As USC faculty member Dana Johnson strolled through Echo Park, taking in the downtown Los Angeles skyline and tree-lined lake, the characters, setting and plot of her first novel took shape.
Johnson, associate professor of English at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, often hiked several miles from her downtown loft to Echo Park in the years it took her to complete Elsewhere, California (Counterpoint Press, 2012). The sights of the gritty but vibrant city inspired her and kept her going.
“I don’t know if I would have been able to finish the novel if it was not for those walks,” said Johnson, who knew she would be using Los Angeles as the main setting for her book.
The novel is based on Avery, a character from Johnson’s collection of short stories Break Any Woman Down (University of Georgia Press, 2001), which won the Flannery O’Connor Award. In the novel, Avery struggles to establish her identity after she and her family escape the sometimes violent streets of Los Angeles for a more gentrified existence in suburban West Covina during the ’70s and ’80s.
“There are not enough novels that deal with a discussion of the populations of LA — how complicated it all is,” Johnson said. “It’s interesting how all the cultures and neighborhoods in LA inform each other.”
Johnson wanted to show that Los Angeles is more than Hollywood, Venice Beach and movie stars. The novel depicts how the people of LA and its surroundings helped shape Avery’s identity. While at USC, Avery embraced art despite her father’s objections and attended her first political rally.
Dad says I can’t major in art. I have to major in business. He tells me again: I’m the first woman in our family, ever to go to college, etc. and blah blah. And I’m not going to waste it on crayons and whatever else I’m supposed to be doing, he says. An education is invaluable, he says. How are you supposed to get ahead, he asks me. Do it on the side. He says. But not for real. So that’s how I do art. On the side. I sketch and draw and think about what I would say if I could say it through art, write some ideas down. Then I just put it all away.
When Avery, who is African-American, befriends Brenna, her first white friend, she notices the differences in their upbringings. She sees that Brenna’s parents are not as strict as hers and that they treat Brenna almost like a friend. Despite their differences, the two remain friends into adulthood.
As Avery navigates the path toward self-identification, she wants to abide by her parents’ rules and expectations, but by the time she attends USC, she goes against their wishes and majors in art.
Life in Los Angeles is interwoven throughout the novel when Avery and her father cheer on the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium and Avery gets into USC.
“One of the reasons I wrote about USC is that it is a symbol in the city, which is the ideal for many people, such as Avery,” Johnson said. “When I was applying to USC back in the mid-’80s, for my family and many others, the university symbolized stature, progress and opportunity. But I wanted to illustrate very complicated abstract terms like ‘progress’ and ‘opportunity.’ There is push and pull, give and take, and so within the university, Avery is getting an education about people, class and race, about how difficult progress can sometimes be.”
Johnson knows this firsthand as she earned her bachelor’s degree in print journalism from USC.
She trusts readers will contemplate the book’s major themes of assimilation, class and the complications of African-American identity, and she would like the novel to spark conversations.
“I hope that readers learn something about LA and identity that they hadn’t thought about before,” she said. “As a writer, I wanted to take something that is familiar and make it new.”
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