earn a college degree before they turn 26, only 22% of low-income students do the same. Our tone is convincing (well, sometimes) but our content is bloodless.
Sometimes, in brochures, on websites, on twitter feeds, or in an Instagram video story, we offer vignettes and visuals of students who overcame systemic sorting obstacles as they navigated their way to college and a fulfilling career. Here, we use the rather unconvincing language of anecdote – telling but still not showing. These “stories” garnish our statistics which, in the discourse of social entrepreneurs, still primarily do the heavy narrational lifting.
I’ve always thought that the arts, particularly film and literature since they both rely on narrative to express their ideas and themes, could better make the case about post-secondary inequity than data and anecdotes. The problem is, there are just not that many movies or novels about the struggle of first-generation students to make it to and through college. The films have been made about college access do powerfully express the drama and urgency of the individual students who populate our nation’s dismal education attainment results. Films like Juliane Dressner and Edwin Martinez’ Personal Statement (2018) and Jaye Fenderson’s Unlikely (2019) visually and emotionally help us understand what it is like to be a young person – filled to the brim with hopes, dreams and aspirations – who is nevertheless by dint of zip code ensnared by a system designed to thwart their every move to actualize themselves. Though not reviewed as such, I found Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird (2017) to be a great college access movie. The through-line of plot is the college application process and the film emotionally culminates with matriculation.
I had not encountered a novel that depicts as a part of its core plot and message the desperate college access drama of first-generation, low-income students until I read Xhenet Aliu’s Brass (Random House, 2018). One of the most talked about novels of last year, Aliu’s debut received rave reviews from The New York Times Book Review, O, The Oprah Magazine, and The New Yorker. I must admit that I read Brass not only because of these impressive reviews, but also because the novel takes place in Waterbury, CT, near where I had grown up. I spent a lot of time working at the Waterbury YMCA throughout my adolescence. The memories of that struggling factory town form part of my imaginative landscape, and I was curious to match the pictures hanging in the hallways of my mind with the author’s (and how they do match!). Aliu alternates twin stories of a mother, Elsie, and her daughter, Luljeta (Lu). Elsie, the daughter of a mill worker and a factory worker who dreamed of playing lead guitar, works as a waitress at a diner where she meets an Albanian line cook. They fall in love – of sorts – and have Lu. Elsie’s dream is to save enough money to buy a car and leave Waterbury, but that never happens. Lu continues, on her own and in her own way, to pursue her mother’s quest. The difference is that Lu’s escape “vehicle” is not a car but navigating the college application process.
From the very first page, Aliu establishes the theme of how the educational system, with its emphasis on sorting, testing, and tracking, thwarts hope. In a bit of exposition, we are told that Elsie’s sister, Greta, always had high test scores – much higher than Elsie’s – and so Greta, now a librarian in New York, was able to escape, at personal cost, to define herself anew.
In the opening sequences of the novel, we find Lu brooding over her early decision rejection from NYU even though she is ranked 4th in her high school class, just below the top three students whose parents are teachers. With this detail, Aliu begins to explore how the system sorts not just based on test scores but also on social capital and college knowledge. Speaking to herself and rejecting her mother’s suggestion to become a dental hygienist, Lu says: “Your aspirations were always higher than tartar scraper, yet you walked into the SAT testing session with no preparation other than a large-extra-light-and-sweet tumbler of Dunkin’ Donuts and 12 years of public schooling in a district in which the per-capita income is less than half of the cost of NYU’s annual tuition, idiotically believing that simply paying attention in twelve years of math and English classes was sufficient groundwork for the standardized test that would dictate the course of your future.”
At Thanksgiving, Greta returns to Waterbury for a fraught, holiday meal. To make conversation and to avoid other deeper issues, she asks about Lu’s college list. Lu tells her that she has applied to a Connecticut state college and NYU. Incredulous, Greta asks her where else she is applying.
