The Art of Giving Up

Invisible_ManAfter the publication of his classic novel, Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison spent over forty years working on his sophomore effort, Juneteenth. When asked by an interviewer to explain the delay, he blamed it on a fire which destroyed his manuscript during the early 1970s. But now, nearly twenty years after his death in 1994, scholars believe Ellison was stricken with self-doubt and insecurities from the pressure of being the token voice of Black America during the pre-Civil Rights era following his celebrated debut. Ellison suffered from the strains of creative paralysis, a condition that, for whatever the reasons, can strike any writer. I ought to know; it happened to me. It took me twenty years to finish my novel.

Now I’m certainly not in the same league as Ellison; I’m not even a published novelist. Yet I know how easy it is to get caught in that trap. I experienced everything that could possibly go wrong and suffered the confusion, fear, and self-doubt that Ellison might have felt all those years. A more experienced writer, recognizing she was fighting a losing battle, might have given up. Yet nothing frightened me more.

I was ambitious. I was also young and still discovering my voice. And though I lived in the San Francisco bay area, a place so rich with its own literary traditions, I didn’t seek out a writing community. I had only my books. So I struggled alone because I thought that was the proper way to write.

I went into the project well-armed, or at least that’s what I thought. I knew what I wanted to write about. The novel was to explore suicide and denial within the black community through the eyes of a young girl who struggles to get to the bottom of her parents’ tragic and inexplicable deaths in a house fire several years earlier. She, along with her grandmother, her father’s best friend, an aunt and cousin, and her mother’s former lover formed the backbone of the story’s narrative. I kept a list of character names and bios and wrote a timeline of the community’s history. I included references to characters who were long dead and the gothic specter of ghosts and dream worlds. I wanted to write a serious novel and tossed in everything I thought would make it so. Confident that it was all going to come together somehow, I began writing. I wrote the prologue and the first few chapters with ease, but soon got stuck. My head crawled with so many ideas I had trouble organizing them all. I didn’t know what I was doing. In the end, I wound up writing by trial and error.

Realizing I needed help, I turned to books. I reread Toni Morrison’s novels––The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Beloved––to study exposition, multiple character points of view, voice. Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping taught me the power of observation, particularly of the natural world. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Autumn of the Patriarch, for better and worse, taught me about magic realism. I read books about writing like John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, a collection of Reader’s Digest books on craft. I researched the Vietnam war, as well as the history of African Americans in California.

The books were instructive, but they didn’t help me confront my main problem: How do I juggle plot and all 41KYQst9aILthese different voices and make them gel? That was something I was going to have to work out on my own. My main problem was that I was too generous and too desperate to be democratic. The novel had nine main characters, tons of exposition, a rigidly structured plot, enough stories to fill three novels, and my lame attempts at magic realism. I refused to make tough choices. As the problems multiplied, I became more frustrated and indecisive. Crippled with self-doubt, I’d write two or three pages only to delete them along with whatever confidence I had left.

While I struggled to fix the problems in my novel, I faced numerous setbacks that ground its progress to a halt. Like a lot of people in the 1990s, I was relying more on technology. Before I got a computer, I used a small laptop word processor and saved all my files on a floppy disc (remember those old relics?). It was a primitive machine but it performed all the necessary functions. Back then I was strangely confident in technology. I foolishly thought it was more reliable than a good old-fashioned hard copy manuscript ripped straight from a typewriter. You can’t destroy a floppy disc as easily as you can paper. It was all there, stored in a single file on a hard piece of plastic.

God, was I ever stupid!

One night before dinner I decided to work on my novel. I slid the floppy disc into the slot of my WP and clicked on my file. As it came up on screen, I realized something was wrong. My novel had been replaced by strings of squares and alphabetical and numerical gibberish. I frowned and scrolled down the entire page, growing more panicked. I exited the file and ejected the disc. After confirming that it was still in rewritable mode, I slid the disc back in again. Still the same problem. The disc was corrupted. My entire manuscript was gone. All those days, weeks, and months of hard work gone.

907781I wanted to toss the WP across the room. Instead I cried. I was frustrated and angry at myself, at technology, and the world in general. I had spent years conceiving, dreaming, planning, researching and writing this novel and now it all came to nothing.

Yet the more bad luck pushed at me, the more I pushed back. In an interview, Ellison, regarding his second novel, stated that “I managed to keep going with it, I guess, because there was nothing else to do.” I found myself in a similar dilemma. I wanted to write this novel so badly that I was determined to see it through to the end because I really had no other choice.

Needing space and clarity, I decided to put my novel aside and work on other writing projects. I had even begun submitting a few stories to magazines and journals. None of them were accepted, but I kept writing and developing my craft. I also started to read more. I bought an eclectic mix of novels and short story anthologies, learning as much from them as I could.

Still my thoughts drifted back to my novel. It rattled around in my head while I browsed in a bookstore, walked down the street, or rode the train to work. I’d jot down a few lines in my journal, knowing that I was going to start climbing that mountain again.

