I began my life as a reader by escaping. I read to be anywhere but here—here being a suburb of Sacramento, California. Its tidy planned streets all named after Civil War battlefields. Each house a palm tree. Sprinklers set to water-conservation levels. When my parents drove off to work, I climbed atop our baking shingle roof and squinted through the pages of Charlotte Brontë, George Orwell, and Alice Walker. The further a book took me from the Central Valley, the better. Nevil Shute’s On the Beach clobbered me, simply because Australia was so far away it might as well have been Narnia.
In reading this way, I wasn’t rebellious. I was actually mimicking the trajectory of all my English classes. For a public school student, I was very lucky. My classes were small. They used a curriculum of such rigor and classical design that I might as well have been at Eton. We began first year with Gilgamesh and ended with the Cavalier poets. Second year we read Plato to understand the design of Gustave Flaubert and Jane Austen. In my third year of high school, I wrote a 20-page paper on the influence of Hinduism on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s theology. By senior year, we’d read all of Shakespeare’s plays but one.
What we didn’t read were Californians.
Sure, John Steinbeck snuck in; we took half a semester to read The Grapes of Wrath and then another week to watch the maudlin movie made of it. But in a state that had projected its studio-lot image across the globe, the literary absence felt peculiar.
This was California in the late ’80s and early ’90s. A state stolen from indigenous people, built by immigrants, and narrated by all kinds had long since developed a serious literature of people from all backgrounds. It was in its third flowering, actually. And yet we didn’t read any of the leading lights: Maxine Hong Kingston, a groundbreaker with her memoir turned family myth, The Woman Warrior; Gus Lee, author of the memoir China Boy; or Amy Tan, whose first book, The Joy Luck Club, has sold more than two million copies. This was the middle of the AIDS crisis, too, but none of us were given Randy Shilts, who chronicled the discovery and spread of HIV in one of the best nonfiction books ever written, And the Band Played On. Joan Didion grew up a few miles from my home, but no one thought to assign Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Let alone the Raymonds, Carver or Chandler; the fellow Berkeley High classmates, Ursula K. Le Guin or Philip K. Dick; or Octavia E. Butler, who predicted our climate crisis. We learned landscape writing from Emerson rather than from John Muir.
Of course, by the end of this survey of literature, I longed to go “back East,” as Californians called the East Coast of America. The underlying message I had absorbed was that culture came from elsewhere. Critical thinking, ideas, anything serious. I was lucky in this response, to a small degree. At least in the literature I was being taught most characters looked like me, shared my gender, my skin color, a series of assumptions. I didn’t feel displaced by reading it; I simply sensed the world around me, which I already didn’t think much of, losing yet more value. Even the places I loved going—the parks and cities of California, its big hot boring freeways that stretched on and on, the forests, the foothills, the tiny towns through the Central Valley—all of it had been deemed unliterary by my education. Still, looking back, I can only imagine how my nonwhite classmates felt.
This was 25 years ago. I did go east, studied literature, and moved to New York, but I felt upon arrival like something was missing. The idea that a tiny, several-mile-long island was the so-called center of the literary universe struck me as absurd. I went to book parties; not one of them had a firepit. Let alone a diverse cast of characters, like so many spaces in California do almost by simple demographic math. The physical elements of New York were totally eclipsed by its concrete, too: you can smell the water around the island but never feel it on your skin. I adore some of the bookstores in NYC, but I didn’t find one that had figured out how to meld what was happening on the streets around it to the shelves inside it like City Lights, San Francisco’s temple to political action and wide reading, does.
I also got tired of the insularity of it all. It took an absurdly long time for America’s so-called center to see that a new wave of California literature was happening. Literature of so many kinds and so many genres from so many different types of people—at the highest level—has been coming out of California and from Californians for decades now. In fact, if there’s been an American moment in any genre over the past 20 years, it’s had a California component. Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, made by California. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen? Written while she taught in California. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a breakthrough in conceiving gender, composed in California. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s rewriting of a Vietnam War novel? Straight out of California. Rebecca Solnit introduced the concept of “mansplaining” in her great essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” written in San Francisco.
The list goes on. Want a poem in the shape of a bullet that contains a universe? Kay Ryan writes them in Fairfax. She won a Pulitzer for them. As did Fairfield native Tracy K. Smith for her cosmic poetry in Life on Mars, as well as Frank Bidart, for his epic body of work, and Adam Johnson, who proved you can imagine North Korea from San Francisco. In fact, more Californians have won Pulitzers in literature in the past decade than writers in any other region in America.
In an interview recently, the California writer Kathleen Alcott theorized that what makes California different is our sense of time. That when you can travel one hour in any direction and wind up in a desert or on a ski slope or against a rice field or within a small forest, time begins to mean something different to you. Because landscape, after all, is time. It’s made by geologic time. California, more than any other place on earth, knows how sudden and dangerous a rupture in geologic time can be. We also, I think, are right at the forefront of knowing what happens when humans try to yoke this vast, mysterious living thing called the Earth to human time. The fires that burn almost all year round, for example. The droughts. The sudden necessary migrations. The changes in crop patterns. Our literature has paid tribute to this already, from William T. Vollmann’s epic nonfiction narrative, Imperial, to Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus, still the best cli-fi novel to have emerged from a burning, troubled America.
I agree with all this, but I think something more fundamental to literature is happening in California that explains why so many of its writers are breaking new ground—why it is, I think, a literary mecca for a world on the move. Writing, after all, like all art forms, is social; it draws its power from the sounds and concerns of people, from the histories they carry in their bodies. The novel, the essay, reporting, and poetry, which makes music from the sound of language, depend on fealty to what is there. Listening to it, stylizing it, seeing around its easier representations to the dreams that tell the truth.