Lu replies: “What do you mean, where else?”
Greta responds: “That’s it? Two schools.”
“A reach and a safety. That’s what the guidance counselor said to do.”
“’Yeah, a reach and safety. What’s wrong with that?’ Your (Lu’s) mother asks, not rhetorically.”
A full college access argument then breaks out concerning the capacity of guidance counselors to offer sophisticated, personalized college counseling; the idea that everyone should go to college; the limitations and opportunities of community colleges; the cultural difficulties of working class students at elite colleges; how college lists are constructed by brand name, location and accessible transportation, not on personal and academic fit. The brilliance of Aliu’s conceit in this scene is that this college access talk reflects the emotional tensions in the family. We readers squirm in recognition of how the ostensible topics at a family gathering refract the deeper, unspoken issues that constitute the family drama. The scene is rendered even more depth because Elsie’s boyfriend is a community college instructor who just listens. One of the sweetest characters in the novel, Greta keeps on telling him not to be offended. Buddha-like, he smiles.
Nevertheless, we education and policy wonks can’t help but thrill to Aliu’s dramatization of our statistics and issues. She has expressed emotionally (and accurately) the nuances and complexities of the educational equity struggle, tightly binding it to family dynamics full of dashed hopes and dreams, anger and resentment, vulgarity, jealousy – and, always, love, deep, deep love. Brass teaches us that the college application process reveals the underlying emotional, spiritual, psychological, and economic challenges in the family. In other words, applying to college is a family drama – a theme not much discussed in policy circles, though it is just beginning to surface in ethnographic research on the actual cost of a college education.
In an afterward, Aliu explains that when your family does not speak English at home you adopt the “language of your peers” and if that language includes vulgarity, then you learn to speak a form of English full of profanity. At PeerForward, we ask: What if the language of your peers includes college knowledge. Might we then bridge social capital gaps though peer-to-peer discourse?
We loved this book so much we wanted to meet the author and learn from her how to pump some life into what we talk about when we talk about college access and success. Xhenet graciously and warmly agreed to sit down with us. With all the caveats of art for art’s sake, we ask if Brass could become a vehicle, returning to one of the novel’s core metaphors, to bring comfort and community to our Peer Leader teams and their classmates. PeerForward’s Victoria Navarro, herself a first in her family to graduate college, spoke with Xhenet Aliu about life, the art of fiction, and her journey to college and beyond. It was a rich conversation touching on everything from the hidden costs of going to college to cycles of poverty to education as liberation to literature as an entrée to empathy to the meaning of love.
A Conversation with Xhenet Aliu
Victoria: I’m originally from El Paso, Texas and both of my parents are from Mexico. I connected with the book in many ways, especially the two daughters growing up with a single mom, and being a first-generation, U.S.-born college student. Let’s start with how you came to write the book and why you chose its themes.
Xhenet: A lot of people think that the novel is autobiographical, and it’s not, in the sense that the plot points in the book didn’t happen; they’re completely invented. It was a way for me to explore themes that I didn’t think a) anybody would be interested in or b) that you were allowed to write about because I just didn’t read very many stories about uneducated people. It seemed like all the narrators and protagonists that I found in books were people who spoke eloquently and who seemed to be already cultured in a way that, to me, established the baseline of, “This is the voice that you have to have if you want anyone to listen to your story.”
It wasn’t until I went to grad school that I realized that the reason I should write this story is because I don’t think it had been written yet. There isn’t a whole lot of attention paid to people from lower socio-economic backgrounds aspiring to better things unless it’s done in a way that reinforces beliefs that we have about what I call “poverty porn” or people just wanting to follow the wreckage that’s inevitably going to happen when somebody who’s uneducated attempts to break out of that cycle or, alternatively, for it to be artificially triumphant. I wanted to reflect the actual struggles, and at the same time, make apparent that these kinds of desires are shared by most people.
