by Stephanie Land
Atria/One Signal Publishers (2023); 288 pp.; $26.04 (Hardcover)Buy Book
Stephanie Land’s debut memoir, MAID: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive, is a harrowing account of the author’s escape from domestic violence and her struggle to support and raise a child alone. The book was later turned into a hit television series on Netflix. Land’s work and life are often called “inspiring,” but classifying Land’s work in this way takes the pressure off of us, her readers. It allows us to sidestep the cultural criticism she brings to the page. “I’m the story we love to hear,” Land wrote in Time Magazine. “And every time I speak to an audience, I point that out.” Land’s body of work, her essays and her two books, encapsulate an American myth: that a single mother without childcare, working for minimum wage, can provide security for her children.
True inspiration can be found in Land’s writerly courage, in her commitment to a story that must be told, regardless of the consequences. Illuminating the realities of the working poor has exposed her to judgment from strangers who send harsh messages or criticize her on Goodreads. The constant scrutiny has taken a toll on her mental health.
Still, she has chosen to expose injustice yet again in a second memoir. CLASS: A Memoir of Motherhood, Hunger and Higher Education (Atria, 2023) asks a question that continues to be ignored: “Which mothers and children are worthy of food, housing, and opportunity?”
CLASS, like MAID, illuminates the frustrating paradoxes that people living in poverty face in every decision. “Poor people are discouraged from seeking help, or from being honest about their struggles,” Land said in our recent conversation. Asking for help, she said, could result in someone reporting a case to Child Protective Services. In one scene from CLASS, Land is sick and exhausted in the first trimester of pregnancy and has limited access to food and reliable transportation. Her daughter, Emilia, is often late to kindergarten. Part of Land’s morning sickness stems from the fact that there isn’t enough to eat, but she fears telling anyone about her food insecurity. The teacher punishes Emilia for her lateness and makes her eat lunch alone in a “reflection room” instead of socializing with other children in the cafeteria.
CLASS moves at a fast clip. Land’s tone is friendly at times; sometimes, she’s disgusted. Often, she’s panicked. There are moments that shimmer with sarcasm, and moments in which those who shame and abuse her are named without fanfare. The reader becomes deeply invested in her ability to survive daily aggressions, as she shoulders the emotional and physical burdens of inequity. Land owns very little—yet it’s clear that at any moment, she could lose it all. When the food has run out, she eats the remnants of a jar of peanut butter. Her stomach rumbles as her writing professors critique her work. Family members and professors judge her for pursuing a career in the literary arts. She is redeemed by the friends that show up at the right place at the right time, delivering timely miracles.
I read MAID in 2019 in one sitting. So many moments of Land’s story are seared into my memory: like when her mother and stepfather refuse to pay for her cheeseburger at lunch, knowing she couldn’t afford it. In another scene, a customer at the grocery checkout interrogates Land about her purchases when she sees Land using food stamps. She is regularly shamed and punished for being poor. As I read, I felt that shame shift—a transference: from her pen, to the page . . . to me. I felt ashamed of my own participation in a society that punishes impoverished women and children; but I did not feel hopeless. With courage and generosity, Stephanie Land shows readers that if they can listen, they can change, and if they can change, then the collective can change. Land touches readers through universal themes of motherhood: the judgment, the blame, the fear, the isolation, and the inspiration for such endurance. Our children.
It’s easy to find interviews with Land, and she’s active on her Instagram. But I wanted to go deeper. I wanted to know about her life as a writer. I wanted to ask where she drew the courage to stand up to her abusers and the society that tried to keep her down. Our interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Jennie Burke: I’d like to begin with craft. What elements of storytelling, as a memoirist, do you adhere to? I feel as a writer that it’s easy to get lost in the emotion and injustice of a story that must be told. How do you elevate experience into art?
Stephanie Land: The parts that I really enjoy are building scenes and dialogue. I just try to have fun with that and allow the reader to really sit in the room with me. I wanted to focus on the act of feeding someone, then having to feed yourself. And showing what it would feel like if you might not be able to do that. To worry about the very human aspects. You know: food. Clothing. Shelter. With CLASS, I wanted to stress people out.
JB: I was stressed out. In the scene with the male professor editing your work about being pregnant, I thought, I feel filthy right now and this is gross.
