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American Book Review: Author shares crossing cultures in Crossroads

By BY SABA RAZVI
Feb. 19, 2014 at 6 p.m.
Updated Feb. 18, 2014 at 8:19 p.m.

Saba Razvi

I first met acclaimed Los Angeles author Dana Johnson in the sleek, contemporary splendor of the Richard Ide Memorial Common Room at the University of Southern California in spring 2007.

There, overlooking the lush, green campus sprawling under a sunny afternoon sky, Johnson's reading from her 2001 Flannery O'Conner award-winning collection of stories, "Break Any Woman Down," invoked the current of the entire city, holding in thrall a crowded room.

Johnson's melodic reading voice, her understated humor and her candor yielded to a mirthful afternoon of story and conversation. The crowd asked eager questions and walked away discussing the delightful and memorable reading.

Thursday, the University of Houston-Victoria/American Book Review Reading Series welcomes Johnson at noon to the University West Alcorn Auditorium, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St., for a reading that is open to the public.

Johnson's "Break Any Woman Down" collection features the Pushcart-nominated story "Melvin in the Sixth Grade," in which readers meet an adolescent girl named Avery who is acclimating to the wealthy suburbs beyond the economically disadvantaged urban Los Angeles of her childhood.

The same Avery, grown into womanhood and reconciling her past and future in true coming-of-age fashion, figures as the central character in Johnson's latest novel, "Elsewhere, California." In this novel, she gives voice to the multicultural search for identity and human connection that typifies the Angeleno experience.

Johnson's writing style is deeply rooted in the culture of Los Angeles but acclaimed worldwide for its ability to present the tenderness of terrifying human truths in humorous, inviting and dynamic tones that confront both reality and incredulity in human life at once.

In 2008, Johnson and I read for "The Loudest Voice" Reading Series in Los Angeles's historic Chinatown at the trendy Mountain Bar. Its red-lit rooms and hanging lanterns drew a hip crowd who were standing aloof near the bar or milling in a vibrant hum, the dynamism and energy of night spilling in on shades of denim and black. The hall hushed to an attentive haze as another entirely enthralled audience laughed and applauded to Johnson's candid prose.

Her low, resonant voice pulled in the night stragglers and kept them listening. Seats fanned out between pillars, but the audience wound up along the stairs, pushed up against the walls and peered across the glass assortments on the bar, ringing its appreciative applause throughout the building.

I was glad to read again alongside Johnson the next year at a benefit reading hosted by the well-renowned artist David Lloyd and the Poetics Research Bureau of Hollywood. The somber Sunday event drew groups of wide-eyed listeners, politically minded philanthropists and lovers of poetry and paragraphs to an open, earthy reading space.

Chairs arranged in hemispheres rose up to receive the speakers' voices. Among the diverse range of performances were multicultural questions of connectedness.

Johnson's voice echoed clear and bold, inviting awareness of that which makes us human and worthy of being heard or answered in hours of uncertainty.

Here, too, Johnson captivated the crowd with her wit and astute eye, her willingness to embrace the scariest moments with sincerity and vulnerability and with her characteristically Angeleno attitude of worldly inquiry. Her narrative brought the city and its uncertainties into an arena full of day-bright connoisseurs of text and dialog listening for the different uncertainties throughout the world, and offered, in response to questions about alienation, a questing voice.

Now, Johnson will bring her cosmopolitan flair, urban awareness of cultural currents and geographical identity through her fiction to the Crossroads as she reads from her novel, "Elsewhere, California."

The issues of race, class and identity found in Johnson's fiction speak about transformation and tension and about concerns that transcend geography while considering its roots. These are the ideas that she encourages her literature and creative writing students at USC to explore. The idea that the scariest, most uncomfortable truths are those that matter the most - and they are readily found in cultural inquiry.

Saba Razvi is a writing and literature lecturer in the UHV School of Arts & Sciences. She is the author of a collection of poems, "Of the Divining and the Dead."

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