Victoria: We teach students to write their personal essay for college using their authentic voice that may not be polished and may deal with atypical content but that is meaningful to them. It’s powerful to hear this approach – to present yourself as you truly are – resonated in your own writing as well. I think of students that we work with find that to be powerful, too.
Xhenet: It’s almost a cliché at this point, but representation is so important because honestly, when you’re 17-years-old and you’re writing your college admissions essay, you’re just trained to mimic what you’ve already read. There are literally templates that students follow in their essays, but if those templates do not fit the outlines of your life at all and you try to force it into that kind of construct, it’s going to come off stilted and phony. Whereas genuine stories allow you to see that student’s potential, background, and ability to persevere through adversity. You just don’t know that unless somebody tells you.
Victoria: We were taken by your depiction of the Thanksgiving conversation about applying to college. That dinner table conversation with family about college is perhaps the most difficult one to have. There’s a lot there: different generations in age, generations of immigrants, this idea of not wanting to accept handouts. Could you speak a little bit about that scene and why you included it?
Xhenet: To be honest, writing that scene was a little bit of wish fulfillment on my part. That was never a conversation that I had with my own family, and I really wish I had been able to have it. I felt a sense of almost embarrassment when I talked about college aspirations and it wasn’t because, and you may relate to this, my family didn’t encourage college, not because they were neglectful or didn’t want what was best for me but, in their perception, college costs money and jobs make money. So why wouldn’t you just go get a job and make money? They looked at it as a risky perspective because you can get yourself into a lot of debt and you’re not really guaranteed anything at the end of it, which is not untrue currently with soaring tuition rates and the difficulty that millennials and younger people have had in getting good jobs after they finish their degrees. In order to spare myself a lecture against my wishes or because I literally was just embarrassed to want things beyond what was thought to be achievable: graduating, maybe going to community college, maybe joining the military, or just going into the workforce. To want more than that seemed greedy because, as you know, in immigrant families, you are thankful for whatever it is that you’ve landed with.
I started at a private school that I was completely unprepared for, dropped out, went to a community college and then finished up at a four-year state school. Most of my peers, at least in the community college and the state school, were people like me. They came from working class backgrounds. A lot of them were non-traditional; most of us worked full-time jobs while we were going to school. It wasn’t a traditional college experience. It wasn’t until I went to grad school that I realized, culturally, there was so much difference between families that emphasize and don’t emphasize education. It’s hard to talk about that without feeling some sense of shame as if you’re either kind of blaming your family for it or trying to shield them from the embarrassment you might feel on their behalf for not knowing these things. And so, that scene kind of came about once I realized, “Wow, there is a thing called cultural capital, that I had no idea existed until I was long past my college years. And what if I had had somebody who could start introducing those concepts and those ideas to me when I was 17 years old?”
Luljeta’s aunt gets to serve that role because she did break out of her high school experience, went to a prestigious, expensive university and she gives a perspective on education that’s just not entirely financial because she’s still economically struggling; she’s still paying off student loans, living in a studio apartment. I didn’t want to represent it as if you go to a good college and suddenly the yellow brick road is just waiting in front of you. College does give people, I think, opportunities to take chances and to be flexible and to just be enriched in ways that may not be necessarily immediately remunerative. These are all things that are kind of big, heady, lofty concepts, but for a 17-year-old who hasn’t been exposed to them at all, they’re going to be kind of completely foreign and shocking. I think the way Luljeta reacts to her aunt’s experience and that conversation at the dinner table is to almost reject it because it’s just too much information, and she feels a sense of betrayal by her mother for not letting her know those things, not appreciating that her mother was also not introduced to those ideas.
Victoria: And in that scene with the aunt, Greta, I was struck by this idea of coming back after you’ve experienced going away to college or to a new city. When you come back to that dinner table after that experience, some of the family comment on how you are different. How have you navigated that experience?