This time I tried a different strategy. I shared my short stories and fragments of my novel with coworkers and later joined a workshop. After I started attending school, I felt confident enough to workshop my work-in-progress. In a class of nearly forty, I read aloud the prologue to my novel. The response was encouraging. People loved the rich details and the humor.

It was the encouragement I needed to continue working on my novel. Everyday I wrote, balancing my time between classes and family, until I finally finished. When I wrote the last sentence, I leaned back in my chair and shrugged. I expected to feel something––elation, relief, joy––but instead felt nothing. In fact, it seemed rather anticlimactic. I was done, but I knew I wasn’t finished.

During my last semester at San Francisco State University, I took an independent study class with the Head11741 of the Creative Writing Department. I was to work one-on-one with her to plan and write a specific project. I chose my novel. Though I had a completed draft, I needed guidance on how to revise it. I sent her a synopsis and the first fifty pages. Her response was unequivocal. It was too long. She was right. At that point, it had tipped past a thousand pages. No publisher was going to take a chance on a debut fiction that was longer than three hundred. I’d heard this advice before, but it was the first time I took it seriously. I needed to butcher this thing.

She pointed out the repetitions in the novel, both on the plot and sentence level, and advised that I cut down word count by having characters talk to each other. I took her advice (though the one about characters talking to each other would drastically change a novel that was about the problems caused by people who don’t talk to each other). I made other serious edits. I took out the magic realism, which was quite frankly was amateurish. I dropped a few characters and truncated or excised scenes to tighten the plot. I edited the novel down to a little over five hundred pages. Not the three hundred or less I was aiming for, but still a pretty significant achievement. When I delivered another fifty pages to my instructor, she was more circumspect.

“Your characters are getting away from you,” she said. “Have you ever thought about writing this in third person?”

In other words I needed to distance myself from the text. Ironically in earlier versions the novel was written in third person, but it demanded to be written in first. Yet my instructor was right. These characters were running roughshod over me. I needed to wield more control.

After I graduated in 2009, I embarked on rewriting the entire novel in third person. I spent the next year on the revision, making more editing choices, truncating more scenes. Once completed, the story had become tighter, more focused. I had a better sense of what it was about thematically.

And yet, I was dissatisfied. I kept fiddling with the narrative, cutting scenes, adding others, or rewriting them altogether. Something wasn’t right. At first I thought I was being a perfectionist or that I was reluctant to let go after having worked on it for so long. By spring, however, I realized what happened. In trying to gain control over the narrative, I had also cut out its heart. The story needed to be in first person. It needed those clashing voices.

987799I rewrote the novel yet again, using the previous revised version as a template. Of course certain scenes and passages had to be rewritten, cut out, or added but the final version was essentially the same. All those voices I had trouble capturing now resounded beautifully, painfully, joyfully.

I set the manuscript away while I worked on other projects, but when I returned to it with fresh eyes, those fresh eyes still saw problems. As I reread the novel, my dissatisfaction with it grew. As much as I wished I had conquered all my problems, I was faced with the possibility that my novel just wasn’t any good. I continued to tinker away, adding scenes, rewriting sentences, and constantly obsessing over whether the novel was “good enough,” until one day, after toying with the idea of rewriting whole sections, I came to the conclusion that I was never going to be satisfied with it. It wasn’t because the story or characters weren’t good enough. Rather, I realized that I had changed. I was no longer the person or writer who had conceived this story over twenty years ago. My perspectives had changed. My writing style had changed as well. The only proper response to my novel was to simply let it go.

Yet I wasn’t entirely ready to let go of my characters. I still believed they deserved to have their story told. Since it was 2012, roughly twenty years after I first conceived the idea for the novel, I began to wonder what happened to these characters during that time. This gave me a whole new infusion of ideas. With very little preplanning I dove into a new novel. I had no idea what I wanted to do with this new novel or what I wanted it to be about (though a few ideas had percolated in the back of my mind). Rather, I just followed my instincts, taking it one step at a time. I wrote every day, a few pages here, a few paragraphs there, refusing to second-guess myself. I wrote down any idea that came to my head, no matter how wacky. As the novel progressed, the narrator’s voice became more humorous and snarky. I played around with structure and style, 518oQLsZroLincluding footnotes, twitter posts, and text messages (though hardly revolutionary, this was a new approach for me). By the end of that summer, I had completed over 98,000 words, which, through the revision process, I’d whittle down to nearly 96,000, a far cry from the 180,000+ behemoth that I had originally written years ago.

I had never written that way before and it was liberating. I trusted my instincts and took what I learned over the years to heart. I wasn’t afraid to take paths that the writer I used to be would have never had the confidence to take. There were ideas that I had included in the first draft that didn’t make it to the final rounds, but that’s okay. I learned that to get close to the results I wanted, I had to be willing to jump off a few cliffs and trust that the earth below was soft. I learned to take risks. But, more than anything, if working on this novel for twenty years has taught me anything, it was that I also had to be willing to risk failure and learn to give up. It was only by giving up on my novel that I could write the story that deserved to be told.


