Monday, July 21, 2014

Cris Mazza in conversation with Jane Rosenberg LaForge on "California memoirs"

Tradition Without Tradition: California Memoirs Without Much Sunshine or Beach Sand

Jane and I are both natives of Southern California who now live in large cold-weather metropolitan centers, (New York City and Chicagoland … I work in Chicago but don’t live in the city). We both had other kinds of writing careers (journalism and fiction) before publishing a memoir (An Unsuitable Princess and Indigenous: Growing up Californian). But it was my second memoir (Something Wrong With Her) that was published in 2014 just months before Jane’s Princess (both from Jaded Ibis Books). We didn’t meet until this year, spending a day together at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in February. Neither of us eager to wander and schmooze, we both delighted in “playing store” at the Jaded Ibis booth. That day, and in emails where we continued to become acquainted, we started to discover enough parallels to arouse curiosity. Then we read each other’s books with a certain amount of anxious astonishment.

Growing up in Southern California, we’d both lived near or close to the children of movie stars and other famous people, neither of us popular, trendy, beachy, flower children, or star-fuckers. Among a host of other specific similarities, we’d both had fantasies about boys or being boys or being rescued by boys or being rescued at all (when, in fact, there were those who needed that gesture from us). We both had boys in our pasts who needed to be attended to. We wondered: was the source of these parallels our common homeland of Southern California, the era in which we grew up, the economic status of our parents, our membership in the homely-girls-have-dreams-too club, or a swirling cross-section of all of the above? We decided to talk about it, about the methods we chose to deal with our memories in non-traditional memoir forms (hers subtitled “A True Fantasy, A Fantastical Memoir,” mine “A Real-Time Memoir.”) and, perhaps, why our memoir-writing experience led us to return to those boys in or pasts — hers, who she could not save had died still a boy, mine now a man but still waiting, for 30 years, for me to come back. 

CM: Beyond, or lying beneath, the commonest stereotypes of California — the blondness, the beachyness, the mellowness or laid-backness depending on the decade — is California as the dream-seeker destination, the go-to place for the adventurous, the ambitious, the nonconformist. Which, itself, is the biggest example of conformity of them all. You and I, both natives of California, struggled with wanting / needing to conform, to fit, to belong. No more or less so than any teenager anywhere in America. Yet I have to wonder, why are there so many seemingly trivial but very particular similar markers in our childhood, preteen and teenaged experiences growing up in Southern California, you in Los Angeles, and me in San Diego County. 

We both struggled with gifted siblings (mine was older, so I had to try to live up to everything she’d already done). We were both left out of the most coveted of peer outings and events. We experienced fashion deficiencies.  Even more particular similarities: the illusive President’s Council of Physical Fitness Badge (There was a magazine advertisement with a shaggy-haired pre-teen boy pointing to the patch on his shoulder, who looked so similar to me that it seemed I should be entitled to the badge, but I was too small to successfully reach the requirements. I won some lesser certificate which my mother framed for me.) In 4th grade we both had a young male teacher who introduced marching, although ours was not as a punishment, but given as a source of pride and through which we earned “position.”  We were both struck with a young adult novel, rarely taught anymore, A Separate Peace, which (together with the more universal Catcher in the Rye) has always made me wonder why boys at boarding prep school were supposed to be, and successfully did become, something I “related to.”  So much so the earliest fantasy role-playing stories I played out were about boys, but mine were orphans living together (boarding!) at an orphanage, each with his own pony — because I shared with you the envy of purported peers who were “horsey” (had their own horses, at home, in corrals put onto their property by their parents). Another parallel specific: the importance of A Patch of Blue (we watched it in high school English class), thus the allure of the “damaged female character.” And then (our mode of being damaged) the issue of being “ugly,” mostly due to a big nose. When I was around 8, my uncle showed me an early Barbra Streisand album featuring a photo of her when she was around 8, and (like the boy in the Presidential fitness ad) I looked strikingly like her.  Unfortunately (for me) she grew up to have a nose with so much character, it has a rare and real beauty, while mine was more like a potato.  I longed for (and sometimes still do) cosmetic surgery. Instead of tisk-tisking the society that led your parents to put you under the knife at an early age, I (reading it in my 50s) still covet the procedure! 

