Identity crises can strike anyone at any time, at any age, anywhere. Some people are fortunate enough to experience only a handful in one given lifetime. But for others, living a life that feels doubled, inadequate, mired by unresolved childhood issues, and in constant contradiction to how one understands and navigates the world tends to fuel some of the most grueling self-confrontations. Consider, for example, Avery Arlington—the protagonist of Dana Johnson’s debut novel, Elsewhere, California, which Alta Journal’s California Book Club will discuss at its August 19 gathering.
Avery—who was introduced to the world in two short stories featured in Johnson’s acclaimed story collection Break Any Woman Down—is a 40-year-old Black American woman living in a swank Hollywood home with Massimo, her Italian husband. The novel’s prologue establishes the central conceit of the book: she has met with a hypnotherapist to get at the heart of her ongoing dissatisfaction with life and the scenes of her tumultuous childhood. Given that context, Elsewhere, California formally oscillates between her life in the present day and her youth, using Black southern vernacular to showcase the evolution of Avery’s assimilation and the striking collision between the different worlds she inhabits after she and her family move to West Covina, a predominantly white suburb near Los Angeles, to escape the threat of gang violence in the city.
Nevertheless, what if identity crisis is not an adequate term to describe the primary psychological anxiety in Elsewhere, California? Indeed, W.E.B. Du Bois, in his groundbreaking book The Souls of Black Folk, famously coined the term double consciousness to map the ways in which Black Americans negotiated living in a racially stratified and deeply violent society. In what follows, an identity crisis is not necessarily an event for Avery but an ongoing (and unsustainable) condition, one that is real for many, if not all, Black people in America today. “They looked at me and this is what I thought they saw. A success story. A bright and articulate woman. An affirmative action baby. A bourgeois snob. A hard worker. A whiner. A well-dressed woman. A whore. A woman who spread her legs for a nice place to live. A woman who wanted to be an artist, who was not really an artist,” Avery says. She becomes a receptacle for different stereotypes, projections, and falsehoods, and this, in some regard, shatters her sense of self: not only is it incommensurate with her own self-image, but it begins to degrade how she thinks of her place in the world.
Elsewhere, California traces the shape of identities and what happens when one is forced to slip in and out of them, sometimes summoning them at will in contexts where race always matters. The beauty of the novel emerges from Johnson’s ability to sit with contradiction, the harrowing and humorous complexities of race and racial tensions, and the very real, human messiness of miscalculation, missed chances, and miscommunication. Elsewhere, California is a glowing novel—colorful, brilliant, and true.
To join Alta’s California Book Club conversation with Johnson on August 19, click here. I also invite you to join your fellow CBC members in the Alta Clubhouse for an ongoing conversation about Elsewhere, California:
Did you miss last week’s CBC event with William Finnegan, special guest Jamie Brisick, and host John Freeman? If so, be sure to check out our recap and recording of the event. Alta
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