I belong to the culture of labor

I belong to the culture of labor.

What does that mean? Well, it’s understandable if you don’t know there is a labor culture, both in this country and around the world. This culture is not shown on sitcoms, cable networks, or in most movies–or if it is, it is portrayed as a depressing sliver: working-class people getting screwed, being poor, being depressed, using drugs, and being conservative and isolated.

That is a two-dimensional and offensive portrayal of working-class culture.

I love labor culture not because I should, but because it helps to keep me sane. I receive so many messages from mass culture that say that the only way to live is a very polished wealthy lifestyle, that everything I do is not good enough, that I work too hard, that where I come from is primitive, backward, whatever. Labor culture turns all that on its head and says: work is good. Workers are honorable, and workers can have power. The idea of workers being able to have a say in their own working conditions leads to brainstorming about what change can be possible.

I could tangent off here into economic theories about social change, Marx, etc. but I’m actually not qualified to do that. What’s great is that you can be a part of worker culture and social change without having read all the books about such things. You can read, or you can read articles about those great writers, and whether you do or not you still count as a worker and as someone who can be connected to other workers. You can read great books like this new one about organizing in your workplace. Even people who don’t currently have jobs have organized. People who work in the home and who take care of kids have organized. People who don’t have workplaces and are considered freelancers have joined together in organizations like the National Writers’ Union. Disability access includes the right to get access to the things that make work possible. There are so so so many ways to be a labor activist. Anytime you look at your own work and think about how to support yourself and others, you are doing labor activism.

There is a labor culture, a labor history, and it is glorious and inspiring. This does not mean it is not filled with losses and disappointments.

To me, being a part of the culture of labor means that I have been taught to celebrate work as honorable. I understand that being working class includes manual labor but also often labor at various changing forms of work, including at a keyboard or on a phone or with a circuitboard.

Labor history is almost never taught in schools. Wherever you are, there is a hidden history of labor beneath your feet, struggles that are suppressed or simply not told. If you google “labor history” and your town or state you can find some very cool stuff.

Here are some cool posters and images from the labor movement and labor artists. Labor has its own history of songs around the world. In many places, labor just is a part of the culture. Labor is our culture, all of us. Our cultures have been made by hand, by the hard work of people who came before us.

I was raised in a culture of labor through hard-working people, but I fell into the explicit culture of labor activism and then was educated by other activists. What I learned was that labor culture offers a way to support fellow workers–that if there are struggles going on across the globe, there are things we can do locally to support those workers right here. I learned in the culture of labor that our struggles are all connected.

To me, a culture of labor means that I don’t see working-class manners of speech, dress, movement, cooking, decorating, etc. etc. as “rough edges” to shave off. I see them as legitimate and meaningful expressions of a worldview and way of life. Labor culture includes wisdom and philosophy. Labor culture has helped me understand my family, my body, my habits, even my mind and way of seeing the world. I am a busy, capable person, and I am grateful that being raised by hard-working people has made me that way.

Labor culture includes the generations of history about struggles at work. I had to uncover my own connection to those struggles, and I am very proud that I am a great-grand-daughter of a man who organized coal miners in Germany and the grand-daughter of a man who worked to make sure that labor’s voice was included in the rebuilding of Germany after World War II. I come from socialists who believed that working culture–and the right of workers to have a voice in steering society–was fundamental. This is why my book Opa Nobody is about, everything from the revolutions and Soviet republics in Germany between World War I and World War II to my own labor activism experience.  Labor culture was what organized militias to try to oppose the rise of the Nazis. Labor culture means understanding that workers coming together have power.

Huber final cover
My grandparents are the two people at the center. My grandmother Friedchen has her arm around my grandfather Heina’s neck.

Being a part of labor culture does not mean romanticizing labor solidarity as the easy answer. It grants a way of analyzing problems to see where one’s power lies in connections to other through where we work together. Labor culture means that I can criticize an individual union’s practices, or its leadership, without making the silly assumption that the Labor Movement as a whole is a terrible thing. The labor movement is a wonderful thing.

Being part of a culture of labor means gathering with other people to see that the things I feel bad about and take personally–debt, stress at work, instability–are actually structures imposed on us that we can change, not things we need to take on as personal failings. Labor culture means thinking about the source of our anxiety problems and knowing that our stress comes from the way work and wealth and healthcare are structured.

To me, a culture of labor is a culture of hope. I have not often been an actual union member, but I have been a labor activist for the majority of my days. This means that I support other workers where I work, I try to organize at work, and I try to connect with organizations that support workers and that make labor culture visible.

Being part of a culture of labor means I see that so many of us are not free to say what we think. We are watched by our employers, and expressing our feelings on or off the clock can result in negative consequences and even job loss.