Xhenet: Absolutely, absolutely. I adore my family, and I never feel like they tried to impede me in any way that was intentional, but I think they just weren’t exposed to enough of a diversity of experiences or possible trajectories to know which one would best suit my inclinations. Now I’ve gone from a dinner table where you would never have those conversations to a dinner table where we can have those conversations but it’s still… I now feel prepared for those conversations. The shame and the embarrassment I feel went from one of embarrassment to want things to embarrassment of having achieved them because I don’t want my family to think I have outgrown them or think that I’m better than them. I have to say that my parents [and when I say my parents, it’s my mother and my stepfather at this point] have grown a tremendous amount in the past decade or two, especially since they became grandparents. I don’t have my own kids, but my siblings do, and the way that my siblings raised their children and the kind of nurturing and encouragement they give them academically and extra-curricularly is so different from what we got. I think my parents see their grandchildren thriving under those conditions, and they think, “Oh, maybe this is a possible way to parent that can result in this wonderful outcome.” So, they have become much more receptive to things like higher education.
And the other part is that my siblings – most of whom either didn’t initially go to college or joined the military or went into the workforce – have gone back to finish their degrees. I have one sister who is currently in school. She’s 40 years old, and she’s in her third year at Montana State University, studying sociology after serving a long time in the military and raising kids. Her mind is blown every single day; it’s so exciting to see her just blossoming at age 40 and to hear her say things like: “I didn’t know that I was smart.” She had never been really challenged to explore that and it’s really cool.
Victoria: So, I noticed both you and Keith have this deep connection to the setting of the book. I was wondering how you feel you still carry that upbringing in that town to new spaces. What do you still carry from Waterbury with you now?
Xhenet: One of the reasons I set the book in Waterbury beyond just having been born there and grown up there is because it wasn’t until I had left Waterbury and gone far away that I realized there was anything distinctive about it. To me it was just so pedestrian, and I thought everybody in the world grew up in a place like that.
I realized there were two things interesting about Waterbury. One, it’s a struggling city economically in a very wealthy state. When people say the word “Connecticut” most people picture “Martha Stewart, picket fences, upper middle class or better.” They don’t really get any exposure to the majority of Connecticut, which is blue collar, and in some of the cities that were industrial in the center of the state, really struggling. And so, there’s a natural conflict in having a place that is struggling economically built into a greater context that is economically just oozing wealth. When you’re writing you always chase conflict; so it was just a natural setting for a novel.
The other reason was when I left Waterbury, I thought everybody’s family came over maybe two generations ago tops. I didn’t really know very many people who didn’t at least have a grandparent that was from another country. In school you would celebrate “Lithuanian Day,” “Albanian Day,” “Puerto Rican Day, “Italian Day.” There was still a direct connection to people’s ethnic backgrounds in a way that I was shocked to see didn’t exist in other communities.
When I moved to North Carolina for grad school, I met people who were just mesmerized by my name and I was like, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a name.” But when I asked, “Well, what’s your background?” they would be like, “I don’t know, I think I’m Scots-Irish or something.” I didn’t appreciate the kind of richness of diversity that I grew up with, but there was also conflict because of that diversity. There were different waves of immigration. The waves that came in the later part of the 20th century came over to work in the factories just the way that the previous waves of immigration had. Except, by the time they got to Waterbury, those factories were being downsized and eventually closed. So when they came, there was competition for the little bit of work that was available, which made people say, “Well, we were here first. You guys just came to mooch off the system. You don’t really want to work.” Nobody uproots their life and moves thousands of miles away to a place where they don’t know people, they don’t speak the language, because they don’t want to work or because they don’t want to better themselves.
Victoria: We even see the conflict involved in figuring out a post-secondary plan for life after high school which comes out in the parallel storyof the mom, Elsie, and Luljeta at the same age, figuring out life at that moment when you’re hitting 18, about to graduate high school, asking what comes next. Why did you put so much focus on this uncertain moment in both of their lives?
