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Writing About the Post-COVID Class War

‘Romanticism is part of the story that the upper middle class tells itself about us.’ An interview with Lori Fox.

andrea bennett 3 May

andrea bennett is the managing editor of The Tyee and the author of Like a Boy but Not a Boy, a CBC Books’ pick for top Canadian non-fiction of 2020.

Lori Fox went viral last year when they wrote a piece for the Globe and Mail outlining their experience leaving the service industry during COVID-19.

“What has been said about us — that CERB has kept us from re-entering the work force, that we are lazy and unambitious, that we simply don’t want to work — is ridiculous,” Fox wrote. “Let me shed some light on the ‘mystery’ of this labour shortage: With an abysmally low rate of pay, bad (often erratic) hours, no sick days and near-constant sexual harassment, racism, sexism and queerphobia, working in service sucks.”

Fox’s first book, This Has Always Been a War: The Radicalization of a Working-Class Queer, is now out with Arsenal Pulp Press. It deepens and expands on some of the themes present in their viral essay, and moves into other areas — trauma, rural queer life, family estrangement — too.

In this interview with The Tyee, we catch up with Fox about blue-collar jobs, what needs to change in the service industry, the capitalist patriarchy viewed through a queer lens and writing as a craft. Also in The Tyee, watch for an excerpt from This Has Always Been a War. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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This Has Always Been a War: The Radicalization of a Working Class Queer, is now out with Arsenal Pulp Press.

The Tyee: Over the course of your working life, you’ve had a tendency to work blue collar and service industry jobs while also publishing essays and journalism with outlets most people would recognize — such as Vice and the CBC. That’s a familiar balance to me. I had so many moments when the sheer volume of work needed in that “balance” to make ends meet made me think I’d be better off quitting and not writing anymore. I’m wondering what keeps you writing, what keeps you going?

Lori Fox: Part of it is that I consider my work a craft in very much the way that a carpenter is a craftsman [and] considers their work a craft. I don't really consider myself an artist in a way that I think a lot of other people who get into writing for different reasons would consider themselves artists.

It’s a skill, and it’s a big part of my identity, yes. But I also feel like it's something that I do that's useful. And it's really important to me to be useful. When I started my career as a journalist, I actually went to a trade school program. I don't have a BA in journalism, I didn't go to one of the fancy university programs. I went to a college, I learned it as a trade, which frankly, having worked in the industry a lot, I think actually makes better journalists.

I never thought at the beginning of that career that I would be writing the work I'm writing now. I never thought I would be an essayist, I never thought I would be an opinion writer, I never thought that this would be the trajectory that my career took. But it's what I'm good at. It's where my talents are the most useful.

The work that I was doing as a server or as farmhand was about feeding myself. The writing that I've done has been extra work that not only continues to help me feed myself, but is actually the more meaningful thing that I'm doing. If I just had that manual labour work to do, I don't know what I would be doing with my life. That's not what I want for myself or for my skill set.

There’s this moment in This Has Always Been a War when a fellow server is teaching you how to walk. Or rather, to walk like a woman, because it’s something the restaurant manager wants, and it’s something that could earn more tips. It made me think more broadly about what we ask, societally, of servers. Do we need to see a cultural shift in the service industry? What needs to change?

There needs to be a massive shift in the way that we look at workers in general. And the service industry, I think, is just a really good example of that place. Because it's this place where a whole bunch of power dynamics come together, particularly around sexuality, gender, class and race. They really come together in that space, because it is a very storied space, it has a long history. And in North America in particular, we have very specific expectations about what happens in that space.

So in that story that you're talking about, I was basically being punished because of my body and the way that I present my body, even at a time when I didn't fully understand my own gender identity, because it didn't match what was expected of me as a “woman” who was a server, namely, that my body be pleasing, and graceful, and feminine in a way that men will enjoy when I am serving them.

We really need to start thinking about what our relationship to people, as consumers, and as a society looks like, because when you have the power dynamics that exist in that essay — when a worker is not able to say no to something, or doesn’t know they’re able to say no to something because they’re afraid of losing their job — it forced me to behave in a way that the people in charge, namely men, wanted me to behave in so that they could enjoy a hamburger. When you break it down like that, it's absolutely ridiculous.

It's really hard for a certain class of people to change the way that they think about being served and about what they should expect from other people.

And it wasn't until I finally stopped serving that I felt entirely comfortable asking for my correct pronouns. Because you get “sweetie,” you get “hey miss,” you get “hey cutie,” you get “ma’am”ed all the time, and other people are constantly talking about you in the third person, and it's exhausting. I knew that in that space, there was no way I was ever going to get my proper pronouns in place.

In the excerpt we’ll post from This Has Always Been a War, readers will see you moving from place to place a lot, almost with the seasons. What’s propelled you? What have you been seeking?

A big part of my book is about the way that capitalism perpetuates trauma and the way that those things accumulate. Typically, when something has really been hurting for me, I move. I need to be in motion. A lot of the things that happened right in a row at a certain point in my life where patriarchy, capitalism and queerphobia really came together for me and created this incredibly insecure situation where I just couldn't get a foothold. And the only thing for me to really do, both emotionally and physically, was to keep moving.

As a bush worker, and as a farm worker, you move with the seasons. That's something that I actually enjoyed about that time of my life — this constant motion and being really in tune with the seasons. But mostly you move because you have to; you're in motion, because you have to be.

Even when I wasn't working directly in those industries, for example, when I moved from Whitehorse and left the newsroom where I was working, it was because I was being paid so terribly that it just didn't make sense to stay. I was writing about living wage in my community while I made less than a living wage.

So in a lot of cases, it was just it was these dual pressures of trauma, but also the necessity of constant flexibility that comes with being poor. I move physically a lot. And that I think has to do with the kinds of spaces I have inhabited. I've typically been quite rural.

But in an urban context, how many people do you know who are constantly hopping around between jobs, or who have two or even three jobs and are constantly shuffling in new jobs because things aren't working, or they're not making enough at one job? Or they're not being treated properly, or they get fired or something shuts down? There is a constant instability to be in working class and to being poor.

Pop culture tends to sand the edges off working-class stories, but there are some examples out there: Roseanne, in the late ’80s and ’90s, Nomadland, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. Lots I’m missing. What do you think portrayals of working-class people have gotten right in the past, and where do you think gaps exist?

You know, I'm less of a TV person and more of a book person. And so I'm actually not really familiar with a lot of the references that you just made. But I read extensively, and because I have two dogs that need walking a lot, I'm a big audiobook user as a result. I've been reading a lot of contemporary fiction lately and I think I also make a similar point in one of the essays in the book, in “Where the fuck are we in your dystopia?,” about how for a certain generation, for gen X and older, what it means to be working class is really different than what the reality of being working class is now. Or they imagine it to be really different and the barriers to moving out of being working class have also changed.

There's a really big generational gap there that prevents an effective dialogue about what it's like to be poor now. People who are poor or people who are working class are often portrayed in some of these novels as not being intelligent. Or the main drive for their character is to move up a class. I think that misses the point of what it means to be a working-class person in 2022 in North America.

To be working class now is to be part of a culture where capitalism builds its foundation upon you. It requires you to remain there in order to support the upper echelons. What's missing from a lot of the conversation is the almost-impossibility of escaping that for our generation — and for gen-Zers. Because [the upper classes] need us there. I think that there's a certain romanticism that gets filtered into popular culture about being working class. I think that romanticism is part of the story that the upper middle class tells itself about us.  [Tyee]

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