Being part of labor culture means I know that one of the traditional slogans in European and American labor work was “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what we will.” That means that we should work, and we should sleep, and we should have down-time to connect to each other, to make art, to recharge, to take walks and cook and chill out. Labor culture means fighting hard not to be worked to death. Labor means fighting for healthcare and childcare and pensions and all the other things that workers need to be safe, healthy, and free.

If you want to learn about the culture of labor, you can turn to your own life and think about the working people you come from and what you learned from them. You can also subscribe to Labor Notes, which is a wonderful magazine about current workers’ issues.

I am proud to be a worker, a workplace organizer. And Labor Day is May 1 around the world but it got moved here in the U.S. to disrupt ties to workers’ movements. So today I am puttering around the house thinking about my grandfather, and my great-grandfather, and thinking about all the great union organizers and activists I have known, and humming “Solidarity Forever” under my breath. And I am grateful to be part of this rich legacy.

Next Big Thing

Laura Valeri (fictionista extraordinaire and my wonderful former colleague at Georgia Southern University, author of the beautiful book The Kind of Things Saints Do and the forthcoming linked story collection, Safe in Your Head) asked me to participate in a blog-tagging thing called “The Next Big Thing.” Basically, I get to answer these questions and then tag five writers who I think are the Next Big Thing. Very cool! Let me first talk a little about Laura. Back when I was teaching at GSU, her office had been the office of Peter Christopher, a colleague of mine at GSU who passed away. Good vibes. I'd stop in from time to time to get a sanity check-up and to hear about Laura's novel, in progress, which at the time involved an epic imagining of the Epic of Gilgamesh. And she and her lovely partner Joel had this house on a marsh in Savannah that was just like how you'd picture it, with crabs in the water and a little boat. Their house was filled with all the wonders of the natural world, from crystals to cool rocks to preserved alligator heads. Or crocodile. I can never tell the difference.

What is the title of your book? OKAY. So I'm doing this based on my book Opa Nobody, which is about to be released from University of Nebraska Press in paperback in Jan. 2013! This month!

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? Young activist woman goes in search of inspiration and tries to recreate and understand the life of her dead anti-Nazi activist German grandfather.

What genre does your book fall under? That's a weird one. I say it's creative nonfiction to make things easier, but because the book has imagined scenes (I take pains over and over again to say, “I imagine….”) I would put it technically under the mixed-genre heading. University of Nebraska didn't categorize it at all, which I think was smart.

Where did the idea come from for the book? My mom went to a funeral in Germany when I was around 30, and she came back with tantalizing snippets of stories. One was, “Your great grandfather hung a red flag from a mountainside.” I don't really know what this means, but as I was a leftie labor activist at the time volunteering with Jobs with Justice, it gave me a thread to start pulling on. I began with questioning my mom and I slowly began to understand that he was a miner and a socialist activist. I didn't even know then that Germany had, in the period between World War I and World War II (called the Weimar period) been broken up into several independent soviet-like free republics run by workers' councils. It was an amazing period we never learn about in school here in the U.S. At the time I was exhausting myself with my activism, and as I began to learn about this story, I began to wonder about generations of activists. I wanted an elder to help sustain me and encourage me, and I had this fantasy initially that my great-grandfather the miner activist was an encouraging mentor to my grandfather the clerk-socialist activist. The reality was true and also much more complicated.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript? I don't even think there was a first draft. There was a mountain of paragraphs that gradually came into shape, and that took a very long time. The entire book was started as an idea in 2001 and submitted to Nebraska in 2006. Who or what inspired you to write this book? My mom, ultimately. She was the link to all these stories, and I was also always troubled by her relationship with her dad. She felt very left out of his activist life, and I wanted to understand why that had happened. I guess I wanted to explain Germany history to myself to see how my family fit into it and to understand the forces that had affected my mom.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? University of Nebraska Press, which rocks.

What other works would you compare this book to within your genre? I see it as somehow connected to the mixed-genre work of Maxine Hong Kingston, particularly China Men.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition? This is a crazy question I have never thought about. I would only hope Janeane Garofolo would play me. That would make my life. I will have to think about who would play my grandfather. Hmmm…..

