We first met Avery in two of the stories featured in Dana Johnson’s awardwinning collection Break Any Woman Down. As a young girl, she and her family escape the violent streets of Los Angeles to a more gentrified existence in suburban West Covina. This average life, filled with school, trips to 7Eleven to gawk at Tiger Beat magazine, and family outings to Dodger Stadium, is soon interrupted by a past she cannot escape, personified in the guise of her violent cousin Keith.
When Keith moves in with her family, he triggers a series of events that will follow Avery throughout her life: to her studies at USC, to her burgeoning career as a painter and artist, and into her relationship with a wealthy Italian who sequesters her in his glasswalled house in the Hollywood Hills. The past will intrude upon Avery’s first gallery show, proving her mother’s adage: Every goodbye aint gone. The dualnarrative of Elsewhere, California illustrates the complicated history of African Americans across the rolling basin of Los Angeles.
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About the Author
Dana Johnson is the author of Break Any Woman Down, which won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction and was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Born and raised in and around Los Angeles, California, she is an associate professor of English at the University of Southern California.
Read an Excerpt
MASSIMO IS IN the air. Due home from Rome very soon. He will be here to support me in this little show that I'm doing with a few other artists. He has always been on my side, though we come from completely different worlds. "Different worlds, yes," Massimo always says, "and yet we came from the same places, places where people have no money. Nothing and nowhere." And so my goal is to show something that will make people think about different worlds, to look at the same old thing they've been looking at in a new way. Maybe they will say, I never saw it that way before. "Your show will be fantastic," Massimo has been saying, and I have always been so unappreciative of this support in the past. He doesn't understand the source of my inspiration and, yet, he thinks understanding isn't necessary, as long as he lets me be and do whatever I want. I don't know. Maybe he is right about this.
The show is small, just like the only other one I've had. In just a few hours. A box of a gallery on La Brea, owned by a friend of Massimo's.
I have gotten used to thinking that Massimo, with all his Roman grace and European credentials, makes me more — to those who value such commodities. I'm not just another person trying to be an artist showing work that nobody will buy, let alone understand, but a sophisticate. Not just another hard-luck story who "transcended her humble beginnings, who may fulfill her potential," according to a recent, scant mention in the Sentinel, L.A.'s black newspaper. A paper I don't ordinarily read. Potential, always there is potential lurking around like a mandate. It had one paragraph, this mention. But it was still a mention. Now, though, because of our struggles throughout the years, Massimo and I have arrived at the same oxymoronic conclusion. I am, and am not, the ideal American, African-American, and any other identification one wishes to project.
"How can you let them put that shit, that American boot string bullshit —" Massimo said when I showed him the article one morning. He had toast crumbs in the corners of his mouth, and I had reached across the table and brushed them off.
"Straps," I said. Boot straps."
Massimo lit a cigarette and considered me through the smoke. We were in yet another argument, the one about something being wrong with me. "What does it matter? You are here. You do what you do. That is all," he said, turning up the palms of his hand.
But today I'm really missing Massimo, fights and all. Massimo, with his perpetual cigarette which is either bouncing off his lips as he talks or dangerously close to burning someone as it sweeps the air with grand, elegant gestures. He is the best publicist I could have. He works a room, Massimo, making everyone fall in love with his accent and malapropisms, elevating us both at the same time, yet with another elevation through language that I can't achieve. I'm only American.
"That is because you have no accent, my love," Massimo says, and he's right. I'm flat. I sound as though I come from no particular place at all. My flatness started out as a costume, a disguise — hand-me-down words accessorized with various inflections until at last, without even realizing it, I'd settled on the voice I now have, a voice that goes anywhere with anything. Flat. But my lack of accent is only half of it; the other half of it is that one must have the right kind of accent, phrasing and diction, the kind that opens a door and lets you in. Massimo knows this because he uses language whenever he takes me by the elbow at gatherings and says, "I'd like you to meet my wife, Avery. She is an extraordinary painter who seduced me in Piazza Navona." He knows this line with words like "piazza," "painter," and "seduced" is much more charming, sounds much better than: "This is my wife, Avery, from West Covina. The suburbs. She is trying to make art." And anyway, painters don't come from West Covina. They come from Italy, France — New York, Los Angeles — but never West Covina. Massimo reminds me that I was born in L.A. and only moved to West Covina when I was a girl, but L.A. feels like the before of who I am, who I turned out to be. I can hardly remember before. And anyway, he picked me up in a bar. In Hollywood. Less romantic. So as it turns out, the past does matter, whether it is invented or not.
