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When A Professor Laughed At Her Queens Accent, Writer Tara Clancy Doubled Down

Clancy's writing has appeared in The Rumpus, <em>The New York Times</em> and <em>The Paris Review Daily</em>.
Ashman Kipervaser
Courtesy of Crown
Clancy's writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The New York Times and The Paris Review Daily.

Tara Clancy has made a career sharing honest, funny tales about her life. Now she's put those stories into a new memoir called The Clancys of Queens. Clancy comes from a big, New York, Irish-Italian family. She was the sole only child in her extended family, and she spent her childhood bouncing between her maternal grandparents' house, her dad's converted boat shed and her mom's boyfriend's Hamptons estate (which she often traveled to via stretch limo).

A former bartender and a proud member of the working class, Clancy also has a thick Queens accent. "Unfortunately, people hear [my accent] and they don't think, 'Now there's a person who popularized quantum electrodynamics,' " she says. "They hear it and they make judgments."

Clancy tells NPR's David Greene that she tried to lose the accent in college, and actually came pretty close. "And then I was in a class and I had to read a little section of Twelfth Night, the part of Feste. And the word h-e-r-e was in it, which I say hee-ah. ... And I read the line and I just hear this booming laugh, and I stopped and I look around and the big laugh had come from the professor. And instead of feeling mortified, I felt defiant."

Interview Highlights

On when she realized she had stories worth telling

It was kind of at the very tail end of college. I took a writing class on a whim, one playwriting class, and I instantly started writing autobiographical stuff. And people were like, "What we really like from your work is the character that's most based on you and the monologues." And I was like, "That's lovely. Um, you know, you're basically telling me that I'm a narcissist." ... And it ended up working out that way. I started telling stories onstage and then I got involved with The Moth. And The Moth, really — people, when they hear my literal voice, you know, they realize that it's missing in literature and in pop culture. You know, there's really an appalling lack of work from working-class women.

On her own preconceived notions about a regular, Joe Bird, at the bar where she once worked

So Joe Bird was a guy that had the south Boston accent — I knew that's where he was from. He came in in, you know, flannel shirts, construction boots. And he was a heavy drinker, but great guy, very sweet, good tipper. And so this one time it's just he and I in the bar and I ordered some Chinese food for lunch and the delivery guy comes and I end up getting into a fight because he had overcharged me. And the delivery man was not a native English speaker, and, you know, and between my accent and how fast I talk, you know, neither am I, right? So we're talking past each other, but it's getting heated.

And so finally Joe Bird just stands up and gets in between us. And I think, like, this is it, right? I mean he's just gonna knock him out you know? And he started speaking to the guy slowly and calmly and completely in Chinese. ... Calmed down everything. I mean, but it was mind-blowing. I mean, they're basically patting each other on the back and they're doing the like, you know, "It's all good bro," but in Chinese. ...

Even though I, you know, am a lot different than what people think a working-class New York woman would be ... I had judged this guy. I just thought he was this construction worker guy. I mean, it turns out he had been back and forth to China, had taught himself Chinese. I have judged just the way that people have judged me.

On growing up in her grandmother's house

So my grandmother — like, a dustpan was a luxury. The other thing that was an extravagance was Tupperware, you know, naturally. So instead of Tupperware my grandmother just used all of the old plastic ricotta containers, which is fine except that it meant that everything was, like, hidden. You know, you didn't know what was in what jar. ... Everything was ricotta cheese or like Mancini red peppers, and then you'd open it and, you know, instead it would be like sausage. It was like a little scavenger hunt, you know. You didn't know what you were gonna get, what you were gonna eat. ...

She was a Depression-era child. It meant something to her that everyone knew that I had enough to eat. And so, in her mind — and this is really true — in her mind if I was to take a piece of candy at a neighbor's house, she presumed they would instantly think, "That kid must be starving — she ate a butterscotch!" So I would get a lecture before we went to anybody's house. Like, "If anybody says, 'Do you want a piece of candy?' you say, 'No, I'm full. Thank you.' "

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