Fall quarter of this year, one of my Honors College requirements was a civic engagement writing course. To be transparent, I was not too thrilled about this class. I had already taken a class that fulfilled the same requirement in my degree audit, so I was basically retaking a class when I didn’t have to. However, I love civic engagement, writing, and reading, which are the three cornerstones of this class, so I decided to start the year with an open mind…and then we had our first reading assignment. I was not a fan at all. The author was fond of patronizing my generation and making lots of condescending comments about young people and women, so it was not my cup of tea. It was week 3, and I was losing hope since we were already a third of the way through the course.
(Photo via NY Times)
And then we started reading In the Country of Women by Susan Straight and my feelings about the class did a complete 180. The novel is dedicated to her daughters, and is entirely about the power, strength, and resilience of women, specifically those in her family. The women that inspired her book were immigrants or people of color or both, and it so closely paralleled all the stories I have heard about my family. I have never read a book that related so closely to me, that was written by someone who was also a lot like me. Our families are from two different continents, but they had such similar narratives.
And then she started talking about her own life, and I heard my mom’s story in hers. Straight grew up with a mother who raised her with an iron fist because she was young and it was the only way she knew how to love her daughter and keep her safe. Straight grew up with a father who was barely there, and found a father figure in other men her mother was with, an adapted to that different kind of fatherly love. Straight was a family trailblazer in academics, being the first person to graduate from high school and then college. It was exactly my mother’s story. Susan Straight was me and every immigrant woman I know. She is the biggest inspiration I have ever come across.
(Photo via UCR News)
Reading this book and attending this lecture reminded me of how important representation is. Just seeing and listening to someone who grew up just like me and my mom and my abuela all wrapped up in one, made me feel so included in the world of successful people. Here was this author who had been nominated for national awards and had written almost a dozen books, and she was just like me. It was a very “if she can do it, why can’t I” moment for me, and I don’t get to feel that often. I called my mom immediately to tell her all about it, and she felt that same way I did. We were connected to this woman not because we knew her, but because her story looked just like ours. It was an incredibly special experience that I won’t forget anytime soon.