Confessions of a Former Aliterate, or Learning the Pleasures of Reading

H.P. Lovecraft turned me off from reading once. I wish I could say it was because of his well-documented racism, but I was a little girl when I read Lovecraft for the first and only time and hadn’t known he existed before much less known his attitudes toward black folks. The fact that he nearly destroyed my love of reading makes sense in the end.

I was around ten or eleven when I bought a collection of his short stories, one of the first books I ever bought for myself, at a school fundraiser for what I can’t recall. The book sale was held in a small class room in a separate building on campus with a single row of foldaway tables set up in the back of the room, onto of which were scores of mostly paperback books. Since this was the first time I was buying a book for my very own, I wanted to pick something special. The cover of Lovecraft’s collection of stories intrigued me. The shadowy figure of a strange and frightening beast lurked menacingly in the background on a dark, cobblestoned street lit by old-fashioned street lamps. My imagination was lit. I plucked it, along with The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, from the table, handed my five dollars to the woman manning the lock box filled with bills and coins, and walked proudly back into the sunlight with my classmates. I showed everyone my acquisition of the Narrative, and they nodded approvingly, but secretly I coveted the tales of Lovecraft. It seemed weird, and at that age I was developing an interest in the weird––tales of UFO abductions and Bigfoot sightings which were as popular on TV in those sun-lit days of the late 1970s as they are today.



I wanted to delve into this strange new world, but when I began reading the first story, I found myself continuously thrown back out of it. Reading through Lovecraft’s torturous lines was like trying to breathe with a plastic bag over my head. My stomach muscles clenched and my head grew dizzy. I couldn’t read more than a few paragraphs before I put the book down again. Diving into Lovecraft’s world was like plunging into a shadowy, labyrinthine nightmare filled with cobblestoned New England towns and odd beasts whose presence haunted the psyche and drove men mad. It was an appealing world, but trying to read through Lovecraft’s oblique language was very well driving me mad.

Like a masochist, I tried again, determined to finish what I started. I feared something was wrong with me, that perhaps I was suffering from some reading disorder that prevented me from finishing anything longer than a few paragraphs before I grew nauseous and threatened to vomit up all those lines. This was a terrible thing, more terrible than being diagnosed with cancer. What would I do if I couldn’t read? It never occurred to me that I just wasn’t going to enjoy every book that was written or that some books were poorly written. I believed with naive ardor that writers were never wrong. They belonged in that hallowed ground of gods whose powers set them apart from the rest of us ordinary folks. As a shy, friendless Black girl whose love for books was growing into a quiet passion toward writing, I was easily seduced by the romanticism.

And yet, as hard as I tried to finish that book, I never did. I wrestled with Lovecraft and lost. Like any child used and abused, I blamed myself. It was the last time I would read with any regularity. Occasionally I read whatever was lying about the house, Frank Herbert’s Dune or Theodore Sturgeon (one of my older brothers is a huge sci-fi fan), but years passed before I read anything for pleasure in between. My experience with Lovecraft had scarred me so thoroughly that reading was no longer a pleasure, but a chore. It wasn’t until my junior year in high school that I discovered I was indeed suffering from a malady. I was a functioning aliterate.

Mr. Weaver, my psychology teacher, helped me with that diagnosis. One day, during class, he began a lecture on the differences between illiterates and aliterates. An illiterate was someone who couldn’t read, but an aliterate was someone who did know how to read but chose not to. I never knew such distinctions existed. I rarely read myself outside of school assignments. An oppressive realization about myself crept up on me. He asked the class to write on a scrap of note paper the last book we read and when we read it. I struggled for a long time to come up with a title. The last book I remembered reading was Dune and that was three years before. After all the scraps of paper had been turned in, Mr. Weaver read them aloud to the class. It became apparent that my classmates read with far more regularity than I. Of course, looking back on it now, they could have listed off the names of books that were on their required reading lists, but to my seventeen-year-old self I was startled by the revelation that I was what Mr. Weaver described as an aliterate. I could read, but chose not to. I felt ill. I didn’t want to be aliterate. I wanted to write. And even then I knew that if I was going to be a writer, I had to be a reader as well.

That day I made a conscious decision. I was going to read. I went down to the campus library after school and browsed through the many rows of makeshift, metal bookshelves for that one inaugural tome that was going to reconcile me with the world of reading. I picked out the first book that seemed the most appealing. In this case, it was the book’s cover. Yes, I know. One must never judge a book by its cover, but there are times when breaking the rules are called for. I didn’t do too badly. The book cover, set against a dark blue backdrop, had grotesque Harlequin figures that looked like reflections in a Funhouse mirror. It was weird and intriguing. Something interesting had to lie between its covers. The book turned out to be The Stranger by Albert Camus.



