Beyond the barricades

IssueDecember 2021 - January 2022
Comment by Ambrose Musiyiwa

'I Was Content and Not Content': The Story of Linda Lord and the Closing of Penobscot Poultry (Southern Illinois University Press, 2000) explores the impact of industrial decline in the US through oral history.

Central to the story is Linda Lord, a veteran of Penobscot Poultry, a factory in Belfast, Maine, who was one of the 400 people who lost their jobs when the plant closed in 1998. Lord worked at the plant for more than 20 years and lost the sight of one eye on the job.

I recently interviewed one of the co-authors of the book, Alicia J Rouverol, a lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Salford and a multi-genre writer.

Rouverol describes the book as a study of job loss at an individual level and of women’s experience and work: ‘When businesses shut down, when they move south or they move internationally, they leave in their wake individuals who often can’t retool very easily. And Linda was not in a position to retool.… She was indicative of someone who was left behind.’

Rouverol, who was the principal writer and editor on the book, contributed a historical chapter looking at the factors affecting the closure of the factory, the issues behind why Linda wasn’t able to retool and why she couldn’t move. ‘Obviously, there’s training that happened after job loss and things like that, but those had very limited impact on the local level. Sometimes things that are said to be a game-changer, to overcome hardships like that, they don’t always map out really well, on the ground level.’

'I Was Content and Not Content' was well-received. It ended up being taught at universities and was reviewed favourably in the New York Times. The book has been used by people involved in the poultry industry and featured at ‘‘Deindustrialization and Its Aftermath: Class, Culture, and Resistance’, a conference in 2014 at Concordia University in Montreal.

After a reading in Portland, Maine, a woman came up to Rouverol and said: ‘I don’t have a lot of time. I came out [tonight] because I needed to tell you that reading your book helped me to understand my mother who worked in factory work her whole life. And I never understood her world.’

The woman saw in Linda Lord’s story something that resonated for her.

Rouverol says this is one of the things she loves about writing: ‘You don’t know who will be affected by what in your work. It’s not really in our hands to do that.’

Rouverol attributes the impact the book has had on a number of factors. One of them is that Linda Lord was a very compelling narrator: ‘I think she’d gone through a lot of struggle. But she also made her way through it.… Her piece of that story was very telling. A macro-story through the micro is kind of what we did. And when you think about it, it’s like the local and global. I think we often need to be looking at the fine-grained [detail] to get at the broader [picture].… In order to get to the universal, you have to start with the particular and you have to focus on the specific.’

Also, the book was different from others that had been produced on de-industrialisation: ‘We did it quite differently. It was a hybrid work. It was photographs, oral history transcripts, a historical essay, a methodological essay and a creative nonfiction piece by Carolyn Chute, a mean, mean writer. Co-authors, photographer Cedric Chatterley and Steve Cole both had writings in there as well. It was kind of polyphonic and hybrid before anyone was doing it in that way, in that kind of text. So it did something new.’

I ask why it is important for writers to engage with contemporary issues. Rouverol responds: ‘It’s important because I think we can’t change the world in positive directions if we don’t write about the issues that are the problematics of the world.

‘I think there’s a little bit of a moral imperative. Look what we learned from Anne Frank’s Diary? If people don’t document their social environment and what’s going on in their world, we have no way to change and reshape the direction that we live in.’

Topics: Culture