From this hodge-podge — none of which is the true meat of your book — I can see an era, but also, perhaps, a place: when Southern California was still rural enough that lucky upper-middle class girls had their own horses at home (and could ride on the sandy unpaved road shoulders), and yet not so rural that gifted students can’t be pulled out and sent to special schools; a world where we live too far away and have no transportation to the nighttime entertainment for adolescents that our locations are urban enough to offer. And yet we lived in a state where our fathers could pay every single cent of our college educations at the public universities developed so middle- and working-class kids, even girls, could access higher education.

One of the most California specific parallels in our experience is our proximity to the famous: yours through your neighborhood bordering (and also including) a place where the famous lived, mine through my parents’ early jobs at a private boarding school where the famous sent their children. But I have no memories of that, since they relocated away from that school precisely to remove us from the proximity and the damage they perceived it might do to us when we got old enough to know we couldn’t have what those kids had, couldn’t do what those kids did, couldn’t know what those kids knew. So your experience being in and among them, if not OF them, is like my alternate life, if I had not been removed from the proximity.

Is there a question here?  Maybe you can find one!

JRL: I suppose the question is: Were our childhoods, and by extension, our present lives, really that different because of our Southern California upbringings? And I'm going to answer yes. And your noting our common "ugly duckling" experiences, along with the film A Patch of Blue, really reinforces my answer. We're dealing with archetypes here, and the effect California, or the movie industry, or the combination of California, the movie biz, and the American knack for re-invention, has on those archetypes. I think we got a particularly screwy brew of these elements and our unusual—for lack of a better word—memoirs are the result. As writers, we believe we value certain attributes in our characters as well as in actual people we meet; as Southern Californians, we have been taught to value other, perhaps less than admirable characteristics; as Southern California writers, we have to navigate through all this conflicting or contradictory information and try to make sense of it. 

Neal Gabler, author of An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, once wrote an essay called "Life: The Movie," in which he argued that people live their lives as if they're always being filmed. They dramatize, or perhaps they epic-size, their experiences as if they were fodder for a Hollywood screenplay; they "perform" their lives as if they were "acting,'' as opposed to truly living their experiences. He attributes this to declining literacy, an over-reliance on films and television (this essay was written in the late 1990s, before social media exploded on the scene). Being so close to the actual mechanics of that industry, whether it was the people, the scenery, the weather that made 365-days-a-year-dreaming possible: I think this is what makes us Californians, even if we are now living in other climates, amid other attitudes. We still believe that dreaming it makes it possible, or, in the case of writing these memoirs, probable. We do it because we think it will have some effect.

And some of those dreams are a little, may I say, troubling? At least in my case, I recognize that these dreams may be. I'm basically fantasizing about my being tortured by political and economic circumstances before a kind of physical torture; and then I fantasize about being rescued by someone who has been dead for thirty years. That's more than a tad more disturbing than A Patch of Blue in which the damsel in distress is a blind girl who is also handicapped by one helluva family living in a Los Angeles tenement.

To get back to the original impetus for all of this—the idea of archetypes—both my own real story, my imagined story, and that movie all refer back to these origins. There is the ugly duckling (whether that ugliness is real, imposed by society, or imagined); there is the princess in peril—a princess locked in a tower or under a spell (which really must have been a way of regulating, or declaring off-limits, a girl's sexuality until the right and worthy man came along); there is that crying need for rescue, because women do not have the wherewithal to extract themselves. Add a lot of speed or steroids to all this, plus the idea that poverty is somehow romantic or ennobling, and other exploitative twists, and you pretty much have the roots of my fantasy. In Something Wrong With Her, you certainly dive into the possibility of returning to old wounds as if you're going to break a spell, reverse all the damage that has been clamped on top of the original offense.

