“They never tell us about the odysseys of women,” Susan Straight writes in the prologue of her memoir, In the Country of Women, and she sets out to fix that. She recounts American history by way of her family tree, focusing largely on the matriarchs. The book is a gift to anyone considering the complicated American story that came before our own.
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“You are the apex of the dream,” she writes to her three biracial daughters, “the future of America, and nearly every day of my life I imagine the women watching you, hoping they—the ancestors—won’t be forgotten.” Alongside her personal genealogy, Straight tells stories of her ex-husband’s ancestors and stories from her neighborhood in Riverside, California. She uses a Pakistani word, biraderi, to illustrate the kind of community that makes up our beautiful and complex inner circles. “We have maps and threads of kin some people find hard to believe.”
Often, violent men made choices that shaped the lives of these women. But other threads also tie together the stories in the memoir: resourcefulness, bravery, and love. Straight writes of bustling yards and women who are always willing to offer a plate of food; her family and community are full of rich narratives. “We are true California,” she declares. “True America.”
Straight talked with Alta recently about In the Country of Women.
Secondary characters save us, save not only our stories but our lives. The thousands of humans with their own narratives. I’d given that love to my daughters, telling them stories and then listening while they talked about friends and strangers…
The world is narrative, and America needs to remember that.
It’s the reason I tell my daughters the stories of their complicated lives, just as they have always told me—strangers, friends, people I meet once in a restaurant or on a train or in the park. It’s happened to us all over the world. It is in our DNA, our eyes and ears.
What central question does your work ask?
My central questions are always the same: how do people make a home in California, in America, from their ancestral beginnings, and what do they bring with them from their pasts? For 30 years, I’ve been writing about people who live in California, whose ancestors came from the American South after slavery ended, like my in-laws and marriage family, from Switzerland and Canada, like my own parents, from Mexico and Central America, like many of my friends and neighbors, and from the indigenous places here in California.
Do you listen to anything as you write?
I listen to live radio! I grew up hearing my mother learning English from Vin Scully announcing the Dodgers, and my father-in-law would have a little transistor radio in the pocket of his Dickies work shirt while he worked on engines, playing the Dodgers or Lakers as well. So I listen to Marci Wiser on KLOS every day, playing classic rock and making fun of things to keep me sane while I write about scary things. At dusk, outside on the porch, I listen to my neighbors playing ranchera music, and Art Laboe’s Killer Oldies.
What obsessions, coincidences, or connections made it into this book?
That’s such a fascinating question—nobody asks that! The women in our family, who were the stars of this memoir, were obsessed with the secret histories of our generations, with men who had loved them, men whose violence had made them flee in the night, men who had rescued them. They were obsessed with telling me how they had always been resilient for each other, the huge network of cousins and aunts and grandmothers and neighbors who turned into family as they created home here in Riverside and in Los Angeles. And I listened, and was obsessed with the geography and maps of all the places they’d been, and I was determined to write down all those connections of freeways and neighborhoods, and then to pass those stories down to my own three daughters. But as I was finishing the memoir, I realized the one talisman that connected everything was the gun—the American weapons that shaped our histories.
What, in other disciplines, inspires you to create?
In other disciplines, it is the visual that always inspires me. From childhood, along with my reading of fiction and poetry, I loved books of photography—Eudora Welty, the WPA photographers who captured America, the Depression photos of Dorothea Lange that my father’s relatives remembered matching their lives. When I can’t write, I look at photographs, because the absence of text helps me imagine story. Contemporary photographers like Mary Ellen Mark, Carrie Mae Weems, and my friend Douglas McCulloh are on my desk. And all three of my daughters have worked in visual arts, at museums, and in the film industry. Delphine, my middle daughter, has given me the astonishing work of Dawoud Bey, who we just saw at SFMOMA in February, and Mildred Howard, whose Bay Area installations are my new inspiration.
What’s on your to-be-read list?
Right now, in this time of distancing, I am reading on the porch, between people who yell at me from the sidewalk that they need to talk. Just finished: American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell, The Blossom and the Firefly by Sherri L. Smith, To Begin Again by M.F.K. Fisher. Just beginning: American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson and A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. I can’t believe I’ve never read Woolf—I never had a room of my own, and now I have the porch and quarantine.
Give us the elevator pitch for your book.
My memoir is about five generations of women making home and family in America, migrating from everywhere for love and work, and passing down stories of resilience, secret histories of love, and great food.
Heather Scott Partington is a writer, teacher, and book critic based in Elk Grove, California. She most recently interviewed Bonnie Tsui for Alta Asks.
IN THE COUNTRY OF WOMEN: A MEMOIR
- By Susan Straight
- Catapult, 384 pages, $26