Excerpt: ‘Elsewhere, California’

Dana Johnson’s debut novel is the California Book Club’s August 2021 selection. Here’s a passage that details the protagonist’s early childhood.

dana johnson, elsewhere california
Ellie Partovi

My parents were not playful people. They did not tell jokes or laugh a lot. When I try to remember how they were when I was a child, I only remember them working very hard. And fighting. But once, when I was five, my mother and father played this game with me. I asked, Where am I from?

My father listed all the possible places. He started with my mother. That’s where you came from, he said.

Where else! I asked. Where else!

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.

Where else, I cried. From kings and queens?

No, he would say. Kings and queens had buckets of gold, and we never had any of that. Yes! I said. No! he said, and we went back and forth. To prove it, he tried to tell me serious stories about hard times and sacrifices and how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. Boring, sad stories. And so I said, I’m not from any of those places. I’m just from California.

Where in California then? he asked me. California is big, he said. I couldn’t pick Los Angeles, because I was already here. So I picked a name I really liked, all by myself, with the help of television. A crazy, complicated name. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Hmm, my mother said. She frowned. Supercali who? Who lives there, then? she asked. Anybody who wants to, I said. How you get to this place you talking about? she asked. I was stuck then. I didn’t know. How was everybody going to get there? I hadn’t thought that far ahead. I loved where I was already, in Los Angeles. But I still loved my invented place in California even better because it sounded like confetti and long streamers coming down from the sky, caressing my face—this other place in California, like glitter and myriad pieces of confetti, the beautiful Blue Chip Stamps my mother and I used to save, and all kinds of other images and words and ideas I couldn’t put a name to at the time.

The first time my father told me my mother was crazy was after one of their fights. She had tried to stab him with the butcher knife. He had said that he’d be home by eleven that night, but he came home at eleven thirty. Half an hour. She was waiting for him when he came through the door. My brother grabbed for the knife, but she slipped away from him and chased my father down the narrow hallway of our small apartment. He made it to their bedroom and slammed the door just in time. My mother stuck the knife in the door and pried it out. Stuck it in and pried it out. My brother and I stayed away until she was done, had tired herself out. Later that night my father sat me on his knee while I cried in the living room of our five-room apartment on 80th Street and my mother cooked his dinner. Your mother, he said in low, soothing tones. Something is not right. Her brother is crazy. Her sister. I told her eleven and I came home at eleven thirty. All she had to do was wait one more half hour, he said. What difference does thirty minutes make?

I told this story when I first met the therapist. At first, I didn’t tell anyone I went to a hypnotherapist. Massimo rolled his eyes and shook his head. But I went anyway, though I had to wrap my mind around the idea of hypnosis. My first attempts at therapy did not do me any good. I was defensive and could not submit to the idea of giving myself up to someone I didn’t know, someone who thought they knew what and who I was. I thought it would be true what my family and Massimo said, if I were to go to therapy. I was weak. I was self-indulgent. And there was this: Therapy was for people with real problems. Terrible loss. Trauma. My brother Owen said that my main trauma was that the house I was living in was too big for me to clean all by myself. Me, throwing good money away in Massimo’s big house on the hill. White folks. Rich folks, and they doctors, Mom said when I told her. But I needed help. I couldn’t get it together on my own. I needed someone who would listen, yes, but also hear. The first two therapists didn’t have a chance. I did not respect their earnestness, their kindness, their gentleness. 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. A charming, smiling, elegant liar. They didn’t tell me that this is what they saw. I already knew. I already thought I knew. I was already negotiating the twists and turns of the people and personalities I could be to anyone at any given time, so, kindness and gentleness, what good were those things to me?

But the moment I saw him, I liked the hypnotist.

He was handsome, patient, and paying attention—and I thought I was in trouble, even though I knew he wasn’t what he appeared to be. I thought I should pick another doctor, someone else who looked different, who didn’t have sandy hair and turquoise eyes. A man who looked like that, who looked at me. Dr. Harrington. He was a hypnotist, after all. He was going to hypnotize me. He hypnotized me.

I told him all kinds of stories when he said, Good. Let’s start from the beginning.•

Excerpted from Elsewhere, California, by Dana Johnson. Copyright © 2012 by Dana Johnson. Reprinted with permission of Counterpoint Press.

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Dana Johnson is an American writer and associate professor at the University of Southern California.
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