I had never heard of Camus before, nor knew of his legacy as an existentialist. For that matter, I knew next to nothing about existentialism. And yet when I read the simple, clean prose, I was swept away by the imagery. The clear descriptions of Algeria––the whitewashed, stucco homes, the sparkle of the blue Mediterranean, the whiteness of the beach on which Mersault, the main character, inexplicably kills an Arab man––pulled me into the story. I didn’t ponder on the philosophical meanings of the tale, but rather the images. It felt as though I had been transported to Algiers, smelled the clean, sea air, felt the stultifying heat, the grit and sand, and the claustrophobic world of Mersault’s inner mind. I had never read anything like it before––so complete in its sense of setting. I found again the pleasure of reading, its ability to transport and transcend time and place simply through the power of words.



After Camus, I read Stephen King’s dark imaginings in The Dead Zone. When I returned the book to the library, the librarian asked me if I liked it. I answered with a curt, shy nod. It would be years before I learned to dissect what I read and articulate what it meant. Over the years, I continued reading even when my writing habits slowed down (this is another story altogether). One Christmas, one of my brothers gifted me two Toni Morrison novels: The Bluest Eye and Beloved. I devoured The Bluest Eye, loving the clarity in her vision and language. Beloved proved to be far more intimidating. I had read reviews of the novel and knew what it was about. It was a journey I wasn’t sure I wanted to take. I stared long and hard at the paperback’s cover. A young Black woman was in period dress, her head lowered so that the brim of her hat concealed her eyes. The image was apropos. There were things Ms. Morrison was revealing in her work that no one should gaze at with the naked eye. There was too much shame in the past. Why bring out all that dirty laundry? Yet it was the very nakedness and rawness of her writing that nudged me beyond shame. She revealed the beauty lying beneath the ugly surface. She made me want to uncover my eyes and see.


Source: The

Novels can have that affect, that seductive ability to draw the reader into its world, smash all her preconceived notions, and leave her ravished and satiated. Not all novels have that power, though. Sometimes, they are just fun reads. During those years, I read voraciously. When I had run out of things to read, I reread the same books. I not only read novels, but newspapers and magazines, too. Anything with words I devoured. As I grew older, my library grew as well. It swelled in size to the point where it was running away from me, where it seemed there were more unread books on my shelves than read (and, honestly, what real reader can say she has read everything on her shelf?). Life gets in the way, and time too. But, like patient, well-behaved children, my books wait for me.

When I think about it, I am amazed I ever lost my love for reading at all. Sometimes when I come across a book that is boring or torturous to get through, I often question myself and my reading capabilities (I haven’t completely recovered from my encounter with Lovecraft). It took a while for me to learn how to explore the book itself, to ask it questions not only from the perspective of a reader, but of a writer as well. Why isn’t this book working for me? Is it the style? The tone? the language? Or perhaps it’s the story itself or the characters that aren’t grabbing me? By investigating the novel itself I am investigating my own choices as a writer. How would I have tackled a similar subject or character and in what style or choice of language? This might seem like backseat driving, but in essence it allows me to explore my own capabilities as a storyteller. Reading, for the writer, should always be an investigation. I close a keen eye on word choices, syntax, structure and form, dialogue, character development and any other elements that create strong and indelible stories. I believe this is the fate of all writers: We become observers of the world and of literature. When I read, I am writer, editor, and reader. I interrogate the text itself, instead of, like my childish self, interrogating and castigating myself.

Yet in the end reading is a deeply pleasurable experience. I don’t mean pleasurable in the sense that it is unchallenging or mere entertainment (though a good book can be very entertaining). Far from it. Rather I mean that the joy of reading should be derived in the very act itself, the immersion into a world made up entirely by the use of words. When we turn reading into a chore, something we have to slog through simply because it is good for us, then we destroy the natural inclination we all share in the pleasure of words. A good book delivers its reader into the moment, where the past and the future cease to exist and all that remains is the glorious now. To love reading is to love words, to see them spread across the page, to sound them in our heads or to read them aloud, to hear the music in the way vowels and consonants click and bang and clatter together. A well-written book ought to roll off the tongue like a beautiful piece of symphony. That is pleasure.

California Soul



It goes without saying that California has left a giant footprint on American culture. While the south has the blues, jazz, and rock and roll and New York has bebop, Broadway, and hip hop, California has Silicon Valley and of course Hollywood. But it is even more than that: It is the living embodiment of what we call the American Dream. The place where everyone comes to to escape their pasts, to reinvent themselves into better, more glamorous personas, to seek wealth and fame. This has been so whether it were with the Okies escaping the Dust Bowl during the 1930s; African Americans seeking wartime jobs and an escape from the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration; or the children and grandchildren of  European Jews sloughing off East coast ghettoes and unpronounceable names to seek fame and power in the orange groves of Hollywood. The story is the same. California, as it exists in the greater American imagination, is a state in which one can make one’s dreams come true.

