The Outstanding Critical Reception of ‘Elsewhere, California’

Dana Johnson’s debut novel was a tremendous literary success. Let’s see what a few book critics had to say about it.

dana johnson
Kate Lain

Published in 2012, Dana’s Johnson’s Elsewhere, California—which Alta Journal’s California Book Club will discuss at its August 19 gathering—was the highly anticipated follow-up to her 2001 debut story collection, Break Any Woman Down, where we were first introduced to Avery Arlington, the 40-year-old Black artist at the center of Johnson’s novel. With the help of a hypnotherapist, Avery unravels the source of her discontent, which dates to her early childhood, when she and her family moved to the suburbs of West Covina to avoid street violence in South Los Angeles. As Avery comes of age, she negotiates the many social, racial, and cultural contracts of her environments, as well as the meaning of her and her cousin Keith’s divergent life trajectories.

The novel is deeply affecting, offering a nuanced portrait of a woman trying to make sense of her world after donning so many different and disparate masks. And the overwhelming critical response aligned with this assessment. Lynell George, author of A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky, wrote: “Dana Johnson’s first novel, Elsewhere, California, explores the space between reinvention and ruin—the freighted pause waiting for resolution.” That argument bore a measure of similarity to Theo Schell-Lambert’s remark on Johnson’s treatment of childhood: “Johnson performs the undigested feel of youth, the way its sensations outpace processing.” For George, in mapping “the exterior land-of-opportunity-story arc” and “the interior struggle toward a newly framed identity,” Johnson went “deep into territory often simplified or sidestepped entirely,” thereby layering “the scraps of mismatched experiences that make up Avery’s messy steps to self-hood.”

George was also keen to point out the extended metaphor of Avery’s occupation with painting and the novel’s attention to the depths of memory. It is an adept literary connective tissue that Michelle Bailat-Jones, in her review of the novel, also drew attention to, particularly as it pertains to the power of art-making; she wrote, “As a person who has stood upon the thresholds of those swinging doors between cultures, as a person who kept the words from one and learned the words from the other, Avery is perfectly poised to act as a double-sided mirror. To use her art to call into question the cultural definitiveness of items and images.”

The critical reception of Elsewhere, California centered on Avery’s path to self-discovery, as well as the implications of art-making not only in identity formation but also in the nature of literature at large: What is the purpose of art? How does art-making help us become better people, both for ourselves and for one another?•

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:


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