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Author writes about the culture of assimilation (w/audio)

By Carolina Astrain
Feb. 16, 2014 at 3:03 p.m.
Updated Feb. 16, 2014 at 8:17 p.m.

Dana Johnson moved from South Los Angeles to the suburbs of California when she was a young girl.

The culture shock and assimilation she underwent somewhat parallels her main character's story in "Elsewhere: California" but not completely, said Johnson, 46.

In "Elsewhere: California," the reader follows the life of Avery Arlington in three different strands, intermingled between chapters - Avery as a child, Avery as an adolescent and Avery as an adult.

The theme of assimilation is heavy throughout the book and provides a stark contrast between Avery's life as a child attempting to survive a violent home environment to her time spent as a teenager and her life as a visual artist living with her European boyfriend in the Hills.

Johnson will give a reading at the University of Houston-Victoria at noon Thursday as part of the American Book Review Reading Series.

Why did you decide to tell the story using the high contrast between the main character's childhood and her adulthood?

When you're looking at a person, you don't know where they come from; you just sort of see them in their current situation, and in Avery's case, she's completely assimilated, living with an Italian in a big house in the Hills. But I really wanted to illustrate what that journey looks like in terms of class and in terms of race and in terms of gender and sexuality. I wanted to have a contrast of young Avery and Avery as she was growing up with adult Avery so that dual-narrative is always happening, where part of the novel takes place in one day - the day of Avery's art show. She's a relatively successful artist - or trying to be - and she's got her own show. She's a full-grown adult in her 40s - she's 40 years old, I guess - and just to always have that bumping up against the now is why I wanted to structure the novel that way.

Where did the inspiration come from for the story and its title?

It's not a biographical novel; although like Avery, I moved from South Los Angeles to the suburbs, and like Avery, I went to the University of Southern California. But it's fiction, so everything that happens in the book - or nearly everything - didn't happen to me. Like I didn't go to Palm Springs when I was in college; I don't live in a house in the Hills; my husband is a Southerner; you know, it's just not my life, and it's not me, but I really wanted to talk about the kind of emotional truth of what it means to grow up in one place and end up in another. ... Within the title there is a conversation about migration. ... California is supposed to be this place where there's opportunity, there's no racism; it's the West; you've arrived. One of the conversations I'm having in the book is, 'What good is it arriving to a place when you've left so many people behind?' or 'What good is it to achieve success or assimilation or whatever you want to call it when so many people aren't at this place?' So we have to keep moving; we have to find some place beyond what we thought would be ideal, and so that's Elsewhere; that's Elsewhere, California.

Johnson is the winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction and was a finalist for the Huston/Wright Legacy Award.

She is working on a novel and lives in downtown Los Angeles.



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