How Dana Johnson Makes the Past Become the Present

This week’s California Book Club newsletter: Anthony Veasna So, Octavia E. Butler, and Richard Lange.

road sign
R.J. Seymour

The past always lingers in the present. As William Faulkner’s well-known and oft-cited phrase from his novel Requiem for a Nun goes, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In the realm of fiction writing, then, the task of unraveling how the legacies of one’s (or someone else’s) actions inform the present is typically crucial to understanding why a character navigates the world in a particular way. Objects, places, and people may indeed unlock a door to the past, triggering significant memories, but in Elsewhere, California—which Alta Journal’s California Book Club will discuss at its August 19 gathering—Dana Johnson goes a step further, making the past itself a part of our present.

Elsewhere, California is a glittering novel about Avery Arlington, a Black artist who begins to unspool her turbulent and emotionally abusive childhood with the help of a hypnotherapist after she comes to recognize her deep dissatisfaction with the state of her life. When she was a child, Avery, along with her family, moved to West Covina—a predominantly white suburb near Los Angeles—to dodge the possibility of street violence in South Los Angeles. Though, at the start of the novel, Avery is ostensibly the classic emblem of the American meritocratic upper class, living in a lush Hollywood home with her Italian husband, she has unresolved trauma and feels that there is something more for her, even if she cannot articulate it explicitly.

The literary achievement of Elsewhere, California, among its many strengths, is the style and structure of the novel. The text formally flits between Avery’s life as an adult and her youth, depicting her process of assimilation and ability to code-switch through Black southern vernacular. While the text might give an effect like that of a volley, in which readers are made to see how the past has shaped Avery’s character, the beauty of the novel is the way Johnson makes the case that the past is the present—not only do the events of Avery's past unfold as though they were the present, but the present can also be figured as the past, an inexorable extension of it.

In other words, Elsewhere, California attempts to destabilize our sense of temporality, showing that some things never truly change, even as one’s sense of place, perspective, and language can shift. Avery’s confrontation with her past is made all the more complex, rich, and poignant with the knowledge that she is an artist and, thus, plays with time, too—intermingling colors and material over periods to produce something akin to emotional truth.

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:


elsewhere california related books


Check out our list of highly anticipated August books by writers from California and the West, including Naomi Hirahara’s Clark and Division, Nawaaz Ahmed’s Radiant Fugitives, and many more. —Alta

august book picks


Have you been enjoying Elsewhere, California? Here are five titles that pair well with the novel. —Alta

afterparties, anthony veasna so


Alta Journal’s books editor, David L. Ulin, outlines how the stories in Anthony Veasna So’s highly anticipated debut collection, Afterparties, “explode like fireworks, flashing between humor, dislocation, and an aura of collective longing.” —Alta

sealey challenge
Sealey Challenge


Be sure to join the Sealey Challenge, a community reading initiative in which participants aim to read a book of poetry every day for the month of August. —Sealey Challenge

katie kitamura
Primo Barol


“It can feel as though Kitamura’s fascination with beauty exists in tension with the book’s richest theme: how we decide how close we get,” Katy Waldman says of Katie Kitamura’s latest novel, Intimacies. —New Yorker

miguel esteban
Dan Watson


Did you know that Miguel Esteban, at the incredible age of 14, commissioned what is now considered a classic Octavia E. Butler essay about race in science fiction? —Los Angeles Review of Books

amazon bookstore


“If nothing slows their momentum, Amazon will control nearly 80% of the consumer book market by the end of 2025,” warns Andy Hunter, the founder and CEO of Bookshop, which supports independent bookstores. —Medium

breathing fire, jaime lowe


Listen to an interview between Ailsa Chang, one of the hosts of the podcast All Things Considered, and Jaime Lowe, author of Breathing Fire, about incarcerated California women on the frontlines of fighting wildfires. —NPR

the harvey girls


Winifred Gallagher details the workforce revolution that took place in the West when women searched and fought for better job opportunities and political rights. —Literary Hub

richard lange
little brown


“The book has a lot going on, with as many settings as characters, propelled by the jet fuel of resentments, assassinations-for-hire, mistakes and love affairs,” Carolyn Kellogg notes of Richard Lange’s latest novel, Rovers. —Los Angeles Times

california book club bookplates

Alta’s California Book Club email newsletter is published weekly. Sign up for free and you also will receive four custom-designed bookplates.


Rasheeda Saka is a graduate student in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
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