Do you believe that getting down to the nitty-gritty core is the only way to heal those wounds? I am asking you this question, but within a certain context. When I say "nitty-gritty core,'' I realize I am not saying much of anything. "Nitty-gritty" comes down to the sand, the impossibly small beads of it, where you find not much more than nothing. You look and look and look and whatever you find just slips right through your fingers. Because in Something Wrong With Her, you — or at least I — find a girl who was rootless. With Indigenous, I was so impressed with how your parents invented new traditions for you and your siblings. I felt, so much more so than about my own family, that your family created new rituals in some of the most elemental ways—gardening, cooking, camping, fishing, the home—the physical, tactile, actual home place your father built. And yet the girl in the band office was suffering from a kind of rootlessness. It was as if she was a blank slate, as if the traditions in Indigenous had not taken hold. So the men fighting their own petty-power battles were able to shape that girl in ways they really shouldn't have had the authority to do. 

I think when you are rootless, as I sometimes feel, you go back to look for something, and find nothing. I went back and found out about how badly I behaved; that I had, in a sense, severed my roots before they could have taken hold into something real or beautiful. So my question back to you probably is: Is it because the rootlessness of the California experience—or rootlessness in the eyes of the rest of the country—that makes us more susceptible to these archetypes, or their Hollywood-ization? Is it because we were raised or came of age in a time of declining book literacy (or an uptick in film and image literacy)?  

CM: In the beginning of Indigenous, I tell this story: My first week at The University of Illinois at Chicago, I attended a reception for new faculty. During the mingling, one of the senior professors sidled over to me and asked where I’d chosen to live. She expected the hear the name of an iconic Chicago neighborhood — Bucktown, Pilson, Ukrainian Village, Boys Town — not the answer I did give: the western suburban village of Elmhurst. “Why there” she exclaimed, “there’s nothing there you couldn’t get in Southern California.”  The emphasis pointing out to me how insipid my homeland was.

This is also a form of rootlessness, the way Southern California has been regarded as a place with no tradition, no substance, no intellectual meat, no soul. From the sports teams to the arts organizations, I was constantly being told by Midwestern and Eastern transplants to San Diego, that there was “no tradition.”  This meant why care about or even support these entities. Many of these transplants went to our art galleries and to hear the local symphony, but sent their monetary support back to the orchestras and art galleries with “tradition” in Chicago, Cleveland, New York, etc. The same with the sports teams in San Diego, who the rest of the country denigrated as “traditionless,” and therefore unworthy of anyone’s interest.  Yet they were the sports teams I grew up with, the only symphony, art galleries and summer theatre I knew. Why were my roots and traditions degraded as not good enough by virtue of being born later, as California was growing into its burgeoning population?

By now, with magnates such as Helen Copley and Irwin Jacobs and a new generation of young adults whose native-Californian parents would be my age, there’s no longer such a blanket “no tradition” designation of unworthiness thrown over San Diego and all of Southern California culture (until one moves and hears the old cliché insults all over again), but — not while growing up necessarily, but when we became young adults and started to be aware of it — it was like we had to defend what geographic roots we had. I don’t know if you ever felt this too (maybe not until you left?)

Simplistic child psychology: when a child becomes a late teen or young adult, there’s a natural pulling-away from family (you know, when teenagers no longer want to go on trips with their parents — sometimes no longer want their parents at their band concerts or dance recitals?).  So when I was in high school and college, the traditions my parents had created for our family — camping, hunting, hiking, fishing, food gathering and producing (year-round gardening, raising rabbits and chickens in our backyard) — were not as important to me. I forsake the family camping trips, the hunting jaunts, helping in the garden. My involvements in marching bands were my central focus, the place where I was trying to forge an identity. Your version of this was the Faire. I guess, for anyone, you could call this growing your own roots. The fact that it was me having turned away from and forgotten (for a while) the traditions my parents created, not something else taking those roots away from me, doesn’t change the real rootlessness (actual lostness) I felt in college. It’s the same for many 20-somethings everywhere, but add that to the sense that the place you’re in is disparaged by the rest of the country as rootless itself.  Your book ends before college, so I don’t know, but can imagine, how this might have manifested in you, right after Sam’s death.

