“The individual who grows up in this culture has a strong feeling of fatalism, helplessness, dependence and inferiority” says Oscar Lewis, expounding upon his theory of the “Culture of Poverty” in a 1966 essay. According to Lewis, people who grow up in poverty take on a particular mindset of hopelessness that pervades every aspect of their lives. Elliot Laurence (he/they), our next guest, largely sees the “Culture of Poverty” as a myth and seeks to tell stories that express a broader view of being poor in America. Elliot is a first year Master of Fine Arts student in creative writing and fiction, who draws on his own experience of growing up in poverty and continued financial precarity as a source of inspiration for writing.
Elliot says he is most inspired by people who “make it work”, such as single parents managing to make rent from paycheck to paycheck and overworked social services providers. Harmful stereotypes of poor people often suggest that they are lazy and content to live off government assistance. But as Elliot points out, the tangle of paperwork and compliance that the American welfare state imposes on the poor is anything but a cushy lifestyle. So too are the ways that poor families must make ends meet. One of Elliot’s short stories centers around a young child from a poor family who collects aluminum cans and bottles to exchange at the recycling center for meager sums of money. They want to depict everyday moments like this to push back against the common representation of poverty as something to gawk at, as exemplified in media like “The Florida Project” and “Shameless”. As he sees it, poverty fiction could be any genre, including sci-fi or fantasy, with background themes of material insecurity setting the scene.
Elliot’s personal story is interwoven deeply in his approach to writing. Born to a single mother in St. Louis, Missouri as the second of five children, he grew up playing an older sibling role. Elliot joined the Air Force at the age of 17, following the well-worn pipeline from poor neighborhoods to the military. Elliot is transgender, and years of trans activism in the hostile environment of Missouri later attracted him to the more accepting Pacific Northwest. He continues to be a guardian for his teenage sister, all while balancing the MFA curriculum, a teaching assistant position, and jobs as a daycare worker and Doordasher.
To hear excerpts from his writing and about how his identity as a mixed-race, transgender veteran has informed his fiction, tune in this Sunday, February 11th at 7PM on KBVR 88.7 FM or shortly thereafter wherever you get your podcasts!