Xhenet: Again, chasing conflict; there is no other period in your life that is as rich, no matter what your story is up until that point in late adolescence. Everything is new, everything is tumultuous. You have hormones working on top of social and cultural situations and so it just seems like that is a moment where you can start to make decisions that can follow you the rest of your life, whereas the kind of decisions you make when you’re young, they seem like mistakes that you can move on from. I remember always worrying about my nieces and nephews in high school, and I would just cross my fingers and say, “Please don’t get addicted to drugs and don’t get pregnant, and if you make it through that period, you’re going to be okay.” The rest of the mistakes that you’re inevitably going to make, you can correct them, and you can learn from them. I don’t want to say that if you have a child at 18 means you cannot chart a different course. My mother was 18 years old and I would hate to think of myself or my brother as a mistake. But her pregnancy kind of shut down opportunity in many ways for her. Luljeta and Elsie both at that age are alike in many ways, in the sense that they both want something that they feel is this implicit promise that’s made to people. “If you do this, then you’ll get this.” I think there are some differences, though. One of them is that Elsie doesn’t really have any outside voice telling her anything different than what she has seen modeled for her already, so her mother doesn’t set any expectations of her that are different from the way that she lived her own life. But Luljeta does. Elsie wants more for her daughter. She doesn’t exactly know how to model it. She knows that it’s important to instill that belief that things can be different in her and so I think Luljeta’ s frustrations are being told, “Oh you’re better than this. You can go on to do good things,” but not really being told how to do that.
A lot of people who have read the book have said, “It just seems so bleak at the end, it doesn’t seem like anything has changed. Luljeta has not accomplished what she set out to do, which is find her father, but she has taken great action at 17-years-old. She has left Waterbury in a way that her mother never really did. I feel like she’s got great potential. I feel like at the end of the book, it’s just the beginning of her story.
And so I think that kind of reconciliation between Luljeta and Elsie at the end of the novel is a sense of closure and accomplishment for Elsie, because as terrified as she was in that moment to have lost her daughter temporarily, and as nauseating and terrifying as it is to have to tell, finally, the story of Luljeta’s life to her, she understands that she’s raised a daughter who is willing to try things and go out and do them. And Luljeta has realized that sometimes what you want and what you get aren’t exactly the same, but you can still move from there. And she’s discovering that at 17-years-old, which is pretty remarkable. I always thought of it as a very hopeful ending, but there are these kinds of cultural signals, that work differently, based on the background of people who are reading the story.
Victoria: Speaking about Luljeta’s journey she takes across the country to Texas, there was a moment during the road trip where she mentions seeing people who are homeless out in a park she’s passing by. She wonders if those people could trace what kind of decisions had led their second-grade peers to grow up and live these different lives of being a veterinarian or working as a manager at Target, and yet they find themselves in this very different situation. I was captivated by the idea of this “moment of divergence” in life paths.
Xhenet: Again, these are things that I certainly at 17-years-old wasn’t really reflecting on. I also never really took the kind of dramatic action that Luljeta did, which again, makes me believe that she is going to be just fine. But it’s a moment where she starts to reckon with the idea that, actually, decisions do matter. I think she has felt driven by fate more than anything, and she’s felt pretty passive in her own life. That’s one of the reasons that I use the second person voice in her sections where it’s a voice that says, “You do this, you do that.” To me, it’s reflective of this character who believes that she’s being guided by actors who are outside of herself. It’s mother or it’s just fate, or it’s pre-determined by the stars and it’s the first time that she starts to realize or starts to at least contemplate the idea that you can actually chart different courses, and that decisions do have consequences and outcomes, but that those outcomes also open up new possibilities for choices for different outcomes. It’s also the first time that she starts to recognize her own privilege because up until this point, she’s been feeling pretty victimized. She feels, “Oh, if I hadn’t been born here, then blank. If my mother wasn’t this, then blank.” But she also is starting to realize that there is a type of privilege in her existence in the sense that she has a nurturing, loving mother. She has had a stable family life, even if it is a kind of non-traditional family life. She is white, and so when she navigates public spaces, the assumptions that are made about her are likely different than the assumptions that would be made about different people. That’s the first time that she starts thinking, “Maybe I have been thinking about this differently.” There’s nothing inevitable about her fate. It is also possible to have disastrous outcomes by a combination of bad decisions, bad luck, social conditions.
