SPARKS FROM FLINT
Late in the game, as Gordon Young recounts it in Teardown(University of California Press, 2013), he goes to a three-hour service in the Joy Tabernacle in Flint, Mich., where the Rev. McCathern preaches to his congregation: “In the midst of this mess, we are blessed!” Yet a little later, Young finds himself in tears. “I was crying for my city. And I was crying for myself.”
A journalist and senior lecturer in communication at SCU, Young subtitled his book Memoir of a Vanishing City. Beginning the second decade of the 21st century, the city’s population continued to drop, and Flint was tied for first as the city with the highest percentage of residents living in poverty. CQ Press named it the most dangerous city in America. For Young, it was a troubled hometown that, for many years, he was more than happy to have left behind.
Of course Young wasn’t alone in leaving. Once upon a time Flint earned the moniker Vehicle City for its pre-eminent role in the auto industry. Here General Motors was born. But 90 percent of those GM jobs left, a plight recounted, among other places, in Michael Moore’s documentary Roger and Me.
However, memoirs by their nature are personal things. In Young’s case, for 15 years he’d called San Francisco home when, in one of those moments of absurd hope in the City by the Bay, he and wife Traci took the plunge and bought a house—all of 700 square feet. And, inexplicably, he found himself drawn back emotionally to his Rust Belt hometown. He began a blog, Flint Expats. And, entertaining dreams of buying a house in Flint, he went back.
What takes shape in the story he tells is not his tale of how he joined the crowds of speculators scooping up bargains only to leave the houses empty. Rather, it’s a story of coming to know the people who hold on, who try to rebuild, who rant from the front porches of abandoned, once-magnificent abodes. Young also explores the idea of the planned shrinking city. We aspire to manage growth in cities to keep them livable; this time it’s depopulation and blight that are the engines. That’s reason enough for The Atlantic Wire to put Teardown on its recommended reading list this summer. The humor, the pathos, and the personal stories of friendship and discovery—for instance, what it means to belong in a place—are among the rewards inside for readers who open the door to this house. SBS
NEW TO THESE PARTS?
What makes a writer a California writer? What distinguishes that person from a writer in, say, New York City or maybe Oxford, Mississippi? Peter Coyote worries these questions in provocative and illuminating ways in his foreword to this third annual volume of New California Writing, a joint publication of Heyday and Santa Clara University, released this spring.
But the 41 contributors to the new volume and its shrewd, highly accomplished editors—Gail Wattawa of Heyday (prose) and Kirk Glaser, senior lecturer in English at SCU (poetry)—ultimately frustrate attempts at this sort of generalization. Instead they present us with a stimulating, imaginative array of physical, cultural, and emotional geographies, each situated by necessity or chance in California.
Entries range from an excerpt of Julia Otsuka’s poetic, prize-winning novel, set in the 19th century, about Japanese girls brought to San Francisco to marry men they had never met; to David Rains Wallace’s essay about nature’s renewal after a devastating fire at Point Reyes (he’s also contributed to this magazine); to two sections from Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan’s extended poem about, to be very reductive, surviving whole as a Japanese American in the aftermath of internment and the hatred aroused by World War II.
Contributors include well-known writers like Joan Didion (a New York resident but a writer unalterably shaped by her California childhood and youth) and former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass (who read on campus in May) and should-be-known writers like Ismet Prcic, Natalie Diaz, and Zara Raab.
One surprise of the volume is the wide range of sources and forms the editors have drawn from—established New York–based publishers, of course, but also newspaper op-ed pages, smaller regional presses and magazines, literary websites, and experimental blogs. Another surprise: The editors have found a way to make these disparate entries flow so well from beginning to end, subtly linked one to another by geography or subject or emotional resonance. This volume, like its predecessors, speaks to its publishers’ commitment to celebrate and foster the growth of this thing we call California literature, however we choose to define it. Alden Mudge
NATIVES AND TRANSPLANTS
A pair of books from Heyday and SCU closed out the California Legacy books series, which ran for more than a decade, in 2012. Califlora, as its subtitle imparts, is a literary field guide to the Golden State’s botanical treasures, from the deserts to the croplands to the coasts, through the words of poets and novelists, farmers and foragers—set in context with some brief scientific descriptions. Terry Beers, a professor of English at SCU and director of the California Legacy Project, shoulders editing responsibility with help from a number of SCU student interns and colleagues. The bounty includes incense cedar and avocado in the hands of Gary Snyder, quaking aspen limned by SCU’s Claudia MonPere McIsaac, Monterey pine courtesy of Robert Louis Stevenson, and grapes from David Mas Masumoto.
So Far From Home: Russians in Early California burns back the fog of history to reveal one of the oft-hidden parts of Golden State history. As editor Glenn J. Farris notes in his introduction, “The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!” may have been a Cold War–inspired bit of movie hilarity in 1966, but Russian sailors, traders, and scientists arrived long ago in California—a fact that shaped how the Spanish empire built its own string of defenses here. Fort Ross on the Sonoma Coast looms large here, as the tale unfolds across the 19th century. SBS