That has been good for California, but it has also been bad. For every person who has migrated to these borders and was able to eke out a life through sheer ingenuity, no matter how grand or small, there are many others whose dreams burst as all deferred dreams eventually do, often with the dreamers turning tail and returning to their places of origin, disappearing into the countless, unknown millions––or exploding. The riots in 1965 Watts and in 1992 South Central were testaments to that. This has been the story of California, a state that can either make or break you (or do both). Beneath the images of sun-soaked beaches and palm trees; the glamor and cool of Los Angeles; the fog-shrouded, hilly streets of San Francisco; the romanticism, mystery, and lore, there exists another California, a state rich of geographic diversity and of broken dreams. Look at the literature, films, TV shows, and songs produced and written about this state and you will find it there, a warning to the weak of heart.

It began, this warning, long before the state was discovered––1510 approximately. That was when Garcí Rodriguez Ordoñez de Montalvo’s novel Las Sergas de Esplandian was published. Like a lot of romantic tales, the novel explored the heroic exploits of Spanish adventurer Esplandian. One of those exploits occurs on an island called California, “very close to the side of Terrestrial Paradise…” that is populated with Amazonian black women who capture and domesticate young griffins by feeding them on men. Their queen is named Calafia. Known for her legendary beauty, Calafia is trained in the arts of warfare and has an armada of boats through which she plans to plunder the rest of the world. What draws Esplandian to California is its legendary gold. And right there you see the beginnings of mythic California, its epic allure, and its danger––after all, there’s those griffins to get past. It’s also telling that these original California girls weren’t the stereotypical beach blonde bunnies the Beach Boys sung about.

Centuries later, the real California would draw just such adventurers after the discovery of gold in the Sacramento valley. People from around the world braved the treacherous routes across the Atlantic, the Pacific, and around the Cape Horn to reach the state. California’s rich diversity began during the Gold Rush, though the state’s penchant for multiculturalism began long before that with the Native Indian populations (Maidu, Chumash, Pauite, Miwok, Wintu, Ohlone, and others), early Spanish explorers and missionaries, and Mexican, Russian, and early American settlers. But the Gold Rush saw an influx of Asian, South American, European immigrants, as well as Americans who sought out the promise of new wealth.


Source: Barnes & Noble

Louise Clapp (Dame Shirley), an easterner who traveled with her husband to California to capitalize on the discovery, wrote extensively about her experiences to her sister back in New Jersey. The letters were eventually published in a San Francisco journal under the title The Shirley Letters. Clappe’s detailed letters offer not only a portrait of the motley crew of people who shaped California’s history, but also the struggles of a frontier community coming into being. But it is her portraits of individuals crushed by the realities of mining life that create the singular impression of a state indifferent to the very dreams that drew individuals to it. In one sequence she tells the story of a miner whose leg was crushed by a stone that rolled down a hill. F., as he is called, refuses to have his leg amputated and is eventually stricken with Typhoid Fever. “His sufferings,” Clappe goes on to write, “have been of the most intense description. Through all the blossoming spring, and a summer as golden as its own golden self, of our beautiful California, he has languished away existence in a miserable cabin, his only nurses men––some of them, it is true, kind and good––others neglectful and careless.” The “misery” alongside the beauty is a theme that finds its way through much of the literature and films about the state. They seem inexplicably linked, as though a reminder that there is a bloody price to be paid in order to exist in this “Terrestrial Paradise.”

Across disparate works of fiction, films and music, the theme exhausts itself. A pattern arises. One perfect example of this is in the classic R&B hit by Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia.” Released in 1973, the song examines the plaintive dreams of those who dust themselves off from their old hometowns to come to California, only to discover that the California of their dreams is only an illusion. Listen to Gladys sing “Midnight Train” and you’ll realize that she is not simply giving up her life in Los Angeles to be with her man, but that she shares his heartache and disappointment. She sings “I’ll be with him” with such passion that you know she is the one who is more than happy to pick up her bags and go. She has known all along that “dreams don’t always come true,” a lesson he learns too late. But the world they are leaving is hers, not his, so she knows, as most native Californians know, that the reality for African Americans in this state has always been a mixed bag.

That mixed bag repeats itself again and again. It’s there in the soul-crushing grind of Charles Burnett’s elegiac 1979 film Killer of Sheep. Here, the well-worn images of palm trees, mansions and swimming pools are replaced by wide, cement-cracked boulevards, alleyways and rock quarries where children play, and the slaughterhouse where the eponymous sheep are hung by hooks and slit open, the blood spilling onto the killing floor. These haunting images form the broken, unrealized dreams of Stan (played by Henry G. Sanders), who longs to escape the stultifying, sleep-defying circumstances of his marginalized life. Unable to relate to his children and his wife, who long for his affection as a salve against the indifferences of the city, Stan chases after get-rich-quick schemes that fall just short of realization. Even pleasurable pursuits tend to be elusive. In one scene, Stan and his family go on a picnic outside of the city. Along the way, the car their friend borrows breaks down, forcing them to return home. In California, dreams are just within reach, so close you can touch them, but they fade like mirages in the desert as soon as you do.