It took a few decades before I turned back and re-embraced the traditions my parents created for me, and I’m grateful they were there, burned into me so they were never really abandoned. I guess you feel there was nothing there for you to turn back to (except maybe the expectation that you would excel at whatever you did). But having parental illness and divorce can pretty much blow a crater into any kind of roots and tradition instilled when you’re a child.

Rescue fantasies are also a universal for girls of our generation, I think. You literalized yours in the act of writing the fantasy side of your book where a boy like Sam saves and cares for a girl like you; and I literalized mine by going back to that boy as an adult (and making that literal journey a book). But in my early teens I had a nearly neurotically created rescue-fantasy serial story that I lived behind my eyelids every night before going to sleep: being rescued by an “older” man (or boy 3 grades ahead) from “bad boys” who wanted to force me to make out.  Look at the elements of this awful fantasy: I fantasized myself as so desirable that those “bad boys” would seek me out, even kidnap me to force me to be their make-out slave (never extended to sex in my fantasies, making-out was scary enough), and then rescued by male heroes who (seemingly, between the lines of the fantasy) also wanted to kiss me but treated me with concern and respect. Mark was rejected when I was a girl because he was my age, was not an “older man” who could guide and teach me, protect me, lead me. I went back to find him when I realized that I could have (and should have) been something like that for him, and support/partnership would have been mutual.

I see that impulse in your book’s fantasy story as well as the memoir portions. I think in a way, since you couldn’t go back to the boy and rescue him from his literal demise (nor could you have rescued him then), your written fantasy where he rescues you is this same idealization of partnership, the place where rescue-fantasies mature. And in making our fantasies into books, we did it because in writing, we’re creating our own roots. Just as our books also preserve (or let us hold onto) the semi-rural, semi-immature, semi not-yet-grown-up Southern California we grew up with.

JRL: I like this explanation of creating roots very much, because it says something of what I was trying to do in An Unsuitable Princess. I had been writing [to find it] for many years (without much success) before my daughter was born 14 years ago. Since she was born, I have been trying to preserve some of my childhood for her, because I thought she should know. I’m still not clear on why she should know, but I knew her childhood would be different than mine; substantially different, in fact, because she was going to grow up in Manhattan. I mistakenly think of my childhood as something organic—well, at least compared to the steel and concrete of Manhattan, it was; we had trees, soil, and ivy, while hers is a little more civilized, with fewer opportunities to roll around in the dirt. I suppose my idea of my childhood, romanticized, is much like the childhood you actually had in Indigenous.

I have a lot more to say about rootlessness; it’s a feature of the Jewish experience, for one thing; and now that it is on my mind, rootlessness seems to be the explanation for everything that is wrong in the world. To be Jewish, or to have a Jewish identity, is to be reminded of one’s rootlessness; for one’s roots are (supposedly) in Israel and those were torn asunder after the burning of the Second Temple. Or that is the myth that one is taught since birth. My father certainly lived as though that was the case. My father was the first of his generation of cousins born in Los Angeles. Still he often spoke—he still speaks this way, and he’s 85—of “The Old Country,’’ which was Eastern Europe. He never lived there, by the way. The most successful of his cousins were those who moved to Israel. We never really knew how old his mother was, or where she was really from, because she had no birth certificate. His father had a brother who was “lost;’’ not to the Holocaust, but just to the vagaries of immigration out of The Old Country. It was the kind of story familiar to many Jewish families.

My mother’s family was from Pennsylvania, or “back east,’’ where things were real, legitimate, and therefore counted. That was where the good schools were, the fashion houses, the newspapers and television networks, the ballet and the opera, and the money—or the source of our wealth—corporations, the stock market, the family, the headquarters of the U.S. military. (My mother was an Army brat—talk about rootlessness.) When she’d take me to the ballet, and it would start late, she’d scowl, “They’d never do this in the east. In the east everything starts on time.”

So I know exactly what you’re talking about when you say people in the east disparage California. (As a fledgling writer I was always told not to identify myself on submissions to magazines as being from California. If I did, I’d never get published.) So now I’m going to raise another question: when is this going to end, or will it ever end? Or perhaps I should ask if it started to end while we were growing up, in the 1960s and ‘70s, when so much of the culture was either fascinated with, or driven by, the happenings in California? And what effect does that have on our writers’ psyches, or do we have a special responsibility to capture that?

Let me put all of this to you in another way. When I read Indigenous, or especially when I read Something Wrong With Her, I see the roots you’ve planted in all of your fiction. I see the inspiration, or some of it, for Waterbaby in Indigenous, and I see the inspiration for everything else, and more explicitly so, in Something Wrong With Her. So I wonder if you feel that is the purpose of a California-influenced memoir, to demonstrate that these roots do exist? (Or is that the purpose of all memoirs?) I wonder if writing in this “new tradition,’’ or “inaugural tradition” is something like my understanding of Hebrew (because as a rootless Jew, I went to Israel, and discovered I was American; and then I moved “back east,’’ and discovered I was a Californian). Israeli fiction, in its beginnings, relied on a lot of biblical imagery, because the language itself had just been resurrected from biblical Hebrew and it naturally led its writers into those kinds of metaphors. There also was a lot of Holocaust-inspired or themed literature, because of the weight of those events. So when a writer was radical, or experimental, that writer was making everyday life her subject and forgetting about the historical roots of the state or the language. Rootlessness was radical.

Israeli literature has changed, but has the American view of California literature changed? I suppose this is what I’m asking. Whenever I think California is just another place, something happens that reminds me this is not the case. A friend of mine from the east has told me how even the light is different in California, as though it were Paris. I read a biography of Ed Ruscha last summer (Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles by Alexandra Schwartz) and it discusses how fascinated he was with the architecture of these boxy apartments and the arrangement of these wide, sprawling streets. But to me it all looks normal.

I’m sorry. I know I’m going off topic. I suppose I am asking chicken-and-egg questions, and there aren’t necessarily answers for those. Nowadays, pop culture is enamored of fairy tales just as you and I were, or we were enamored of fairy tale themes, some of the oldest themes around. Is that a sign that our culture is going back to its roots because it is rootless too? Maybe everyone is writing a California-kind-of-memoir these days?

Oh, and P.S. I used to work for Helen Copley and her newspaper chain. But that’s gone now, you know. Whether one says “good riddance,’’ or “nothing gold can stay,” some of her newspapers are long gone. What’s left has been taken over and re-configured for the digital age. Our American culture moves so quickly, disposes with its icons or attachments at such a fast rate, and California, perhaps, may have been the first state to perfect disposable culture, or a culture we can witness being disposed of in a communal way. So perhaps what I am asking is if it is possible, as a writer, to escape a California upbringing, or being labeled a “California writer,’’ with all of the rights, privileges and prejudices thereto pertaining? Will your (or any California writer’s) topic always be one of place (or in our cases, time)? Even when you write about sex, which I assume occurs in all fifty states, are you writing about the special burden of coming from a “free love” or a purportedly free love culture?

How’s that? When will this madness end (my final attempt at framing it)?

CM: When I returned to fishing, my retreats have been transplanted from a somewhat dry California alpine environment at 10,000 feet, to the dense and wet hardwood-conifer forest of the northwoods; a move from the Eastern Sierra (the less popular side of the Sierras) to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan which is 29% of the land area of Michigan but has 3% of the state’s population, so culturally place-specific that rootlessness doesn’t seem a problem for people who are from there and who often don’t leave or else return when they can or need to. Anyway, I’m here now, so will get back to this in about a week.

JRL: Oh good because I had another idea about all this, this morning, borne out of the book I'm reading, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; it's about the Nigerian diaspora—I think. I'm not sure. I'm not finished yet. Ifemelu, one of the narrators, is the outsider, alienated from both of her countries. So she's able to make all sorts of judgments and have insights that aren't available to other characters. I don't know if this is the Nigerian way, but it is the American way; the alienation of the narrator allowing for a particular point of view.

Is this also the (for lack of a better word, "unique") purpose of the California memoir (or novel)? Whether we are conscious of it or not; whether it is by the design of the state, on the other coast, or by history in terms of how the U.S. was settled, is it the role of all Californians to look at the rest of the country and say, "No,'' or at least "Not us?" California may be where people go to escape, to re-invent, but there is something in "us" that again says, "No," or "Not me."  I guess I'm asking if this is an intentional thing on our part, because I know it wasn't for me. I wanted to belong. I wanted to be blonde. I wanted to go to the beach and do all of that crap—I say crap because now I realize how unimportant it all was, although I didn't back then. I wanted to belong but I didn't. So did you always know?

CM: At the beginning of Indigenous, I tried to begin with a distinction: those who come to California to find something: a new life, a fortune, a career, a remaking of everything, the “frontier,” fame, glamour or the endless summer … as differentiated from those of us who were born there.  These would be two very different California experiences spawning two different kinds of California memoirs. Of course ours are the latter.  We weren’t “dream seekers” or radical outsiders, or innovators (yet). We didn’t seek out California, either through conscious choice or being brought by parents who were in quest of something. It was our ground floor. That was the meaning behind my title, Indigenous. What California already was, at that time — partially created by the waves of domestic as well as international immigrants — was the place that began our identity.  “No matter where else I go, I’ll never not be a Californian,“ I claimed in (emblematic) double-negatives when I wrote Indigenous. And yet, we find ourselves searching for identity, still.  Is that the lasting mark of being a native Californian born in the middle of the previous century, when California was at the tail end of being the draw for “dream seekers"?

My father was also of an immigrant family, a first-generation Italian-American, but he was an immigrant to California, in 1936 when he was 16, a few years after he had been forced out of school by the Depression for a year or so. He then graduated from a fledgling but prestigious boarding school in California, because he was working there as a part-time janitor and their board of directors needed a graduate who would actually go on to college — how’s that for the California Dream, or anything’s-possible-if-you-move-west? I don’t know if his serendipitous change of future caused him to not speak of any old country which he’d never seen nor even his old neighborhood in Brooklyn. He’d been through World War II by the time he was my father. I believe he was utterly grateful to the place he’d ended up and barely looked back. He even eventually left his Brooklyn Dodgers, who’d followed him to the West Coast, and cheers for the “unworthy,” merely 40-year-old San Diego Padres. Thus I had little personal sense of the superiority of the legendary “East” (which includes the Midwest for everyone in California) until I was a young adult.

Just the other day I had a heated exchange with a close friend who’d moved to California when he was 23 in 1973. He admitted choosing it because he’d visited once (as a tourist) and also liked the Beach Boys. He’d packed up all his belongings after finishing a graduate degree and drove out of the Midwest to California, where he had neither a job nor place to live waiting for him (not a move I‘d ever made when heading east). He eventually started and built his own wholesale business and had a custom-designed contemporary house.  Our debate last week was the longstanding: no performing arts organization or sports team in California can be as good as elsewhere because there isn’t the “tradition,” which includes the history of generations of patrons. There I was engaged in the stock “east is better because of roots” debate that we’ve already discussed here, happening just weeks after I talked to you about it, with someone who moved his life to California because of its image of a lifestyle and apparent boundless opportunity.

