It’s too easy to describe Dana Johnson’s Elsewhere, California as an autobiographical novel. Yes, it is narrated by a protagonist, Avery Arlington, whose parents (like Johnson’s) left Tennessee for Southern California before her birth. Yes, the family, who are Black, subsequently moved from South Los Angeles to West Covina, as the author’s also did. For Johnson, however, such echoes are just a starting point for a nuanced exploration of identity and place and class.
If one of the lingering clichés of California is that it’s a land of opportunity, Johnson recognizes that such opportunities also come compromised. On the one hand, California offers a dream of access, of mobility from the city to the suburbs. On the other, the legacy of racism, of housing covenants and restricted communities, remains. “Where am I from?” Avery asks, recalling a game she played with her parents. Her father’s response? “Watts, he said. That is where I was conceived. Then 80th Street, he said, the place I first knew as my home. Then Los Angeles. Then California. All the way from Tennessee. All the way from Africa, my father said.” There’s an entire diaspora embedded in that litany.
Johnson emphasizes this by moving back and forth from Avery as an adult narrator to Avery as a child. In the former voice, the character is more reflective; in the latter, she is more raw. “You have no accent, my love,” her partner, Massimo, notes, yet for Avery neutrality is necessary. “My flatness,” she confides, “started out as a costume, a disguise—hand-me-down words accessorized with various inflections until at last, without even realizing it, I’d settled on the voice I now have, a voice that goes anywhere with anything.”
Johnson is referring to code-switching, the process by which people move linguistically between worlds. “I had to paint away the reactionary anger of my youth,” Avery reflects, but Elsewhere, California tells us that even if anger can be painted over, the past still bleeds into the present, a circumstance reflected by the book’s interwoven points of view. Where am I from? This is an essential question, and Johnson never looks away from the contradictions it provokes. •