While important, and however iconic, there is certainly more to Los Angeles than Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and Venice Beach. Historic sites and famous venues might be a few miles away from one another in the City of Angels, but sometimes branching outward and away—turning from the tumultuous hodgepodge of glamour, glitz, and precarity—can offer a new perspective on the daily rhythms and realities of the city. Dana Johnson makes this movement the emotional centerpiece of her debut novel, Elsewhere, California, which Alta Journal’s California Book Club will discuss at its August 19 gathering.
Elsewhere, California is narrated by Avery Arlington, a 40-year-old Black artist who was born in South Los Angeles but raised in West Covina, a predominantly white suburb to which her family fled to escape the dangers of gang violence. At the start of the novel, she is looking back on her life with the help of a hypnotherapist, returning to the sequences of her childhood where she grappled with the meaning of her parents’ domestic violence and of being folded into majority-white spaces. In what follows, Elsewhere, California employs Black southern vernacular to showcase formally the development of Avery’s character, as she grows into the person we see at the beginning of the novel, awaiting the start of her art exhibition.
While Johnson primarily contends with Avery’s identity and what it has meant that her family moved away from South Los Angeles, she is also concerned with all sorts of migrations—intellectual, emotional, cultural, physical, spatial—and how they take root and manifest within one Black family. California represents many things for many people—opportunity, equality, injustice, political asymmetry—but I’d argue that Elsewhere, California is invested in charting what happens when this movement within California, in hopeful anticipation of a better life, does not live up to one’s expectation, when it begets isolation, confusion, and bitterness. In fact, the central question of the novel could be, What is the emotional cost of ostensibly upward mobility?
As the title of Johnson’s novel suggests, the cost might be so high that one continues to search for a reprieve to make it all worth it—somewhere, anywhere, elsewhere, just not here.
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:
WHY READ IT
PLACE IN FICTION
“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,” Johnson says of the Golden State in an interview with Danzy Senna. Alta
JOURNEY TO ONESELF
Héctor Tobar embarked on a 9,000-mile road trip across the United States in search of the answer to one question: What does it mean to be Latino today? Harper’s Magazine
“I needed to make portraits that were heartbreaking and scrolls that screamed multiple meanings and collages that would blow everyone’s mind,” Anthony Veasna So writes in his posthumously published essay about art-making. New Yorker
The debut short story collection of Anthony Veasna So, who died suddenly at the end of 2020, will be out next week. In a review, Andrew LaVallee considers how So’s impact is “just beginning.” New York Times
AN OVERLOOKED ICON
Tommy Orange charts how actor and film producer Wes Studi, who is considered a legend in the Native community, broke barriers in the U.S. film industry. GQ
SMOKE AND FIRE
“Fire, that trickster’s loot, that gift from the gods, burned more than 4,000,000 acres of my home state last year—a number so vast it is mere abstraction,” Lauren Markham and Jeff Frost write of California’s season of extraordinary heat for Literary Hub’s the Longest Year: 2020+ series. Literary Hub
Alexander Manshel, Laura B. McGrath, and J.D. Porter consider how the rise in cinematic literary adaptations is changing the book-publishing industry. Atlantic
INTIMACY AND DISTANCE
“Once you’re named, you are part of the system in some way, and you’re recognized,” Katie Kitamura says about anonymity in literary narratives. Los Angeles Times
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