No, I didn’t always “know” the shallowness of wanting to belong. I never necessarily desired a California identity as defined by the rest of the country. If I was saying “No,“ it was to the Beach Boys depiction. Sometimes I did consciously (pretentiously) seek to be different because it was my only way to also be accepted — that's what I “knew.” When I wore a feminist symbol on a chain over my plain white T-shirts (and Levis cords) in high school, I did get looks and murmurs, as though I was some far out radical, but I was just a girl who knew she couldn’t compete on the scale of what was considered female-desirability.

And yet I was such a poseur. I didn’t know of, let alone join a feminist group. Likewise, (although I’m not claiming a relationship between drugs and feminism!), I never turned to drugs and would not have known — not the slightest inkling — how to get them.  No one offered, no one shared stories of being high. I think I did know people dabbling in drugs but I so awfully didn’t fit into that scene, those kids instinctively simply hid that side of themselves even from another kid they might hang out with in the band room before school. I’ve discovered the depth of my not-belonging in recent years getting back in contact with people. For example, there were pool parties among band kids that I was never informed of, where the earliest inter-racial sexual mating-dances were toyed with.  I was, therefore, a bit agog (in your book) by the availability of drugs for you to try even though you, also, were one of those left out of “significant” events.  Yes, I was feeling left out again, just reading your book.

I’ve completed my 21st year as a professor at a university in Chicago. I’ve lived in the far western xurbs, in a semi-rural Midwestern milieu. I’ve had the Northwoods cabin for about 10 years. And yet I’ve still set my novels — and of course the memoirs — in Southern California.  There’s still something there, or the “there” I knew, which may not exist anymore, that I’m trying to hang onto.  And yet when people ask if I’d want to go back if I could, I always say no. I do believe the place I knew is gone, filled by people who took it in a direction that is not comfortable to me.

JRL: Well I finished Americanah, which may not seem like a direct answer to you, but bear with me. It’s a love story, and it’s a love story that could not have happened unless the protagonist came home, to Nigeria. There are the basic logistics of the plot that make this so—one of the people cannot leave Nigeria; cannot come to America due to economics, politics, not getting a visa; so the other one had to come back. Nigeria is home (Nigeria also is the place where she says she is no longer “black;” a good deal of the book is about race relations and the American concept of race. Please do not take this to mean that I’m comparing ‘’Californian” to “black;’’ there is no comparison. The important thing is she has to come home.)

Home is that original Garden of Eden. You can learn your life lessons there or you can be cast out or you can exile yourself, but home is your point of reference. So in a literary sense, she had to come home because (for various reasons, race included) her life in the U.S. was lacking.  And what does she find? Her first love is still the best love.  There is also a really neat, really adept, metaphor that the author uses here to explain why this first love was the only love for her, which I won’t get into, but I think what I learned from reading this book, during this conversation, is that home is where you go when you are trying to make things right. That’s certainly what you did in Something Wrong With Her, correct?  It may be what I did in An Unsuitable Princess, as much as I could. I don’t know if ALL of your fiction is about making things right. (Various Men Who Knew Us As Girls is kind of about that? Someone is trying to make something right there.) That is not for me to say. But it might be why you are still writing about California decades after you have left.

I’ve tried to write about other places where I’ve lived—Baltimore, upstate New York—but I don’t know those places as well as I know California. Things went wrong in those places—oh Lord how they went wrong—but maybe I don’t have the distance yet to write about them. Or I don’t have the distance to make those things right. I know we’re supposed to be deep here but I just miss the air in California. I remember the smog, for the ‘60s and ‘70s were the age of smog, but that’s gone now. I miss the lightness of it, the weightlessness; in the east and Midwest the air is too heavy, too much like a cloak for me. And because that air was so light; because I did not have to think about it, think about trudging through it, I believe or believed that so much more was or is possible. Well, at least I know I’m not going to sweat my eyes out of my head. I know I’m just talking about humidity. I know that I am over-romanticizing California. But that humidity is like a seal I can’t break through. Maybe we as a nation, or you and I, as writers, also feel this.  