Victoria: That scene made me think about some of the students we work with because they’ll mention in interviews how they see this opportunity to get higher education as, and this is the term they use, “breaking generational chains.” It made me think about how we think about this past or this history of our family to get to this point, and what our place is as “deciders” at that point to pursue different paths. I think that’s where a lot of students find themselves right now.
Xhenet: It’s very heavy to be at 16, 17, 18-years-old, and coming to those terms. It’s a very sophisticated adult world view that you have to take to even recognize that it’s a choice, or that it’s a combination of choice and conditions. I mean, it’s tricky to think about those things even now. I’m 41.
Victoria: It’s a lot at the age of 17 to be at that moment where a lot of the students are realizing their capability to decide and they want to make that decision very carefully.
Xhenet: That’s why I think what you’re doing is so significant because without mentors, without models, how could you possibly even get to have that kind of perspective at 17-years-old? I don’t think there’s really any possible way that anybody can be that auto-didactic at that age as to see those perspectives if they haven’t seen examples of it before them.
Victoria: We talked about this a little bit before, about the role of Greta having gone to college and coming back and what that means for Luljeta’s character. Do you feel that in the book, and in real life, that makes a difference, having a near-peer or someone who’s closer in age rather than just hearing it in school from teachers? What do you think the role of that closer peer is?
Xhenet: It’s exactly what we were just talking about, I think. Seeing a model of somebody who you admire, who was most likely not too long ago in a similar position where they were at a cross-roads where they said, “Okay I can do what’s expected and set up for me or I can take a risk, which is terrifying and see if I can get to a different outcome.” Seeing somebody willing to take a risk and acknowledge that it is terrifying is so important. If somebody just seems so directed and so clear and confident in every kind of decision and move they’ve made, it’s not terribly relatable. Most of us, I think, have felt great doubts about our own capabilities, about our own intellect, and so to see somebody that we admire acknowledge the same fears and act anyway, in a constructive way, I think it’s enormous. It does far more than a poster in guidance counselor’s wall could ever do.
At 18 and 17 and 16-years-old, unfortunately, we are resistant to what we see as authority because it seems like those authority figures are working against our desires in many ways. And parents are just “always trying to oppress you,” and teachers are “just yelling at you and making you do things you don’t want to do.” It’s natural to push back against that. But modeling yourself after somebody you aspire to be like, I think that’s a much more effective approach.
Victoria: You paint this human picture of what we think of as working-class families and what an upbringing in that kind of family is like. I feel like there are a lot of conceptions about that, but few stories that show the hardships within these families and the different languages of love.
Xhenet: I really wanted to work against this idea of people who have economic struggle not having room in their lives for anything else; I think that’s completely untrue. It is true that economic struggle is destabilizing and it casts a shadow over many other parts of individual lives and decision making, but there’s still love and there’s still plenty of love. There is, again, I talked about my parents early on, when they discouraged college, it wasn’t because they didn’t love me or want what’s best for me. It’s just that their beliefs on what would be best were different from mine. I also wanted to find the kinds of conflicts between mothers and daughters like Luljeta and Elsie, that an upper-middle-class woman who is reading this book might recognize in her own relationship with her daughter. Even though their kind of life situations may be very different, maybe they recognize, “Oh, my daughter had the same complaint against me. She didn’t want to be anything like me, she wouldn’t listen to anything I said.” So that you can start to recognize the kind of shared moments of humanity, which makes them more receptive to reading the parts of the narrative that they don’t share, which potentially could help them expand their understanding and have empathy for somebody who may be in a different kind of economic scenario.
