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Author, University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg prof sees beauty, hope in her millennial students

| Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018, 1:15 p.m.
Author Lori Jakiela at the Yoga Deck in Trafford, Aug. 17, 2017.
Author Lori Jakiela at the Yoga Deck in Trafford, Aug. 17, 2017.

When Lori Jakiela's first book, “Miss New York Has Everything,” was released, a publicist arranged a signing at a Sam's Club store. It wasn't Jakiela's first choice, but she was told the chain sold a lot of books.

When the Trafford resident arrived, she was greeted with a line of men wearing “Dockers and Polo shirts, in various blues and beiges,” and a sign: COME MEET LORI JAKIELA, MISS AMERICA.

“I was so mortified,” says Jakiela, whose most recent book is “Portrait of the Artist as a Bingo Worker” (Bottom Dog Press, $18). But Jakiela, who will participate in Trafford Gets Lit's Valentine's Day reading Feb. 3 at the Yoga Deck in Trafford, also sensed the misunderstanding could be of use.

Making the best of it

“I took out a notebook and started taking notes,” she says. “I probably knew somewhere in my head I could use it, but it also was a way of documenting what was happening. I just felt many different things. What was lucky later when I finally did write about it, I had all these notes that were really detailed. … When something like that happens the writer in you realizes this is not normal.”

“Portrait” is Jakiela's fourth memoir, although she considers them essay collections. The common thread in her writing is the reflections on her working-class background in Trafford, a small town in western Westmoreland County that saw its fortunes diminished when the local Westinghouse plant closed in the mid-1980s.

Working class

Jakiela, who teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg and is the adopted daughter of a millwright and a nurse, seems to be one of the rare women writing about working-class issues.

“In terms of mainstream writers, there's been such a problem over the years with women in seeing their experiences worthy of art, to a degree,” Jakiela says, noting that there are more independent women writers examining working class issues. “Probably even more so if you come from a working class background. I'm not sure that people care about work in the way that they should, since we all do so much of it.”

“Portrait” is filled with work stories about Jakiela's first job as a server during bingo nights at the Trafford Polish Club, and her stints as a journalist, flight attendant and caterer's assistant. One story about a fellow flight attendant who had to hide scars she suffered during an attack because she was afraid of losing her job seems particularly relevant in light of the recent #metoo movement.

“I work in many different areas now and I still see a lot of inequality in the academy, of course,” she says. “I hope people are becoming more aware, which is the first step to change. But the second step that usually comes with awareness and action is pushback.”

Filled with hope

One area where Jakiela finds optimism is in a group that is often denigrated: millennials. At Pitt-Greensburg, she's constantly amazed by the quality of her students.

“My students are so aware and so centered and so beautiful,” she says. “There's a lot of hope in young people. I am really lucky I get to see them and curb my cynicism a little bit, because they really are good people. People talk about the millennials in certain ways, but I don't see it. I see them as filled with hope.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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