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Saturday Rumpus Interview: Dana Johnson

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My first writing mentor in college was Dana Johnson. She is the author of a short story collection, Break Any Woman Down, and recently released the novel Elsewhere, California. Although she was my mentor, it wasn’t until after reading her latest novel that I really felt I got to know her. It’s true that sometimes you can learn more about people from reading their fiction than their non-fiction.

I came across Elsewhere because I recently assigned myself the frolicking task to read every bildungsroman I could get my hands on. As a bi-racial woman who has resided in multiple class settings, it’s been hard for me to find a coming of age novel that I could relate to. I wanted a simple and complicated coming of age story.

Then I met Elsewhere’s Avery—young, black Dodger-loving, South LA-West Covina-Hollywood Hills-living, upward-mobility-having, SPAM-eating, drug-addicted cousin-loving, Italian boyfriend-possessing, Shaun Cassidy-obsessing Avery. And immediately I felt that I had arrived. On the page, I found me, young and struggling.

I’ve been struggling in that I identify with this novel so much. Identity is such a big and important theme for me. Even more so as a woman of color, even more so as a woman that grew up belonging to one class and is now residing in a different class.

There is so much wonderfully complicated turf explored in Elsewhere, California that I felt lucky to snag Dana Johnson during her winter break for an interview by email.

The following is an edited version of our conversation.

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The Rumpus: One theme present in the novel is Avery as a class traitor. I remember feeling demolished by the phrase when I first heard it, in a critique by a colleague. He wasn’t calling me a class traitor, but he was calling the character in my novela class traitor, and it knifed me in the bones. I think it’s something that is relevant to many second-generation Angelenos, likely because you can travel to another part of Los Angeles and have such a completely different experience.

Do you think Avery would identify as a class traitor?

Dana Johnson: It’s something that I think about a lot, having been born and raised in Los Angeles. Of course, where my story begins—South Los Angeles—well, that was my first LA, and the only LA I ever knew for a long time.

My parents had come from Tennessee, for a better life, and they would say it was, even though we lived in a small apartment and the gang stuff had really gotten crazy by the time we left for the suburbs. But when we moved to the suburbs, that was so different. I thought, People have backyards? This isn’t just a TV thing?

The backyard of the house I grew up in was enormous–at least it seemed to be when I was nine. I will always remember going through that house and seeing the backyard for the first time. I was in awe. And there were no gangs.

But then when I went to USC—1980s USC—I was mixing with kids who had a lot of money and who were what people imagined when they thought of a “Californian”—beach kids with their surf boards and whatever—and they were just completely foreign to me. From Mars. It was such a strange position to be in. I was going to this school that was a symbol of upward mobility, which was essentially in the middle of South Los Angeles, where I was from, but the whole thing was still very disorienting. I was a USC student and a Californian, but I wasn’t like them. I was from the neighborhood, but no longer of the neighborhood.

I was trying to get at these complications through my character Avery. Class consciousness is very much at the center of her identity, as it is mine. Figuring out who you identify with and at what cost is a major theme of Elsewhere, California.

Rumpus: I wish identity wasn’t still such a topic that haunts me, but, at the same time, I wish growing up that I had a novel like Elsewhere to read. I wish I met Avery as a young Blackapina girl adopted by white people. I’m sure in some ways you too identify with Avery and in other ways perhaps you don’t, and people assume you do simply based on blackness.

Johnson: Me too! I wish I’d had a book that illustrated how complicated all this stuff is. I only had Molly Ringwald. Or Good Times or The Cosbys. The Catcher in the Rye or Native Son. I appreciated these things on their own terms, but I never came across something that was both, something that wasn’t a binary.

Rumpus: Your friend and colleague Danzy Senna once said that her stories are not about race or about being mixed-race but race is the geography. She mentioned that to write about America is to involve the subject of race, and that so much of our identity growing up Black or bi-racial is part of identity and language. She said that universal stories that emerge from her character’s lives like loneliness is what her stories are about, but race is always there in the background.

Would you say the same–that race is perhaps a theme in this novel but not the plot?

Johnson: Absolutely. I agree with Danzy. It’s a theme, but not the plot—a theme  among many. I’d say the plot is all kinds of things, that don’t necessarily get resolved by the novel’s end.

Rumpus: There’s a passage in the novel that I think states everything I’ve wanted to say in my life so succinctly. It’s wonderful:

“Awful,” he said, finally laughing with me.”Truly awful.” But I liked it. It was food, wasn’t it? Good food. I wasn’t laughing at me and my spaghetti. I was laughing at him. I learned when I was a kid, just a chubby little girl, to eat what was put in front of me. Pigs’ feet, hog maws, boiled turnips, chitlins, hog headcheese, turkey necks, chicken gizzards, frozen pizza, Chef Boyardee. Sandwiches on white bread with mayonnaise. Saltine crackers with ketchup squeezed on top.

Massimo thinks that Americans don’t know how to eat. I tell him, It’s class. People with money eat differently, and anyway, my family knew exactly how to eat. No one ever gives you credit for making the most of what you have, for mixing and matching, for the creativity of it all. The artistry of it. Instead, they tell you that your food is disgusting. Your clothes are tacky. You’re trying to be white. Or you are acting ghetto. When truly, you are only trying everything that is you.

I think that encapsulates so much of who I am. I grew up eating lots of canned meats, vienna sausages and corned beef hash. My favorite was S.O.S. on white bread. Fried SPAM was also a staple in my house growing up. I used to be so scared to admit that to people.