Victoria: There are these light moments, too, like the baby shower that’s thrown for Elsie, as an act of that “village” type of support.
Xhenet: That was also an important thing for me. You know, Elsie, especially at the beginning of the novel is kind of like, “Everybody else is an idiot, I don’t have to listen to anybody.” She makes fun of her co-workers at the Betsy Ross diner and says, “Oh, they’re just ‘lifers,’ they’re just going to be here for life because they couldn’t do any better.” And then when she finds herself in need, it’s exactly those people who are coming through. When she has the conflict with Bashkim at the diner and finds herself threatened with physical violence, it’s those same women that she kind of rejected who come to her side and they say, “I get it, I understand,” and she knows that they do. It’s her co-workers at the factory, who come together to put together this baby shower for her; it’s her mother and her sister who are buying the things for the baby that she has not been able to purchase for herself. It’s all these ways that she was pushing these women away from her and they, despite that, come through, and become, I don’t want to say her provider, but her bridge to being able to provide for herself.
Victoria: The idea of community and forging community is such an interesting one, especially when we think about how we learn how to forge community in a certain way where we grow up. When I went off to college, it was this completely different place which was a culture shock to me. I found it very difficult to navigate how to form community there. If you could speak on that, of how you learned to or took the ways that you had formed community back home once you started navigating other spaces in college or in other cities and communities, how you navigated that challenge.
Xhenet: Well, I didn’t do it very successfully at first because as I said, I started off at a private school. In the book, Luljeta aspires to go to NYU. Again, kind of a wish fulfillment. I would have loved to have gone to NYU. I didn’t even think to apply there when I was in high school because I knew I couldn’t afford it. I didn’t know anything about need-based financial aid, and so I only applied to a school that was second-tier, even though I did very well in high school, and I did well on my standardized testing. I applied to a second-tier college because I believed that I could get a scholarship there, and I wanted to be in New York City. I was right; I did get a scholarship, but when I got there, I had no idea how to go to college; I had no idea of all the things I didn’t know. We were all required to take a computer class, just basic computing. It was 1996, so personal computers were a thing, the internet was a thing, but it wasn’t in every household and my family certainly didn’t have personal computers. When I took typing in high school, or I wrote my papers, it was still literally on a typewriter, even though it was the ’90s and the internet did exist. But my peers were familiar and comfortable using a computer and we were required to work on building a simple web page using HTML. I didn’t even know to open a web browser; I didn’t know what HTML was. The class assumed this basic computer knowledge, and I remember looking around and thinking, “I’m not good enough to be here, I kind of cheated my way in here somehow, I just kind of slipped through the cracks and they let me in and now they’re going to discover that I am completely not ready for this.”
It was really destabilizing to me. I also found myself attracted to friends who were from similar places as me. None of us knew how to navigate those spaces and so really all of us dropped out the first year. There wasn’t really a model that any of us knew to follow; we just found each other and defaulted back to our own sense of familiarity. So, I ended up back in Connecticut after that first year because I just felt not ready for a 4-year college. I went to community college and those are institutions that are built to bridge the gap between what a student’s background experience is and what it is they want to achieve.
I think that private schools sometimes, unless they actually have mentorship programs set up, don’t really know how to speak the language of the educationally and culturally unprepared; I think those mentorship programs are really important, and I know there’s much more emphasis on that now than there was when I was starting in the nineties. Community college helped stabilize me and start building those bridges. By the time I went to a state university, I felt pretty confident in my educational path. Again, I was surrounded by people who were much like me. I went to the four-year state college, where, actually, a lot of my peers were older returning students, people who had already had families who maybe had just gone through a divorce or their children were now old enough that they wanted to go back to school to do the things that they didn’t really have a chance to when they were 18 years old. I could kind of see, then, that this can actually all turn out okay, ultimately, anyway.
