Event Recap: Dana Johnson Maps Identity in Los Angeles and West Covina

The author of Elsewhere, California discusses the ways in which an artist’s identity is formed by shifts in her own voice—and in the voices of others.

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California Book Club members gathered with host John Freeman last night to discuss Dana Johnson’s nuanced novel, Elsewhere, California. Exploring themes of assimilation, otherness, race, and class, the novel plumbs unhappy 40-year-old Black artist Avery Arlington’s memories. Her identity was formed when her family moved from a Black neighborhood in South Los Angeles to the vastly different world of West Covina only 28 miles away. Avery also appeared as a character in two stories in Johnson’s debut short story collection, Break Any Woman Down, which won the 2001 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.

Introducing Johnson’s novel as a kind of map, Freeman commented, “When it comes to books, I think we love our mapmakers.… We need to remember what it feels like to fall asleep after a big dinner with wine, getting onto a California freeway, say in Los Angeles, and waking up just before you get off at your exit.” He called Elsewhere, California “a book that is about home and away. It’s a book about the intimacy of being known by people from where you’re from, how that can never really be replaced.”

When Johnson appeared on-screen with Freeman, he welcomed her by describing Elsewhere, California as one of the best novels he’s ever read about an artist and asked about Johnson’s background in art. She explained, “I’m a layperson who loves art like anybody else. When I was thinking about the novel, I knew that I wanted to make Avery an artist of some kind, but not a writer because I hate books that are fiction about writers written by writers.… I wanted something about creativity and how this young woman’s identity is formed by art.”

Freeman pointed out the acoustics of place in Johnson’s writing, particularly as it related to Johnson’s own move from an all-Black neighborhood in Los Angeles to suburban West Covina. She explained, “I heard myself for the very first time.…When you travel outside of your culture and you go somewhere else, you hear yourself differently.” Johnson learned to code-switch because people kept remarking that she sounded different. She asked herself, “How do I figure out how to speak so people will just leave me alone, right? I don’t want to be the outsider. I don’t want to be othered. I don’t want to be picked on. So I learned a way, or practiced a way, of speaking that sounded more or less like everyone else around me.”

Johnson’s narrative relies on the juxtaposition of many different voices. She explained, “My goal in the novel was to document [assimilation] in ways I hadn’t seen before, which is why I chose the structure that I did, where you see the assimilation process happening throughout, but you’re also constantly bumping up against the younger Avery’s voice. So you can see that kind of schism and that duality.”

Freeman noted that in a story in Break Any Woman Down, the younger Avery learns not only by assimilating herself but also by watching how people interact with her family. For instance, her brother Owen continues to use the word stuttin, while she doesn’t. In a heartbreaking moment in the story, Avery realizes that “‘stuttin’ sounded like a word he’d just made up. For the first time I really heard what the kids in school heard when I spoke. Owen sounded strange to me, from someplace else, using that word. Part of a language I knew but was already beginning to forget.” Freeman asked Johnson how Avery’s observation of voice and code-switching shapes her as a person.

Johnson remarked, “You never leave truly. I don’t think you ever sort of leave behind where you came from no matter what shifts you make in your life. For me, it feels like this weird liminal space where you’re this person that you are, you’re also the person that you were, but you’re also the person in the middle, looking in both directions, and so that is the process for Avery. Her brother says in that quote, ‘You know I’m not stuttin these white people, Avery.’… She’s understanding that that’s what Black people would say and not what white people would say.”

Special guest Rasheeda Saka, the outgoing assistant editor of the California Book Club, joined the discussion. Saka’s writing for Alta Journal in the weeks leading up to the event illuminates its complexity. Surprised at how few reviews mentioned baseball in light of its prominence in the book, Saka asked Johnson about her use of the sport as a metaphor. Brightening, Johnson remarked appreciatively, “No one ever talks about that aspect of the novel.… I wanted to talk about…baseball as a game for America and who gets ahead, who doesn’t, how does one get ahead, who cheats at the game—Houston’s Astros—who doesn’t.”

Saka shifted into questioning whether Avery’s dissatisfaction with herself arose in response to not being looked at, her existence as the subject and the object of the gaze. Johnson answered that Black girls and women “looked at but not necessarily seen for who we are and all the complications…there are these possibilities for understanding and scope and amplitude and depth in race and identity. Even in a place like California, that kind of dreamlike state, that fantasy of possibility, that even in California there is a lot to be examined and unpacked and interrogated in terms of Blackness and identity.”•

Alta Journal’s California Book Club will return on September 23 in conversation with Rebecca Solnit. We’ll be talking about her book A Paradise Built in Hell, about the power of human collectivity and mutual aid in the face of calamity. For more information, click here.

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