Dana Johnson’s debut novel, Elsewhere, California—which Alta Journal’s California Book Club will discuss at its August 19 gathering—follows Avery Arlington, a 40-year-old Black woman, as she attempts to unravel the complexity of her childhood. When she was young, she and her family moved to a predominately white suburb in Los Angeles for better socioeconomic prospects and to avoid street violence in South Los Angeles.
At the same time that Avery was negotiating the utterly novel social landscape of her new neighborhood with her cousin and new friend, she was also a witness to her parents’ abusive marriage, which unsurprisingly made such a profound impression that the novel begins with her defining their relationship. Avery says, “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.”
Nevertheless, even in relationships that are complicated, difficult, and incredibly frayed, one can still find tenderness, and Avery clings to the ounce of affection her parents have offered her. She says, “But once, when I was five, my mother and father played this game with me. I asked, Where am I from?”
The game in question becomes the means through which Avery and, by extension, we, readers, come to know a bit of her familial history. Avery’s father lists many places: her mother, Watts, 80th Street, Los Angeles, California, Tennessee, Africa—but this does not satisfy Avery. She demands incessantly, “Where else!” And she and her father engage in somewhat of a terse debate that is at once playful and solemn.
Levity returns in greater force when Avery tells her father that she is from only California and nowhere else. “Where in California then?” he asks. And Avery, with as much creativity and humor as she can muster, answers, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Avery’s parents indulge her further by asking questions about demographics and location, and Avery offers the following retrospective remark:
“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.”
This opening scene foreshadows many of the novel’s central themes and concerns, namely Avery’s relationship with place, identity, and reinvention. Avery’s conception of a different California city is most striking because of how freely she expresses her ideal place and how it is unencumbered by such burdens as the anxieties of class mobility, assimilation, and anti-Blackness. Of course, she is only five years old in the scene and thus not attuned to such weighty topics. And, of course, it is not unusual for children to make up their own worlds. But that this memory is where Johnson decides to begin the novel tells us that Avery is still searching for that place that can open up new possibilities of being a person in the world. It is a feeling that never leaves her, or perhaps leaves her only in want—but as we see later in the novel, it is somewhat of a blessing in disguise.•
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: