Until I arrived in Berkeley in 1967, I had spent my whole life in the Northeast, apart from one student year abroad. I grew up in Albany, New York, got a BA in English at Columbia University in the era of Lionel Trilling (and just at the end of the era of Mark Van Doren), completed graduate studies in comparative literature at Harvard, and then returned to Columbia to teach in the English department. At that early moment of my professional life, I imagined becoming part of the next generation of New York intellectuals. But then, as cultural conditions changed, the next generation never really emerged. When Berkeley made me an offer I couldn’t refuse—promotion to tenure and a 50 percent increase in salary—I had never been west of Chicago.
As I was driving across the country for the first time, I felt a foolish twinge of apprehension that I was heading into exile. Instead, the chains fell off. The intellectually invigorating atmosphere I found in Berkeley was a complete surprise to me. The Ivy League institutions where I was trained and where I had worked were manifestly hierarchical, and they tended to cultivate a certain sense of being “the navel of the world,” as the early rabbis called Jerusalem. At Columbia, I was made to feel subaltern—I shared an office with five other junior faculty—and was expected to fit into the particular academic pigeonhole they had created for me: the eighteenth century and the English novel. (I had written a dissertation on the picaresque novel.) In my spare time, I had begun to publish critical essays on modern Hebrew literature, and this is what attracted the attention of people at Berkeley, where a newly formed Department of Comparative Literature was looking for a comparatist with a literate competence in Hebrew. I am fairly sure that my senior colleagues in English at Columbia looked askance at my writing on Hebrew topics. It was, after all, not what they had hired me to do.
Against this background, Berkeley was a revelation. Almost overnight, I realized that I was no longer subordinate, that I had been brought to the institution because there were distinctive things I had the capacity to teach and to write about that were highly valued. I also quickly came to sense a freedom of interchange between junior and senior faculty, and between students and faculty as well, that was quite different from the rigid structure I’d found on the East Coast. Having a home, moreover, in comparative literature rather than in English meant experiencing a new freedom to explore a variety of areas in the broad field of literary studies. This perfectly suited my own intellectual restlessness. All of a sudden, I could teach what I wanted and write about what I wanted.
During my first years in Berkeley, I offered an undergraduate lecture course on contemporary fiction in which I comfortably inserted the Hebrew novelist S.Y. Agnon alongside Nabokov, the Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer alongside Saul Bellow and Alain Robbe-Grillet. On the graduate level, I began giving seminars on modern Hebrew literature, conducted in Hebrew, for a very small cohort. As word spread, however, that one could do serious work in modern Hebrew at Berkeley, students began to arrive from across the country and from Israel. Berkeley has had a major program in Hebrew literature ever since.
It is now clear to me that had I not come to California, I never would have written books on biblical narrative and biblical poetry and never would have become a translator of the Hebrew Bible. This whole turn in my career began through a happy accident, enabled by the academic openness of Berkeley.
In the mid-1970s, I became interested in biblical narrative, having had a good grounding in biblical Hebrew as well as in the modern language. Berkeley graduate seminars on the Bible in those years were exclusively devoted to the Book of Leviticus because the scholar who was then professor of the Hebrew Bible was engaged in what would prove to be a three-thousand-page commentary on Leviticus. He would allow nothing to deflect him from his sacerdotal subject.
My students of modern Hebrew literature complained, and so I devised for them a new course—conceivably, the first of its kind anywhere—on the poetics of biblical narrative. I had a relatively large group, about ten students, many of them quite gifted and with serious literary interests, and together we soon developed an excited sense that, even though this was the Bible, we were exploring new territory. My own work for the seminar and beyond it led me in the next few years to produce The Art of Biblical Narrative in 1981 and to launch a kind of second scholarly career that complemented the one I continued to pursue in writing about the European and American novel.
A dozen years later, again in a wholly unanticipated way, the study of biblical narrative and biblical poetry induced me to begin an experiment in translating the Bible. Since adolescence I had always read the Bible in Hebrew and had been deeply moved by the compact power of its poetry and by the subtlety, elegant precision, and evocative rhythms of its narrative prose. When an editor at W.W. Norton proposed that I might do a Norton Critical Edition of a book of the Bible, I responded, perhaps imprudently, that one could make a fine Norton Critical Edition of Genesis, but that because there was something wrong with all the existing English versions. I would have to do my own translation. After some discussion, we agreed that I would write a new English translation of Genesis instead of the critical edition. But, as I got into the project, I also found that I was producing a commentary.
I have to confess that I harbored suspicions from the beginning that what I wanted to do might be hopelessly quixotic. Given the large structural and semantic differences between ancient Hebrew and modern English, I feared that the attempt to emulate the stylistic features of the original in translation would result in an English version everyone would hate, including me. No translation of a great work is more than an approximation of the translator’s dream, but it turned out that what I had done was a far better approximation than I had thought it could be. My Genesis was widely acclaimed, rather to my surprise, and so I was strongly motivated to do more Bible translation. With several volumes in print and a good deal more in draft, I now hope to complete the Hebrew Bible within the next three years.
Is there anything “Californian” about this project, beyond the openness of the Berkeley intellectual atmosphere? I suspect there may be a certain experience of newness here that encourages a willingness to swerve from the models of the established cultural world. When I began my translation, I found myself unhesitant about discarding the syntactic practices of modern translators of the Bible and embracing the Bible’s parataxis, its love of repetition, emulating in English the rhythms of the Hebrew prose and poetry, even attempting to reproduce where feasible the pointed and ingenious wordplay and sound-play of the Hebrew. All this amounted to starting the enterprise of Bible translation more or less from scratch, with at most an intermittent gesture to the King James version.
Had I remained in New York, I would never have ended up doing this work at all. But if one supposes, counterfactually, that I would have nevertheless done so, I wonder whether a translation carried out in the intellectual climate of the Northeast would have been quite the same. My suspicion, of course indemonstrable, is that it would have been at least a little different, that I would have felt more beholden to the examples of Bible translation done in geographical proximity—most of the modern American translators having been trained in biblical studies at Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, the University of Pennsylvania, and just a few other institutions.
Such thoughts about California’s contribution to my translation of the Bible are necessarily speculative. Yet I think there is a quality of freshness, a readiness to try new things in the intellectual climate on this side of the country that have led to bold innovation in painting, music, film, literature, science, and other areas of creative endeavor. I like to imagine that my own enterprise has at least some connection with this atmosphere of innovation.
Translated by Robert Alter
Isaiah by Salvatore Revelli on the base of the Colonna dell’Immacolata, Rome Italy
Comfort, O comfort My people, says your God. / Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and call out to her, for her term of service is ended, her crime is expiated, for she has taken from the Lord’s hand double for all her offenses. / A voice calls out in the wilderness: Clear a way for the Lord’s road, level in the desert a highway for our God! / Every valley shall be lifted high and every mountain brought low, and the crooked shall be straight, and the ridges become a valley. / And the Lord’s glory shall be revealed, and all flesh together see that the Lord’s mouth has spoken.
A voice calls out, saying: “Call!”And I said, “What shall I call?” All flesh is grass and all its trust like the flowers of the field. / Grass dries up, the flower fades, for the Lord’s wind has blown upon it. The people indeed is grass. / Grass dries up, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.
On a high mountain go up, O herald of Zion. Raise your voice mightily, raise it, do not fear. Say to the towns of Judah: here is your God. / Look, the Master Lord shall come in power, His arm commanding for Him. Look, His reward is with Him, His wages before Him. / Like a shepherd He minds His flock with His arm He gathers lambs, and in his lap He bears them, leads the ewes.
Editor’s Note: We rarely publish poetry here at Boom. But when Megan Pugh and Gillian Osborne, friends and poets, sent us these excerpts from their epistolary project The Perfect Game, we were smitten by the exchange, which they told us they started writing after watching Matt Cain pitch a perfect game for the San Francisco Giants in June 2012. The poems also fit beautifully within the “critical appreciations” of all things California that we publish online here at Boom, writings filled with deep appreciation, we dare say love, and a critical sensibility. In this selection, Megan Pugh bats first.
Bottom of the Seventh
At the start of the season with a new haircut
and dark glasses Tim Lincecum said he felt he could
write a pretty good poem or two. Then the slump,
the clubhouse silent after each loss. I wished
my friend at St. Mary’s were you so we could watch
the game and save the chatter for commercials. Was it
simpler then? We’d wake up and make each
other oatmeal, or I’d come crying from my room from
a phone call with a man I shouldn’t have fought for
though you and B., with whom I got to watch you
fall in love, were too patient to tell me so, for which I always
want to thank you. If we lived according to the commercials
on KNBR we’d build more decks, remember
to change our oil, drive Fords, and install solar panels
on houses we can’t afford to own. I want to lick my fingers
like Sergio Romo to execute each task with the right
amount of moisture. Timmy puts his fist to his mouth, puffs
up his cheeks, slackens into a corkscrew off the mound,
and on July 13, 2013 pitched his first no-hitter. Announcers
fill the breaks with trivia: how we knew we should live together
when we liked the same needleworked colonial scenes and
literate mouse candlesticks at the flea market but let
the other have them, how Sandy Koufax whose perfect game
Matt Cain’s was said to rival—though Cain got pulled before the
first inning was up (July 10, 2013), meaning what about
capricious Mistress Fortune or the baseball gods?—shut everyone
down at the ’66 All-Star Game at Candlestick on only one
day of rest. It’s the vaguely comforting cosmic energy
that it’s just not their year, says Ben. The game so goddamned
mental that R. A. Dickey who won a regional high school poetry
prize with a mere haiku is always coming back to
Longfellow: “Go forth to meet the shadowy future… and with
a manly heart.” Between here and Santa Barbara you could
write a lot of facts about how teams have come back.
July 15, 2013
San Francisco, CA
Top of the Eighth
After the family reunion I couldn’t sleep.
At a bar in the Denver Airport, Brian and I (Cardinals and Braves)
watched Sunday night baseball and wondered if you’d delivered
(and I wondered if the thing that we were living through would later
find its way into a poem). Nothing memorable—a sweep.
Slept the whole flight. The streets were empty and filled
with fog. I lay awake thinking about the loneliness
of private lives.
Language that is alive…
is clipped from argument, the students wrote, is care-
ful (full of care, not cautious), the opposite
of flat. I walked off
into the field, expecting
wildflowers brought by a Mayflower to populate New
Fields. But the fields were somewhere else. The only wild
pent up in greeny compressions
that signaled a frog, or a bear surveying the edge of a highway somewhere
that might be summer here.
The asphalt of courts a green
like an unanswered question, an opening. Stadiums and glades.
Or in a park in California, once, Brian and I throwing pitches.
What if your family were a state, I asked? They turned their thoughts to paper.
Our state is small, I wrote. Its borders
are the coasts.
August 20, 2013
Bottom of the Eighth
Two days into a new season and three seasons
into our stuttering back and forth: Monday was soggy
but now San Francisco’s redolent of jasmine, billboards
for services for startups I don’t understand. I barely
sleep. Last night Tim Lincecum threw up
in the clubhouse, which someone on the Internet
said could’ve come in handy for protesters
of Google buses, for apparently all stories
now tie into that story. I too am guilty
of not letting baseball be baseball: opening day
a family reunion since you don’t pick your team
but you love them, hope they’ll help you love
again the place you live, lawns mown, flags
unfurled, awnings rattling up, the radio back
on. First Brian left, then you, then Max, then Josh
and Asiya, Mark and Nadia, now RJ, and Brian
Wilson’s a Dodger who debuted with “Ring of Fire”
at his walk-on. After Zito pitched seven and two-thirds innings
of shutout ball and kept the team alive (October 19, 2012)
his teammates tapped him on the heart. Johnny Cash
told June he’d marry her before they’d even met
and how’s this for avoiding sentimentality:
my son is eight months old and saying eeee-eeee-eeee
on the floor below me, trying hard to stand.
I don’t have any new ideas about being female
though I cry more and know I’m a mammal, thank
God they didn’t trade Timmy away. Jackie
Mitchell “has a swell change of pace and swings
a mean lipstick,” said the New York Daily News before she struck out the Babe and Lou Gehrig
(April 2, 1931). In Bull Durham Susan Sarandon
fucks pitchers into pros. I turn off the game
to put the baby to bed, then to kiss Eliot as
we learn later Romo was getting the save
and Tim Hudson in his first game in the family
held the Diamondbacks scoreless for seven and two-thirds innings.
April 2, 2014
San Francisco, CA
Top of the Ninth
The first summer in Santa Barbara we didn’t have a professional park
so we watched the wooden bat league and pretended it was history in action,
the small-town fans, the hometown boys, the terrible pitching, a view of the mountains.
There wasn’t a bar in town we liked enough to root for the Giants in public.
And last year, the Giants weren’t in the playoffs and so I learned to care for the Rays:
Will Myers and Evan Longoria with the best batting stances in baseball:
their knees almost straight, the bats high above their heads, patiently waiting forever,
and then the ball comes and they make crushing it look like diving into water.
And that summer, my mother and I drove by softball fields in Nebraska
which were full of spectators, lit by enormous lights, full of the love for the game.
And the few streets of Lincoln that didn’t feel abandoned were packed
with bars, with TV’s, tuned to college teams, men’s and women’s.
And last spring when I came to the Bay it wasn’t for baseball but for poetry,
met another friend in Oakland at Mamma’s Royal, a diner with a mural
of 1940s pin-up girls in pink shorts with blond hair straddling baseball bats
as if they were horses or maybe even dolphins or maybe even missiles.
And this weekend, we’ll drive to Bakersfield to watch the Blaze
(currently with the best record in all of baseball) take on the Visalia Rawhide.
Their base stealer last year finally vaulted to the majors while Brian’s friend,
the assistant manager, recruits other Floridians for “mascot duty”: a pelvic-thrusting dragon.
I loved the Giants most when they won the pennant in 2010 and then the World Series,
when we stood on the corners of streets in the Mission enamored of strangers
who offered us fist bumps, hugs, who yelled in our faces, and drove down Mission Street
slowly in their low riders in an impromptu parade (like the dance party one street over
in the hipster stronghold of the neighborhood the night Obama was first elected):
baseball’s volatile, vocal publics. The last time I was riding the train from San Francisco
to Oakland, a month ago, I watched a group of young men (younger than us),
in Giants hats, persistently calling various authorities to find out if their friend,
who had been escorted out of the game for drunkenness was “safe” with the police.
“Hello, I’ve called several times, I’m just trying to locate my friend,” one guy kept saying,
swaying to the rhythm of the train and the after-effects of the game and beer.
Several people seemed visibly moved by this public and probably pointless display of friendship,
including me. I thought about the poems we had been writing. I still care for the Giants
but I could love other teams, or even other sports, I think. When Brian narrates
the lives of players, or when he tears up because of some improbable win or loss,
some rule-bound, yet unpredictable, feat of heroism or physical grandeur,
I’m reassured. The softball fields of Santa Barbara are parched. The town is painfully polished.
There isn’t a public we belong to here, but there might be a team, or an evening, or a park.
Biking home tipsy under stars from the Creekside Tavern in Goleta, jasmine and vine roses,
the empty horse-shoe lots and the tennis courts and the parks full of people Sunday afternoons.
May 9, 2014
Santa Barbara, CA
Bottom of the Ninth
When Laura asked if I would be a Giants fan for life even though Eliot, Theo, and I are leaving what you called in an email about our apartment “a hillside hamlet in the midst of a big city” for Portland, which has no major league team, just a farm for Arizona Diamondbacks whom I don’t like, and soccer which I don’t even want to like, I thought, of course: already I’m planning to stream KNBR from my laptop in the new kitchen, which I can’t picture because we haven’t rented a house yet to make it feel like home. What you wrote about the Rays only sounded adulterous: because loyalty, because hyperbolic fandom, because turning business into love and teams into family, when in fact players have real families and so do we. If we move back to the Bay it won’t be for San Francisco where no one can afford to live anymore: it’ll be for the land of the A’s. Or we’ll go somewhere else worth rooting for: near the Nationals, the Mariners, the Cardinals with the most beautiful logo in all of baseball and ready access to frozen custard, or we’ll stay put. Theo will think it normal to hike in rain pants. The poets tell us that baseball unfolds leisurely on summer days so long we didn’t need electric lights until night games and playoffs. Out here summer doesn’t come until fall. Up on the parched and golden hill where on foggier days we used to imagine we were walking through a British novel, grasses keep replacing each other: the city I look at with my son on my back is not the one you and I moved to, or if we’re being technical the one that existed yesterday when I rewrote parts of this poem to try to make it worth sending to you. Someone else will live in our apartment and put things into the cabinet where you used to store your grandmother’s purple glasses and where I keep my diminishing supply of gold ones. Hunter Pence had only been a Giant for a few weeks when he started dropping poetry about it, but if baseball teams are ships of Theseus the club endures as will perhaps my love for it. This weekend Joe Panik had his first two hits in the majors and helped staunch a losing streak after Panda, wearing Bumgarner’s two-sizes-too-small cowboy boots between at-bats, quit bringing luck. Someday Panda will be gone and Bumgarner too, Timmy and Sergio Romo and Buster Posey will retire and Angel Pagan and Pence and Matt Cain and Marco Scutaro has been on the DL all season and I will keep will I keep loving the Giants? When I played Eliot the Randy Newman song about his poor little mama who didn’t know a soul in L.A., I should have known I would cry. Designed to break your heart. On the hill I glower at the millionaire’s house with the mural of a shirtless girl sticking her thumb in the eye of a shark whose teeth look like the city skyline and dream of finding golden baseballs someone found seventy years ago when the Seals hosted their annual baseball hunt, back when Bernal was frontier enough that mounted cowboys held back the crowd until it was time to start looking, players standing by to autograph the balls: Joe DiMaggio and his brother and everyone else whose names I forgot, back when the boys still played for the home team, back when Marilyn was still Norma Jeane, back when sheep roamed the dirt roads of our I mean for a few more weeks my I mean their neighborhood.
As the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, California poet and essayist Dana Gioia was an evangelist for California literature. Now he’s taking a different approach to spread the good word about the state’s rich, though often underappreciated, literary heritage.
“We need literary shrines as much as, if not more than, any other place,” he told me. “They can provide tangible evidence of the literary past that’s eroding and serve as institutional storehouses for the collective national memory of our writers, their lives, and their work. Tourist bureaus in California underestimate the power of the imagination. They don’t do all they could do to preserve our cultural heritage.”
The best literary shrines do more than honor literary heroes of previous generations. They’re also places where their work can find new life, new relevance, and new readers. They can speak to the present and even the future as much as the past. They can also work a strange sort of magic when the spirit of a book and readers from around the world come together in a place once enlivened by an author. In the process, readers, books, and places rejuvenate one another and combine to form new wholes.
Visiting shrines is an occupational hazard I’ve long accepted and even embraced as a writer. I haunt dead writers, visit their graves, walk the neighborhoods they once inhabited, poke around their homes, and peer into their offices. For an afternoon or an evening, I feel that I have communed with the poets, playwrights, and experimental fiction writers who intrigue me. I also tangle with the spirit of books that keep me up late at night, turning the pages of noir novels, adventure stories, and California epics. Everywhere I turn in California, I find a literary landscape: in the town of Twain Harte—named for Mark Twain and Bret Harte—near Yosemite; in the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur; and in Eugene O’Neill’s Tao House not far from Danville where the playwright and his wife Carlotta lived in the 1930s and where he wrote many of his best dramas.
Detail from Bikes to Books, by Nicole Gluckstern and Burrito Justice.
Gioia is spot-on when he insists that California can and should do more to honor its literary genius loci—the home of The Land of Little Rain author Mary Austin, in Independence, cries out for visitors—but we’re doing pretty good already. A cottage industry in literary maps of San Francisco and Los Angeles has sprung up, each one expanding the list of minor shrines and the number of potential pilgrims. We have our major shrines, too. All year long, locals and travelers from far away descend on Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, and the Beat Museum in San Francisco.
Literary tourism in California has a history that stretches back more than a century. In 1884, Helen Hunt Jackson published her wildly popular novel Ramona, and fans came to Southern California from far and wide to soak up the romanticized atmosphere they found in the book. Towns fought over which one had truly inspired the author—the better to lure tourists—while others created shrines at her heroine’s imagined birthplace, wedding site, and burial plot. For decades, it was as if the whole region became a literary shrine to California’s imagined past.
Literary shrines to American authors first became popular in New England a decade after the first wave of Ramona-fever. Theodore F. Wolfe described the fabled world of Thoreau, Emerson, and Margaret Fuller in Literary Shrines: The Haunts of Some Famous American Authors in 1895. California shrines in that restrained New England mold began to appear on the tourist trail not long afterward. In the inaugural issue of California Magazine published in January 1915, the editor, E.J. Wickson, emphasized the Golden State’s fledgling cult of the author. Everywhere he looked, Wickson saw “numerous artistic and literary shrines,” though he complained, “the searcher is called upon to make a pilgrimage down some half-hidden by-path, or to go delving into the musty archives of the past.”
Things have changed greatly since 1915, although it’s still possible to make pilgrimages down half-hidden paths at Jack London State Historic Park in rural Glen Ellen, which draws literary tourists from around the world. The ruins of Wolf House, built for the Londons but destroyed by fire before they moved in, are still the main draw, although the museum at the House of Happy Walls, as well as the author’s grave, see a steady stream of visitors, too. While generations of American schoolchildren know London best for his adventure stories, the politics that infused so much of his work have garnered him many fans in translation abroad, particularly in Russia. If visitor numbers and sheer enthusiasm are anything to go by, that second kind of reader seems to have developed a much deeper, keener connection to London.
“There’s an international Jack London cult,” Jeff Falconer, who grew up a devoted London fan in the East Bay and is now a devoted docent, told me on a recent visit to the park. Eugene Birger, a native-born Russian and now a Sonoma County resident speaks perfect Russian to the tourists from Moscow and Kiev who make the pilgrimage to Glen Ellen. He’s almost always on hand.
Falconer and Birger regale visitors with the story of a Soviet diplomat who arrived in a chauffeur-driven limousine one night in the 1960s, toured the grounds under cover of darkness, handed out caviar to show his appreciation, and then returned to San Francisco undetected by authorities. To fulfill the dream of a lifetime, Alexander Solzhenitsyn made a pilgrimage to the park in 1976, one hundred years after London’s birth. Two decades later, Dr. Vil Bykov—the twentieth-century’s foremost Soviet authority on London—spent a week there. “Paradise,” he called it in his memoir, In the Steps of Jack London. At the annual banquet sponsored by the London Foundation, he told the crowd: “Jack London is an integral part of Russian culture.”
A Romanian visitor recently pointed to London’s 1908 dystopian novel, The Iron Heel, as though it offered the latest news of her own country. A dignified traveler from India, a turban wrapped around his head, explained to a docent that he’d grown up in Kolkata reading London’s books. After visiting the House of the Happy Walls, he took the hand of his guide and kissed it.
Almost all of the docents describe the exuberant Russians who walk to the small plot of ground where London’s ashes are buried, bow their heads reverentially and shed tears. The power of the London shrine, however, does not work on all visitors equally. Falconer told me, “I remember a group of Russian and American tourists that provided a study in contrasts. Two young Muscovites took turns filming at Jack’s grave. They might have been gangsters. They certainly dressed the part. One of them looked down at the ground then up at the camera and shouted, ‘I’m right here where the greatest American writer is buried.’ The Americans watched flabbergasted. I’ve never seen a single US tourist do anything like it.”
Russians brag about their devotion to London and sneer at Americans who fail to appreciate the one and only god of California literature. In part, the Russians who come to Sonoma are carrying on the adoration that their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents expressed for London. Perhaps it’s this deep, multigenerational wellspring of feeling that makes the Sonoma shrine so powerful to its Russian visitors.
The National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, which opened its doors to the public in 1998, draws a much different crowd. The center has tried and failed to attract tourists from Russia. Japan, more than any nation in the world, save the United States, sends waves of reverential readers who stray now and then from familiar roadside attractions to pay their respects to the author of TheRed Pony, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath, first published in 1939 and translated into Japanese after World War II.
Susan Shillinglaw knows much of The Grapes of Wrath by heart. A Steinbeck expert at San Jose State University and the author most recently of On Reading Grapes of Wrath, she views Tom Joad, the Oklahoma ex-con turned California visionary, as the quintessential twentieth-century American literary rebel. Tom Joad could be an inspiration for the world’s “square people,” says Shillinglaw. Indeed, she sees him as an icon and a hero for the crowds in Beijing, Cairo, Istanbul, and Hong Kong, who gather in city squares to confront illegitimate authority. So far, however, the “square people” have not showed up en masse at the Steinbeck Center.
Phillip Saldana, who grew up in Bakersfield and who read John Steinbeck’s novels as a young man, keeps all the relevant data on visitors. They do not come from China, Egypt, Turkey, or Russia, he tells me, although you’d think perhaps Salinas might attract visitors from Moscow, Kiev and Volgograd (then called Stalingrad), cities that Steinbeck visited and wrote about in A Russian Journal in 1948. Steinbeck avoided much of the clichéd Cold War thinking that enveloped American writing about the Soviet Union, but he also supported the Vietnam War, and that may have cost him his Russian readers.
Colleen Bailey, the director of the National Steinbeck Center, sees Steinbeck’s appeal closer to home in Salinas and Monterey, rather than Moscow. As a young girl, she read Of Mice and Men. Then in high school she acted in a stage adaptation of East of Eden. In the pages of Steinbeck’s fiction, she found defiant characters who encouraged her own rebelliousness. In 2014, to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath, she and the staff at the center went on the road and retraced the Joad family’s odyssey. A videographer filmed the journey that began in Sallisaw, Oklahoma, and ended in Bakersfield. Along the way, Bailey interviewed farmers, housewives, businessmen, and students, and she learned that Steinbeck’s words can still wound readers in the places where he wrote and that he wrote about.
The Texas-born, San Francisco-based, award-winning playwright Octavio Solis joined Bailey on the trip from Oklahoma and found himself transformed by the journey, communing with the ribbon of Steinbeck’s literary shrine that runs for fifteen hundred miles. On the road, Solis read a few pages of The Grapes of Wrath each night until he finished the book. The journey led him backward and forward in time and in space and inspired him to write a play called “On the Mother Road.” He’s at work on another drama in which a descendant of Tom Joad returns to Oklahoma and in the era of global climate change finds signs of yet another Dust Bowl. “Does he become his own worst boss?” Solis asks. “Is he a good grower or is he cruel to his workers? And what is life like in Eastern Oklahoma?” As a dramatist, he finds powerful theatrical elements in nearly all of Steinbeck’s work as well as characters who speak to him as though they’re alive today.
“I had long thought of Mexican farm workers as today’s Okies,” Solis told me. “But that idea didn’t hit home until I met a dark-skinned man in Weedpatch, California, who had worked in the fields, read The Grapes of Wrath, and saw himself as the reincarnation of Tom Joad.” One of the poorest towns in all of California, Weedpatch was perhaps the perfect location for Solis to find Steinbeck’s novel as vital as it had been when it was first published. Indeed, in Weedpatch, California, the seventy-five-year-old book came to life again.
Solis’s literary allegiances stretch beyond Steinbeck. Born in 1956, the same year that Ginsberg’s Howl was published and a year before Kerouac’s On the Road appeared in print, he feels linked to the Beat Generation writers. You might find him at City Lights Bookstore or at Vesuvio’s or Tosca’s in North Beach. “City Lights is a major shrine and so is Tosca’s,” Solis said. “I’ve always felt an affinity with Kerouac because he was a wild spirit influenced by jazz and because he wanted to break down boundaries.”
Jerry Cimino, the founder of the Beat Museum in North Beach, and a former executive at IBM and American Express, was inspired by the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. He remembers lunch with Kim Greer, the center’s CEO, who told him, “A Beat Museum ought to be big. You’ve got multiple greats: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso. You’ve got jazz, rock n’ roll, the sixties, and nonconformists through the ages. It could be huge.” Greer’s prediction has come true.
Cimino runs the Beat Museum out of a spacious two-story building that looks out on a cityscape with cultural capital. While almost all of the visitors to the Steinbeck Center come from northern California, the Beat Museum draws an international crowd that has learned about the Beats from recent films such as Howl (2010), On the Road (2012), Big Sur (2013), and Kill Your Darlings (2013). According to Cimino, twenty- and thirty-year-olds come to the museum from all across the United States and from Vietnam, Ukraine, New Zealand, China, and Germany. “I’ve learned from them that the Beats are timeless, that they exemplify youth, and that they’ve helped to foment rebellion around the world,” Cimino told me.
In 2014, he hired Noemi Sornet, a twenty-one-year-old French videographer, to document the cultural diversity of the visitors to the Beat Museum. Born and raised on the west coast of France, Sornet read Sur la Route at sixteen. She first came to Cimino’s attention when she stormed a screening of Walter Salles’s cinematic version of On the Road at the Cannes Film Festival, and later when she launched a website that collected reflections from Kerouac readers around the world. It was a global valentine to the author.
“Reading On the Road was a freeing experience,” Sornet told me. “At sixteen, when I finished the novel, I wanted to write and also to come to America. Working at the Beat Museum has been a dream come true. I’ve met sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds from Brooklyn, Montreal, and San Paolo. We all belong to the Kerouac cult.”
Did she feel that French responses to the Beats differed from American responses? “I don’t want to speak for everyone,” she said. “But I think the French are less puritanical than many Americans, less shocked by the Beat use of drugs, and less judgmental about their sexuality, though in San Francisco almost everything goes. Yes, there are differences, but I think that On the Road expresses the universal feelings of youth.”
Ea Oerum, a Danish journalist, toured literary San Francisco in the winter of 2014, but she didn’t catch fire until she arrived in Los Angeles. For three weeks, she wandered from Beverly Hills to Bunker Hill, taking notes, interviewing residents, and writing about LA for her readers in Denmark. She went home, unpacked, repacked, and returned to her newly adopted haunts. On her second visit to California, she stayed nine weeks.
More than any other LA writer—more than James M. Cain, John Fante, and Raymond Chandler—it was Charles Bukowski who fascinated Oerum. Bukowski’s streets became her shrine, although their seediness seemed anathema to the very notion of a literary shrine. Born in Germany in 1924 and brought to the United States as a child, Bukowski published more than one hundred books that have long been appreciated more in Europe than in the United States, at least until recently. Oerum made a pilgrimage to Bukowski’s grave at Green Hills Memorial Park and with friends observed the anniversary of his death at King Eddy Saloon, the self-proclaimed “finest watering hole on Skid Row.”
Richard Schave, the founder of Esotouric—which offers literary tours billed as “adventures into the heart of LA”—brought Oerum into Bukowski’s world of drunks, derelicts, college professors, and intellectuals in the City of Angels. A perfect guide to the world of Bukowski, Cain, Chandler, and Fante, Schave is a native Angeleno. He eats, sleeps, drinks, and thinks like a character in a noir film circa 1945, or perhaps more like a noir director, say Billy Wilder. Schave’s literary map of LA is recognizable to readers who have been raised on Bukowski, Baudelaire, and Brecht, German expressionists and French film critics, who gave the word “noir” to Hollywood’s downward-spiraling narratives about criminals, grifters, insurance salesmen, and waitresses who commit murder for love and money.
And in the end what can a pilgrimage do to the pilgrim?
It has turned a Danish woman into an Angelena. “I love Bukowski’s LA,” Oerum told me. “I love the way that he gives humanity to people in the gutter. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to meet him in person. I wish I might have met more of the kinds of Americans that he writes about in Ham on Rye,” my favorite Bukowski book.
And it has made an Angeleno something else entirely. “I haven’t adopted a European view of the city per se,” Schave told me. “But I share with European artists and writers a peculiar view of LA that’s not exactly American and not entirely European, either.”
Editor’s note: Malcolm Margolin doesn’t answer questions. He tells stories. Sitting down to talk with Malcolm is like settling into the shotgun seat of an old pickup truck. You know you’re in for a ride. You’re going to go places you’ve never been before, explore back roads and byways, stop in on some old friends, and sit and chat for a while.
Getting out of the office and deep hanging out—Malcolm says that’s his job as publisher of Heyday, which this year is celebrating forty years of publishing books on California. Looking back across four decades of Heyday’s backlist and perusing each beautiful new catalog as it comes out every season—the catalogs themselves tell stories—the gifts that Malcolm Margolin has brought California overwhelm any attempt to contain them. A new book appears about every two weeks.
As is his wont, Malcolm is moving on to find the next thing of beauty to bring back to Heyday and all of us. But before doing so, he sat down for a spell in Heyday’s Berkeley offices with Boom editor Jon Christensen to talk about books, publishing, and his California.
Jon Christensen: There will be a lot of people who will read this who haven’t, amazingly, heard of Heyday and Malcolm Margolin. So what is Heyday? Tell me a little bit about its mission and its history.
Malcolm Margolin: It wasn’t deliberate. I didn’t want to set up a publishing company. As I’m getting older, people are giving me credit for great vision, that forty years ago Margolin had a vision of a magnificent California publishing enterprise. He’s worked hard, and he’s fulfilled that vision. The vision that I had was wanting not to work for anybody. The vision I had was being free and independent. The vision that I had was getting through the week, and it’s been forty years of getting through the week. It’s been forty years of doing what’s been in front of me.
As for history, it started somewhere around ‘73 when I got fired from the East Bay Regional Park District. I turned thirty—I actually turned thirty three years before, but it took me three years to work on it. Houghton Mifflin gave me ten thousand bucks for a book that I’d written. I was a free man with money in my pocket, and I spent the next year hiking in the hills and looking around. I just took off and celebrated the amazing, incredible beauty of the world, the fact that I was free. I had thought that I’d been had. I thought that I was trapped. I thought that I was going to be a pawn in this whole society, that I’d be pushed around by forces beyond my control. But I got my hands on the steering wheel of my life, and I discovered it was a sports car, and that the freeway was leading to someplace that was utterly marvelous. I just stepped on the gas and I took off. I hiked around, and I wrote these marvelous thoughts about hiking in the East Bay, and I put them together in a book that I typeset and designed and put out. The book ultimately sold a hundred thousand copies. It’s called The East Bay Out.
I loved writing and I considered myself a writer. But I now discovered that I loved the physicality of putting the type down on the paper. Many years later, I met the poet and printer William Everson, and he was particularly eloquent on what it was to generate something out of your mind that never existed before, to create it, to put it on paper, to give it a physical form, and that physical form I loved. And I also ended up loving getting it out in the world. There was something about just writing a manuscript and giving it to somebody else that seemed so incomplete and unsatisfactory. It would be as if I was a writer and only did the verbs and let somebody else do the nouns.
The process of writing is getting something into somebody else’s mind, and I loved being part of that whole process, of getting it out into bookstores, and giving readings, of being part of the distribution, of being active in the world. And the whole business of sitting there writing, it was so lonely and so filled with delusion and so helpless, so dependent upon other people. But publishing was a way that I could be active. I could get something out in the world. I could ride that horse out into the meadows, into the valleys, into the mountains. I could explore things.
So its origins were to do one book and do it well. So then I did another book.
Christensen: And here we are with twenty-five books a year.
Margolin: Twenty-five books a year, a couple hundred events a year, a staff of about fifteen.
Christensen: How do you describe what Heyday is today and what its mission is today?
Margolin: The official mission statement has something to do with deepening people’s appreciation and understanding of the natural and cultural resources of California, and something about boundary-breaking ideas, and a lot of other shit like that. What I do is, I go out into the world. I go out into the world and I find beautiful things and I bring them back in here, and I bring them back in here to make the people that work on them beautiful. We don’t just shape the stuff that we work on. The stuff that we work on shapes us, and I’ve watched the people at Heyday be shaped by it, and I’ve watched it go out into the world to shape others.
Perhaps the real mission of Heyday is to create a beautiful place in which there’s joy, in which there’s creativity, in which there’s pride, in which there’s a soundness, in which there’s playfulness, and to see this spill over into the world at large. But, once again, it has to do with my being regional. It has to do with my being nearsighted. It has to do with my not being too good at systems. It’s the specificities that I go for, projects and people that I’ll bring into the office and astonish everybody, including myself.
Christensen: So that specificity and that regionalism, why California?
Margolin: Because I was here. If I’d been in Indiana, I would have been the best publisher in Indiana.
Christensen: Is there a California literature, or literatures?
Margolin: You know, going on my own experience—let’s not talk about Joaquin Miller. We could, but let’s not. Let’s talk about more recent times, and let’s talk about it from a publisher’s perspective.
Back East major and long-established publishers dominated the scene. When I came out West, it was swarming with little presses. When I started Heyday, in Berkeley alone there were dozens of them—Alta had Shameless Hussy Press, and John Oliver Simon had Aldebaran. Bob Callahan and Eileen Callahan had Turtle Island. Ishmael Reed had I. Reed Books. Don Cushman had Cloud Marauder. George Mattingly had Blue Cloud. Jerry Ratch had Somber Reptiles Press, a wonderful name for a press. There were these and so many more. And these were all enterprises that had grown up around personalities. And yet it was all invention. This was invented whole cloth. This was not a Houghton Mifflin. This was not a Harper & Row. This was something that sprung up at the spur of the moment, bursting with freshness and energy.
My wonderful friend, Ron Turner, had Last Gasp, with all these underground cartoonists, with Crumb and all these characters arising up. Printers like Clifford Burke were doing limited edition fine-art books. Ferlinghetti had just started publishing under the City Lights imprint. Stewart Brand did the Whole Earth Catalog. There was an inventiveness and excitement to it all. It was a snubbing of the nose at the proprieties and at the stuckedness of major publishing. I remember that Harper and Houghton and all these places were sending scouts out because something was happening out here. They didn’t quite understand what it was, and they sent scouts to see what they could find out.
But there was something about this self-invention, and there was something about the looseness of this whole thing, that I think gave rise to the Lou Welches, to the Richard Brautigans, to the Gary Snyders, to the Maxine Hong Kingstons, to the Ishmael Reeds, to the James Houstons and Ray Carvers, to the Bob Hasses, to all these people that created Western literature, and I’m not sure they could have created it back East. I’m not sure that that rigid structure would have allowed that sort of thing. And this goes back to the Gold Rush days, when California was cut off from the East, and it created its own literature. It created its own magazines. There were wonderful magazines back then, and there was something in that self-creation that made it different, it made it more accessible, it made it more vibrant and more connected to the people, to the place around here.
From Take me to the River: Fishing, Swimming, and Dreaming of the San Joaquin by Joell Hallowell and Coke Hallowell. Courtesy Sally Adlesh.
Christensen: Describe for me this idea of the roundhouse model of publishing. It’s more than a book. What is it? Where did the idea come from?
Margolin: The idea came from the sad experience of doing books that would go out into the world and not work very well. Splendid books that would have such a short lifetime, like a mayfly that just kind of flutters around briefly and then disappears. But whatever the sales, doing books is a wonderful way of organizing ideas. The doing of the book brings out greatness in people that do them. The editing process, the design process, the commitment of the publisher, they’re all tremendously valuable. Once it gets out into the world—or maybe doesn’t get out into the world—there’s often disappointment, regret, and apology.
And, despite the explosive growth of digital publishing, for many kinds of books the commercial vehicles for distribution are attenuating—there is this shriveling of opportunity. There has to be some other way of getting stuff out into the world. And what we deal with are ideas, and what we deal with are emotions. I’m an emotion junkie. I’m not an intellectual. I’m an emotion junkie, and Heyday is an emotional place. When somebody comes in with something beautiful, the staff will spend a lot of time talking about the core of beauty that it has, the core of meaning that it has. What is it that the world has to know, and how do we get it out? And we’ll get it out through multiple channels. So there’s the book, there’s the events, there are the museum shows we originate, the alliances we form with other cultural and environmental organizations, there’s the fact that the roundhouse doesn’t just support itself by sales. It has donors. It has foundations that support us. We’re a community center, and I love it when people come into this place. There’s a porosity to this place. People just come wandering in and they find things. We have a marvelous archive. People are furthered by it all. If people need advice, they’ll come to us for advice. They’ll come to us for connection. It’s a social center. I think the bookstores of the future are not going to be bookstores. I think they’re going to be community centers. I think they’re going to be intellectual centers. I think they’ll be replacing universities—not for professional training but more as refugia for the life of the mind. I think they’ll be clubs. I think there’s something else that people are hungry for, and it’s that sense of community. It’s a place that exists on real friendship.
The first law of publishing is you don’t deal with anybody you don’t like, and the second law of publishing is anything that gets you out of the office is good, that you don’t find truth in the inbox. You just get out into the world. And there’s something about being out in this world, in multiple platforms, in multiple forms.
From Vital Signs by Juan Delgado and Thomas McGovern. Photograph by Thomas McGovern.
You know, we do twenty-five books a year, so every two weeks or so, another book comes back from the printer. Anna will bring me a copy of the book, or Diane will bring me a copy of a book when it comes. I’ll take a look at it. I’ll admire it. I’ll compliment everybody on it. I’ll heft it. I’ll look at the price of it. I’ll think about it. I’ll put it aside. I’m proud of it. I’m proud of the quality of it. I’ll stand by it proudly but I may never look at it again. What I love is the social network that created it, the artist, the editor, the writer, the people that criticized it, the conversations that were around it, what formed the idea. What I love is what comes out of it all: the radio shows, the reviews, the sales, the publicity. If the book were to disappear, if there were to be no book but everything else were intact, there would certainly be a loss, but what remains would still be of immense value.
Christensen: The roundhouse idea comes from the Native American communities you’ve been involved with and publishing with, and the roundhouse is a kind of community center.
Margolin: The roundhouse is a community center. It is a multipurpose community center. It’s a church. It’s a university. It used to function as a hotel, and in some places as a recreation center. In the old days, when it was built, people would come from different places. They would help construct the place that corresponded to where they were coming from. There were seating arrangements in those old places, where you would sit in a precise place that defined your relationship to the society around you. Maybe your clan and my clan have reciprocal undertaking arrangements. We bury your dead; you bury our dead. Where we would sit in the roundhouse would reflect this relationship.
Where you would sit was the physical manifestation of the community. There would be a center post, and that center post was a living entity. Those center posts had memories. The center posts had intelligence. The center post was a living thing. And when you were next to that center post, you had to speak the truth, and if you didn’t speak the truth, then terrible things would happen to you, because that center post had the power to do that sort of thing. There was something in that place where you would come to tell the truth.
When you go into those old roundhouses, the light is always the same. There’s a fire going on. There’s a fire there. People are sitting around waiting for a dance. When you go into those old roundhouses, it’s the sense that this is the permanent world. The rest of the world, the birds and trees and rivers and cities, it’s just an illusion, that this round space is the center of the world. It’s always been there, it’s eternal and it’s immortal, and this is what’s holding the whole thing together. It is the most beautiful kind of thing.
Christensen: What’s interesting is that the roundhouse has to be rebuilt. It’s a permanent place, but it has to be rebuilt every generation.
Margolin: There was that story that my Miwok friend, Dwight Dutschke, told me, of how a roundhouse has to be built so that it will collapse every twenty years, so that every generation will have the experience of rebuilding it. And what he said was, if you want to build a roundhouse that will last, there’s one method of doing it. If you want a culture that will last, there’s something else you have to do. It was built for that kind of transmission.
I once did the most marvelous study of Indian pedagogy, of how people learn things, and how knowledge was preserved in this world before books, before writing, how you preserve sacred text, how you preserve technical knowledge, and the various means by which knowledge was embedded in things and people, and that marvelous Indian way of knowing. There’s a different way of knowing that they have. The stories that they have of how buckeye is married to rattlesnake and gives birth to grizzly bear, and all those stories that are so completely incomprehensible to us, they preserve wonderment. They don’t preserve knowledge. They preserve wonderment. They preserve relationship. They teach us our place in the world and they define attitude. They’re laid over the world like a blanket, to give it meaning, to give it texture, to give it relationship, to give it magic, to bind opposites together. They don’t kill the magic in the world. The magic in the world is embedded in these stories, in those ways of seeing things, and there’s that wonderful sense that you get there, that the world is bigger than our capacity to understand it, that the world is inherently mysterious.
There’s that great story that Jaime de Angulo, a linguist and storyteller active in California during the first half of the last century, tells of being up in the Pit River country, talking to some old guy, and asking him about the creation of the world. And the guy says, “Well, in the beginning, it was coyote,” and Jaime says, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. In a nearby village they told me at the beginning, it was silver fox.” And this Indian says, “Well, there they say it was silver fox. Here we say it was coyote.” In Europe, you would have had a religious war in which three million people would have been killed to settle who the true creator of the world was. In this older California, they say it one way, we say it another way. What a marvelous world, a people so at home in it that they don’t need to cling to brittle illusions of certitude.
And the story goes on that Jaime tells. There’s a point in the creation—Bob Hass wrote a poem about this one. He got it from me, and he wrote a poem about it, and he garbled it in the most marvelous way that only Bob Hass has. In garbling it, he improved the part. But the guy says something like, “So, at one point in the creation, the world maker was about to do something, and he says, ‘I better not do this because what will people think?’” And Jaime says, “Wait a minute. There’s no people around. He’s creating the world. He can create any kind of world he wants, he can create any kind of people he wants. What do you mean, what will people think?”
And the Indian says, “You know, I always wondered about that. When I was a kid I asked my father about it, and my father said, ‘You know, I always wondered about that. When I was a kid, I asked my father about that.’” It’s a world in which there were questions that were being asked. It’s not a world that’s defined tightly. It’s a world where people recognized that the wonderments of being alive are so great, and the human intelligence is so limited, that all we can do is be in awe of it all. These stories pay homage to the wisps of knowledge that swirl around the great mystery, rather than try to nail the thing down and kill it.
From Edges of Bounty by William Emery. Photograph by Scott Squire.
Christensen: Your daughter, Sadie, says, “My overseas was here in California, visiting Indian country, places where you can imagine an alternate history to what we have now, perhaps even a history that should have been but isn’t.” What did she mean by that?
Margolin: We can give her a ring and find out what the hell she meant.
Christensen: Well, what are your thoughts about that?
Margolin: I think that that alternate history is a different way of looking at history. We look at Indians as a function of the dominant culture. They were a defeated people. They’ve been marginalized. They’re trying to regain their culture. But we contextualize it within our own dominant culture. We try to make them fit into our own narrative. It’s nothing more than continuing the conquest. When you get into an Indian perspective, you see something else. You see survival. You see change. You see transmission. You see evolution of things.
Let me see if I can get at this, because there’s something remarkable about that other perspective, when you see things in a different manner. We have a triumphalist view of history. It’s the triumph of the Western people that have come in. Indian history is not a triumphalist history. This is a different history. It’s a history of pain. It’s a history of humiliation. But it’s a history of greater victory. So we’ve got this character working for us now, named Vincent Medina. About two years ago, we had twenty local Indians that I invited to our office. We invited some foundation people to listen to them, and I wanted these foundation people to hear what the Bay Area Indians had to say about their world. Vincent is somebody who was twenty-six years old. He’s relearned the Chochenyo language from the wax cylinders that his ancestors had created in the 1930s, the last speakers of this wonderful language. They left behind some wax cylinders and some notes. He has relearned the language with utter fluency and utter grace.
So it goes around the table and Vincent is sitting there, and it comes to him and he says, “My name is Vincent Medina. I’m twenty-six years old. I’m Chochenyo Ohlone from this area. I know my language. I’m practicing my customs. I didn’t have the same experience as you people in this room. I’m younger than you. I grew up in a different age. I never experienced the brutal prejudice. I never experienced the hatred. I’m not filled with resentment and anger. I’m so grateful for everybody at this table for keeping things alive during such difficult times, but I want to let you know that I have my language, I have my culture, and I’m going to take it somewhere where it’s never been.”
And there was something marvelous in that statement. There’s something of a victory to that statement, and something in having resurrected something and kept it alive that’s such a different vantage point from our own history. There’s something in it that’s so rooted, that’s so emotional, so inconsequential to the culture at large, and yet so self-defined and central, in and of itself. I find that utterly beautiful, and I find going to these pockets of integrity, going to these places of memory, going to these places of emotion and attachment—there’s another history in there. There’s another way of seeing things in there, and leads me to a hopefulness.
Christensen: Describe for me deep hanging out, as a method.
Margolin: If you have to describe it, it’s hopeless. It comes naturally.
Christensen: What don’t we know about the rest of California?
Margolin: I’m not sure.
Christensen: Do I need to clarify who I mean by “we”? So it’s partly a question of what are the things that you think that we need to know about the rest of California, and by that “we,” I mean those of us who live in the cities, the Bay Area, Los Angeles. But maybe it’s the other way around, too. What don’t we know about each other?
Margolin: This is such a big and wonderful question. Some weekends ago, I went down to Southern California with Lindsie Bear, who runs the roundhouse. We stopped in at Sam Maloof’s house—Sam was a well-known furniture maker—to talk to these people about doing a book on Sam. And then we went off to the Morongo Reservation, where my wonderful friend, Ernie Siva, had a fundraiser for his Dorothy Ramon Learning Center. His aunt, Dorothy Ramon, was the last full speaker of the Serrano language, although Ernie speaks it, too. He has a center devoted to her, and this was a gala to celebrate the center.
We got up early the next morning in Banning and went out to the Mission Inn in Riverside and had breakfast. We then walked up to the street to this Mexican restaurant that has this outsider art in the backyard, magnificent sculptures. Each and every one of these was a self-defined world that somebody had made. Each was a world off the grid. And the capacities of people not to follow the agenda, to create their own worlds of great beauty is just, to me, an utter marvel. And maybe I see this as a publisher. Maybe people come to me only when they have great ideas or something unusual to say.
I think that what we don’t understand is the capacity of people for joy, for creativity, for lives of meaning and for lives of beauty, for lives of devotion to causes, and this great sincerity and this great integrity that people have around us. I’m always stunned by it. I’m always so moved by it. I’m always so moved by the loyalties of people, to their own culture. I’m so moved by the authenticity of the “Hapa” generation, of these mixed-bloods. Whether it’s Indian or Asian, it’s a crossover of people that are forging something new that means something to them. They’re not just taking their identity off the shelf. They’re creating new identities for themselves, and these people among us that are doing things that are so quietly creative and heroic.
And I think what we have to know is there’s been something in the general tone of the media that diminishes people, that diminishes our capacity for joy, that diminishes our capacity for political solution, that diminishes our capacity for competence in the world, that would present people as a race of incompetents that are addicted to toys and are greedy and are living in a world that’s deteriorating, too lazy, selfish, short-sighted, and greedy to be effective. I think you go around and there are people that are just so marvelous, the Mas Masumotos of the world, the people that are doing great things. And this is what I’ve been doing. I’ve been going off and meeting these people, and recording their stories, and they’re people I’m attracted to. I don’t know whether this is statistically widespread. These are the people I know.
From Scrape the Willow Until it Sings by Julia Parker. Photograph by Deborah Valoma.
Christensen: How many Californias are there, or how many should there be?
Margolin: The population is thirty-two million. You could say that there are thirty-two million Californias. But I think California has this reputation for self-invention. I think everybody is convinced they own California, and it’s such a flimsy concept. It’s such a undefinable concept. In 1849, a bunch of alcoholics sitting around a table in Monterey drew some lines around a map through places that they’d never been, and created this thing called California, and we’ve been stuck with it ever since. It’s not real. It’s not real. In no way does it conform to geography, culture, or anything else in the real world.
We’ve been doing a lot of work up in the Sacramento Valley. To some extent, parts of the Sacramento Valley are a culture area. You go up into the rice-growing areas up there, and there are people that live up there that are the most peculiarly traditional, conservative, optimistic people. They’re so inventive in their technology. They’re so forward-looking. And, at the same time, they’re so conservative in their social values. I don’t know how you make people like this. Bryce Lundberg and the Lundberg family, they’re just astonishing people. The people that have Sierra Brewery, the people that are out there on the farms—and this is a culture area, and I’m not sure how far it extends. The people that seem to live around Davis seem to have more of an organic, small-community sort of thing.
We did a lot of work down in what’s called the Inland Valley, and there it’s completely fragmented. Riverside has its own culture. San Bernardino has its own culture. Colton has its own culture. Fortuna has its own culture. Idyllwild has its own culture. In the Bay Area, Berkeley has absolutely nothing in common with Fremont. Fremont has absolutely nothing in common with Marin County. Marin County has absolutely nothing in common with San Jose. Nobody knows anything about what the others are doing, and yet we call ourselves the Bay Area. I don’t know how many Californias there are. You tell me.
Christensen: I argue that we’re one. We have one state.
Margolin: Well, maybe we can have one state. As a political entity, maybe we do have one state. There’s a great statement by Walter Lippmann, “Where all people think alike, no one thinks very much.” There’s something about these differences and dynamics that are so invigorating. So you think there’s only one California. How about less than one?
Christensen: At times it seems that way.
Margolin: Why stop at one? Why not continue?
Christensen: But it’s more of an argument, right? It’s an argument I’m making, about more than one California. I’m happy to entertain these ideas that there’s more than one California, or there should be more than one California, but if there are, I want them to be things that are useful for us to think with, or think about the California we have, rather than things that are destructive. I think that Tim Draper’s proposal for seven—
Margolin: —for six or seven Californias is idiotic.
Christensen: I think it’s destructive. It doesn’t help us think about the California we have.
Margolin: It’s completely destructive. It’s completely destructive. It assumes that unanimity is good. It assumes that homogeneity is good, and you end up having homogeneous groups, and this is good. And it’s one way of eliminating conflict, but with it comes no thinking. With it comes no progress. And we’re connected. The waters connect us. The air connects us. It’s all bullshit about California being an island. California is not an island. In California, the storms come in from the Pacific, the salmon come in from the ocean, the whales come down from the Arctic, the geese and the ducks come in from Siberia and Alaska, the people move throughout, the transmission—the air pollution comes from China. It’s always been part of the world, and this whole business of insulating something from the world is just absolutely—well, I can’t say I care for it very much.
So what are some of the changes you’ve seen since you’ve been in California? What do you think of California?
Christensen: I think perhaps the reason why I agreed to take on this foolhardy proposition of editing a quarterly magazine—and dedicating it to California in the world and the world in California—is that I’m trying to figure out this question. Or perhaps just keep asking it. I don’t know that I’ll ever figure it out, but it’s an interesting question to keep asking.
Margolin: So Jim Quay came by for lunch. He was head of the California Council for the Humanities, and for thirty years he would ask the question, “What does California mean?” He never found out. He never quite pinned it down. What I keep thinking about is that there’s been a major shift, that for the first time in our history, more people are born in this state than migrated in. For most of our history, people have come in as migrants, so they have left family and culture behind, they’ve come to a new place. They’ve come to reinvent themselves in some way. And there was something in that reinvention that I think defined California. It defined it in the Gold Rush, when some schleppy young farmer from New England with zits would come out here and suddenly take on another identity of Tennessee Joe, and take on a romantic past that created a new identity for himself.
I’ve created an identity for myself. This is not the kid that grew up in Dorchester. I left that person behind. And it’s a place where you could re-create yourself, and there’s something in that milieu that allows people to change, that creates something. There’s a dynamism to this culture that’s really great fun. Silicon Valley began here. Underground comics began here. A new type of music began here. There was something about the innovation of the place, it’s the innovation of people that are allowed to reinvent themselves, and maybe that’s what here.
Christensen: Thinking about this story of the ancient Polynesians setting out on boats to colonize Hawaii, packing seeds of things for the future, what would you pack for the future?
Margolin: For the future of Heyday or for the future of California? There’s a difference.
Christensen: Well, let’s take one and then the other, for the future of Heyday.
Margolin: The Rolodex. I’d pack the Rolodex.
Christensen: You still have one, actually.
Margolin: Yeah. I think the question is better than any answer I have. I think that a person lives on a body of values, and it lives on something. I think I would pack it into a theme song. I think I would pack it into an app, a kind of morning prayer, and the prayer would be for the capacity to take risks, the capacity to be open, understanding that this is not a dog-eat-dog world. It’s a kind world and to be kind to other people. I think it’s a body of values, that I would bring along. I think this is all that I have. I don’t have possessions. I don’t own a house. I don’t own anything. I own absolutely nothing that if I lost it, I would care about it. This is not just an idle Zen kind of comment. I think that if I was stripped of everything, I wouldn’t care. I just don’t care about these sorts of things.
I think what I have to offer is a kind of system of values, and it has to do with playfulness. It has to do with risk. It has to do with a desire to see other people happy. I love the happiness of the people that are here. I love to see them happy. I don’t want to dominate. I want people to be strong, and I want them to be in a position and place where people are thriving. There’s something about that, I think, I would end up capturing that in some kind of a poem, some kind of a song, where a sentence could repeat, and it wouldn’t be corrupted by time. These things tend to be corrupted by time, and I’m not sure how you keep that core that has not been articulated. I think that I would keep alive disgust with meanness and selfishness. People come in here with that kind of stuff and I just have no use for it. I just have no use for it. I just don’t see it here.
Christensen: What about for California?
Margolin: I think what you would end up packing for the future are environments. I think there are environments that need to be protected, and I think that what has to be protected is not the species that live on these places but the capacity of a place to change, the capacity of a place to be fruitful and fecund and healthy, and I think it’s the underlying health of a place that has to be preserved. And I think that great areas of land have to be taken into the future. I think that we have to preserve the limited waters that we have. I think for California, the future is in the natural resources that have to be preserved.
I would love to be able to preserve the literature of California. I once created something called the California Legacy Project over at Santa Clara University, to get that older literature out. Somehow, there’s been no cultural interest in it. There’ve been no courses in it. The state of the new, this worship of the new, nobody wants to read this Gold Rush stuff anymore. Nobody wants to read these marvelous works from the past. And somehow or other, I would like to see these preserved. I would like to see these memories preserved of what places were like, what the tonalities of people’s lives were like, what the hopes of the people that came here were, what their aspirations were, how these aspirations got molded and realized or obliterated. I think I would love to keep alive the lives of people.
I would love to see more deep hanging out. This art of deep hanging out, it’s not done too often. People have become like billiard balls on a table. They click against one another, and they bounce off into their separate worlds. I go into these Indian communities. I’ll go to somebody’s house. I’ll knock at the door and somebody will open the door, and this old woman will look at me—this has happened recently—and she’ll look at me and she’ll say, “Malcolm. How good to see you.” And you know you’re in for a three-hour visit, in which nothing much may get said, but you sit there for three hours and you absorb each other’s personality, and the bigness of their lives, the sadness of their lives, the humor of their lives, and this whole business of just getting to know one another. It’s so essential.
Editor’s Note: How is California represented in world literature? There are certainly many qualitative answers to that question. But it is also possible to answer this question quantitatively by analyzing the millions of books digitized by Google in eight different languages. This represents an incredible corpus that can now be used to explore trends over time in words and ideas that have been published from 1500 to the present. We call this “world literature” in an expansive sense of the term because this corpus includes everything from atlases to government documents, poetry, and ‘zines. Google makes available a database of all of the words in millions of these digitized publications in multiple languages at its Google Ngram Viewer website. Here we present two preliminary views of California in this corpus—one by a literary critic, the other by a digital humanities scholar—in an ongoing exploration of this question.
David L. Ulin writes:
California owes its name to the written word. The source is the fictional Queen Califia, whose story comes from the Spanish writer Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo’s 1510 romance The Adventures of Esplandián. “Know ye,” Rodríguez de Montalvo wrote, “that at the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California, very close to that part of the Terrestrial Paradise, which was inhabited by black women without a single man among them, and they lived in the manner of Amazons. They were robust of body with strong passionate hearts and great virtue. The island itself is one of the wildest in the world on account of the bold and craggy rocks.” Is it any wonder, then, that when Diego de Becerra and Fortún Ximénez landed at the southern tip of Baja in 1533, they chose to name the place the Island of California, as if they had discovered their own heaven on earth?
Click this graph to see an interactive version.
I think about the Island of California when I look at Joshua Comer’s data analysis graph. His task—to track the word “California” (and related phrases) through millions of books published across nine languages and several centuries—appears simple enough, but what it yields is something else again. To me, it looks like a voiceprint, or a series of overlapping voiceprints, the residue of a conversation we’ve been having without ever really calculating it, from continent to continent and year to year. It may start with Rodríguez de Montalvo, but it’s the proliferation that’s important. . . or, better yet, the cacophony.
Cacophony? Yes, the cacophony of California, which is itself made up of voiceprints, languages interrupting one another, each reading (and writing and speaking) the place through its own filter, its own point-of-view. Such an idea comes embedded in the very heart of Comer’s research, which seems to address the state as both myth and landscape, manifest and historical destiny, demographic and promised land. I’m not even going to try to summarize his findings; to be honest, I don’t think I could do them justice, and anyway, I’m less interested in the data than in the effect. Still, for all that his graphs reveal the fate of references to the state and some of its most essential tropes (the “California dream,” for instance, or “Californian gold”), what they also do is suggest that this is just the beginning of the story, that we are looking at the expression of California as idea.
As to why this is important, California has always existed as part of both the real world (whatever that is) and the imagination, a territory we occupy and one we also dream. Read Comer’s image one way and you get the former; read it another, and it’s the latter that bleeds through. Just look at the spikes—the earliest right around 1850, denoting statehood and the Gold Rush, the next near 1870 (the completion of the continental railroad), and a third in the late 1880s and early 1890s, the time of the first great Los Angeles real-estate boom. This was when the “California Dream” was invented, although its substantiality has long been a subject of debate. After the boom imploded, Carey McWilliams once noted, sixty-two out of “more than a hundred towns platted in Los Angeles County” ceased to exist, if they had ever: “The town of Carlton had 4,060 lots and not a single resident; Nadeau had 4,470 lots but no settlers; Manchester had 2,304 lots, but no inhabitants; Santiago had 2,110 lots, a few houses, but no occupants for the houses; Chicago Park, laid out in the wash of the San Gabriel River, had 2,289 lots and one resident; while the town of Sunset had 2,014 lots and a watchman.” Against such a template, it is tempting to think about California as a blank slate, an empty canvas, with no heritage or history—and yet, the graphs insist otherwise.
How does this work? Let’s return to those peaks again, not just collectively but within each of the languages (and one nation, the United States) that Comer charts. In American books, California seems to represent, as we might suspect, its own country: “all that raw land,” to borrow a phrase from Jack Kerouac, “that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it.” Kerouac was a romantic, but what’s interesting about the graph is that it is romantic also—or more accurately, romance quantified. It is a portrait of our collective fascination with California, all our arguments and denigrations, as well as the boosters and the hucksters, a portrait in sheer data of the state and what it means. This extends beyond American English, to Spanish, British English, Italian, German, Hebrew, French. References in simplified Chinese rise dramatically between the 1920s and the late 1940s, a function, in part perhaps, of the smallness of the sample, although I prefer to read it in the context of miscegenation laws. Those were dismantled in California in 1948, five years after the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act and a year before Mao’s revolution, and I would like to think these things are related, reflected in the upward movement of the graph.
Regardless of the vagaries of language, references to the state hit their zenith between the 1970s and the 1990s, and fall off at the new millennium. What this means, I couldn’t tell you, but perhaps it indicates a shift beyond what let’s call, as McWilliams did, California exceptionalism. This has long been the albatross of every Californian: the burden of its mythos, which I once rejected and then embraced, and now regard with an uneasy ambivalence. The thing about myths, or tropes, is that there has to be some truth to them or else they wouldn’t linger as they do. All the same, they obscure a larger truth, a way of thinking, our ability to see this place, any place, for what it is. That, too, is the legacy of Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo and Queen Califia, the legacy of The Adventures of Esplandián.
Born out of romance, born out of literature, is it possible that California has finally become, after half a thousand years in the imagination, just another setting in the world? “A city no worse than others,” Raymond Chandler observed of Los Angeles, “a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness.” What else could he be describing if not California itself? Chandler was a romantic also, but he understood that romance only goes so far. “It all depends on where you sit,” he wrote in The Long Goodbye, which sits in my mind like a bookend to the legend of Queen Califia, “and what your own private score is. I didn’t have one. I didn’t care. I finished the drink and went to bed.”
Joshua Comer writes:
Our analysis of California’s place among the billions of words from millions of books amassed at the Google Ngram Viewer web site begins with the “n-gram.” An “n-gram” is simply a string of a certain n number of words. A one-gram or unigram is one word, such as “California.” A two-gram or bigram is a string of two words, such as “California dream,” a trigram is a string of three words, and so on.
In our analysis, we looked at the occurrence of unigrams for “California” in English and other languages. We also looked at the occurrence of bigrams for “California” and words that occurred immediately before “California,” such as “northern” and “southern,” and immediately after, such as “dream,” as well as sentences that begin and end with “California.” We also looked at bigrams using the adjectival form “Californian.”
Click this graph to see an interactive version.
In this analysis, we measured the frequency of each n-gram among all of the words published each year in books in Google’s digitized corpus. In other words, we took the number of times the word “California” occurred in published works that year and divided it by the total number of single words or unigrams published that year. Focusing on uses of “California” between 1800 and 2009, our single-word analysis considers over 36 million appearances of “California” drawn from over 873 billion words. For bigrams, we divided the annual total of each bigram, such as “California dream,” by the number of words published that year.
Across languages, we found a fairly regular increase in frequency in the unigram of “California” with noticeable peaks shortly before and following statehood in 1850, in the final decades of the nineteenth century, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and a small rise again in the 1990s. The statistical significance of such changes in frequency within individual languages was evaluated by comparing the sometimes volatile year-to-year changes in frequency observed in each language with the proportion of the language in the total global corpus that year, and the total uses of “California” across all languages that year. For example, the Spanish language declines from approximately 25 to 20 percent of all published words in the Google corpus for the years 1945 and 1946. In turn, we would expect Spanish uses of “California” to decline proportionally in relation to total global uses of “California.” However, the frequency of Spanish uses of “California” actually remained steady during those years. That makes 1945 and 1946 years in which Spanish use of “California” was significantly different from what one would expect statistically.
In some of our graphs, we used a technique called “smoothing,” which creates a moving average across seven years—three before and three after the year in question—to smooth out annual spikes in the data that might be caused by a small number of books or even one single book that contains many instances of “California” in a year in which few books have been digitized by Google. In other graphs, we did not smooth the data because we thought readers might be interested in seeing those annual spikes, particularly in early years.
Smoothing, in addition to giving an aesthetically pleasing and legible wave structure to otherwise noisy data, also says something about our hypotheses about how language works in relation to the published word. If John Steinbeck helped solidify an idea of California nationally and globally toward the end of the Great Depression by publishing The Grapes of Wrath, using a three-year moving average in the graph of “California” in the US unigram corpus based on its year of publication, 1939, assumes that Steinbeck’s etching of the state’s name into the national imagination is connected to three preceding years of writing on California, and its direct impact is registered over the three years following the book’s publishing, or 1936 to 1942.
The leveling effect of this quantitative approach is open to criticism. A wildly popular book set in California could, for instance, obscure previous years in which not much was published about the state. Scholars interested in a close reading of Steinbeck’s work might object to the way the lasting influence of The Grapes of Wrath is foreshortened to three years. The use of the three-year moving average allows us to begin to measure the influence of “California” in writings such as TheGrapes of Wrath, but those uses—no matter how many copies of the book were sold, whether a movie was made, or the author won a Nobel Prize—are not directly measured in the smoothed graphs presented here after three years.
These techniques have been called “distant reading”—in that they analyze patterns in a large corpus of text at a great remove from individual texts, let alone specific passages—in contrast to “close readings” of the construction and meaning of individual books and individual passages of text.¹ Both techniques have their value.
Click this graph to see an interactive version.
Overall, “California” appears in books in English published in the United States almost twice as frequently as in British English books. “California” appears in Spanish-language books at about one-quarter the rate it appears in American books. “California” and “Californie” appear in French books half as often as “California” appears in Spanish books. Italian books feature “California” about as often as French books. From there the occurrence of “California” and its equivalents in different languages falls off in the remaining languages in the Google corpus: German, Hebrew, Russian, and simplified Chinese. In simplified Chinese, occurrences of translations for “California” are generally only one-hundredth the rate of Spanish occurrences of “California,” except for some curious peaks, which likely represent simplified Chinese books in the digitized corpus about California, published in years in which very few books in simplified Chinese have been digitized. “California” begins a slow downward trend after 1995 culminating in a significant plunge in frequency of occurrences across all languages, with 2009, the latest year in the corpus marking California’s lowest rate of appearances in American books since 1913.
Even the most frequent bigrams using “California” and “Californian” are several orders of magnitude more rare than unigrams—that is, the unigram “Californian” appears at rates a thousand times more frequent than the most frequent bigrams such as “Californian gold”—which makes sense because all bigrams containing “Californian” would also be counted as unigrams. The frequencies of these bigrams are in the low hundred-thousandths of a percent (around 0.00001 to 0.00003 percent) of all bigrams published in any given year.
Click this graph to see an interactive version.
“Californian Gulf” is the most common bigram of the adjectival form between 1843 and 1848, when it is overtaken by “Californian gold,” which is prevalent from around 1850 through 1900, after which it declines sharply. “Californian Indians” and “Californian tribes” are used fairly consistently from around 1850 through 1930. “Californian species” occurs consistently and relatively frequently between 1860 and 1980. “Californian coast” had been consistently and relatively frequently used since 1840, with a large spike around 1890. “Native Californian” and “old Californian” stand out from other pairings due to a bump around 1890. “The Californian” also surges around 1890.
The bigrams “Southern California” and “California Press” stand out among bigrams using “California” rather than “Californian.” The presence of “California Press” among the most frequent bigrams indicates the importance of the University of California Press, which publishes Boom, in the corpus of published books as a publisher as well as in citations in works published by other presses. When looking at the trigram “University of California,” we also found that the University of California makes up approximately 80 percent of all recent occurrences of trigrams extending from the bigram “of California” and about .0015 percent of recent occurrences of the unigram “California” in the American English corpus. The UC system clearly influences what is published about California, directly and indirectly, in many ways.
Despite how easily “California dream” comes to mind when we think of bigram phrases involving California, it is found relatively infrequently in the English corpus. At its highest annual frequency in 1992, “California dream” is found around 4,500 times in fewer than 100 books. If it were not the 1990s, those numbers might still prove the prominence of the phrase, but the enormity of the corpus in those years puts the dream’s highest frequency in the ten millionths of a percent of all bigrams published in those years (.0000009 at its peak using the three-year smoothing technique). If you were to look at all bigrams of that frequency since the 1800s that incorporate “California,” you would have to sort through hundreds of bigrams that have been published just as frequently. So much for the California dream?
English (U.S.), 1525-2009
English (Great Britain), 1525-2009
Simplified Chinese, 1525-2009
Any questions concerning the methods used in the study or access to the datasets on which these graphs are based on should be directed to email@example.com.
Franco Moretti, Distant Reading (New York: Verso), 2013.
It’s hard to read Richard Rodriguez’s essays and books without feeling that there is something deeply Californian about them. Every one of his books—Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, Days of Obligation: Arguments with My Mexican Father, Brown: The Last Discovery of America, and Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography—takes place, at least in part, in California. Rodriguez has lived in California nearly all of his life. So what is it that now makes him say he once was but is no longer a California writer? There is something world-weary in the statement. Rodriguez has seen too much of the world in California, and perhaps too much of California in the world. At his writing table in his apartment in San Francisco, Rodriguez spoke with Boom about California’s soul, why he is no longer a California writer, what’s the matter with his hometown, San Francisco, these days, and love.
Boom: In your last book, Brown, and in your new book, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography, you write about your friendship with the late Franz Schurmann and his book American Soul. Could one write about a California soul?
Rodriguez: I don’t know. That’s a really good question. I do think that I tended to read California as a Midwesterner. I had conflicting images of California. One was my uncle from India. The others were my parents from Mexico and the Irish nuns, to whom I dedicate Darling. They were almost all foreign people who had come to California.
But when I was a newspaper boy for the Sacramento Bee, everybody on that route or at least the majority, I would say, was from the Midwest. I would collect their subscription money—I think it was $2—every month. I would be at the door, and the lady would say, “Is it cold outside?” I said, “It’s freezing out here.” She said, “Oh, honey, that’s not freezing. If you want freezing, go to Iowa. This isn’t freezing. It’s a little chilly out here. Why don’t you wait in the hallway?” So I had an experience through her eyes.
So I guess I had a Midwestern soul as I was growing up, and a sense of relief for living here, but a sense of wonder, because I didn’t see snow until I was about twenty-two years old. I had never seen snow, except in the movies. The Central Valley of California got very hot, but it was also life giving—agriculture everywhere. You could smell the burning in the fields in the autumn, and at the State Fair at the end of summer, almost as a climax of summer before school started, there was a central pavilion, which of course was torn down, in which every county contributed agriculture. Tehama County. The agriculture products of Tehama—I don’t even know whether I’ve been to Tehama County even to this day—were beautifully displayed. It was so beautiful to see that California, that benevolent California, and even a place like Los Angeles was contributing lemons to the fair, you know. You didn’t see Lana Turner. You saw lemons. I knew that I was related to that place. And the Sacramento Bee used to have on Saturday a special section with agricultural news. It was called “Superior California,” and I did not understand what that was, whether it was superior in the sense that we were better than other Californians or what. I found out later from my brother it just meant Northern California.
Well, did I have a California soul in those years? I guess I did. When I came to Los Angeles, which I discovered after having been in London, I discovered a city that suited me. It suited me in the sense that I liked all of it. I found its architecture reminded me of Sacramento a great deal, and somebody would tell me, “Well, this little house, this little bungalow cost $2 million.” I would find it amusing. It’s like the bungalow I grew up in, except once you went inside, of course, they tarted it all up and so forth.
LA seemed to me both the combination of something I knew in Sacramento and then not. And the not was Mexico. It was filled with Mexico. Mexico was teeming around me. And the people, you know. Coming out of a breakfast in Santa Monica, this skinny kid would come up to me and start talking Spanish and say he just arrived. He would ask me for impossible directions. I had no idea how to get to Tarzana. I didn’t even know where Tarzana was, because my LA was so limited. And then in the middle of all this kind of blond, bleached, muscular, exercised, gaudy, glamorous Santa Monica, there was this kid who was desperate. I couldn’t manage it. I didn’t know how to relate to him.
And then LA became more and more a city that in my imagination became more Mexican and more a desert city. I felt the proximity of desert. By that, I mean metaphorically desert, a city of want.
The other California was Asian, and I feel that profoundly now in San Francisco. I don’t know whether I’ve satisfactorily accommodated myself to Asia. I was talking to a mathematician last night about his students. He’s a university professor. And he said 80 percent of the students in his math classes are Asians. And I said, “Why? What is that? Is it linguistic? Is there something about learning Mandarin that allows you to decipher mathematics more easily? Why don’t I have that?” And he said, “Well, I think I am seeing first-generation immigrants. I think I am seeing kids who are coming with such a sense of urgency to California that they will do anything. They don’t fall asleep in my classes. They want to do more than I give them.” I said, “But that’s not an answer. There are a lot of first-generation immigrants around. There are Russians. There are Mexicans galore. Brazilians. There are Chechens. What are you telling me, that they’re first generation? That doesn’t tell me anything.” I think the ambition of Chinese California is so lavish that it just dwarfs anything that we dreamt of as Gold Rush people. It is just this magnificent place.
Toward the end of his life, Franz Schurmann was of the opinion that America was in decline, but the American dream was quite alive. I saw an interview with a Vietnamese shopkeeper in San Jose once. His English was not very good, but because his shop was the shop that sold the winning Lotto number, he got a million dollars. The people who won the Lotto didn’t come. They didn’t want to be filmed, but he was more than willing to be filmed. And the state officials put “million dollar winner,” or something, on a big banner outside. And they asked him, “Does the American dream exist?” And in Franzian tones, he said, “Yes, yes. I am the American dream.”
Well, I think to myself, there is that. But you have a little Saigon in Orange County. And maybe in a generation, it won’t be the case, but there is still the memory of tragedy so intense that it feels to me different in tone than the experience of Midwestern California that I experienced as a child. People who came from Kansas were not leaving, generally, tragedy behind. They were coming for a softer winter. That is very different from coming from a civil war where your father was killed, being a boat person off the coast of Southeast Asia. That experience of tragedy, of losing is just not characteristic of the California that I grew up in, and it feels more Mexican to me in the sense that you come here out of desperation, not to become a movie star, but to pick grapes.
I remember talking to these Mexicans at a really fancy house. Friends of mine up in Napa. They have a vineyard. And I just went wandering around one day, started talking to these Mexican guys about their lives. Their California was so basic and so unromantic. Even though they loved the landscape around them, and they thought this place, these vineyards were really beautiful, and they worried about the weather, they worried about the season; they did not, most of them, admit to drinking very much wine. They drank beer more easily. They recognized that they were within a culture, this kind of Tuscan California that was built by the very wealthy.
Once I went to the Mondavi mansion—it was on top of a hill—and the living room is a swimming pool. It’s an Olympic-size swimming pool. And I thought why not? And I said to him, “This really is the most unusual house I’ve ever seen. This makes Versailles look like Potter’s Field”. And he said, “You know, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy your life to the full.” Well, there’s every reason. He was elegant and European, even though I think he was American-born, Robert Mondavi, but he was wealthy enough to indulge fantasy. And the thing about California, about this landscape, because it is so moderate a climate, is that you can build anything on it, and you can build a castle. You can build a pyramid. You can build anything on this landscape and it takes it.
And then it does take it, if you don’t take care of it. I gardened as a kid. As a teenager, I worked with this guy. Jan was his name. I liked the sexual ambiguity of his name. Jan was a woman’s name to me, but there he was. This is a young man. I thought he was an old guy. He must have been late thirties, early forties. I had worked with him on weekends and summers till my mother said I couldn’t, because I was getting so dark-skinned, and it just terrified her, the harshness of nature. But he would take his shirt off. The sun was out, and Jan would take his shirt off. He had a wonderful torso in that fifties sort of way, but just naturally muscular. But there were these spots on his shoulders. And I didn’t know about skin cancer. I mean, I knew but I didn’t know, and I didn’t know how to appraise his skin. I didn’t know whether he was too light-skinned to be doing this to his skin. He would get very dark in the summer, a reddish brown. The last time I saw him in Sacramento—this was many years ago, but his skin had just turned to a kind of—it turned into my wallet. And then I knew that California would take its toll. And California would not forgive. And California would remember everything you did in the sun, as it reminds me. There is nothing you did that day, carefree you in the California sun, that California doesn’t remember.
So did I live in California? Yes. But I don’t know which one, and I’ve lived in several, and now I live in the Chinese city that’s populated with kids who are making billions of dollars by distracting us from our reality. So, yes.
Boom: Do you think of yourself as a California writer?
Rodriguez: No, I don’t think so anymore. I used to.
I have almost no relationship to Los Angeles, for example. I have friends in LA, and I go to LA. I had a good time in LA. But I have no relationship to the city anymore. It just seems either uninteresting to me or uninterested in me, which might be the same thing. So, for example, I’ve never lectured at UCLA. I’ve never lectured at USC. I’m giving a lecture on Darling at Loyola University in February. It’s very rare. It almost never happens. I haven’t been on an LA radio or TV station for twenty years. So I don’t exist in that city.
Darling has had all of its success on the East Coast. It’s really quite amazing. I don’t have any relationship to LA. It just doesn’t exist for me. It doesn’t exist in my life. So that if I get an invitation for an interview, it’s usually Boston. Or Providence, Rhode Island, will review Darling, or Buffalo, New York, will review Darling, and not Seattle, not Fresno, not San Diego. And the LA Times is tepid.
So if you ask me about LA, I just don’t belong there anymore. I know that sounds petulant but it’s just I’m more often in New York than I am in LA now, and I live a lot of my imaginative life in London, for whatever reason. I’m in London a great deal. And I’m very much interested in the death of Europe, the reverse of Europe right now. When I come back to America, this country seems exhausted. I think this war between the conservatives and the liberals is just deadly. It’s the death rattle.
I think what changed me, too, and what made me an old man was AIDS. I helped a lot of guys die in those years, a lot of guys. So I really got burned out. There are characters in some British novels who survived the First World War and who end up walking in Piccadilly, and they’re in the swim of the crowd, but they’re wasted. They’re just not there. I went through a period like that after that many deaths. I couldn’t go to a funeral. I just couldn’t. I couldn’t do all of that anymore. But I could do some things. I knew when to call your mother and when to say this sounds like it’s going to be tonight, and if you’re going to come, you should come now. I knew that. I knew how to give you morphine, not to give you too much, but give you enough. I knew how to hold your hand. I knew what to say to you. I knew how to make you less afraid.
Well, from all of that, even now in this city—I’m going to start crying, but even now, I can’t go to certain places in the city without thinking, “Oh, that’s where Tom or that’s where Will spent that last year,” or hospitals, so many hospitals.
When my parents died a few years ago, it was nothing. It was like the coming of autumn. It was the most normal experience. But to see that much youth cut down. And the celebration of hedonism sort of ended in California that way. That really did change a lot of things, and I became very, very tragic. That whenever I would see this car crash, two kids die, I thought, oh, there’s youth cut down again.
Even now in the Castro District. I go to this gym in the Castro. There’s death everywhere for me there. It’s really treacherous. I have to be really careful not to walk by it too much, but it’s there, and so that was my California too. And I met people from all over the world in those years who thought they had come to paradise. That motif—that we had found a place of bliss and freedom with a temperate sky—was so large in my rendition of California. I grew up in a destination for so many people, and so many of those people I knew had died. It really changed a great deal. I can’t say too much about that, because it really was profound, but at a level in which it sounds maudlin to say it now, you know?
Boom: Yes. When you travel around the world and tell people you’re from California, how do they react now?
Rodriguez: Oh, they still react with a great deal of interest. California is its own country. It’s its own mythology. I saw a survey recently of young teenagers in China and the place in America they would most want to visit. And Mountain View was on top.
My closest friend was once the mayor of Mountain View. She was really wonderful. There’s a little street by the city hall named after her, and she loved Mountain View. It was just at the point in which Mountain View was becoming Mountain View. She came from Long Beach, and she was passionate about kids at Crittenden, the junior high school where she was a teacher and a counselor. That was the same school that Steve Jobs went to, but Steve Jobs was so overwhelmed with the sense of black and brown at Crittenden that he got his parents to move him out of the school. They moved to Los Altos. Steve Jobs the great cosmopolite, the great internationalist, could not deal with brown and black California in Mountain View.
Well, Marcie, my friend, taught there, and she loved those kids. She was a real Californian. So when I see someone say that’s the place they want to go to, I think, “Oh, I misjudged Mountain View. It’s really that interesting.” I guess, in a way, it is interesting that all of that happens there.
I go to the gym and I come back to my apartment about 6:30, and as I get to these neighborhoods, the big buses are going by. They’re dark-windowed and very, very gleaming buses going to the suburbs. That already is interesting that there are kids of the suburbs who made huge fortunes in the suburbs who would prefer to live in the city, even one that’s as false as San Francisco, as unreal as San Francisco. And at some expense of their time, they are taking these buses. Presumably, they are wired in these buses, so they can work. And there is no destination on the marquee of the bus. It’s just floating through these neighborhoods.
Boom: A lot of people seem very concerned about the change that those buses signal in San Francisco. Do you share those concerns?
Rodriguez: No, because I’ve always loved wealth. I’ve loved being around it. And if I knew you were wealthy, I would have made friends with you in grammar school. I knew the house where Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan lived in Sacramento, because I played there. I knew those people. I knew all the people on that block. They went to school with me. My trick was to know your mother, because I knew that if I ingratiated myself to your mother, if I was very polite, if I was invited to lunch or dinner, remarked on how good the lunch was, that she’d invite me back. She’d say, “Who is that nice little boy?” And the kid was not interested in me, with two exceptions. There’s one kid who died of an oversized heart. He taught me to listen to Frank Sinatra. I thought that’s what rich people listened to, because he loved jazz.
I love rich people, and so I love them at the market, these impossibly beautiful Indian women who obviously have money. The way I used to go to the food market in Brentwood and I would love seeing rich people shopping. The way I would watch Fred Astaire walking up to communion. It’s just interesting how they deal with it, their impatience standing in lines, their bratty children, their beauty, their anxieties, their loneliness, their glamour, the sound of their car doors shutting, which doesn’t sound anything like my Honda. It interests me. It’s like living in London in the eighteenth century, a place of people with such enormous wealth living among people who don’t have that wealth.
Look at the lines of people when there’s a Lotto of any magnitude. This is my American character. I’m not threatened by great wealth. I’m interested in it, not that I will have it for myself, not that I even want it, though I have a lot of charities that I’d like to give money to. I don’t have enough money. But there’s so much want. Gosh, just so much, and so many food banks, so many libraries and teachers and organizations, school districts that don’t have anything, scholarship funds.
And then when I see somebody go buy a Lamborghini or a Bentley—I saw this woman in a Bentley the other day, caught in traffic as I was, and she was distracted. And when a beautiful woman is distracted, she can be even more beautiful. But I thought, oh, I wonder where she’s been or where she’s going, and that interested me. And I was happy to live in this city. I was happy to live in the city.
You know, there is a Virginia Woolf novel, Mrs. Dalloway, where the main character is walking up Bond Street, and a royal goes by in a Rolls Royce, and she only sees the arm holding the little support by the window. And there’s speculation about who it is, a prince, princess, or even indeed the king, and the traffic sort of gives way. Well, when I see these buses, I know they don’t live in my world, and yet they do. I mean, they live up the block, and so, of course, it interests me.
I walk home from the gym, up Fillmore, and for two blocks, we’re in the projects. And for one block where there is a police station, there is also a congregation of young males, black males, and obviously drug traffic. And the persistence of white gentrification is such now that white people walk through this like it doesn’t exist. It’s really thrilling to me that the people can be that oblivious and protectedly oblivious too. You don’t make eye contact with these people.
But the other day, there was a shootout. This was at four in the afternoon, on a Saturday afternoon. A kid was dragged out of a car, and he ran. And then right in front of a restaurant—we’re getting just to the edge of gentrification—here were gunshots. I was petrified. I didn’t even think to go behind a telephone pole. I was just watching—bang, bang, bang! And then he runs toward the Safeway parking lot. By that time, the police sirens are sounding, four in the afternoon, a clear, bright day. The odd thing about the sound of the gunfire is that it brings out people. It brings out kids. They’re suddenly coming out of the projects to see what’s going on, whereas, the old people, are going into the coffee shop to get away from it all. The kids make a run for it, and the cops chase after them. This is within two minutes of the event.
One kid, as he’s running away, sees me watching, and we hold each other’s glance for a second. It is really intense, and then he runs past.
I live in that. I live along that Fillmore too, and then in three or four blocks, normalcy has established itself. Within five blocks, we are safely within the yuppie precinct, and it is impossible that that just happened. That’s very interesting to me.
You know, one of the things that is happening in the world right now is that increasingly people are going to restaurants that are in dangerous neighborhoods. In Tijuana, Mexico, for example, there’s a new, very experimental, kind of nouveau something in neighborhoods that I would consider too dangerous to go to. And there are beautiful people going to those restaurants. I do not understand. My nephew, who has a number of restaurants in Oakland, he’s a great believer in being edgy and taking good food to the edge of safety. I don’t know what that is. I find it really interesting.
The relationship of sexuality to criminality, I lived with for many years until we became legal. But the relationship of food now to criminality is really interesting to me, and the proximity of those two realities in our lives is interesting. At the same time that food is advertised as being extremely healthy and in portions that are not overwhelming, there is this possibility that you’ll be killed when you go back to your car.
Boom: Your new book, Darling, is filled with love, as the title implies. What has been California’s role, San Francisco’s role, in changing how we think about love?
Rodriguez: Well, the City of Love. We replaced Philadelphia briefly. Come to San Francisco for the eternal summer.
I want to say several things.
When I wrote Brown, I was quite struck with how much lovemaking there is in America that never gets described. Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson and their descendants cannot be buried to this day in the Jefferson family plot. I mean, we are given American history, and we are told this is American history, but it’s a compilation of hatred, of these wars, of that disagreement, of that shooting, that assassination. That’s American history. The Civil War, those young men dead in Gettysburg.
Then there will be these family stories about a love affair, and you will see these people, this Italian immigrant sitting in a family of black people in North Carolina, and you wonder who in the hell is he. Where did he come from? How does he work? Well, in my family, this blond lady starts showing up at our family Christmases who is always with my uncle’s nephew. He’s very political in San Francisco. I know that. And my first vision of him was with an Adlai Stevenson tie. And then I find out that they got married. And that woman, the blond lady, is there in the middle of all these Mexicans and Indians because—my mother’s words in Spanish—they fell in love. And I realized what this explosive thing is, this love. This takes you places where you never know where you’re going.
So I know there is something brewing in me, this little emotion brewing in me, which can get me killed, you know, if I ask the wrong guy, if I say to the wrong guy, you know, “I’d like to be your friend.” So you learn not to say anything.
It becomes almost this story that just shatters me, because you would hear these people, a little church in South Carolina that gets burned down, the minister and priest, and they all gather around. We talk about hate crimes. I think to myself why don’t we talk about love crimes in America, how people are killed for falling in love, or how people are destroyed because they fall in love, how people are put in jail for falling in love, how even glancing at her for a black man could get you lynched in America, you know. Let’s talk about love crimes. That’s what I want to say first of all about love, just how explosive it is and how unruly.
And I guess what I want to say now in the world is that I don’t understand a lot of what goes on. I remember as an altar boy—because I used to go to lots of funerals and lots of weddings, what I knew as an altar boy in my Catholic church, a beautiful church, still is—was that if the groom or the bride weeps during the service, it will usually be the groom. It will not be the bride. What I also knew at funerals is that if anybody weeps at a funeral, it will be several rows back. It usually won’t be in the front row, because they had to clean the shit, and they know what a blessing death is.
Anyway, I guess what I feel right now is there is this enormous disconnect between men and women in our society. And what I was struck by at an early age as a young man in Los Angeles and then in Northern California is the fact that at a time in which there was this gay liberation going on and my gay friends told me about all this sex they were having, it was kind of a carnival. I wasn’t having any. Men were not interested in what I was selling, but women were, and I developed a number of relationships with women, two of which were sexual, but all of which were very deep—the darling in the book in Los Angeles being one of them. Many of these women were married. A number of them had been married several times or divorced, and there was a relationship that we had, a sardonic gay man with a thrice-married divorcee, that was really interesting, partly because we regarded men with some chagrin and partly because—a lot of my straight friends will say, “Well, the reason you knew so many women was because you were free of this animal urge,” you know, that we could be friends. We could have conversations. We could look in each other’s eyes and not seduce each other into a hotel room. I think there was some of that, but surely, I would say to my friends that you have that relationship with a sister. You are not driven by a sexual urge—or with your mother, presumably, although Freud might disagree. But I think there was always that odd relationship, and it’s one that we satirize as we were the interior decorators that they would call upon to decorate their houses because their husbands didn’t care, and we would furnish their houses, or we would cut their hair, the salon in Beverly Hills, or we would take them to lunch. Nancy Reagan had one, you know, because we would amuse them. We could tell them stories when their husband had nothing to say.
I developed quite early this relationship with women, so that I began to hear these stories about their unhappiness, and increasingly, this ambition to be Ms., to be judged not as somebody’s wife or even as somebody’s mother, just to be judged in a civic life as my own woman. And it really did lead me to the conclusion, which now I believe, that my emancipation came from women—came from heterosexual women, that the suffrage movement in Europe, which extends into the early twentieth century in America, the desire of women to leave the parlor and to march down the great streets of Europe and America to demand the vote, demand in the public realm equality with a male is astonishing, because here are women who do not want to be, as they’re going to a ballot box, somebody’s wife or somebody’s mother. They may be both, and that may be the motive in their vote, but they are being judged as essentially a woman in their own right. That freedom it seems to me preexists the gay liberation movement, which is casually and stupidly referred to as the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, which were a wonderful sort of refusal to kowtow to the police and to demand the freedom of one’s own leisure in the night. But the decision of women to seek out freedom in the city apart from their relationships at home, I think it’s the beginning of something that is really quite astonishing.
And that taught me to see that the women I knew as my teachers, the nuns, who were as covered up as Arabic women now—never saw their arms, never saw their hair, never saw their necks, they were completely covered—that was their freedom. And when they begin to emerge in nineteenth century Europe, they are the first women who are allowed to do that, precisely because they are like this. The burka becomes their freedom essentially, and they are able to open hospitals, run hospitals, open schools. When they come to San Francisco, they are able to do things that no one can do. And the local anti-Catholic newspaper says, “We don’t want you here. You’re whores.” What are they doing here? They are sleeping at the back of St. Patrick’s Church on Mission Street because there is no place for them. They are remembered on the north side of the State Capitol. There is a monument to them, those Sisters of Mercy. These were vulnerable women, and the only reason for their decline is they became influential, and they essentially created generations of women, like my mother, who would follow them, who would become educated—my mother didn’t—but who would get jobs outside of the family, who would learn skills, who would in the end, as my mother did, earn more money than their husbands and so forth.
You can sort of mute the power of love, but when it explodes, it explodes, and it is really something, really something.
The dynamic of male-female relationships is so strained now by that assurance that women have in the world, even when it’s a job at Walmart that nonetheless pays more than the unemployed husband is getting right now. It already establishes a dynamic that we haven’t worked into mythology of what a family feels like or looks like. I think that what women are doing right now feels like a negativity that’s moving away from marriage, but you asked me about love, and there is an Israeli writer who I quote in the book who says, “You know, if God had come to Sarah saying, ‘Give me your firstborn son. I want to kill him,’ rather than to Abraham, she would have said, ‘No way. There’s no way you’re going to take my kid to do whatever you are going to do on top of a mountain.'” A woman came up to me on Temple Square in Utah, in Salt Lake City, and she knew me from television. She wanted to talk about having a gay son, and she said, “You know, the church teaches me that God loves everything.” It is a desert religion and the patriarch is there. “But then they want me to disown my son,” she said, “I won’t do it.”
What I hear increasingly from women is this antagonism toward religion, what they called the patriarchal religions of the desert, and I am quite interested in that. What I am increasingly interested in is just the unruliness of love and how surprising it is, how unexpected, and how dangerous it is. I still think now that what love is, is so strong that we better get out Valentine cards and candy. We better put it at a distance, because it is really, really strong, and you give a society reasons to be distracted, easy sex, pornography, fast cars, and you can sort of mute the power of love, but when it explodes, it explodes, and it is really something, really something. That’s what I think about love.
I think last of all, to understand this in the churches, I think they preach love all the time, but they have no idea what they are proposing. I remember the nuns used to warn us when we were little kids about the danger of mixed marriages, by which they meant marrying a Methodist or something. But then one could fall in love with someone not of one’s kind, you know. That was in some way even more likely. So I’m walking up J Street—I must be about ten years old—with this secret looming in my chest that I am in love with the wrong sex, and I see this black man walking—this is in the late 1950s—hand-in-hand with this woman, this blond lady, who is really white. I mean really white and buxom. And I know enough to know that this is not safe. No one is going to lynch him in Sacramento, I think, but I want to protect them, because I know that this thing that they are doing is really risky. And there is California all around, you know, and we are all continuing on our way. Wow! California story.
So there are streets now in Irvine where there are children—children being born all over California, all over the world—who don’t have a race and who belong to several races, and faces now in California that are so enchanting for being indescribable, unattributable. Yeah, that’s pretty good. California cuisine. Pretty good.
This interview was conducted and edited by Jon Christensen.
Touring around California you could be forgiven for thinking you’re living in the future, and not just because of the Silicon Valley wizardry that surrounds us all. We also have to thank Hollywood’s movie magic, which has turned the state into a backdrop for countless science fiction films presenting futures both terrible and wondrous. It’s not just that so many are filmed here—writers and filmmakers have been exploring the future through California sets for decades.
In the early days of big-budget sci-fi, New York often embodied the worst fears about society, urban living, and technology: Soylent Green (1972), Escape from New York (1981), and others capitalized on New York’s bankrupt and crime-ridden nadir—a genre that Miriam Greenberg refers to as “New York Exploitation.”¹ With the city’s campaign to reposition itself in the 1990s, Los Angeles became the symbol of urban blight, perfectly demonstrated by John Carpenter’s relocation of his Snake Plissken sequel, Escape from L.A. (1996). While dystopian sci-fi also has a home in the United Kingdom (thanks, George Orwell) and has been used for self-reflection by most of the world’s filmmaking cultures, there is something about the frequency with which California and “the future” are used synonymously.
In sci-fi movies and the books that serve as their inspiration, the future of the Golden State goes something like this: 10 to 150 years from the present, California has succumbed to natural disaster/economic and governmental collapse/a pandemic, which leaves Southern California a corporate-fascist-military state with gross financial and racial inequality and urban squalor—while Northern California rips up its pavement, learns permaculture, gets spiritual, and models better living through technology and communitarian diversity.
This binary began in the 1940s with Earth Abides (1949), a book about a scientist starting over in Berkeley after a global pandemic, while in Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence (1948) Los Angeles slouches toward the apocalypse. The movies Planet of the Apes, The Terminator, Escape from L.A., Star Trek, and the books Ecotopia, The Fifth Sacred Thing (soon to be a feature film), and Snowcrash all play variations on this theme. Collapse and division is almost a foregone conclusion at this point—not just a future that might happen, but one many almost expect and therefore accept.
“Every American city boasts an official insignia and slogan. Some have municipal mascots, colors, songs, birds, trees, even rocks. But Los Angeles alone has adopted an official nightmare,” writes Mike Davis in Ecology of Fear.² Hollywood has perpetuated this dystopian vision of its own home in the southland. From the Planet of the Apes series (1968–1973) on, future LA has been routinely trashed by nuclear, technological, and automotive catastrophe, police brutality, pollution, and crime. A Malthusian nightmare, the city is dark, filthy, and collapsing under the weight of its immigrant population, or barely held in check by totalitarian government and structural inequality—what Mike Davis called LA’s “spatial apartheid.”³
Downtown Los Angeles in 2154 in Elysium, TriStar Pictures, 2013.
Davis notes that this was so accepted as a likely trajectory for the city, that it was written into an LA redevelopment plan as a warning of what could happen were the plan not adopted. The plan, LA 2000: A City for the Future, calls this “the Blade Runner scenario: the fusion of individual cultures into a demotic polyglotism ominous with unresolved hostilities.”4 While it might be tempting to dismiss this as the fever dream of the bad old days, before hipster gentrification, smart growth, and downtown redevelopment, Southland Tales (2006), In Time (2011), and Elysium (2013) have done little to alter its imagery.
Northern California-as-utopia, on the other hand, is strongly linked to the countercultural movement of the sixties, with its guides for technologically advanced back-to-the-land living. One can read Ernest Callenbach’s influential novel Ecotopia (1975) as the possible future seeded by Whole Earth Catalog. Ecotopia is a fictional “field study” of a future Pacific Northwest society that has split from an apocalyptic United States and is governed according to ecological principles. While much technology has been abandoned, the Ecotopians have selectively retained public transit, electric cars, networked computers, and improved recycling (Callenbach was a longtime resident of Berkeley). Ecotopia‘s themes were later picked up and elaborated in the eco-feminist tales of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (1985), a cultural anthropology of latter-day Napa Valley-ites who have returned to indigenous ways; Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing (1993) about a pagan, nonviolent San Francisco threatened by southern biological warfare; and Octavia Butler’s Parable books (1993, 1998) where refugees from the LA wasteland grow a new eco-religion, Earthseed, in the forests of Mendocino.
These texts depict Northern California as central to both speculative and practical visions of sustainable survival. While Bay Area research parks, universities, and experiments in urban living serve as laboratories for near-term development, the region is also a visual and narrative shorthand for distant, alternative, and ideal futures. The twin giants of popular sci-fi, Star Trek and Star Wars, both used Northern California as a location—for the headquarters of the United Federation of Planets in the Star Trek universe, and as site of the water and forest planets (Naboo and Endor) of Star Wars‘ “galaxy far, far away.” Wired published a paean to San Francisco upon the release of the latest Star Trek film, explaining why there couldn’t be a more perfect location for its technologically idyllic future:
“What sets Star Trek apart is the attention it pays to one little city, barely seven miles across, when the other points on its journey are not cities or countries, but planets and star systems…And it’s a city whose culture of curiosity, craftsmanship and tolerance have left an indelible mark on one of the world’s most successful sci-fi franchises.”5
In the frontier myth of American history, California represents the completion of a manifestly destined expansion across the continent. It’s easy to see Utopian San Francisco and “Hell A” as twin land’s-ends for idealists and cynics. In the north, beyond the Golden Gate there lies only “space, the final frontier.”6 Conversely, in Richard Kelly’s apocalyptic Southland Tales (2006), the Santa Monica pier is where the world ends “not with a whimper, but with a bang” taking LA’s palimpsest of corrupt politicians, soulless celebs, activist porn stars, and deranged cops with it.7
A third, smaller, but consistent vein of sci-fi unites both utopian and dystopian futures without mapping them onto a Nor Cal–So Cal binary, and dispenses with the quasi-biblical tales of Sodom and Eden. More importantly, it allows the possibility of multiple futures for rethinking the present. A number of films depict the north as a dystopia-within-utopia: Gattaca (1997) set in a near future where genetic modification is cheaply available, and earlier films such as THX 1138 (1971) and Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), in which developments that promised well-being and peace surveil and threaten human civilization, speak to an unease with the promise of information technology. Similarly, the rebooted Planet of the Apes films have replaced fortress LA with the sleek research complexes of Silicon Valley. In William Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, San Francisco suffers the noir-ish malaise of Blade Runner LA; this time due to free-agent capitalism run amok, with a community of squatters inhabiting the rusting hulk of the Bay Bridge, and bike messengers, data pattern analysts, and a rogue pop idol with artificial intelligence in the lead roles. In the south, Kim Stanely Robinson’s Three Californias trilogy (1984–1990) posits three possible directions for Orange County: The Wild Shore follows nuclear apocalypse, The Gold Coast extrapolates a 2027 “autopia” from 1980s suburbia and hyperconsumption, and Pacific Edge allows that even the OC might have access to a sustainable future, as communities reclaim the coast from cars and concrete.
The sci-fi imagination has a strong link (one might even call it a feedback loop) to the tech and entertainment industries that drive California’s economy, and therefore, its very real, near-term growth. Sci-fi narratives are, after all, allegories for the times in which they are created, but they also generate a nostalgia for past images of the future, which shape communities’ actions as they build and plan—and as those communities experience their lived environments. Some critics have made much of the fact that Ridley Scott originally planned to film Blade Runner in New York and the studio requested a location change. But this is largely irrelevant, as the movie’s imagery and subject matter have resonated with audiences, and played a huge role in how LA is viewed and how the city has imagined itself over the past few decades. On the day I visited to photograph the atrium of the Bradbury Building, the only other people present were fans of the movie looking for traces of that elegantly distressed future. Repetition of the tropes of urban decay versus ecotopia might become self-reinforcing in a way that precludes thinking differently about the present, or even seeing that the future that we’ve come to expect might not be the one we’re likely to get.
Fredric Jameson argues that the value of utopian/dystopian sci-fi is not that it delivers images of possible futures, but instead is its ability to “defamiliarize and restructure our own present.”8 The photographs in the slideshow above show how filmmakers have taken familiar California locations from downtown Los Angeles to Berkeley to do just that.
Kim Stanley Robinson is one of California’s best-known and well-loved, living science fiction writers. A prolific writer, author of two trilogies and several other novels, he is one of the few science fiction novelists who still dares envision utopia—not the static and socially constrained utopias of Thomas More or Edward Bellamy, but dynamic, complex, multicultural societies that always have to struggle for and reflect on their own futures. Robinson earned a Ph.D. from UC San Diego, where he worked with the legendary postmodern literary scholar Fredric Jameson and wrote his dissertation on science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. He cares deeply about California and is actively involved with the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at UC Merced and the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at UC San Diego. Robinson is also a generous conversationalist. When not holed up at home in Davis, California, working on his next book, he can often be found out in the world these days talking about climate change and political change, and thinking out loud with scientists, activists, writers, and readers about the future. We spent a leisurely afternoon conversing with him at his garden writing table in Davis.
Kim Stanley Robinson at home. PHOTOGRAPH BY URSULA K. HEISE.
Boom: You write about other states, other countries, and other planets. Yet, you clearly identify yourself as a California writer. Why?
Robinson: I come from California. I grew up in an agricultural community: Orange County when there were orange groves. I lived in one of the first suburban intrusions into the orange groves. So right out my back yard, I could see nothing but orange trees. I loved to read, and my favorite book was Huckleberry Finn. I thought I could be Huckleberry Finn, and there was no evidence in front of my eyes that showed me things were any different from Missouri in the 1830s. I dressed as Huckleberry Finn, in cutoff blue jeans and a straw hat. I made my friends be Tom Sawyer and the other characters. But then in my teenage years, Orange County was transformed really rapidly. I read somewhere that five acres a day of orange groves were pulled out and turned into suburbia, every day for ten years. And so by the time I went off to college at UC San Diego, it was a completely different landscape. At that same time I started reading science fiction. New wave science fiction was what I dove into. Modernism was being expressed in science fiction, and it was extremely exciting. And it struck me that it was an accurate literature, that it was what my life felt like; so I thought science fiction was the literature of California. I still think California is a science fictional place. The desert has been terraformed. The whole water system is unnatural and artificial. This place shouldn’t look like it looks, so it all comes together for me. I’m a science fiction person, and I’m a Californian.
Boom: Is there a special brand of California science fiction?
Robinson: I think so. It began with people like Jack London and Upton Sinclair, and then the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society in the 1940s. This included Ray Bradbury, who moved with his parents to Los Angeles when he was young, like I did, both of us from Waukegan, Illinois, but him maybe twenty years earlier. Bradbury was always focused on what modernization was doing to human beings, to the nontechnological aspects of humanity. There was also Robert Heinlein, who was living in Los Angeles in the forties. Crazy Bob they called him when he was young. He was always a strange amalgam. And then there was Philip K. Dick in northern California, also Poul Anderson and Jack Vance, Frank Herbert, and in her childhood, Ursula Le Guin. It turns out that many of the most interesting science fiction writers were in California. There’s something strange and powerful about California, as a landscape and an idea, so the place may have inspired the literature.
Boom: Do you think that has to do with the national imaginary that associates California with the future?
Robinson: Yes, I think that’s right. It’s the westward motion. You see it in Robinson Jeffers: that world civilization just kept going west until it hit California, then it had to stop and figure things out. This is all a fairy tale, but it’s powerful. It is an imaginary. And then also you’ve got Hollywood. You can think of California as the Marilyn Monroe of places, beautiful but fragile, seeming a little dim or spacey, but brilliant in odd ways, funny, and, you know, endangered. Everybody pays attention to it. It’s too famous for its own good.
Boom: Your Three Californias trilogy lays out very different visions for California’s future. Which of the three Californias would you want to live in?
Robinson: Pacific Edge without a doubt. Pacific Edge was my first attempt to think about what would it be like if we reconfigured the landscape, the infrastructure, the social systems of California. I think eventually that’s where we’ll end up. It may be a five hundred year project. I thought of it as my utopian novel. But the famous problem of utopian novels as a genre is that they are cut off from history. They always somehow get a fresh start. I thought the interesting game to play would be to try to graft my utopia onto history and presume that we could trace the line from our current moment to the moment in the book. I don’t think I succeeded. I wish I had had the forethought to add about twenty pages of expository material on how they got to that society. Later I had a lot of dissatisfactions with Pacific Edge. You can’t have this gap in the history where the old man says, well, we did it, but never explains how. But every time I tried to think of the details it was like—well, Ernest Callenbach wrote Ecotopia, and then explained how they got to it in Ecotopia Emerging. And there’s not a single sentence in that prequel that you can believe. So, Pacific Edge was my attempt, a first attempt, and I think it’s still a nice vision of what Southern California could be. That coastal plain is so nice. From Santa Barbara to San Diego is the most gorgeous Mediterranean environment. And we’ve completely screwed it. To me now, it’s kind of a nightmare. When I go down there it creeps me out. I hope to spend more of my life in San Diego, which is one of my favorite places. But I’ll probably stick to west of the coast highway and stay on the beach as much as I can. I’ll deal, but we can do so much better.
An orange tree is pulled up in Orange County. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF ORANGE COUNTY ARCHIVES.
Boom: On the jacket of Pacific Edge it says you still love Orange County.
Robinson: Poor Orange County. Autopia, as I called it in The Gold Coast. The truth of the matter is I’ve spent hardly any time there since my parents moved away in 1991. I recently went to Newport Beach. Everything was the same, except the people. Instead of the people being all white, they were a mix of black and brown and white. That was beautiful to see, it looked like a world place, cosmopolitan in a way it hadn’t been. Do you love where you were when you were growing up? Well, yes—especially if you had good parents, a happy childhood, a beach. But I’ve found you can actually outlive nostalgia itself. I didn’t know you could do that, but I have.
Boom: Is California two states or more?
Robinson: I’ve lived half my life in the south and half in the north. I like thinking California is one place. It’s big. It’s various. It’s an entire country. It’s an entire planet.
Boom: In The Gold Coast, your dystopian novel in the California trilogy, and in your other dystopian novels, are you issuing a warning about where we’re headed?
Robinson: I am issuing a warning, yes. That’s one thing science fiction does. There are two sides of that coin, utopian and dystopian. The dystopian side is, if we continue, we will end up at this bad destination and we won’t like it. That’s worth doing sometimes. But I won’t do the apocalypse. That is not realist. It is more of a religious statement. I like disaster without apocalypse. Gold Coast is dystopian. And a lot of it has come true since it came out in 1988.
Boom: But, as you’ve said, all of California in some ways has been terraformed. It’s not natural in the way we usually conceive of natural. Are we as gods, as Steward Brand famously proclaimed, so we better get good at it?
Robinson: California is a terraformed space. I think we have accidentally become terraformers, but of course we are not gods. We don’t actually know enough about ecology, or even about bacteria, to do what we want to do here. We could make environmental changes that could do damage that we can’t recover from, so it’s dangerous. We’re more like the sorcerer’s apprentice. We can do amazing things on this planet, out of hubris, and partial ignorance, and yet we are without the powers to jerk the system back to health if we wreck it. If ocean acidification occurs, we don’t have a chance to shift that back. So we’ve accidentally cast ourselves into this role by our scientific successes, but we don’t have the power to do what we need to do, so we need to negotiate our situation with the environment. The idea that we’re living in the Anthropocene is correct. We are the biggest geological impact now; human beings are doing more to change the planet than any other force, from bedrock up to the top of the troposphere. Of course if you consider twenty million years and plate tectonics, we’re never going to match that kind of movement. It’s only in our own temporal scale that we look like lords of the Earth; when you consider a longer temporality, you suddenly realize we’re more like ants on the back of an elephant. By no means do we have godlike powers on this planet. We have a biological system we can mess up, a thin wrap on the planet’s surface, like cellophane wrapping a basketball. But there is so much we don’t know. You can do cosmology with more certainty than ecology.
The view from Mount Wanda, John Muir National Historic Site. PHOTOGRAPH BY WAYNE HSIEH.
Boom: Speaking of terraformed, the Delta, where you live here in Davis, is a great example of a terraformed landscape.
Robinson: It’s kind of great. It’s troubled, but I think it’s still beautiful. I like these human-slash-natural landscapes. I like terraformed landscapes. The Central Valley has been depopulated of its Serengeti’s worth of wild creatures, and that’s a disaster. But you could do amazing agriculture in the Central Valley and add wildlife corridors, where the two could coexist in a palimpsest, big agriculture and the Serengeti of North America, occupying the same space. And then it would be that much more interesting and beautiful. If you went out there to the edge of Davis now, you would see nothing in terms of animals. But if you went out there and it was filled with tule elk and all the rest of the animals and birds of the Central Valley biome, occasionally a bear would come down out of the hills; and, well, you couldn’t run alone out there, because of the predators. You’d have to run in a group. But humans are meant to run in groups. The solo thing is dangerous. So it would all come back to a more natural social existence. This is the angle of utopianism that I’ve been following. It’s a kind of natural-cultural amalgam, whereas utopian literature historically was mostly a social construct, and it was kind of urban. Utopia was thought of as a humanist space, but when you think of humans as part of a much larger set of life forms, then you get to a utopia that includes it all and is a process. I haven’t actually written the novel that would put all of this together, because each of my novels has been a different part of the puzzle and a different attempt at it. So I keep having an idea for the book yet to come. Seems like I might start another one like that sometime soon.
California is a terraformed space.
Boom: If your utopia is not humanist, what is it?
Robinson: I don’t think of myself as a humanist in the usual definition, but I’m definitely not a believer in deep ecology either. I don’t like the Ludditeism and antihumanism of deep ecology. I call myself a shallow ecologist. We’re completely part of the biosphere and networked with, and our health is dependent on it. But Gary Snyder among others has taught me that the nature-culture divide is a blurry, unnatural divide; we’re interpolated with the planet. The more we learn, the more we realize we’re “bubbles of earth.” But we’re also its self-consciousness. We’re its most articulate language speakers. We’re the ones who can mess things up really badly. But I can’t go with the part of the environmental movement that is antitechnological. We’re so technological. I’ve been thinking about this and trying to look at if from a different angle. Can we find a balance, a way of doing things by the use of science and technology and political cleverness, that we could get to permaculture?
Robinson: I prefer that term to sustainability. Sustainability is a captured word, and sustainable development is a captured phrase, a kind of greenwashing. Now it means, we can keep on doing capitalism and get away with it. Permaculture on the other hand implies permanence, but also permutation—some kind of dynamic stability or robustness, by making really long-term health the goal.
Boom: Even with climate change?
Robinson: California could maybe handle sea level rise better than a lot of other places. Its coastline is not a drowned coastline like the East Coast, so although the Delta would be in big trouble, most of the California coastline is steep enough to take a lot of the projected sea level rise—although the beaches will be in trouble. Right here we’re about fifty feet above sea level. So the maximum sea level rise projected for the next couple centuries would remain a ways over there to the south.
Boom: So we can just adapt to climate change in California?
Robinson: No, that’s not right either. We are in a moment where we have to change, or we’ll get to a situation that is not even adaptable. Adaptation is a word like sustainability, because it suggests that we could cook the planet and it still might be OK. That isn’t true, and besides, we haven’t cooked it yet. So it’s time to act now and actually do mitigation. I’ve run into young environmental philosophers who say, “Be realistic, Stan. We’re headed for a five-degree rise in temperature; we have to adapt.” But this I think is a pseudo-realism. Think about mass extinction: how do you adapt to that? It would drive us down; we might not go extinct too, but we would suffer so badly. No. We need mitigation. We need to fight the political fight. We need a carbon tax; we need everything except giving up. To say we’ve lost the battle already is just another science fiction story. It’s saying that we will lose. But beyond 2013, nothing has happened yet. Path dependency is not the same as inevitability. People are way too chicken when faced with the supposed massive entrenchment of capitalism. It’s just a system of laws, and we change laws all the time.
The view from Skylab Crater on Mars. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF NASA.
Boom: Don’t we need both mitigation and adaptation? Even if we could stop emissions altogether right now, it will get hotter. We will have to do significant adaptation.
Robinson: That’s true to an extent. But it’s a later moment where we shift to adaptation, as opposed to mitigation. We need to mitigate now. We know how to do that: we decarbonize power generation and transport systems. But we haven’t put together a coherent political or ecological picture of what adaptation means. Right now it just means giving up. It’s saying economics trumps ecology. In biophysical terms, in terms of physical reality, that just isn’t the case.
Boom: Climate science has become an important part of your work, in your writing, and outside of your writing.
Robinson: I think the scientific community is going through a revolutionary moment. They already raised their hands and said we have to pay attention to climate change. And yet we haven’t changed very much. Now they have to take different strategies and renew the effort. I talk to them about this. I try to make them aware that they are already utopian actors by being scientists. And this notion that they have, that there has to be separation between what science does and what everything else does, is not quite true; it’s not the full story. They need to start thinking of themselves as political actors.
Boom: Political? Utopian? But haven’t science and business as usual also gone hand in hand?
Robinson: My story here is that from the very start science and capitalism were very tightly bound together, like conjoined twins, but were not at all the same, and indeed were even opposed systems of thinking and organization. They were born around the same time, yes; but if you regard them as identical, you’re making a very bad mistake. Capitalism’s effect on humanity is not at all what science’s effect is on humanity. If you say science is nothing but instrumentality and capitalism’s technical wing, then you’re saying we’re doomed. Those are the two most powerful social forces on the planet, and now it’s come to a situation of science versus capitalism. It’s a titanic battle. One is positive and the other negative. We need to do everything we can to create democratic, environmental, utopian science, because meanwhile there is this economic power structure that benefits the few, not very different from feudalism, while wrecking the biosphere. This is just a folk tale, of course, like a play with sock puppets, like Punch and Judy. But I think it describes the situation fairly well.
Boom: What about democracy?
Robinson: I think democracy is crucial, but it needs the power of science to prevail. Democracy can be bought. Capitalism can defeat democracy, unless there is democratic science and science for democracy. The big heavyweight that could actually defeat capitalism in this world is science. It’s the method that copes with the natural world and makes both the necessities and the toys, and makes the food for the seven billion. Democracy can get whipped if it doesn’t have this utopian practice of science backing it. Secularism, the rule of law—these are aspects of scientizing the social world. They are part and parcel with the scientific method. Once again, I’m just talking sock puppets, but this is the way I have been trying to explain it in my novels.
Boom: But one of the difficulties of science is that it’s not accessible to people without very specialized knowledge. It’s sometimes very difficult to see how you square science with democratic deliberation.
Robinson: Science is not esoteric compared to, say, law. Every scientific abstract is trying its best to be as clear and accessible as possible. Science as it was originally designed is supposed to work like this: I find something out about the world; I share it with you. You find out more; you share it with me. So in its pure state, it is an incredibly open and public procedure. You can’t do that with legal documents, you can’t do that with economics, and you can’t do that with a lot of postmodern criticism. Science is much more open and transparent than a lot of the disciplines we have. It gets complex because reality is complex. But I’m still convinced that we must seize on science as a way out of this mess. It’s a kind of quantified and experimental realism, or praxis.
Boom: You describe your science fiction as realist, but there are sometimes surrealist moments, like in 2312, when a depauperate Earth is repopulated by wild animals that are bred off planet and dropped gently from the sky in bubbles.
Robinson: That moment is like a painting, maybe a Magritte. It struck me like an image out of a dream. It doesn’t make sense in some ways, and yet it’s what we are talking about when we talk about rewilding. And I was thinking about habitat corridors, and how both humans and habitat could exist together, by the creation of corridors given to the animals, and so the image came from that, like a poem. When it did, I thought this is good. I don’t care if it makes sense or not; it’s so beautiful. So I wrote the scene. Novel writing is an irrational and emotional business. I’m mostly an analytical person, an English major, so it’s possible for me to overthink things. But the image is crucial, the story is crucial. So if you’re writing something that feels right, then skate fast over thin ice and fly with it! Then you can have your characters argue about it afterward, as people would if something like that were really to happen.
Boom: You spend a lot of time in the Sierra Nevada, but the mountains only make a brief appearance in your science fiction. Why is that?
Robinson: It’s been hard to find science fiction stories that would include the Sierra, although I’ve tried. There is a sense in which my Mars is entirely a Sierra Nevada space. And the actual range itself shows up in The Gold Coast and Pacific Edge and in Sixty Days and Counting. But in the future, I want to write about the Sierra Nevada much more extensively and in more detail. I know what it’s like up there, and I think it could be useful to share that knowledge. There’s been too much writing about the mountains as a dangerous place, a place for risk taking. What I want to do is more welcoming, a writing that says come back to the Sierra, use it as a space to ramble and look around. It’s not a place of death-defying stupidity, but actually a place to renew yourself, as a suburban or urban Californian especially. So, when I write about the Sierra Nevada directly, which I have not done yet at any length, I want to do it as nonfiction, some kind of not-yet-defined nature writing.
Boom: Is there a model for this kind of writing?
Robinson: Well, John Muir. Muir is good!
Boom: In Muir’s writing nature is often personified. Are you interested in that model? Or do you have a different idea of nature’s agency?
Robinson: I’ve read all of Muir now and studied his life. I would say he does not personify nature so much as worship it. His attitude is devotional, but he usually doesn’t define it as a totality; he speaks of particulars. One thing I’ve noticed about Muir is that his best writing is not his most famous writing. His best Sierra writing is in his early journals, and his first scientific articles, which were published in the New York Tribune and made him famous. These are awkward but quite beautiful articles. In them he is writing about why the landscape looks like it does. The Ice Age itself was a new idea at the time he wrote, and he was the one who applied Agassiz’s glacial theory to the sculpting of the Sierra. So this is his great writing, which is both scientific and devotional at the same time. Later, when he became a political figurehead and wrote The Mountains of California and his other famous books, those are like Victorian magazine articles. They are bland. They are not his best writing. So his reputation as a writer has suffered. But then at the very end of his life, E.H. Harriman hired a secretary to follow him around so that Muir could dictate his memoirs to him, and that again is great: The Story of My Boyhood and Youth. So we have great writing, then mediocre writing, and then really great talking.
Boom: You have two sons. If science fiction was your literature growing up, what is their literature?
Robinson: They and their friends seem to have an intense interest in fantasy literature as a kind of escape from their historical situation. They’re a little bit symptomatic. Young people of my generation liked science fiction because the future was going to be better. There seemed to be real opportunity. The world was your oyster, and the future was going to be amazing. That was quite powerful. Now, when you see what new science fiction has become for the young—it’s The Hunger Games, it’s dystopia—that’s a very powerful image of how they feel right now. They feel this: we’ve been pitted against each other, big forces are in control of our lives, and we’re going to be fighting for scraps. We’re going to be hungry. That is another dream, a surrealistic dream about capitalism, of how it feels to the young and how they’re responding. And then with Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, that’s wish fulfillment, where you get back out in the forest and ride on horses. It’s already interesting to imagine that, in the middle of their suburban lives looking at screens. Also, the good guys and the bad guys are easily distinguishable, and there are organized forces to fight the bad guys, who are an other and not you. It’s very simplistic. But these stories we love when we are young are always allegories of our wishes and dreams. So it’s very interesting. My own contribution, then, would be to keep on presenting an image of the future that is positive and achievable, and doesn’t take place five million years from now, or five million light years away, but is just Earth and the solar system in our own near future—something that people think might happen, a kind of realism. And I get my readers, and I see that many of them are young, although not all. Because I think people do continue to crave utopia.
The Sierra Nevada from Manzanar, California. PHOTOGRAPH BY JONATHAN PERCY.
Boom: Do you think there is something special California can contribute to this utopian project?
Robinson: I do. I think we’re a working utopian project in progress, between the landscape and the fact that California has an international culture, with all our many languages. It’s got the UC system and the Cal State system, the whole master plan, all the colleges together, and Silicon Valley, and Hollywood. It’s some kind of miraculous conjunction. But conjunctions don’t last for long. And history may pass us by eventually, but for now it’s a miraculous conjunction of all of these forces. So I love California. Often when I go abroad and I’m asked where I’m from, I say California rather than America. California is an integral space that I admire. And we’re doing amazing things politically. I like the way the state is trending more left than the rest of America. And San Francisco is the great city of the world. I love San Francisco. I think of myself as living in its provinces—and provincials, of course, are often the ones who are proudest of the capital. And many of my San Francisco friends exhibit a civic pride that is intense, and I think justified. So there’s something going on here in California. I do think it’s somewhat accidental; so to an extent, it’s pride in an accident, or maybe you could say in a collective, in our particular history. So there’s no one thing or one person or group that can say, ah, we did it! It just kind of happened to us, in that several generations kept bashing away, and here we are. But when you have that feeling and it goes on, and continues to win elections and create environmental regulations, the clean air, the clean water, saving the Sierra, saving the coast: it’s all kind of beautiful. Maybe the state itself is doing it. Maybe this landscape itself is doing it.
This interview was conducted by Jon Christensen, Jan Goggans, and Ursula K. Heise, and edited by Jon Christensen and Kim Stanley Robinson.
Photograph at top: The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. BY DANIEL PARKS.
What might a seed utter while talking back to Monsanto?
What would the creative process of a squirrel writing a poem look and sound like?
Brenda Hillman’s Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire dances with seeds and squirrels and will inspire today’s “people moaning at gas pumps” and tomorrow’s ecopoets.
Hillman’s poems embrace the layered world of the everyday – of memories, violence, activism, and the encounters we share with other living species even including termites. She captures topics running through today’s news cycles such as drones, healthcare reform, and “Facelessbook.” But the work also reveals elements of the foundations of her present, be they onion soup flakes, Camus or brothers playing chess at Christmas.
If your reading style is to skip around like the hummingbirds that fill Hillman’s verses, consider reading first the dedication and then “Ecopoetics Minifesto: A Draft for Angie.” Within these two sections, Hillman provides a helpful framing of the work’s themes and concerns.
Seasonal Works is a treasure of letters on fire, miniature photographs, and scientific and non-English phrases. Hillman challenges us to more intensive observation and action. Pick up a copy and wander out into California’s noisy landscapes with Hillman as a guide.