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What we talk about when we talk about class / class is a slippery thing

Often, the problem of class is a hob ring, you won’t dare to put your hand on it. But it’s there all the same, in the food that we eat, in the air that we breathe, or just around the street corner where we live. Whenever I find myself trapped in a conversation so fraught with class issues, I have to resist an urge to stand up and leave the room, or to open the window to let in some fresh air. The assumption that people make about you, about us, trying to determine the class you are in, from the way you dress, the books that you read, your accent, your postcode, your education…

I still remember the down-to-earth name of the public housing estate in Kowloon, Hong Kong where I was born: Oi (Love) Man (People) Estate. We lived there for a few years and eventually, my parents saved enough money to buy a subsidised flat in Kwai Chung. Back then, my family was very excited to have their own place, even if it was a subsidised flat. I lived in that family flat most of my childhood and teenage years, where I did not have a room of my own. In writing my poetry collection Letters Home, I have been so glad to—finally—articulate my parents’ working lives in retail and hospitality. I wrote about the lives of sales assistants and baristas, and students from less privileged backgrounds whose lives have been changed via education. Regardless of where or who we are and how we see ourselves, we must continue to give voice to those who are under-represented or misrepresented in society, understand their struggles, celebrate their everyday triumphs, from the lives of students to the work of a supermarket worker.

As poets, what are your favourite poems that address the complexity of class? In our own writing, how do we reaffirm the dignity of work? What are the stories and sentiments that we can go back to, for strength, for understanding, for courage and hope?

In the course, we will explore a selection of brilliant poems by Rachel Long, Wayne Holloway Smith, Philip Levine, Romalyn Ante, Ocean Vuong, and Kim Moore that examine the idea of work or the working class. We will focus on producing new work that opens up new conversations or challenge existing ideas. What we hope to encourage are inclusivity and empathy, and a willingness to explore these issues with an open mind, and we welcome writers from any socio-economic backgrounds.

To explore this topic further, join Jennifer Wong’s upcoming Autumn Term course, ‘Let’s talk about the problem of class…’: Writing Working Class Lives, which will run 4 October – 13 December.

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