Dana Johnson, author of the beautifully written Elsewhere, California, wants so much for you to know her novel is about place, that she puts one of the nation’s most famous states in its title. This is also a novel about color: the color of skin, water, sky, and Dodgers’ hats, the color of grass and blood, the color of paint and concrete—brown, red, gray, blue, green, white, orange, yellow.
Alternating between childhood flashbacks and an adult voice, Johnson tells the story of Avery Arlington, who as an adult lives in the Hollywood Hills with Massimo, her Italian lover, and who as a young African-American girl moves to West Covina after having spent the first nine years of her life in South Central Los Angeles. In West Covina, a city in the eastern part of LA County’s San Gabriel Valley, Avery encounters a variety of characters: Brenna, Avery’s best friend from a lower-class white household where kids light cigarettes on stoves and pass them to their truck-driving fathers; Joan, an older neighbor with a nice yard and pool; Carlos, a young Mexican-American cholo who shares Avery’s love of baseball and sense of otherness. Reverberating through the novel as well is Avery’s cousin Keith, with whom she spends a large portion of her childhood before and after the move to the San Gabriel Valley.
Avery discovers how even a short, half-hour ride can change her perception of place and people, and demonstrate the malleability of place and identity.
The West Covina cul-de-sac where ten-year-old Avery and her family reside is surrounded by “hills on both sides of the freeway, green and yellow, thats the color of the hills and theres flowers in patches, yellow, white and, purple,” with the metropolis in the distance. In the course of her time there, Avery discovers how even a short, half-hour ride can change her perception of place and people, and demonstrate the malleability of place and identity.
As a girl, Avery struggles to understand what people expect from her. Her family in the American South shame her for listening to The Sound of Music soundtrack. Her father in West Covina comes into her room at night to warn that he better not hear about her cussing and stealing anymore. She is expected to understand the new languages that crop up around her: Brenna’s Valley Girl “eww” and “rad,” neighbor Joan’s carefully enunciated “lovely.” Avery tries to create a new voice by playing with the many languages around her: “Wonderful. Wonderful. Wonderful, I sing to myself and wiggle in my chair. I try to sound like Joan, like a TV lady. Wonderful. Joan.” An adult Avery reflects on her past self, one who would have felt insecure in the presence of another class in which she was not raised: “I remember a time when I would have been completely absorbed by all of this, wanting to look the part, but now, I just put on my Dodger’s cap.”
Avery is a hybrid Angeleno who relates best to what is in flux: David Bowie, a musician pushing the boundaries of gender, and Grease, the story of a couple trying to overcome culture and class odds. In the 1970s, her family leaves the escalating violence of South Central for the suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley, not realizing that their new neighborhood is experiencing its first wave of white flight as many older inhabitants start moving further west toward the San Fernando Valley. Mexican families, who had lived in Los Angeles since at least World War II, were pushing further east into the San Gabriel Valley, while large communities of Chinese and Vietnamese were arriving, having left political upheaval in their own countries. Within the SGV itself, as it is referred to by locals, racial tensions ran high between the white families who remained in their old homes and new residents struggling to adapt.
Ultimately, Elsewhere, California is a story about what we retain and what we discard as we move through life. Over the course of the novel, Avery’s childhood flashbacks progress toward the present as we witness her growing older, applying for college at USC, falling in love with Massimo, moving into his house in the Hollywood Hills, and struggling to understand her intellectual and financial departure from her class of origin. In the prologue, Avery describes the contradictory self she believes her therapist sees:
A success story. A bright and articulate woman. An affirmative action baby. A bourgeois snob. A hard worker. A whiner. A well-dressed woman. A whore. A woman who spread her legs for a nice place to live. A woman who wanted to be an artist, who was not really an artist. A charming, smiling, elegant liar.
The novel aims to represent each of these contradictory selves, not to reconcile them. Avery tells us that she sees “family in abstract, geometric shapes and patches of brilliant colors that allow us to see each aspect of these children, without the specifics of what they are made of obscured or melted into a pot. Each fragment of the collage is conspicuous and astonishing, as valuable as the other, pulsating on the canvas with its own little song.” Elsewhere, California does more than paint that picture; Avery is brought to glittering life through Johnson’s vibrant and poetic language, describing, as well as showing, what family and identity can be if we work to embrace our own ambiguities.