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A memoir about life 'in the margins,' 'Class' picks up where 'Maid' left off

Simon & Schuster

Stephanie Land's new memoir, Class, picks up where her 2019 memoir, Maid, left off. Maid, which inspired a 10-part Netflix series, chronicled Land's life as a young single mother living below the poverty line, struggling with housing insecurity and an abusive relationship, and cleaning houses to support herself and her daughter.

In Class, Land is in her mid-30s at the University of Montana, desperately trying to fulfill her dream of becoming a writer, while juggling classes, working to pay for childcare and rent, and experiencing the loneliness of being a single mother.

"I was hungry a lot," Land says of her time in college. "For a while, I always had a peanut butter Clif Bar in the side pocket of my pants or in my backpack. ... It was pretty rare that I ate anything out in public, just because I couldn't afford it."

Land struggled to get government assistance for herself and her daughter. Often help came with strings or red tape: Caseworkers would request proof of employment, but Land's work cleaning houses didn't result in regular paystubs.

"I felt like what [the caseworkers] really wanted me to do was work some kind of full-time minimum-wage job, simply just because that would have made it easier," she says.

Land was determined to complete her bachelor's degree. She dreamed of one day becoming a full-time writer — though it seemed unlikely. Now, her work's been featured in publications like the Guardian and The Atlantic. Land says she hopes her new book speaks to others who are struggling, as well as lawmakers who are in the position to help.

"I just see such a lack of empathy toward people who live in the margins of society," Land says. "As a country, we don't like giving poor people money and that's what they need the most."

Interview highlights

On feeling like she didn't have the right to pursue her dreams because she was poor

Every time my car broke down, I felt guilty, I felt selfish. And it was just for getting a bachelor's degree in English. I mean, to a lot of the population, that's just an extension of high school and it's just something that you do. But for me, I felt like I was wasting money, wasting time that I actually should be working. I really felt like I did not have any value as a human being unless I was actively working.

On not wanting to ask for help

It was embarrassing on my part. I very much wanted to be like everyone else. And so I assumed that everybody else was fine and they had enough food and they could pay rent just fine. And so I really hid the parts of me and the parts of my life that were affected by food and housing insecurity. I was very good at hiding it. I didn't want anyone to worry about my ability to care for my daughter. I didn't want anyone to get concerned ... and call people about it. I really just wanted to be normal in social settings. And I was scared that if people knew that I was on food stamps, then they would start to kind of question if I could meet them for coffee or not — or if I even should. Like if I'm on food stamps, then that means that I can't buy a cup of coffee, right?

On writing about becoming pregnant unexpectedly in the summer before her senior year of college

I felt a lot of shame in that pregnancy. ... And just because I was following this trope that everybody expected: You're a single mom on food stamps and then you're having a whole other child out of wedlock, father will not be involved. And at the time, even then, there was a lot of discussion over women doing that on purpose so that they would get more government assistance. And I knew what people would think about it. I knew that people probably wouldn't agree with my decision to go through with the pregnancy. ...

Coraline, my youngest, she's 9 now. And she is just this ball of sunshine and just so funny. And I knew that she would likely read this book someday. And I didn't want it to be about the shame. I wanted to come at it in a moment of empowerment and really talk about that ...

On publishing her first book and becoming more financially secure

I bought a house and that was right at the beginning of the pandemic. ... To me, it's the biggest house I've ever lived in and it's really super fancy. There's a view, but it's a modest house. ... The part of it that really bothered me was I kept thinking: This is the kind of house that I used to clean, and how I felt about the person who lived in that house and how they were sometimes kind of mean or just not very nice. Even if they tried to be really nice, it was still like, "Oh, you missed a spot last time. Can you make sure to get that?" And I felt like I was becoming them. And that really bothered me for some reason.

On feeling like people treated her differently once she was no longer poor

People started treating me differently as soon as I didn't have to use Medicaid, when I could take my children to the doctor and I had regular health insurance that I had paid for. When I took my oldest to a doctor a lot when she was really little, she was sick all the time because we lived in this apartment that was full of mold, and it really felt like it was my fault. I had a doctor tell me that I needed to do better — and all of that was gone once I had my own health insurance.

On her lingering fear that she will fall back into poverty

It's just knowing how fast it happens. And as much as I try to have a cushion underneath me in case I do fall ... I don't have a job that I can necessarily budget for. ... I'm still kind of essentially freelance. Like, all of my work comes through my email account, and it's because somebody, somewhere thought I was interesting and they want me to come and talk to somebody or they want me to write something. And it's not something that I definitely know is going to still be there in five years. So there is kind of this constant worry of: Will I still be able to afford this house in three to four years? Or, will I be able to afford to put my kids through college? Like, will I be able to afford anything? So, I mean, there's still not a lot of security in that sense.

Lauren Krenzel and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.