Notes of Native Daughter: Inland Empire Stories Told in Venice

Photo from "The American Tableau at a Riverside City Park." | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

During the past five years, while I worked on a novel about a travel writer who hates to be back at her birthplace (which is my fictional Rio Seco, which I imagined and named when I was eighteen and began to write stories about my part of inland Southern California), I began to look at my homeland in a different way.  I've written books set partially in South Carolina, Oaxaca and Tijuana, Tulsa in 1921, Louisiana in 1814, and all over California from Mecca to Guadalupe, from Los Angeles to the Salton Sea.

But when I wrote essays, I usually wrote about my family and my landscape.  There was a way I felt about Riverside and San Bernardino, Colton and Indio, all the places in the desert and orange grove and riverbed, but I didn't send many of those essays out.

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Then, when my middle daughter majored in Art History and I began to frequent museums and galleries more often, when I spent more time thinking about photography and paintings and landscape, it became clear how much art has always influenced my writing.  I met Doug McCulloh when I went to his great show for Dream Street, and his work inspired me to think about landscape and story.  We took photos one day in the Santa Ana River, with my dog, and everything from a forlorn hanger in a sycamore, left by a homeless person, to the shimmering wild oats, looked different to me.

Confession:  When I was sixteen, I wished so badly to be a photographer after seeing the work of Mary Ellen Mark that I borrowed a good camera from a Christian youth group leader who was kind to me, and then took my best shots at "Artistic Photos" - - broken glass on the wooden railroad ties of the tracks near my house, red and purple in the setting sun and smog; a water glass on the edge of a white sink with shadows of leaves from the window outside.  I had three days, and then had to return the camera.

I was not a photographer -- even now, my three daughters make fun of my attempts to turn our vacation pictures into anything remotely adventurous.  But Doug's photos and my essays have been some of the most transformative fun I've ever had.  We go driving, and there are sheep, or headstones, or people willing to talk to us in front of their churches or mobile homes or in my high school gym.   Every single time, we shake our heads and say, "How do we get so lucky, that people tell us the best stories, and the light is perfect?"

Now our work for KCET is on display at Venice Arts -- Doug's photos, and my stories.

You can look at the pictures, and press a button beside it to hear the story on a cell phone.  It was a lot of fun.  I don't know how we get so lucky, but we're going to talk about it on Wednesday night at Venice Arts, 7 to 9 p.m.  It's my first time ever being part of an art show, and I will try not to wince and remember the broken glass on the tracks, and how I collected it from the rocks and placed it there so carefully, right where my brothers and I used to leave pennies to be flattened.

Susan Straight's novel "Take One Candle Light a Room" will be released in paperback in March. Her novel "Highwire Moon" is about a California-born daughter searching for her Mexican-born mother. Doug McCulloh's photographs have been exhibited across the U.S. and in Mexico, Europe, and China. His fourth book "Dream Street" chronicles the builders, workers, and homebuyers of a subdivision in Southern California. Read more of their stories here.

About the Author

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Between Heaven and Here." She teaches at UCRiverside and works with photographer Douglas McCulloh to document the Inland Empire.
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