THIS WEEK’S OTHER FEATURED BOOK, “THE GULLWING ODYSSEY,” CAN BE FOUND BY SCROLLING DOWN BELOW THIS POST, ALONG WITH THE FIRST TUESDAY REPLAY.
THE BOOK: California Transit,
PUBLISHED IN: 2007.
THE AUTHOR: Diane Lefer
THE PUBLISHER: Sarabande Books
SUMMARY: Southern California is a place of sunshine-noir unease in these stories and novellas. This isn’t the Los Angeles of movie stars and gangbangers but rather immigrants in detention facilities, a zoo employee running off with an antelope’s head, a young widow investing in a sex doll factory, people on a surreal search for new homes due to gentrification, and a traumatized New York transplant who rides buses all day and cannot avert the violence building inside her. Oh, and some of it is funny.
THE BACK STORY: Twenty years ago, I had just exiled myself from my birthplace, New York (driven out by the economy) and had relocated to Long Beach, CA in the southern part of Los Angeles County. I had to head back to the east coast to teach in the winter residency of the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College. Just before I left my cousin handed me a Patricia Highsmith novel to read on the plane. That night in the dorm, I was jetlagged and couldn’t sleep. As I stared at the bare cinder block walls, still caught up in Highsmith’s dark and morally ambiguous universe, some lines popped into my head. A poem, I thought. I jotted the words down. When I got back to California, I unpacked and came across that page. I kept writing and the poem turned to prose and continued for over 100 pages – the title novella of the collection.
At the same time I was trying to explore and understand my new home. Driving the freeways might be touted as the quintessential LA experience, but you don’t see much from the freeway. I began riding buses around the county and talking to strangers.
I soon moved to the center of LA itself.
Part of what attracted me to Los Angeles is that it’s a multiracial, multilingual international city. I had lived in Mexico and looked forward to living in a place with a large Mexican and Latino population. When I arrived, however, I found a place largely segregated. There was a lot of anxiety around race. A lot of white people I met seemed uncomfortable around people of color and afraid of being called racist. I wanted to capture some of that in words. I also started interpreting for Spanish-speaking people locked up in immigration detention and was shocked by the conditions and abuses I found – the inspiration for the shorter of the two novellas in the book.
Wait a minute! Darrell, you are making me remember a lot about this time in my life. Before I wrote that novella, I wrote a play set in a detention center. I had almost stopped writing fiction. Certainly I wasn’t sending my work out anymore. It had begun to seem pointless. I couldn’t even get a story rejected. I mean I’d submit work with SASE (in those days, Submittable and other electronic systems didn’t exist) and two years later, three years later, no response. I’d query with another SASE. No response.
I self-published my novel, Radiant Hunger (which remains my favorite of my books), which took six years to write and had been seeking a publisher for seven. And I decided that’s it. That’s the end of it. But I have to write so I started writing plays. That’s when I ran into more of that segregation. Theater companies would ask me to change black characters to white, wanted to cast Asian characters with white actors in eye makeup. (These days, the situation has improved – somewhat.) I refused and ended up becoming one of the co-founders of a multiracial multi-abled theater company. Besides open casting, we had wheelchair access for actors and audiences, something that was (inexcusably) rare at that time. We had captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing, audio description for the blind. Without real funding, we were very (much too) ambitious.
I did meet some like-minded people in the theater community, made some friends, and soon met Hector Aristizabal – actor, director, therapist, torture survivor and Colombian exile – who is now a longtime collaborator. But to get back to how this relates to California Transit, one day in a theater lobby I struck up a conversation with a Swiss author then living in California. She encouraged me to get in touch with Andrew Tonkovich, editor of the Santa Monica Review, because he had a political sensibility. Sure enough, he began to publish my stories, starting in 1999. And while I loved working in theater, I missed writing fiction, the depth and texture of prose. I began offering my work again. (I don’t like to say “submit”. I’m sick and tired of being submissive.) An older collection I’d given up on was published by Carnegie Mellon. I took the LA stories and novellas I wrote over the course of six or seven years and put them together as California Transit. In 2005 the manuscript was chosen by Carole Maso to receive the Mary McCarthy Prize and that’s how it came to be published by Sarabande.
To other writers who may be reading these words, I want to say DON’T GIVE UP. I completed my historical novel, The Fiery Alphabet, in 1986. Collected dozens of rejections and left the manuscript among my inactive files. After Andrew Tonkovich gave me that vote of confidence and jumpstart, I tried sending it out again. The novel was published in 2013.
WHY THIS TITLE?: Public transportation figures in the novella, but to me, the title also represented my relocation and my transition to writing about California. Through writing about LA, I thought I could hasten my transformation into an Angeleno. Turns out, however, the title wasn’t a good choice. In one bookstore where I was scheduled to do a reading, I found the book shelved with nonfiction works on city planning and urbanism.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? Some writers excel at writing about domestic life. I don’t. I’m more likely to write about caring for a sick zoo animal than a human infant with a fever. My women characters are never role models. Does that sound interesting to you? I like to explore how we navigate the sociopolitical terrain. My characters don’t have the answers but they are conscious of the questions. So that does that make me a political writer? Is the progressive community my natural audience? I love the idea that someone who doesn’t usually think about this stuff might pick up the book just to read some interesting stories and then end up engaging with the questions. Anyway, I once overheard a very very political woman when someone asked her what my book was about. She sniffed and said, “It’s about relationships.” So I don’t know. Either everyone would want to read it, or no one would.
