Three threads connecting me and my protagonist
Do you feel deeply connected with your protagonist’s struggle, despite the ways in which you differ? This was a question Barbara Linn Probst recently posed in her guest post on the Writers in the Storm website. I thought I would provide an answer using my current manuscript as a foundation for comparison.
TOAA, the working title acronym of my work-in-progress, tells a tale of a Lina Da Ponte, a twenty-something Italian immigrant and copy girl/journalist wanna-be, getting her feet wet as a working Modern Woman in 1930s Oregon. In her professional and personal life, my protagonist must overcome such battles as loss, shame, peer jealousy, misogyny, poverty, discrimination, the Depression, the lack of support from a traditional family, and heartache. I connect with her most deeply on three of these battles: misogyny, peer jealousy, and discrimination. Read on as I explore these themes as they relate to my life as well as that of Lina's life in between the two World Wars.
As Barbara attests, "pain can be fertile soil." Like I did, Lina learns this firsthand, thinly disguised and otherwise. I had a boss tell me that patterned pantyhose drove him wild. The same boss wanted my detailed travel itinerary for my 7-week personal trip to Asia. He also wanted to put a window in his office so he could look out onto my desk and watch me work. Another one, a VP this time, taped a newspaper article on my desk with this phrase highlighted: "The coach has banned his players from sex until after the world cup match." The abstinence was a requirement for the Italian soccer team, and being Italian, my boss wanted me to know "Here's an opportunity for you." I was partnered at the time and he knew it, but that didn't stop him. I had an important client tell me I was beautiful, and he could go for me if my butt wasn't so big. I could go on.
Calling a woman, especially a secretary or someone in a similar role, "sweetheart" or "angel" or "tootsie" was the norm in the workplaces of the '30s in which we find Lina. It was also a given that she might have her behind pinched, her arm stroked, or be propositioned in no uncertain terms. I was never touched inappropriately at work, but I had a few propositions, and fortunately, once rejected, those men never tried again.
Lina is not so lucky. How she handles these unwanted advances is quite different than how I did it. It was definitely trickier for her. Underlings like her didn't have the enforceable state laws to protect her, or a corporate harassment policy, or the personnel management department she could turn to for support who would heed her complaint and take action on her behalf.
World War I accelerated change in the development of personnel management, but mostly in engineering industries and in large factories so Personnel Managers or Employment Managers were, outside of the government, still quite rare in offices. While Lina has a brief exchange with her female boss about the sexism that she was forced to endure, she's advised to keep her "rabble-rousing to a minimum, even though it isn't anywhere near fair, if you want to work among the big boys." Good thing that kind of comment is rare today.
I still have a "day job". Though I write under a pseudonym, there is an inherent danger in recounting too much from my own experience in this realm currently. However, I want to draw a comparison through the different experiences of it that both me and my protagonist have had to handle. The peer jealousy Lina experiences is from Nate (the antagonist), whereas the majority of peer jealousy I've experienced is from women. A cold shoulder, a sarcastic remark, a trail of vicious gossip—I've felt, seen, and heard it all. The most pervasive is the public cutting down of your work by a female boss, like at a meeting with all your peers—some cringing at the jealous peer's remarks, others smirking. Yes, that happened to me. More than once. She thought she was being helpful.
There's a perception that women always support one another yet that that's not the case as much as we wish it were. Jealousy is real—within and between genders—and takes many forms.
In the beginning of my first book in the series, Lina struggles with her dreams in the wake of some recent family tragedy. She tries to keep them relevant by accepting writing assignments from Ben the Assistant Editor—her first ever. However, he's also giving them to her nemesis Nate, plus he gets a byline and more column inches, too. Even though her foe is more favored, he's jealous of all the pat-on-the-backs she's been getting for far less impressive work than him. His jealousy makes him turn against her and it ain't pretty. Lina doesn't shy from confronting Nate about it. You'll have to read the story to find out whether she triumphs in the end.
I've been called a dago. Yes, that ugly, 19th century word overheard near a 20th century office cooler. Oh, and a wop. That last one was by a 60+ year old neighbor. I was 13. Ignorance is one thing, but bad behavior fueled by prejudice is quite another.
Lina's story starts off with a very powerful line about prejudice (I won't spoil it for you here). Suffice to say, discrimination against Italians was alive and well in pre-WWII, and she faced it, sometimes daily, both at work and in public. It's one reason she shortened her name from Aquilina to Lina at the office in the hopes she'd better fit in with an easy-sounding name. Lina is from a mixed Northern and Southern Italian heritage. When she sees herself in a mirror, she feels fortunate that she inherited her coloring from her father's lighter skin rather than her mother's darker one. Part of her arc is that she comes to wish it was the opposite for reasons revealed fairly early on in the book. She does wonder though how much the combination of her skin color, name, and heritage marks her an 'undesirable' and whether it will affect her chances of moving up the career ladder.
The Immigration Act of 1917,also known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, restricted the immigration of "undesirables' from other countries into the U.S.. But The Johnson-Reed Act that followed in 1924 was much worse.
From The Office of the Historian website, we learn that the Act, "... limited the number of immigrants allowed entry based on a national origins quota." La Gazzetta Italiana tells us the Act's, "... main purpose was to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity and mark non-Nordic immigrants as inferior and unwanted. Italians, especially Southern Italians, had been in the cross-hairs of anti-immigrant bigotry by the U.S. government for decades, and with this Act, they hit a bulls-eye. Italians' 'foreign' religion, language, and habits made them targets of organized bigots and of the Klu Klux Klan, resulting in full-blown rioting."
A rather small minority of Italian anarchists were causing trouble so that didn't help the hysteria that caused many U.S. citizens as well as its press to jump to the conclusion that ALL Italians had some strain of anarchy or terrorism in them. The infamous national origins system was eventually redrawn when Congress enacted a new non-quota Act in 1968—well past Lina's time.
It's been an interesting exercise to write this post and see some very specific areas where Lina and I connect through time. Even though the events Lina experienced involving misogyny, peer jealousy, and discrimination were dreamed up in my head, I hope, dear Reader, that when you read her story, you will feel a deep connection to her struggles and relate to what she might have experienced. They may be fictitious, but they all would have been plausible in the 1930s, so through that lens, they're as real to me as my own.