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? It's about Germany and it contains a ton of German history nobody talks about, including the wide range of left-wing resistance to Hitler, and also a bit of the story of how Germans struggled to rebuild their country after the war. But it's also about the left in the United States, my tour of duty through every little group I could find, and the struggle I had and have to be a mom and a writer while being an activist–that's the burning question at the heart of this book. How do you do both? xoxoxo Sonya

P.S.: here are my tags for five (okay, six–I cheated) writers who are the NEXT BIG THING! Author of Teaching in the Terrordome: Heather Kirn Lanier Author of Looking for Esperanza: Adriana Páramo Author of American AfterlifeKate Sweeney Author of Steam Laundry (poetry)… Nicole Stellon O'Donnell Author of Use Your Words (a writing guide) and Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood: Kate Hopper Author of The Radical Housewife: Shannon Drury I didn't mean to do this, but I have chosen nonfiction writer mamas as my theme! Read these excellent books and enjoy.


Opa Nobody

Opa Nobody, University of Nebraska Press, American Lives Series, 2008

Huber final coverISBN: 0803243626

Hardcover: $24.95; Paperback: $18.95

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“[S]harp human insights on the omnipresent moral complications of living in Nazi Germany make this a worthwhile read. . . . [A] unique, imaginative take on the family memoir.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Grounded in extensive research and enriched by family anecdotes. . . . The result is thoughtful discourse on political activism and the toll exacted from those dedicated to unpopular causes.”—Deborah Donovan, Booklist

“In her first book, teacher and activist Huber reaches across time and space to find guidance and camaraderie in the reconstructed life of Heina Buschmann, the German grandfather she never met. . . . Family relationships and political situations are wrought finely enough to illustrate what’s at stake for Heina.”—Publishers Weekly

“In every chapter, [Huber] weaves stories of her activist life with richly imagined scenes of her grandfather, reconstructing his life from anecdotes and documentary evidence. . . . By connecting with history on such a personal level, she reveals how ordinary citizens can get swept up into movements of all kinds; allegiance is never as simple as a membership card. Most radically of all for a progressive activist, Huber embraces the past. Instead of tossing it all out in search of something new, she ties a firm knot between then and now.”—Karrie Higgins, Los Angeles Times

“Writing family history is a notoriously fraught enterprise. . . . Sonya Huber’s book of creative nonfiction, Opa Nobody, tracks an innovative course through this thorny landscape. . . . [I]t is precisely Huber’s play with the imaginative possibilities in the gaps between historical fact and family memory that makes her project so poetic and moving. . . . Through her admirably candid writing, Huber makes visible the inability of political activism to manage failure and despair.”—Valerie Weaver-Zercher, The Christian Century

Opa Nobody is good, folks. . . . Fiction and nonfiction flow together so easily under Huber’s control that it looks easy to accomplish. . . . Opa Nobody is a masterful book and a testament to the talent of its author. After reading this, there will be many people impatient for Sonya Huber’s next work. I am.”—Connect Statesboro

“There’s plenty to learn from [Opa Nobody’s] accessible and accurate portrayal of a leftist German family before and during World War II. Its evocation of the sense of revolutionary possibility and political tumult is especially effective. . . . It reminds us that now more than ever, we need political histories that feed both our politics and our hearts.”—Chloe Tribich, Against the Current (Detroit)

“Opa Nobody wasn’t really sad after all, not entirely. True, as I sat on the couch waiting for the clamor of the Buschman Family to melt from my mind, I felt a bizarre cocktail of emotions: regret for that family torn by poverty, politics, and fascist war; horror at the Holocaust and the way evil governments can turn people into animals; and fear for my future as a father in a country wrought with its own sense of superiority. But under all that, there was hope.”— Joey Franklin, Brevity

Opa Nobody is a masterful layering of lives, a beautifully readable and often poetic tracing of the heart lines between grandfather and granddaughter, old leftie and new, Nazi-era German rabble-rouser and present-day American activist. Sonya Huber imagines her way into her hero’s childhood, his neighborhoods, his friendships, and finally into his passions—both political and romantic—which in the end are her own. The research in Opa Nobody is prodigious, the history fascinating, the quest for justice inspiring, but the lives here are what will keep you reading, page after page, long into the clamorous night.”—Bill Roorbach, author of Temple Stream and Big Bend

“Sonya Huber is a writer of remarkable talent and courage. With great passion and skill, she resurrects her grandfather in this story of a family in the years leading up to and away from Hitler’s Third Reich. Painstakingly researched and richly imagined, Opa Nobody is a brave book of politics, history, and love—a book filled with an irrepressible embrace of humanity.”—Lee Martin, author of The Bright Forever and From Our House

“Sonya Huber begins her innovative memoir with a question: ‘Why try to change the world?’ Thus begins an intimate dialogue with her long-dead, activist grandfather—part fact, part imagination—that delves into the nature of political resistance and the toll this stance takes on those intrepid souls who dare to live on the edge of change.”—Brenda Miller, author of Season of the Body and coauthor of Tell It Slant