A lot of people think that the novel is strictly autobiographical; it’s not. I modeled Elsie a lot after those women that I went to college with because so many of them were really, really smart. I have no doubt, if they were 18 years old, and they had grown up in Greenwich as opposed to Waterbury, they would have gone directly to college, and they would have built themselves distinguished careers. They didn’t do that; they went into the workforce; they had their children young, and then when they went back to college, they really, really thrived and came into their own. There was a combination of having people to look up to and aspire to be like, but also having the comfort of familiarity of people whose experiences were more closely related to mine provided that right balance that I needed in order to finally complete my degree.
Victoria: This is why your book is so important. Other people being able to read themselves is how you build that moment of, “I see myself in this, and I can also see myself on the other end.” I know that we are very focused on access to higher ed and getting students to and through college, but the book has a lot of other themes that people can see themselves in and relate to.
Xhenet: It’s pretty cliché at this point, but I think most of the time you write the book that you wish you had been able to read or that you want to have read, and I was a voracious reader growing up and I read what seemed like fairy tales to me like “The Baby-Sitters Club” and “Sweet Valley High.” It was complete escape and fantasy reading in the sense that these girls all came from “good” families. “The Baby-Sitters Club” especially. I know that this is a series that still exists, and it was set in Connecticut and I was like, “Wow, this is Connecticut!” But it was like what I wished life was like. I think that Children’s Lit and YA Lit, especially in the past decade, have expanded to include a much greater diversity of voices in a way that I think is significant. I don’t necessarily think the same thing has happened in Adult Lit.
I wanted to write a book that really wasn’t for adolescents or young adults, even though I think that they can read it and find things to relate to. It was intended for an adult audience because of two things: There, is a sense of pleasure that you get when you read what’s familiar; when you read the story and think: “This was similar to my story; I really related to this,” and there’s a kind of sense of just relief when you feel like you’re not alone in your experience. But, to be honest, I probably more wrote Brass for the other reason, trying to find a pleasure in it for people who don’t understand why a 17 or 18-year-old girl is following in the footsteps of her mother by getting pregnant again and repeating these cycles that they’re conditioned to believe are negative … Or who ask why people can’t just step outside of what’s familiar to them in their environment and try something different. I wanted to show that there are so many different kinds of conditions and there’s so much socialization that happens that’s different among different cultures and classes of people. I wanted those who didn’t necessarily understand that to be able to begin to get an understanding of it and to begin to empathize with it and see that, had the conditions for themselves been a little different, maybe they would have made the same choices as Elsie did. And, also, the things that are driving Elsie to direct her daughter are the same types of love and affection and nurturing that they feel for their own children; it’s just directed differently because they don’t have the same kind of well of experiences to draw from.
So, on the one hand, I really love when people identify with the book and feel seen by it. On the other hand, I also hope to be able to reach people who don’t identify with it but can still empathize with it, in a way that’s not based in pity, but based on actual understanding, recognizing that the complexity of feeling and the complexity of life experience is the same for somebody who’s struggling financially as somebody who isn’t.
Victoria: Absolutely, and I think that those are the parts that numbers don’t always tell. If you look at just data, this is something that you will miss.
Xhenet: The ways that we show love are very different, but the kind of love that’s underneath is the same. When I was a kid for my birthday one year, my brother- this is terrible, he can’t be prosecuted for this now, it’s too long ago- he walked to the store that was near our house, and he stole me a birthday gift, a Barbie. I still remember this to this day; I was probably seven years old. But I was like, “Wow, he loved me enough that he wanted to give me a birthday present and he stole it. When people think of stealing, they think of deviants; stealing has strictly negative connotations. I don’t encourage anyone to steal, but the kind of motivation that’s underneath his stealing was still love, which is not different from what the boy in West Port might feel for his sister. He just had the opportunity to buy the Barbie instead of stealing it.