Johnson: This is precisely why I talk about food so much in the novel. My whole life, I’ve been in situations where people were so cluelessly classist about food. I loved the food I grew up eating—and still eat sometimes. I didn’t think anything about it. But then I found myself in situations where I’d bring something to a party or whatever, and people would be like, “Oh, I don’t eat that.” Or they’d turn up their noses because something wasn’t organic, or vegan, and I was dying.

It’s never the time to lecture someone about how ridiculous they sound and how small-minded and judge-y they’re being about food—and I’m sure there are often health reasons for some of the intolerance, but somehow they’re able to get their disdain in for how someone eats without thinking about why, or where a person comes from.

Rumpus: A couple of weeks ago, my friend put a call out for everyone to go to this bar downtown that was shutting down, King Eddy. It sits on the bottom floor of the King Edward Hotel. It was a  historical landmark referenced by John Fante and Charles Bukowski but now it’s a local hole-in-the-wall favorite about to turn gastro-pub. The call was to come save this bar from getting gentrified.

I was all gung-ho and then thought, “Wait a second… I’m not gonna stop what I’m doing in Hipsterville Atwater Village to try to save this downtown bar from getting gentrified.” I had to come to accept that I would be contributing to the gentrification. I think all the gentrification and class canoodling (and by gentrification, I mean where the very, very poor and the very, very wealthy meet at the corner of 4th and Main), makes this a really interesting time to write about and be in Los Angeles.

You yourself live downtown, which is a considerably different place than it used to be. Was that one of your motivations for setting the novel in Los Angeles?

Johnson: I do live downtown now, in a very small loft with no yard or lawn of any kind, and I love it. I’ve been in the same place for seven years, so I’ve seen a lot of changes. My novel doesn’t have any scenes downtown, though I’m writing about downtown now.

It’s changed so much. When I first moved down here, a lot of people I know said, “Are you serious? It’s gross! There’s nothing down there!” And now it’s just crawling with people.

The folks I used to see all the time sleeping all up and down Main Street have been displaced with people who walk dogs that shit all over the sidewalks that were previously sullied with these unseemly homeless people, dogs that are dressed more warmly than the homeless people, in sweaters and shoes and whatnot. It’s crazy-making on some level, but here we are back to class and the difficulties of it: I like the gentrification, but I don’t like a lot of it.

I loved having King Eddy’s on the corner of Los Angeles and 5th, but I never set foot in the place because it looked a little too Bukowski to me, and not in a good way. (This is coming from a huge fan of Bukowski with a poster of the man in her bathroom.) But I’m talking about King Eddy’s of seven years ago, not its most recent, ironically hip, PBR, as opposed to Pabst Blue Ribbon, incarnation. These places are being gentrified and people are being displaced because people like me have moved in and keep moving in.

Rumpus: The narrator, Avery, loves baseball. I feel like this was the year of baseball novels. There was the The Art of Fielding, The Might Have Been, Calico Joe, just to name a few, but we haven’t had a female protagonist baseball lover yet. Then again, baseball is so much of the foundation of L.A. culture I’m having a hard time envisioning a novel that takes place in Los Angeles without it. Do you follow baseball?

Johnson: I do follow baseball. I’m a huge Dodger fan. My father started taking me to games long before I even knew what I was looking at. As a Dodger fan and a Los Angeleno, I couldn’t imagine writing a novel set in Los Angeles without talking about the Dodgers.

And, of course, baseball is a perfect, go-to metaphor for some of the themes I’m working with in the novel: America, class, race. I was so glad that I could use a Jackie Robinson quote and a Ralph Ellison quote in two of my epigraphs, which allude to baseball, race and class.

While I was writing the novel, all the Frank McCourt stuff was happening and I, and all of Los Angeles, it seems, was just disgusted by the greed and the disrespect of the sport and the team and the fans that was being perpetrated by these rich people. It was so perfect for what was going on, is still going on, in America, in terms of some people only thinking about themselves.

I’m glad you asked me a question about baseball, too, because no one else really has. It’s a huge part of the novel, and yet no one has really explored that aspect. I read something on Huffington Post a while ago that was a listing of all the recent novels that dealt with baseball, and of course they were all male writers. I can’t be the only woman who has written a novel that has baseball as a major element!

But I do think that critics and reviewers often don’t know how to talk about something that seems to be out of step with what kind of writer you’re supposed to be, and so it’s better, in my case, to talk about the African American aspect, or the coming-of-age aspect, rather than the larger themes of America and what it means to be an American in the middle of class struggle.

I’m talking about a lot of different things in Elsewhere, California. I was ambitious, though whether or not the project is successful is another matter, and I’m willing to take my lumps on that one. But how tedious to not have it read closely.

Rumpus: Finally, what advice would you offer young writers today?

Johnson: Oh, man. I don’t know. This is always a tough question. I guess I would say, Don’t let people make you think you should be writing about what they think is important. What do you think is important?

I’m so glad I finally realized as a young writer that I didn’t have to go to Paris to have something to write about. I’ve been to Europe, and that’s fine, that’s what everybody’s supposed to do, I guess, but what I want to write about, just now, isn’t there. It’s here.

Where is your “here and now”?


When Melissa Chadburn is not teaching at UCSD, she can usually be found protesting somewhere. She has written for Guernica, SLAKE, Salon, McSweeney’s, American Public Media’s Marketplace, and a dozen other places. Her essay, "The Throwaways," was noted in 2013’s Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Follow her on twitter @melissachadburn. She loves your whole outfit right now. More from this author →