This book was recommended to me by a friend who was taught by Dana Johnson and had wonderful things to say about her as a writer (she’s good) and as a person (she’s beautiful). Always wanting to support my sisters-in-writing-arms, I requested a copy of her novel, entitled “Elsewhere, California”, to see what the hubbub was about. Both claims are true.
I came to the work amped because my friend cised me, but also intrigued by the following blurb:
“When her cousin Keith moves in, he triggers a series of events that will follow Avery: to her studies at USC, to her career as an artist, and into her relationship with a wealthy Italian in the Hollywood Hills. Elsewhere, California illustrates the complicated history of African Americans across the neighborhoods of Los Angeles.”
Clearly I’m down for complicated histories and black folks in LA, so I eagerly jumped in. What I found was a narrative as sprawling as LA’s geography, and writing that technically accomplished something very distinct: showing the evolution of the main character, Avery, as she goes from a hood-child to suburban kid to USC graduate to bougie artist/housewife, each phase of her life marked with its own cadences, rhythms and speech. The voice of Avery as she’s first introduced: “We caint go tricka treating. The Crips went and shot somebody and the Bloods done shot em back”, is markedly different than the voice of Mature Avery: “My back is a trick. Perfectly straight, as always. I imagine a string connected to the top of my spine, the last bone that attaches itself to my skull, someone pulling me up straight. A puppeteer.” Old Avery runs words together. New Avery is perfectly poised. A lot of women, particularly women of color, can relate to Avery’s metamorphoses.
I’ll be honest and say that there were a few things that frustrated me – the jump-aroundiness of the story, the floweriness – but what got my goat was the Keith storyline. For the entire book we follow Avery and her travels, and along the way meet her cousin and playmate Keith. Keith is always finding trouble, both in their youth and later on when he breaks in and steals property from Avery’s swanky Hollywood home. As a result of Keith’s most recent f*ck up Avery is faced with some tough choices – does she call the police on her crackhead relative? Or does she stay silent and piss of her Italian husband? Again, these are issues that a lot of us who have ‘made’ it can relate to. There’s a build up at the end where Keith might possibly show up at her art show and show out, but the reader doesn’t get the resolution of seeing grown-up Keith and grown-up Avery go toe-to-toe. I wanted to see what Keith had to say for himself. Instead, there was a strange scene that mediates on the peculiarly of race and representation that wasn’t quite satisfying.
Recommendations: Read if you are into literary, poetic, English-teachery prose. That can be kind of off-putting if you aren’t into that type of thing, but the ideas Johnson explores are relevant, relatable, and interesting. Even though Elsewhere, California wasn’t quite my steez, I could appreciate what Dana Johnson was trying to get at. You can cop it here.
By: Dana Johnson
*Copy provided by publisher, opinion those of DopeReads