American Precariat is composed of individual essays, each edited by incarcerated writers, situated within societal structures of exclusion, scarcity, and criminality. The breadth of experiences documented—navigating exclusionary elite educational spaces, carceral psychiatric institutions, homelessness among trans youth, immense student loan debt—foregrounds how various and often invisible extreme instability can be.
A rendering of the present moment told from below, American Precariat shares stories of the unseen and the unspoken and articulates the lines of our division. In doing so, it offers healing for some of the world’s fractures.
Widespread recognition of collective precarity is an urgent concern. The following books, recommended by American Precariat editors Ronald L Greer II and David Janisch, delve further into the complexity and fluidity of class and privilege within the United States.
A testimony of how the sea rise is shaping our coastlines now is immediate and consequential. Nothing makes that more evident than Rush going directly to the communities most effected: Louisiana, Staten Island, Florida, Maine, California. We hear the voices of people whose entire communities have already had to relocate to higher ground and those who will need to but don’t have the option and could lose everything. Rush is in the field with scientists studying the impact of greenhouse gases when marshes disappear and also interviews those seeking landscape scale change. Artfully written, the story of climate change becomes personal, the way it needs to be for all of us.
We are living in a strange world that seems straight out of science fiction. Contemporary literature without speculative elements can miss that essential feature of modernity. But then there is the writing of Abbey Mei Otis, which puts forth the paradigm of using the speculative to express both visceral and psychological results of the society we are creating. The stories in this collection examine grief, body autonomy, government toxicity, xenophobia, poverty, the housing crisis, the educational system, worker alienation, climate change, and the vanishing of Earth’s beautiful mysteries, with an increase in everlasting scarcity. Her approach is brilliant.
A sociologist spends hundreds of hours observing the eviction repercussions of eight families, who are either Black and live in Milwaukee’s North Side or white and live in a trailer park in South Milwaukee, while also surveying the lives and decisions of their landlords. It’s an intense read, especially since the reading experience is not the expected one of nonfiction, but more like a novel. I couldn’t put the book down. When I was finished, my body automatically began organizing all my property contained in two plastic gray bins beneath the bunk-bed in my cell, even though there was zero chance of me being evicted.
Prison foists precarity on a person whether they are poor or prosperous. The Abolition of Prison by Jacques Lesage de la Haye shows readers a glimpse of the innards of prison and, in doing so, illustrates how punishment fails. Through his own experience and others, he shows how prison is a slow death rebranded as punishment and all the mistaken ways society believes they are safe when an “offender,” is removed. What is actually occurring is desocialization, as well as psychic and physical destruction of humans at the whim of people who may be sadist at heart. Prison is the epitome of precarity, and to sum up the true dangers and risk that prison living is a constant state of precarity, de la Haye nails it: “Prison today is poor people guarding poor people.”
Foster Care. Coal Country. Opioid epidemic. All told from the eyes of a narrator as he journeys into adulthood. It’s a good story, but what makes it an incredible novel is the language Kingsolver uses to tell it. Every page is full of irony, cynicism, hope, and creativity, all rolled into metaphors and commentary that are utterly unique, yet make complete sense. I found myself craving the next page not as much for the plot as the prose. There are novels we read that make us want to experiment with the voice that shows up on the pages we write, and this is one of them.
Going for Broke, edited by Alissa Quart and David Wallis, reveals America’s day-to-day tightrope and reminds us ‘the struggle is real.’ This anthology is a collage of shit. Shit people have lived through and shouldn’t have had to. Shit that spreads humanity thin and absorbs our tears when depending on everything else. Going for Broke exposes all the shit that hit the fan, but only flew on poor people whose bodies, homes, families, work, and economic status are at risk.
Zora Neale Hurston’s classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God, presents precarity in raw American form: Black folks searching to simultaneously satisfy their economic and emotional desires. Hurston tells a story about dreamers, doers, lovers, and cynics. The story is dialectically and colloquially melodic. Saddening and invigorating, the novel places Janie in moments of wanting love more than stability. She ultimately receives both at the risk of the other. If you have never read, or have not read it in a while, go back and re-experience There Eyes Were Watching God.
Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is a collection of stories about women who preach, pray, and believe. Religion wants to be in charge, but Philyaw shows us how human wants win out over religious commands. Folks who are down and out are dependent on religion and dogma for daily living but, less often (props for this) heed the restrictions of scripture. And, for Jael and the woman giving Instructions for Married Christian Husbands, well, they’re just badass.
Ronald Greer is a multi-genre writer from Detroit, MI. He is a poet by nature and daydreamer by necessity. His latest work is published in A Darker Wilderness: Black Nature Writing From Soil to Stars (Milkweed). He is a long-standing member of Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop and is in partnership with The SEEN Project. As a young man he enjoyed eating concord grapes and strawberries out of his grandfather’s personal garden.
David Janisch is a writer whose work is forthcoming to, Nightmare Magazine. As a child, he loved to carry around a can of spinach believing if needed, it could turn him into Popeye.”