This nearness of dreams and illusions is evident in The Barbarian Nurseries by Héctor Tobar. In The Barbarian Nurseries, the lives of undocumented workers rub against the wealthy elite. They perform the duties of keeping Los Angeles and its surrounding suburbs well tended, but as Tobar notes, the class divide between the two can often be illusory as well. Scott and Maureen Torres-Thompson, victims of the recession who are no longer able to support their expensive lifestyle, find their marriage dissolving into bitter recriminations and resentments. When one argument turns violent, Maureen and Scott each leave, believing the other has stayed behind to care for their two sons. Their housekeeper Araceli Ramirez is forced to take drastic measures to help the boys when she drags them across the greater Los Angeles area to reunite them with their estranged grandfather. Everyone, including all of Los Angeles, is affected by her actions when the police and the media are brought in, but none moreso than Araceli who, by novel’s end, is seen driving away from the state in search of the life she came to California to find. Both Araceli and Scott are dreamers, but only Araceli is wise enough to know the limitations of those dreams for the marginalized.



The same message can be found in Manuel Muñoz’ novel What You See in the Dark, but here the illusions of Hollywood intersect with the harsh realities of life in the hinterlands, in this case San Bernardino, when a director (Alfred Hitchcock) and his leading lady (Janet Leigh) arrive in town to shoot principal photography for their latest film (Psycho). But San Bernardino, like many of Hitchcock’s films, is the setting for Muñoz’ own tale of passion, murder, and the lost dreams of both the native born and migrants as they brace for a new highway that will cut through town. As with the Torres-Thompsons, even those who succeed often face uncertainty because successes can be as fleeting as they can be elusive. Muñoz’ leading lady is painfully aware of the fact that the film she is making will herald a new style of filmmaking that will overthrow the already dying studio system, pushing actresses such as herself, taught and trained within that system, to the margins––“From overhead [during shower sequence], it was heartbreakingly easy to see how she had nowhere to go, trapped as she was on all sides.” Whether in San Francisco, South Central L.A., Hollywood or in the hinterlands, the story remains the same––the dream, the bust, the bitter reality.

It’s there in the fiction of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Chester Himes, Walter Mosley, Nathanael West, Joan Didion or Kate Braverman; in the incendiary rhymes of NWA and Tupac Shakur laying down in the harshest terms the imploded dreams of a post-Civil Rights era; in the punk irony of the Dead Kennedy’s “California Uber Alles” or Fishbone’s “? (Modern Industry)”; in Johnette Napolitano’s yowl in Concrete Blonde’s 1980s alt-rock hit “Still in Hollywood” or Don Henley’s weary resignation in the Eagles’ “Hotel California”; in the crush of broken hopes and dreams in The Grapes of Wrath, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Chan is Missing, Boys ‘N the Hood, Fruitvale Station; and in the veneer that’s torn away to reveal the corruption and deceit––Sunset Boulevard, Vertigo, Chinatown, Shampoo, The Player, L.A. Confidential. There is the vision, the oasis surrounded by desert, promising a quench for dry throats, and then the gritty taste of sand. All of these works in one way or another serve as a warning about the state. Things aren’t as they seem here, they all say. So don’t say we didn’t warn you!

Of course you cannot limit a state as large as California to its main urban attractions. It is too rich, too geographically diverse to allow for such simplistic evaluations. Native Californians live, work, love, and yes, even succeed here, and all in that laid-back, casual style we’re known for. And yet, the myth persists. It’s there for all to see, the dreams, the ambivalence, the cautionary tales.

Perhaps the myth is in no small part due to the fact that the state itself projects it onto the rest of the world. Tourist ads do not contradict this image. One ad, which runs frequently, features attractive people located in various spots around California––from the farm country of the Inland Empire to the vineyards of Napa Valley––all bestowing the state’s natural virtues; and of course there are the requisite shots of the Golden Gate Bridge, redwoods, beaches, Disneyland, and Hollywood! Who wouldn’t be attracted to that? What you don’t see, of course, are the inner cities, the trailer parks, the farm lands on which Mexican migrants toil, the overcrowded prisons, the homelessness, the overworked, the underpaid, and of course all those foreclosed homes. The problems of California are in the end the problems of America.

Still you can’t fault the tourist industry for wanting to draw more revenue into the state. California always tries to put its best face forward. To the rest of the country, California is full of kooks, San Francisco and Hollywood liberals, nuts and screws. But the dream persists.

