DIANE URBANI DE LA PAZ: Essential: work, mothering, reading

STEPHANIE LAND, AUTHOR of the bestselling “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive,” granted me a 15-minute interview. I’d just read her book, a memoir so vivid it replayed in my mind like a movie, so I hoped to ask all the right questions.

This is an author who’s risen to heady success: When “Maid” came out last year, former President Barack Obama personally recommended it. Now television producer John Wells of “ER,” “The West Wing” and “Shameless” fame is creating a Netflix series based on the book.

“Maid” starts in Port Townsend, where an abusive relationship sends her out on her own with her baby daughter. At the start of our phone call, I identified myself as a columnist from here, then asked how things were going at her home in Missoula, Mont.

“Fine,” she said, voice flat.

Quickly, Land made it clear this would be no pleasant chat. I stumbled on: Because she was booked to keynote Peninsula Behavioral Health’s annual gala March 20 — reset for Oct. 23 — I asked how her post-pandemic speech would differ from what she’d planned before.

“It doesn’t, really,” she said.

“I’m still advocating for the same things,” starting with better treatment of people who are struggling.

In her years as a house cleaner, Land made barely enough to live with her child in a black-moldy studio apartment in Mount Vernon; she received some government assistance and large amounts of contempt. No family members offered help.

There is a woman who encourages Land to pursue her dream of moving to Missoula — a place she loves — and entering the University of Montana’s creative writing program. Guts and scholarships help Land realize this new life.

She graduates, becomes a freelance journalist and, by 2016, has her advance from Hachette Books.

“I wrote the book in one go,” Land told me.

The bulk of “Maid” poured out in January 2017, as she stayed at her keyboard, remembering the sights and smells inside all those dirty houses and in the homeless shelter, and the looks of disgust on people’s faces when she used her EBT card at the supermarket.

Anger, like a clean knife, slices through Land’s pages.

In Port Townsend and other towns where she labored in the service industry, the gaping class divide means clients haven’t a clue about her life. They spend more on one dinner on a custom-built deck than she earns in a week scrubbing bathrooms.

Driving from job to job, Land likens herself to a ghost homeowners can’t — won’t — see.

“Friends,” who view themselves as working harder than she does, toss off remarks like “You’re welcome” when they see her using SNAP benefits, aka food stamps.

Land’s fury makes people uncomfortable, and many dismiss her story as a mess of self-pity. Others, especially political candidates, are loud about their woke-ness, suddenly talking about the plight of the working poor.

She shows us reality, even if we’d rather look at some prettier fiction.

Amidst all this, though, she is heartened by the forthcoming Netflix program. And the public-speaking engagements are starting up again this fall.

Land said her purpose with the book was to show readers an authentic portrayal of a single mother.

We’re now using the term “essential” to describe a particular sector of the labor force. I can’t think of anyone more essential than parents like Land.

My hope is that books such as hers open our minds and hearts. Instead of judging, we can start seeing one another.

“This book was raised by single moms,” she writes in “Maid’s” acknowledgements before listing several pre-publication allies.

“I love that I can say that.”


Diane Urbani de la Paz, a freelance journalist and former PDN features editor, lives in Port Townsend. Her column appears in the PDN the first and third Wednesday every month. Her next column will be June 3. Reach her at [email protected]

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