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Author provides insight on assimilation in Southern California (w/video)

By Carolina Astrain
Feb. 20, 2014 at 11:01 p.m.
Updated Feb. 20, 2014 at 8:21 p.m.

Author Dana Johnson takes questions from her audience as part of the University of Houston-Victoria's American Book Review Reading Series on Thursday afternoon.

Author Dana Johnson takes questions from her audience as part of the University of Houston-Victoria's American Book Review Reading Series on Thursday afternoon.

Dana Johnson had one message for University of Houston-Victoria students Thursday.

She encouraged them to follow their dreams.

Johnson, who teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California, was the guest speaker at UHV's American Book Review Reading Series.

She began reading with a passage from the prologue of her book, "Elsewhere: California."

The book follows an African-American woman's journey to become a visual artist and assimilated resident of the Southern California suburbs.

"It's not like she's trying to assimilate," Johnson explained to an audience member during the question-and-answer portion of the event. "It's the culture that she's just in."

Avery, the protagonist, moves from her family's home in Tennessee to California looking for a chance to start over.

Johnson read from a scene where Avery is on spring break in Palm Springs, Calif., with some of her white college girlfriends.

"I keep my sunglasses on and look at everybody lying around and swimming and drinking," Johnson read. "There are no black guys. There are no black girls. There's only me."

One of her closest friends, Adeliade, a white woman with a passion for African-American culture, envies Avery's background and doesn't understand why she doesn't embrace it, Johnson said.

"There's all sorts of stuff she has to negotiate," Johnson said.

Johnson began her writing career as a copy editor at a newspaper, which she left to a pursue a master's degree in the fine arts, the author said.

Her boss at the time blithely dismissed her creative writing ambitions, Johnson said.

"He said, 'Good luck with that,'" Johnson told the audience.

Years later, after she had been written about in a Los Angeles publication, Johnson said, "I hope he is reading this," in reference to her doubtful former boss.

Katherine Leer, 21, a University of Houston-Victoria student from La Grange, asked the author what she does when people discourage her from writing.

"Don't let people talk you out of it," Johnson said. "Every time I tried to get closer to writing, there was someone who poo-pooed it."

Leer said this was the first time to hear an author, whose work she had read beforehand give a reading, the student said.

"People should just be themselves," Leer said. "They should feel comfortable and honest about where they came from."

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