I was born and raised in California. During the scope of my life here, the state of my birth was rocked by serial killings, kidnappings and assassinations; religious cults; the rise of conservatism; AIDs, crack cocaine; gang violence, sex scandals; earthquakes, fires, and mudslides; Rodney King, riots, O.J., the bust, Enron and rolling blackouts, budget cuts, the killing of Oscar Grant, and the Governator. And throughout it all, Californians continue to persist. It is what we do.

Though the number of people coming to California has slowed down (and the number of people leaving has risen), those adventurers of self-invention who have always given this state its color and eccentricity will continue to make their way here. And literature and pop culture will continue to tell their dreams and their failures.

The Most Memorable Characters in Literature

I admit it: I like top-ten lists. Even though I might not always agree with the choices, I do enjoy reading what other people think are the most important of this and that. So in that vein, I’ve decided to put together some lists of my own. My versions aren’t top-ten lists (some don’t even reach to ten and others go past that arbitrary marker), since I’ve never been very good at ordering things by importance. I’m not quite sure if you can with something as subjective and memorable as literary characters. Everybody has his own list of characters that have touched him in some way or left an indelible imprint on the cultural imagination. Mine, quite frankly, are my own, which is to say, you might not always agree with my selections, but they are certainly selections that are undeniably well-known even to non-readers. So how did I arrive at my decisions? Basically I stuck with choices that I had already read. While I agree that such characters as Scarlett O’Hara or Rabbit Angrim are memorable characters and have appeared on similar lists, I myself have never read Gone With the Wind or Updike’s Rabbit series. Rather, I chose characters from novels I’ve read that have touched me in some way or ones that I remembered even long after the novel’s plot has somehow faded from my own memory. I think that’s a pretty good determination of what’s memorable and what’s not. So, therefore, in that vein, here are, in no particular order, my list of the most memorable characters found in literature.

The Wife of Bath (Canterbury Tales) – Feisty, opinionated, and independent, Alison, the Wife of Bath, is literally an original. Written by Geoffrey Chaucer during a time when women characters in English literature were little more than damsels in distress for Romantic heroes to express their chivalry, the Wife of Bath defied every role women were supposed to play, both in real life and in poetry, becoming, even to this day, a feminist role model. Married five times, the Wife of Bath makes a compelling argument in her prologue about the role of marriage and the church, while also displaying an earthiness that is sexy and funny. And the tale she relates to her fellow-travelers also plays up her unique vision about love and romance. Clearly, one of Chaucer’s most original and memorable creations.

Janie Crawford (Their Eyes Were Watching God) – Like the Wife of Bath, Janie Crawford from Zora Neale Hurston’s seminal 1930s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, is an original. A black woman in search of self-definition and love, Janie appeared on the scene after the Harlem Renaissance, when literature created by Black authors approached W.E.B. DuBois’s belief in the “Talented Tenth”: African American professionals whose intellect and professionalism were going to uplift the race. This meant, of course, that Black literature should only represent Black people in the most positive light. Hurston, like her contemporary Langston Hughes, instead was more interested in presenting the Black experience in all of its beauty and ugliness. Crawford is the very embodiment of Hurston’s vision–a young woman, forced into marriage by her dying grandmother, leaves her first husband for another, then falls into a love affair with a young man, Teacake, after the death of her second. While Janie is abused by her second husband, she is never presented as a victim. Rather, Janie refuses to allow circumstances or the moral and social codes of the small Black community in which she lives to define her. Her restless pursuit of her own desires for love and self-creation makes her an endlessly fascinating character. For such as Alice Walker, who helped rescue both the book and the author from obscurity in the 1970s, she became a benchmark and model for their own literary inspirations. Her romance with Teacake, who unlike her other two husbands loves her with a fierceness that matches Janie’s own desires, is also one of the more memorable literary love stories ever created.

Boo Radley (To Kill A Mockingbird) – While most readers might point to either Scout or Atticus Finch as the most memorable characters from To Kill A Mockingbird (and I don’t disagree), I will settle on Boo Radley, largely because this character, despite the fact that he only makes an appearance toward the end of the novel, leaves an indelible impression. While Radley is an archetypal figure of author Harper Lee’s theme of tolerance in her southern gothic story about racism and childhood innocence, he is also a tender character, one whose presence is known to Scout and her brother, Jem, only through the little gifts he leaves for them in the knot of a nearby tree. Radley’s reputation in the neighborhood is a horrible one, inspiring the kind of childhood fears that we all have of things we don’t know or understand. Don’t we all have a Boo Radley somewhere in our collective childhood memories? And yet, when Scout acknowledges Radley after he rescues them from the racist murderer Tom Ewell with a simple “Hey, Boo,” then we, the readers, see she sees a truth with far more clarity that nudges her toward a hard-earned maturity. Things aren’t always as they seem on the surface, and Radley’s gentility and tenderness, so delicately detailed by Lee’s fine hand, pulls all of her themes together, making Radley not only a memorable character, but an important one as well.

