IN THE EARLY 1960s, my parents were among a wave of students from Taiwan who won graduate school fellowships in America. They were the hope of their families, and of their country.
At the first chance, they moved to California, drawn to the sunshine and the warm winters and the adventure. So too my mother-in-law, a "stew" — a stewardess, not a flight attendant in those days — on Western Airlines during the heyday of air travel. She met and married her husband, the son of Serbian immigrants.
My husband and I have toddler twin boys, born in the Inland Empire, and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, who are the next generation of Californians.
Each of us staked a claim to the Golden State, like the millions who arrived before and who have arrived since, finding both hardship and opportunity. New California Writing 2013, published by Heyday Books, offers a kaleidoscopic view of the state, with stories, essays, and poems by new and established poets and writers. At turns moving, at turns hilarious, the anthology is ever compelling. We get an insider’s view of the state’s myriad worlds, shaped by history, geography, culture, and politics.
In the short story “The Last Mojave Indian Barbie,” Natalie Diaz offers tart social commentary. Diaz, a member of the Mojave and Pima Indian tribes, invents a doll with stiletto moccasins, mini magic beer bottles, and a voided per capita check. Caught screwing with Ken in the pool, she is forced out of the Dream House compound:
Skipper complained to Ken that Mojave Barbie had flipped them off […] Ken fingered the blue bead in his pocked and reassured Skipper, Mojave Barbie was probably waving goodbye — with hands like that, you can never be sure.
The winner of Heyday’s New California Writing student award, Chieun “Gloria” Kim, captures the state’s vast beauty in the lyrical “Water Cycle.” “Cell by cell,” writes Kim, “run-off carries me downstream / rust-red, stone-faced abalone swallow and spit me out / into the churning punch of green waves / the freeway roar of currents.”
Newcomers to the United States and to California may carry their homelands with them. In Ismet Prcic’s mordant Shards, the narrator dreams of a pig devouring fallen soldiers during the civil war: “You can’t see the hog but you know it’s chewing […] You’ve seen it so many times it’s boring, like the back of your own hand, like your own dick. Bosnian Muslims don’t eat pigs but pigs have no problem eating Bosnian Muslims.” Escape is elusive. Stranded in the San Fernando Valley, the narrator stumbles upon a house party he realizes too late is hosted by gun-happy Serbian patriots.
Curiously, though the works selected were published in 2011 and 2012, some pieces from the too-recent past can have a dated quality, lacking a longer historical view. Robert Hass, the former US Poet Laureate, writes about police brutality in 2011 during Occupy Wall Street, a social movement that has since petered out. Michael Lewis has a fascinating take on Vallejo’s financial ruin and housing foreclosures, but the city emerged from bankruptcy last year. Book publishing’s time lag can be at odds with an anthology trying to reflect the state of the state.
At times, New California Writing 2013 feels jumbled, jumping from forest fires to pregnant runaways to tacos to junior high races. Perhaps the anthology could have been organized chronologically, or by theme or geography, so that pieces resonated more strongly with each other. Julie Otsuko’s lovely excerpt from her novel The Buddha in the Attic, about Japanese picture brides, could feed into our understanding of David Mas Masumoto’s “Rites of Spring” essay about agriculture in the Central Valley and the latter-day descendents of the early Japanese settlers — yet the pieces are 100 pages apart.
It could very well be that series editors Gayle Wattawa and Kirk Glaser wanted to leave such connections up to the reader’s discretion. As Peter Coyote, the activist and writer, advises in the forward: “Your mind is the brush. Dip it into this ink and visualize your own sere, sprawling, corrugated landscapes, your own Mediterranean light.” He urges one to take part in the “urban decay, yips, chirps, howls, and the roars of your imagined California.”