 So I guess California is a Garden of Eden for folks like us, although there’s another tradition we haven’t discussed, which is California as the place of broken dreams. (Or maybe we have? What happens when you don’t fit in with the dream, which occurred in both of our cases? Please read on.) These are the people who come, or escape to, California and find the same problems they ran away from.  I think this inspired a lot of noir, but that’s another conversation; nevertheless, this is also an ingredient in our stories. Where do you go when the land of dreams disappoints you so? You should have had none of the problems with sex (let alone identity) in California, because everything there is free and easy and open and most of all wild! Challenging those tired old paradigms! Here in California, you will be Accepted! Understood! Why couldn’t you just go to an encounter group? (I hope I sound sarcastic here.) Or a rap session? I suppose psychoanalysis was out, because that is a New York thing. 

When I was a child, I had the distinct feeling of being marooned on a desert island, because of my mother’s family. They talked about the east, and pined for their relatives, and everything that was the east. My uncle subscribed to the New York Times and they’d go at it, section by section, as if it were pieces of the true cross (or the original Torah).  So California was the end of the world, and yet it was where I was just starting out. I suppose it is one thing to grow up in a place and find out later it isn’t all it was cracked up to be. That’s an American story. It’s another to grow up somewhere and know there is something inherently spoiled about it; you are growing up without a chance to discover, to decide, to mature on your own terms and widen your outlook. Your home is at ground zero of the widening gyre. Now that’s a mixed metaphor that could only come from California, eh?

But yes, I did find the Faire, which was filled with the “cool” kids and even more so with a lot of misfits like myself. That was my, or my state’s, saving grace. You could be an oddball there, although I do not know if that is the case in California nowadays. Yes, you are right that the state has changed so much. I think the center of the economy being dragged out to California—the Silicon Valley—has a lot to do with it. Yes there are oddballs in Silicon Valley but life is also deadly serious there, with the amount of money coming and going and most of all, staying. Hollywood is also more like a monarchy these days than when I was a kid, observing it. It’s kind of calcified and become more of a caricature of itself. Since it always was a kind of caricature of the lofty theater business—that was how it built itself up—you can imagine how exaggerated and outlandish today’s caricature is.

I left California because I had burnt out as a journalist and didn’t know any other way of earning a living in California. But a great many of my Faire friends are still there, some of them still doing Faire-like stuff, so I’d like to go back, probably when I retire. I also remember my mother, the born-and-bred east coaster and reluctant world traveler, often telling me that we were living in a world of crap (although she did not always use the word “crap”) and that in California we were at the very top, so we should be grateful. That must have made an impression, especially since she said it more often the older she got.

Look. Life is easier without freezing temperatures and humidity.  Maybe it is easier without roots and traditions, or establishment ideas of art, music and literature. Maybe people who don’t have the courage or gumption to leave their roots and their received ideas behind are jealous and defensive. That California still has to be defended is more than a little sad. I mean, do people in Chicago say, “Our orchestra is better than the Minneapolis orchestra? (Or the St. Paul orchestra?)” Here in New York people don’t talk like that, because it’s assumed that everything—museums, orchestras, theater, everything—is the best it can be. But wasn’t New York at one time inferior to Europe? You know, the next time I move, it’ll be to Berlin. 

CM: Or are east and west there still staging their own bizarre and pointless rivalry?

Cris Mazza’s newest title is a real-time memoir titled Something Wrong With Her chronicling the 25-year journey to reunite with a boy from her past. She has sixteen other titles including her most recent novel Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls. Her first novel, How to Leave a Country, won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award for book-length fiction. Currently living 50 miles west of Chicago, she is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She can be found online at

Jane Rosenberg LaForge lives in New York with her husband and daughter, but travels frequently to her hometown of Los Angeles. In addition to her memoir, An Unsuitable Princess: A True Fantasy/A Fantastical Memoir (Jaded Ibis Press 2014), she is the author of the full-length poetry collection, With Apologies to Mick Jagger, Other Gods, and All Women (The Aldrich Press 2012) and three chapbooks of poetry. More information is available at

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