REVIEW COMMENTS: “[T]hese stories are smart, well written and have that most elusive of qualities: vitality. They take on difficult issues — immigration, racism, torture, animal suffering, environmental degradation. That makes her stories sound humorless; they aren’t. A vein of wry wit runs through them.” – Judith Freeman in the Los Angeles Times
“Lefer’s work is at times reminiscent of that of Don DeLillo and Siri Hustvedt in that she populates her fictions with loners and misfits who are as interesting as they are intelligent.” — Stephan Clark in the San Francisco Chronicle
AUTHOR PROFILE: Several years ago – and this is a warning to anyone who sits at a computer screen – the focusing muscles in my eyes just quit on me. Between paid employment and the novel I was working on I’d been behind the screen up to 16 hours a day – DON’T EVER DO THAT – and the result was for eight months I couldn’t read, write, or drive. I still get all blurry if I push it so this limits the hours I can devote to writing. (Longhand doesn’t really help because then I have to type the copy onto the screen.) Writing comes more slowly these days as a result. I manage a paragraph or two instead of page after page. But it also means that instead of editing and teaching online, I work with people face-to-face, for example, the torture survivors from around the world who are rebuilding their lives in LA. In my arts workshops they get to use their creativity instead of focusing on their trauma. With Hector (mentioned above), I’ve helped local people without acting experience devise and perform plays based on issues that matter to them in order to open up community dialogue. We also worked with torture survivors and some of their family members in two Theater of Witness productions in which they were able to share what happened to them with the general public. Hector is, himself, a torture survivor, and Nightwind, our play about his life, has toured more than 30 countries, including performances for human rights organizations in Afghanistan. We also co-authored a nonfiction book about his life and the kind of work we do, The Blessing Next to the Wound: A story of art, activism, and transformation.
When I’m not with people or hiking our deserts and canyons, I’m with animals. I volunteer with the cats at the Amanda Foundation and also with the animal behavior team at the LA Zoo. I started out on the breeding project for the endangered drill baboon but our young male unfortunately showed more sexual interest in me than in the females of his own species. The zoo is a complicated place for me as I hate seeing animals in captivity, but our research is aimed at finding what the animals need for the most natural, happy, and psychologically healthy life in the unnatural environment. My amorous baboon was not a success story. He did end up being one of the characters in my novel, Confessions of a Carnivore.
Speaking of nonhuman animals, after years of traveling to arts and social justice projects in places including Bolivia, Colombia, Northern Ireland, and Senegal, I’m staying home since my beautiful cat Mildred (I did not choose her name!) came to live with me and hates being left alone.
AUTHOR COMMENTS: Growing up, books – especially novels – were some of my best friends so I know that fiction matters. We can all use friends, right?
SAMPLE CHAPTER: The opening pages of the title novella:
The sea lions stopped barking after the last feeding. It was quiet there at night except for the occasional sneeze and the constant sound of water moved by wind. I stood at the fence in the dark and sometimes a patrol car came by and I’d turn and wave as if I were one of the volunteers who belonged there.
The female I came to watch slept peacefully but sometimes there was a tremor through her light-colored fur and her flippers trembled against the pavement.
This is where I got to know Burton. Even when you’re most alone, there’s bound to be someone.
This is what happened in Los Angeles, the land of reinvention.
I didn’t come West to reinvent myself. What I didn’t expect: after I arrived, I had to reinvent my desire to go on living. I found myself in a bare room with a shared bathroom down the hall. Utilities were included so I got no mail. It sounds a defeat to say I found myself there. I chose it.
I turned down an apartment with a balcony overlooking the Pacific and the sandy beach beneath the bluff. From the living room window, the view was of the working harbor, the gantry cranes and offshore rigs, and in the distance the forty-foot containers piled on railbeds all along the flats. Even the kitchen had a view: the other side of the point, where the shore was rocky and wild. I could have had a place with carpets and ceiling fans, the second floor of a pretty little stucco house with ring-necked doves cooing on the flat roof, with rose bushes, with bougainvillea spilling over the stucco wall. Then I saw what I needed: the room to let over a line of boarded-up stores and scaffolding somewhere in-between the homeless Feeding Station and the spruced-up block that people called Yuppie Gulch.
The room reminded me of the past. In 1968, after the assassinations, when I was twenty-two years old, I’d run off and lived in San Andrés, an industrial port on Mexico’s east coast. It was a new city, modern, open and so different from the other Mexican towns I’d seen with their adobe walls that gave the street a human scale and hugged you. San Andrés was not a city that could love. I rented an ugly room in someone’s apartment. I knew no one, I never got enough to eat, I was very much alone and very happy.