SL: I chose to read that chapter recently to a group of University of Montana students, because the scene takes place in the classroom where I was reading. I read the scene aloud, and I was just like, “God this is horrible.”
JB: That’s fearless storytelling to me. I’m right there with you, feeling the shift from “this is weird” to “this is horrible” to “get me out of here!” How do you choose moments from your past to expand into full scenes?
SL: I look at pictures, [but] there’s a lot of things I obviously don’t have pictures of; I remember those types of things so clearly and I always make sure to include them, because if it’s sticking out in my mind 12 years later, then it will stick out in the reader’s mind too.
JB: Secondary aspects of CLASS that really resonate are the moments of violence in Emilia’s kindergarten experience. Do you anticipate any societal reactions to your nuanced criticism, even though the book is mainly about your schooling? Did you intend to open up conversations about our children’s education as well?
SL: The book was supposed to be narrative nonfiction and deeply reported. And . . . I’m not a reporter. I’m horrible at interviewing (or that’s what I tell myself). It was just really intimidating, and I finally decided that I couldn’t do it. I was going to tell my editor that I’m not going to write this book, that I have the money and I’ll pay you back now. Let’s dust our hands off and be done. And straight out of the gate, she was like, “You can write whatever the fuck you want.”
In CLASS there are no statistics or anything. I was going to focus the entire book on college, then the last chapter was going to be about my kid’s experience in kindergarten. It started there. Then I tried to create a parallel. I was trying to show that I was missing out because of being a low-income person and unable to afford the same things as my classmates. I also wanted to show that my kid was affected by our financial status as well. There are parts that I couldn’t include, because it’s my kid’s story, but they are shocking.
That’s one thing that came from MAID. Readers said that they looked at the kids in their [communities] differently. [In CLASS] I really wanted to grab their faces and force them to look at kids differently.
JB: In CLASS, Emilia’s father goes to great lengths to reduce his child support responsibilities—so much so that you must eventually hire an attorney and settle with him over child tax credits. It delighted me to see that she wrote in a clause that the agreement would not change even if you “became a successful writer.” You found the gesture “cute at the time.” I loved her belief in you. Was there a specific moment in your life when you realized that you are a successful writer?
SL: Obama. [Former President Barack Obama chose MAID for his 2019 reading list.] I was flying home from my wedding and my honeymoon; I was with my whole family. I tend to get really good news on the tarmac. So all of a sudden my phone was blowing up, and I didn’t know what was going on. Finally, my editor just started saying, “Obama! Obama! Obama!” and I’m just like what the hell are you talking about?
I never thought of myself as a real writer until President Obama told me I was a good one. So that was a moment for me. But it doesn’t mean I have financial success. I don’t have job security. So “success” for me is more of just, “Okay, this person thinks I’m good, so I’m good.” But that was a moment where I really felt like I had made it in some way.
JB: What writing advice do you rely on?
SL: I forgot to put this in the book! University of Montana Professor, Walter Kirn, said, “The not-writing is just as important as the writing.” Especially with freelancing, I was having a really hard time because I have a lot of internalized stuff about work. I had to prove that I was working in order to eat. [Land had difficulty receiving low-income assistance since she was self-employed as a maid. She was required to show proof of employment from an employer in order to receive assistance.]
I’m paying to put my child in daycare and I’m sitting around thinking and so that didn’t really feel like I was working unless I was physically typing something. I have to remind myself of that all the time. I have an essay I’ve been chewing on in my mind for weeks. I’m not gonna be able to write it until I have the opening scene—I’m very visual. But once I have the opening scene and the first sentence, then the essay just kind of falls out for me.
JB: I’ve long admired your fearlessness: from calling out your abusers, to standing up to your parents, to shutting down online trolls. You do it in such a factual, down-to-earth way. How have you developed this confidence?
SL: The five years that I’ve spent promoting MAID have been extremely detrimental to my mental health. I’ve had panic attacks over Goodreads reviews. [I do this job] because I need to make money to support my family. So this is a situation that I’ve found myself in, and I’m struggling to do the best I can. Several medical professionals have recognized the amount of stress I’m under. The word “life-threatening” has been tossed around. Every once in a while I’ll get mad because someone says something ridiculous. I try to laugh at people who get upset because I give my kid ice cream, but for the most part, I struggle. But I’m glad I give that perception [of confidence].