Sula (Sula) – Toni Morrison’s character Sula, in the novel of the same name, is a blues creation. Lyrical, gritty, and raw, Sula, like Janie Crawford, defies expectations and refuses to live life according to everybody else’s terms. Uncompromising, Sula can also be a fairly unlikeable character. When she has an affair with her best friend’s husband, she cuts off the one relationship she has had that defined her as much as her friendship with Nel was defined by Sula. And yet, despite their differences, the bond the two girls formed in childhood is too strong, surviving even Sula’s eventual death. Sula is a memorable character largely because she is so uncompromising, aggressive, and fearless in her pursuits, a rare quality found in Black female literary characters. Morrison is fearless as well in her rendition of Black women and the Black community, portraying them as uncompromisingly as Sula herself. Here is not a female character looking for acceptance and self-definition, but one who grabs it without illusion or delusions. She is the truth-teller in the community, the one who fearlessly tells and lives it like it is. When she returns to the Bottom, the Black community in Medallion, she sets in motions a series of supernatural events that forces those living there to acknowledge and recognize the power of truth. Like the blues song “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues,” Sula is a character who sticks in the imagination for her fearless pursuit of life.

Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby) – When I first read The Great Gatsby, I wasn’t terribly impressed. In fact, it’s not one of my favorite novels. And yet, Jay Gatsby, the titular character of the novel, still makes an impression on me. Perhaps that is because he is such an archetypal figure in American culture. Scratch beneath the surface of any P Diddy or Jay Z and you have a character cut from Gatsby’s designer cloths. Written during the 1920s Jazz Age, Gatsby is very much of his time. A self-made man with a criminal background, Gatsby is materialistic, obsessive, and immoral. And yet, his pursuit of the American dream is one that is timeless, capturing the heart of this country’s obsessive pursuits of wealth, reinvention, and acceptance.

Bigger Thomas (Native Son) – Novelist Richard Wright used literature as a political statement, addressing the cancer at the heart of American society: racism. While many of his contemporaries criticized his portrayals of Black life, Wright’s novel Native Son, no doubt, is a classic in protest literature precisely because of his uncompromising vision of how racism and race relations stunt and devour its victims, namely young Black men. Bigger Thomas is a memorable character because of the way he forces readers to recognize this fact. Written after his successful short story collection, Uncle Tom’s Children, Wright wanted to create a character who would force white readers to recognize their own complicity in the racial dynamics that destroyed Black people without the sentimentality he feared was at the heart of his previous book’s success. Bigger Thomas, a young Black man who finds himself caught in the trap of racism when he accidentally kills the daughter of his white employer, thus sending him on the run from the authorities, is ignorant, violent, and angry. Yet, beneath the surface, there lurks a soul yearning to find an escape from the poverty and racism that has entrapped him and his family. Bigger is an archetypal character, one meant to represent many Black men, particularly those caught up in the legal and justice system, and his actions are not merely meant to shock readers, but to force them to accept that Bigger’s circumstances are shaped largely by a society that refuses to recognize his humanity. In other words, Bigger is a creation of American racism, poverty, and hatred. His reactions are an inevitable time bomb waiting to unleash its explosive fury. For this, Bigger is a memorable character, one that lingers in the mind long after the last page in Wright’s novel is turned.

Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye) – Every American teen has read J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. I was certainly one of them. There is something about its hero, Holden Caulfield, his posed cynicism and smart-alecky responses to life, that captures the teenaged imagination. The novel functions under the conceit that teens are smarter than most adults, who seem to bungle along in their boring routines of mortgage payments and Friday night cocktails, if you really want to know. Caulfield is a memorable character because he lives on in popular culture, whether it is in John Hughes’s teen flicks of the 1980s or Dawson’s Creek and, to a certain extent, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Sylvie (Housekeeper) – While the novel Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson, might not necessarily be well-known to most readers, its character is a memorable one for me. Like most of the female characters on my list, Sylvie, an itinerant who enters the lives of her two orphaned nieces after their grandmother dies, is an uncompromising woman who lives life on her own terms. If not fairly irresponsible in her housekeeping skills (not to mention in caring for her two nieces), she is nonetheless a likable character because, despite her faults, she is admirable in her unwitting fight against the 1950s conformity. Told from the point-of-view of Ruthie, one of the orphaned nieces, Sylvie is odd, eccentric, and a free-spirit, but, someone who also becomes for Ruthie, a shy and withdrawn girl, a means to escape the tragic and stultifying circumstances of her life. Abandoned, even by her sister, who prefers the normality that Sylvie is not capable of providing for her, Ruthie turns to her aunt as an anchor for meaning and stability. Through Sylvie’s eyes, the world is rich with small and mundane surprises, such as the little children who supposedly lurk and hide in the brush on a nearby island or the way the bridge trestles feel when a train passes over it. Like Ruthie, the reader likewise learns to see the world through Sylvie’s eyes and finds little surprises of beauty in it. Reprinted from Yahoo! Contributor Network.