The late critic Stanley Crouch once told me that if I wanted to restore my faith in contemporary fiction, I should read Dana Johnson. So I did, starting with her story collection Break Any Woman Down, where I met the unforgettable character Avery, a working-class Black girl turned artist, who returns to center Johnson’s novel, Elsewhere, California. Avery is a Gen Xer, a code-switcher;
she is vibrant and complex. This is especially the case in Elsewhere, California, which has some of the spareness and intensity of Joan Didion’s early novels but with a contemporary awareness of race and class and intersectionality. Johnson knows these dynamics firsthand; when she was nine, her family moved from South Los Angeles to West Covina. She now lives in downtown Los Angeles and is a professor of English at USC.
Eudora Welty’s essay “Place in Fiction” argues for fiction to be specific—in terms of geography but also in terms of era and class and race and religion. How much did you imagine Elsewhere, California as a California novel?
I was thinking of how California is seen as a utopia. Usually, it’s some shorthand about palm trees and beaches and swimming pools and Hollywood. But California is complicated like any place. For people like my parents, who came from Tennessee, California has never quite been the utopia they want it to be. The complicated racial history tells us that. On the other hand, there’s a broadness and openness in terms of possibilities and identities and cultural mixing. The suburban city where I grew up, West Covina, represents all the cultures I experienced in the San Gabriel Valley and an ever-expanding idea of what California represents. That’s where the “Elsewhere” comes in, why I wrote about West Covina. I wanted to show a California that had nothing to do with the shorthand and more to do with the California I know.
Your work seems so much about class—meaning a deep awareness of money and mobility, but also as defined by race and gender, the intersections of these power dynamics.
Class is everything. I think about it all the time, not only because so much fiction doesn’t seem to address it in ways that are satisfying but also because who we are is informed by what we had or didn’t have growing up. I’m as fascinated by stories of privilege as I am by stories of the poor or working class. I have always felt like I was in this weird in-between space, because the first years of my life were in South Central, and then we moved to the suburbs, and now as a professor I have access to things I wouldn’t otherwise have. But there’s zero generational wealth in my family. Los Angeles can be weird, because you are surrounded by conspicuous consumption, but then you’ll be caught off guard by someone pretending to be a regular broke-ass person until they mention their second apartment in Paris. For the novel, I wanted to address that liminality.
I love the popular culture references woven throughout your work. What influences spoke to you when you were beginning to write?
I watched too much TV. I loved it all, from Leave It to Beaver to Soul Train. But I was also obsessed with ballet, Baryshnikov in particular, and painters like Miró and Rauschenberg. And music was just life. Anything that interested me, I took it in, even though there was a lot I got teased about. When I first moved to West Covina, I wasn’t supposed to like disco, which seemed—was—so racist. But something like Led Zeppelin was “real” music. I never saw the sense in having to choose when I could have everything. These random, sometimes weird or incongruous influences inform my writing, because I don’t believe I have to represent anything in particular and I never know what’s going to inspire me.
Avery is a visual artist. If you were to represent Southern California in a series of objects or images, what would they be?
Dodger Stadium. I’ve been going there since before I had memory, and baseball’s all over the novel. The 60 freeway, because that’s how I get back and forth to the Inland Empire, where my family lives. I’d take a picture of the apartment building where we lived on 80th and Vermont, Apartment 8, and then lay that next to a picture of the first, last, and only house where I was raised in West Covina.
Experiencing those contrasts was the beginnings of my desire to become a writer.•