Books

This gritty working-class memoir is a must-read for anyone who grew up in poverty

Kerry Hudson is the award-winning working-class writer whose memoir Lowborn is one of the most important non-fiction books of 2019. Here, Stylist writer Hollie Richardson chats to Hudson about why her work is so important to women who, like her, grew up experiencing life in poverty. 

I read a lot of millennial memoirs in my twenties, mostly in search of comfort.

Although I related with the same basic things that many women during this turbulent decade navigate through – badly paid entry level jobs, adult friendships, endless romantic disappointments and always going about six glasses of wine too far – I could never fully connect with the writers’ experiences.

But these were best-selling, hyped-up books by fantastic female writers, who were often described as being ‘the voices of our generation’, representing the typical 20-something – so, what was wrong?

I now realise it’s because I was a working-class millennial trying to identify myself in books by middle-class women. While reading their frustrations over having to ask their parents for handouts during those first graduate jobs, I was helping my mum to pay her rent because I earned more. And as they retold hilariously woeful accounts of feeling unappreciated in numerous internships, I didn’t have any tales to tell because I could never afford to take an unpaid work placement in London.

I’d grown up in a single-parent family and lived in stretches of poverty. I spent a lot of my life hiding this from people, feeling ashamed as I zipped into a ‘less poor’ version of myself to be accepted.

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Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always known that my circumstances could have been way tougher – I’m white and university educated, for a start. The State of the Nation Report 2019 showed that BAME women are more likely to experience downward social mobility than their white counterparts, and face a “double disadvantage” when it comes to how much they go on to earn. 

But, as the memoirs in my Amazon history proved, we’re sold the idea that growing up in a financially secure, two-parent family is what’s considered ‘normal’ in the UK. The hurdles that people from disadvantaged backgrounds jump to keep up with privileged peers are barely discussed in the mainstream, which further adds to the shame and embarrassment.

In a nutshell: nobody wants to admit that they’re poor. But, with nearly half of children in lone-parent families in the UK living in poverty – it’s time for literature to reflect their experiences. This is why I’m relieved to have finally found and connected with contemporary writers exploring the nuances of female working-class life in their books, like the novelist and memoirist Kerry Hudson.

After publishing two successful novels inspired by her working-class upbringing (Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, Thirst) Hudson went on to win several literary awards. She was then commissioned to write a memoir of what she described to me as being a “very impoverished and chaotic” upbringing. There are a lot things in Hudson’s story that don’t match my own, like escaping domestic violence in the dead of night and spending time in foster homes – which she speaks openly about in her new book and are still horrifying experiences shared by women and children living in poverty today.

It’s the strong sense of being “proudly working-class, but never proudly poor”, and living with that confusing mentality of conflicted emotions, that really hits home for me. I’m proud of my working-class, northern roots, but ashamed of the finer details of living in poverty that came with that life.

Lowborn by Kerry Hudson
Lowborn by Kerry Hudson

After realising that she hadn’t reconciled her “where I’ve come from” with her “where I am now”, Hudson started on Lowborn to find answers, in order to feel comfortable in the present. 

While writing Lowborn, she first documented the experiences of revisiting her roots in regular columns for The Pool. “I had a personal story that I felt was valuable – especially with the treatment of narratives around poverty becoming ever more stereotyped and divisive,” she explains. “People really responded so strongly, often women from similar backgrounds who found themselves in industries where they felt an absence of something that reflected their actual experience. I hadn’t realised how many other women were feeling the same, and how liberating it would be just to say these things happened, and to connect with others who experienced and felt the same things.”

Getting into a position of being a full-time female working-class writer in the first place is a feat in itself. In fact, the recent Social Mobility Commission found that working-class women across all professions are paid on average 36% less than their male counterparts from privileged backgrounds. “If you grow up as a working-class woman, you’re told that your voice is of no consequence, you won’t be listened to, you have nothing to contribute,” says Hudson. “I think a lot of it is about confidence, like that joke about walking into a room with the confidence of an average, middle-aged, middle-class white man. I’ve struggled with it pretty much throughout my whole career, even though I was clearly doing a good job.”

Tracing this feeling of inadequacy back to school – which I totally relate to – she added: “Some kids just grow up expecting to go to university, then get a great job and own a house. But if you don’t grow up with those expectations, everything feels like this unusual thing that you’ve been given rather than earned – and you don’t know why. It can have a real effect on how you hold yourself.”

This, of course, can include conversations around finances, but Hudson insists that asking questions about money is one thing that she’s become confident in doing. “I don’t have that British embarrassment about money, because I understand that I need it to pay my rent – so I’ll ask upfront what the fee for my work is,” she says. “It seems to be fine if you have a safety net, have savings and earn enough to cushion that, but I never have had those. People need to think about the fact that not everyone you’re speaking to is going to have money, and this is just the sort of basic thing you should be doing to be more inclusive in any industry.”

Ultimately, with Lowborn, Hudson is hoping to change the way people picture what it is to be a working-class woman in the UK today. Media representation has a huge part to play in this.

Looking at the lack of female working-class narratives, the recent discussion around Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag is a good place to start. “Fleabag was absolutely phenomenal and it’s wonderful to see a woman at the top of her game, and she totally deserves that – but it would be great to see some other voices alongside those white middle-class ones,” says Hudson, who agrees that perhaps the problem isn’t with the show, but with the press insisting on referring to Waller-Bridge as the voice of a generation. “It’s part of the spectrum but it doesn’t encompass the experience of womanhood for many, many women.”

The point is that there isn’t just one picture of what being a working-class woman looks like.

Hudson, who identifies as bisexual, thinks we need to see work from a wider range of perspectives, such as more LGBTQ+  writers, people living with a disability, people of colour and those who live in rural communities. “The working-class experience is just as diverse and wide ranging as the middle-class experience,” she says. “It would be great to start seeing different permeations of working-class stories – but I can only represent my own. Common People, which is a collection of short stories by working-class writers, edited by Kit de Waal, is a really great example of a broad range of contributors - it just takes in the full gamut. Also, there’s also a collection of essays called Know Your Place - they’re a really good primer for getting into the broader issues about being working-class.”

Continuing to support working-class communities, Hudson is also helping to tackle period and hygiene poverty throughout her book tour by teaming up with Red Box Project and Beauty Banks. Attendees are invited to bring along tampons and spare pieces of makeup to donate in boxes at the talks. “Our family used Fairy Liquid to wash our hair, our bodies our house – everything. So, I recognise the privilege of not having to do that anymore,” she explains. She’s also subsidising ticket costs for those who can’t afford it.

I wish I’d had access to such honest and relatable work Hudson when I was younger. She proves that successful women can have a working-class story, but the different chapters need to be recognised.

“My favourite saying is the one about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers – Ginger did everything that Fred did, but backwards and wearing heels,” she shares, articulating her message for readers who identify themselves in her work. “You’ve already done everything backwards wearing heels, so if you’re struggling to feel proud now then that’s ok, but your accomplishments speak for themselves.” 

Lowborn is available to buy for £14.99 from 16 May 2019

Images: Mark Vessey and Penguin Random House

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