When I arrived in L.A., I was two years past fifty. I’d left New York at the end of my rope and en route to California I lost everything.
Empty hands are unencumbered hands. That’s what I believed when I lived in the port of San Andrés and I thought, I can be that woman again. I thought, Don’t despair. Revel in your freedom.
It was only natural to take the bus down to San Pedro, the city L.A. annexed in order to have a harbor. I moved into my little room. Emptiness is conducive to the meditative state. There was no reason I couldn’t be happy.
My room near the L.A. Harbor contained a sink and a two-burner hot plate. There was a mirror over the sink. There were no blinds or curtains, but the windows were so filthy, when I lowered them, no one could see in.
I undressed. It was the middle of July and I was covered with sweat before I could get my clothes off.
There were two hangers in the closet. I had one change of underwear. I washed my bra and panties in the sink and hung them up to dry. Then I pulled the string to kill the light and opened the windows.
That first night, I slept on the floor and enjoyed the strong breeze off the ocean.
Once upon a time, I slept on the floor of a jail cell in Mississippi. There were fifteen of us. It was Freedom Summer. We were all beaten and arrested and beaten some more. Then whites in one cell and blacks in another. We wondered if they would come and lynch us. A lynching was not a mere hanging. There was usually pain involved, torture and mutilation.
In Mississippi, if you were white and from the North, salvation was having empty hands. After you’ve been in a sharecropper’s shack, any regular house with carpet and indoor plumbing, a room with curtains made of something other than flour sacks, can make you hate yourself.
Do you remember? I asked Burton later. The way we used to feel? Until we could abolish poverty, the only honorable thing was to share it.
The cells were dirty, crowded, stinking with waste, but we sang freedom songs and when they unlocked the cell to shove us in, it felt as though the gates had swung open to Paradise.
A jail cell. A bedroom in San Andrés. I hadn’t thought of those days for years. A motel room in the desert. A room to let by the harbor. The room hardly changes. I wonder if the woman has changed, or just the meaning she makes of it, of feeling beyond the reach of everyone she used to know, closed off inside four walls, with a change of underwear and a toothbrush.
Don’t forget the room in Chelsea. A studio apartment up four flights of crooked stairs, a room so narrow I hung cheap mirrors for the illusion of depth.
Paul gave me a black eye. “Still want to look at yourself?” he said.
Who is this woman?
She was beaten in Mississippi and she wanted to adopt a little Mexican girl and she was beaten by her husband and she fell for lies when she really knew better and she hit bottom in L.A. and she did something terrible that could never be undone. If this is who I am, it must all add up. And plus and plus and. I will not stoop to a because.
Who she was then: No one.
She thought her life had value—this was her power—because she was willing to lose it.
She was a white girl from the North who’d never been around black people. They didn’t live in her neighborhood, in those days there were none on TV, so in Mississippi her brain flashed a purely visual confusion as though she were walking around in a photographic negative. Then she got used to it and, in the segregated cell where everyone was white, only her wounds and the human stench proved she was not a ghost.
After Mississippi, what was she to do?
She could be a waitress or a secretary. She could enroll in school again to be a teacher or a nurse. She could marry Paul. She could take up arms and join the Revolution because, though she practiced nonviolence, she’d begun to suspect all power flowed from the barrel of a gun.
No, she didn’t believe that. She was frightened to even entertain the thought.
She deferred her fate and ran away to San Andrés.
I didn’t expect to love Mexico. I went because it wasn’t home and because I wouldn’t have to care. Because I knew no one.
And it was cheap. People had told me that for forty dollars a month, I could expect room, board, and laundry. Yet I chose to live with Doña Vicky who provided only morning coffee. I did my own wash daily, proud to be independent with the further satisfaction of feeling cheated. I scrubbed my clothes in the wash trough on the roof and hung them up to dry. Sometimes I heard sloshing sounds and whirring from behind a locked door in Doña Vicky’s part of the apartment and I tingled with resentment at the thought of the washer and drier she kept secret from her tenants.
I’d left behind the towns where people welcomed me. In Oaxaca, strangers were quick to invite me home and they took my no not as refusal but as courtesy. I didn’t want to be friendly or courteous, and I kept moving.
In San Andrés, I didn’t even have to smile.
Doña Vicky’s other tenant was a journalist who worked nights. I had wanted to be a journalist once. As I knew that all journalists in Mexico were corrupt, I didn’t wish to know him, besides which we shared a toilet and he didn’t flush.
Forty dollars, but remember this was a long time ago.
And now, San Pedro. What a perfect name. A Mexican Saint Peter with the keys to Heaven, but the California gringos dropped the “San” and called it PEE-dro.
I had no idea where my new life was headed, that I would do something terrible. Not a crime of conscience, or civil disobedience, but of violence and blood.
LOCAL OUTLETS: Probably no longer on the shelf but some indie bookstores will special order.
WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Amazon, Barnes & Noble.
PRICE: $15.95 (and you can surely find it for less)