California, more than any other state in America, has begun to accept what is there, what is within its borders, and who calls it home.
I am not arguing there is no racism in California, or white nationalist ideas. Read Mike Davis and Jon Wiener’s Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, and you’ll learn how white nationalism had a cozy bosom in that part of the country for almost a century. But what the state is, who came there, and who lives there now? It overwhelms an attempt to pretend whiteness as a norm.
Since I was in high school, books like The Joy Luck Club and The Woman Warrior, as well as Héctor Tobar’s Translation Nation, have been read and taught to students by the hundreds of thousands. Books that acknowledge the depth and complexity of families and individuals who are, at this current moment, being berated and hectored by the most powerful man in the world. Things I had to learn of in museum exhibits, like the internment of the Japanese during World War II, have been brought to life in books, like Julie Otsuka’s devastating When the Emperor Was Divine, also taught in schools now. Isabel Allende’s books are taught, in English and in Spanish, across California, as well as books by Reyna Grande, Victor Martinez, Luis J. Rodriguez, Richard Rodriguez, Victor Villaseñor, and Helena María Viramontes, something enormously important in a state where a third of the residents speak Spanish. Elsewhere the whitewash of culture has been significantly altered by books, as in Los Angeles. Walter Mosley retold the postwar history of Watts from the viewpoint of an African American private dick, Easy Rawlins, while Janet Fitch chronicled the city’s underbelly of foster homes in her gimlet-eyed novel White Oleander.
And now we’re in the full throes of an era when the offspring of these writers are publishing. Novelists like Elaine Castillo, whose debut novel, America Is Not the Heart, about a queer war veteran and her epic journey from the Philippines to Milpitas, proves the banal suburbs are just as hospitable to the epic-scale novel we’ve come to expect from glamorous cities. Or Javier Zamora, America’s young second coming of Rubén Darío, who walked to the United States alone as a child at age nine and reconstructed that journey in his tremendous debut book of poems, Unaccompanied. Zamora was tutoring young students at Eggers’s 826 Valencia center when he wrote the first lines of that volume.
Week to week, this big glorious, strange, wonderful state is coming to life on the page. Women in California prisons in the work of Rachel Kushner; Native people at a powwow in Oakland in the work of Tommy Orange; the new sounds of the Central Valley in the stories of Jaime Cortez, who grew up there, a child of documented immigrant farm laborers. Book by book, these novels and poetry and story collections are showing what bodies carry, by putting us—as readers—in them. Bodies are not simply born, the poet Natalie Diaz, from Needles, reminds us; they are built. But how? You cannot always see the gouges of tools. You have to imagine them—and in a state as trained in the eye, as saturated by light as California, this is crucial work.
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California is not a destination point but a kind of portal for remarkable journeys—exhausting ones. I often wonder why my father, when I was growing up, never talked about his father’s father—a man who lost everything and died poor. Maybe that’s why my brothers and I only recently learned the true trajectory of that man’s father, my great-great-grandfather, who’d been a baker in Grass Valley, back when the state was a few decades old and the gold rush had long since proved to be yet another hoax for most. What tirednesses did he, my great-great-grandfather, take to work every morning? What griefs? What about his wife, who’d died young, leaving him a widower with children? Not long ago I learned he’d also married his brother’s widow in Canada. His family had moved there from England, where he’d been born into the indentured poor. Hence my name. Freeman.
My grandfather was born in San Francisco in 1909, two and a half years after the earthquake and fire, on Church Street. I’ve seen photographs of the city from that time. What nerves are built by walking to school past rubble on that scale? What strengths? He never spoke of it. Nor did he speak of being poor, because by the time I met him he wasn’t anymore. He’d built a different body around that long-ago body, the one he was born in. Was it built with fury? With love? With fear? Is that why he saved with such savage determination, why he planned? I’ll never know, because we buried those stories with him. I long for a novel that would imagine them for me.
When I ponder this history, I feel something inside me spin with vertigo. Such an immensity of time in that paragraph above, and yet it’s still inside me, too, pulsing in my blood. Without any of those accidental, difficult, long-ago journeys, I am not here. How to live with such knowledge? How do we live with it when such forces shaped the bodies of our parents or our grandparents? How do we live with such stories when they orbit inside our neighbors, unseen? What does this mean for a state, or a nation? We need containers for such cosmic knowledge—of what we do not know, and cannot see.
It is why Donald Trump’s administration is at war with California, other than the fact that it did not vote for him (and has sued him more than 60 times). The state has come to see its diversity and its past as its strengths, its landscape as precarious, and that they are embodied in residents worth protecting. Not surprisingly, as COVID-19 began to spread, California’s mayors and governor took rapid steps to protect this legacy and its people—all people—rather than stay open for business. As one might expect, the health-versus-economy way of thinking hasn’t stuck in California: the state has proved that accepting its complexity as fact has in no way led to financial ruin—quite the opposite. Prior to COVID-19, California was running budget surpluses, and the state was simultaneously open, dismayed, and searching for ways to work on its problems—like the abject homelessness in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Which exists in stark contrast to the vast tech wealth being generated there.
I thought of all this in 2018, when I began to put together an anthology of California writing and discovered enough strong work to make five volumes, not just one. In a state of 40 million people, with the world’s fifth-largest economy, with a quarter of America’s immigrant population, literature is being reinvented. Forms like the essay are being thrown into new light, and journeys that have been described by our president as criminal, like that of someone arrowing to a new country simply for the chance to live a better life, are attaining a nobility that our government so viciously denies—out of fear, and to its peril.
John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s: California and the author of several books, including, most recently, Dictionary of the Undoing and The Park, a collection of poems. Raised in Sacramento, he lives in New York, where he serves as executive editor of Literary Hub and teaches at New York University.