Susan Straight, an Appreciation

The Los Angeles Times Book Prizes gave Susan Straight the Robert Kirsch Award the other evening. The award honors a writer of the West for a lifetime's accomplishments as an interpreter of what it takes to make a home here. (Last year's recipient was historian Kevin Starr. The first -- in 1980 -- was novelist Wallace Stegner.)

Susan Straight lives a few blocks from where she was born in Riverside. She's a part of that dry place and its stories. Because she is, Straight says there are two kinds of people: those who stay and those who leave. Straight is the kind who stayed.

I share that awkward trait. The too-easy presumption is that those who stick around in disregarded places -- Riverside, Lakewood -- are either irrelevant or grotesque. Straight is neither. She's the co-founder of UC Riverside's MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts and a university Distinguished Professor. She writes for KCET under Notes of a Native Daughter (with photographs by Douglas McCulloh). She's won prizes and fellowships.

Straight calls herself "a writer and a mom." Her modesty is fierce. It helped her raise three daughters, write (so far) ten novels and hundreds of short stories, and win new honors including this year's Carey McWilliams Award given by the California Studies Association.

McWilliams, writing in the 1940s, interpreted California as part carnival and part crime scene. Straight's novels and essays complicate these iconic images with the partial victories of ordinary people in blue-collar neighborhoods like the one she lives in. Straight has lived California's tragedies of place and class and race. She still does, because tragedies and almost victories are the stories of her neighbors and the extended African-American family into which she married.

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"Regionalist" is the faint praise given to writers who get the taste of their town's tap water into their stories and who let you see the modulations of twilight between early May and late June from their front porch. I'm a regionalist. I don't think of this as a necessarily better kind of storytelling, but it isn't a lesser one either.

Susan Straight is a "regionalist" of America's unfinished places, with the understanding that America altogether is unfinished. She writes about her home, fully aware that our ideas of "home" have always mingled hurt and nostalgia, regret and longing. How to make a home here is the great theme of Western writing. She writes about the burdens of the past, including the burdens we came to California to cast off.

I don't know if Susan Straight thinks of her place as I do of mine (although she and I have spoken of these things). I think of my place as a ruined paradise, but without too much regret. My place in California was a presumed paradise before my parents and their neighbors arrived, brought here by California's extravagant sales pitch or because some were in flight from something behind them that was across the Colorado or the Rio Grande or the Pacific.

My place is a paradise no longer, but paradise isn't for me or the people Straight writes about. And mending our ruined paradise is the work we were meant to do.

That's the work Susan Straight does.

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