by Caitlin Wheeler
A few years ago, a few colleagues and I hosted lunch for a well-to-do visiting author. The author invited a local friend to join and they gabbed about nearby orchards and her friend’s meadery. When a colleague tried to join the conversation by sharing an experience she’d had working in a bicycle repair shop, the author dismissed the subject by saying she “could never work with the public” and moving on to other topics.
Having worked in the public services side of the library since then, the generous part of me suggests that perhaps this author meant that she struggled with the idea of being the kindly feminine ear to a league of lonely older men on a daily basis. Maybe, I relent, she found the labor of offering equity to the marginalized too taxing in a service environment. Perhaps she simply did not care to remind a woman for the third time in a day that the public restroom is not an appropriate location to take off her shoes.
Another part of me thrashes against all excuses. Some people don’t have the option to say they “could never” accept an unappealing job, retorts this offended voice. You’re a part of the public, it accuses. That’s what public means!
But the response that always settles at the bottom of the jar of generosity and righteousness is one born of confusion: just what did she think being a writer was?
The subject changed far too quickly for me to sort out a polite way to interrogate her meaning. Objectively, I’m sure she didn’t say it in affected, Lucille Bluth tones while throwing a Cruella de Vil scarf over her shoulder, although that is how I remember it. It felt like she was telling us that she couldn’t — or really, wouldn’t — appreciate real people if she had to actually engage them.
I can understand the impulse. Working in a public library has made it starkly clear that I can live in the same city as another person, yet experience a totally different world from theirs. It’s jarring. Disconcerting. And it’s vital.
It’s possible that America has a single identity, but if it does, I think it must lie in the very plurality of the identities that reside within. America is the juxtaposition of the honeyed vinter and the barefoot bathroom lady, the lonely retiree and the bike shop attendant. It’s the public and the private, the institution and the outliers, the oppressors and the oppressed. The people lost between such oppositional binaries, which simplify the reality of their lived experience.
The author who said she couldn’t work with the public undoubtedly represented one kind of American experience, but she also dismissed the reality of millions of other Americans in a single offhand remark.
In this issue of Vox, I hope to offer work that engages with the complexity of a group identity. The more jarring the dissonance between experiences, the stronger the urge may be to look away. But I ask that you not hold America at arm’s length. Celebrate what doesn’t fit, even within your own personal identity. Mourn or fight for what has gone unloved, unfulfilled, unrecognized. Interrogate the gaps between yourself and your neighbors.
Invest. Engage. Look the American public in the eye and admit I could. Tell us what you find along the way.
Caitlin Wheeler is the Fiction Editor for Vox. If you are interested in submitting work, view our submissions page.