Massimo likes to tell half-truths, and the half-truth about us is that he picked me up at the Formosa, worlds away from Rome, where I was out with Brenna and he was out trying to get laid, wagging his accent around like a big cock. After he bought me many drinks and spoke to me with so much Italian charm that I now understand to be nothing more than leg-spreading rhetoric, I gave him my number. Later, much later, after Massimo and I were already living together and I had blended into his life, there was the Piazza Navona, me sitting at a cafÃ© sketching, waiting for Massimo. Still, Massimo insists that everything he says is the full truth — at least emotionally — and that I'm always the one with the caveats and qualifiers, with a tendency to diminish. He's a struggler, a fighter. He knows how to win. He says that I am too, but what drives him crazy is that I won't struggle. I won't fight, and so how am I going to win?
I was a child then. Twenty-one years old. "Massimo's little girl," he used to say with affection. Now, in my forties, I am too old for such a term of endearment to be endearing. This is the struggle between us now, the struggle with myself. Wanting someone, usually Massimo, to do all the things I need to do on my own, like a teenager who insists, "I know. I know. I can fix everything I need to fix by myself," thinking, but would somebody just help me?
My art doesn't sell, except to people close to Massimo. Almost every painting or every installation I've sold has been to friends of Massimo, and friends of Massimo's friends who have wandered through my workspace and/or came to the other show and purchased a piece or two. The people I know, my friends and family, they spend money on rent, on food, on gas. And if they had the money, they wouldn't spend it on most of the things I make now: found objects or random pieces of things that put together a story. Old shoes with holes I have repaired with red thread; piles of candy — Pop Rocks, Now and Laters, candy cigarettes, Pixie Stix, and jawbreakers — formed in the shape of a heart within which I have typed the name of every teen idol I have ever loved.
Before that, I had to paint away the reactionary anger of my youth. It was as if I had discovered racism all on my own, made a record album of it, and let it skip and skip and skip. I wasn't remembering the nuances of other recordings, a record or song, a piece of art that goes all over the place and back to the place it started, like John Coltrane, like David Bowie. Before, I'd painted portraits which were, I've been told by the few people who have seen them, offensive, racist, and, according to the mention in the Sentinel, "unsettled in their critique of iconic negrobilia images."
Racist. I was twenty.
I read that word over and over and could not process it. Some woman had gone to a coffee shop that let me hang my portraits on the wall. The owner was a young man, his hair dyed jet-black and arranged in carefully messy spikes. He rubbed his arms, both covered in lavish tattoos before people started covering themselves in tattoos en masse. He bent his noodle of a torso over my portfolio. "Badass," he said. "Fuck yeah." But the woman who had seen my portraits hanging had been so disturbed, so offended, that she wrote me a long, hateful letter and e-mailed it to the owner of the coffee shop, but it was addressed to me, Averygoodbyeain'tgone, a name I'd made up by combining my name with a saying of my mother's. She says, all the time, "Every shut eye ain't sleep and every goodbye ain't gone," and I've carried that phrase with me my whole life, like a warning, a threat. The woman's e-mail said that I "obviously hated white people" and that I had some kind of hysteria about white people. I had inappropriate, misplaced anger, which she didn't want to be subjected to while she sat and drank her coffee. She closed with the almost-funny question, What did I have against June Cleaver?
I laughed. And later I cried.
I deleted the e-mail because I wanted it out of my world. Once, I told Massimo about it, this letter from so long ago. He asked me a very simple question: "Why are you still telling this story from almost twenty years ago?" In Massimo's world, Americans and their constant discussion of race was a nag, as inconsequential as a gnat I was supposed to swat away. My blackness had me on a string, he said, in his way. "One idiot talks and that is the only one you hear. Always, there will be some asshole. Sometimes you think they are truly asshole, and sometimes you think they are asshole and they are not. You want to cry over both of them." I wasn't sure why I cried, this was true. Massimo likes to remind me of the president, who is always so calm. "Do you realize, Avie, what he had to do to get elected? What he puts up with now? He's Muslim, he's racist, he's socialist, he's fascist, he's not even an American? Do you see him crying?" I had to agree. But still. I look at our president closely, looking for that slight bend in his straight spine, the strained grin, the loose string that may unravel, because I know it is there somewhere. Tucked away.
My portraits, the ones that so incensed the anonymous woman, weren't that complicated or that incendiary. I'm not even original. Other artists, famous artists like Kara Walker with her silhouettes of white masters fucking their male slaves, are much more audacious. But these artists, they were in galleries, not in coffee shops hanging over people's heads while they tried to go about their lives and drink their lattes. I simply painted portraits of Shirley Temple's cherubic face, Elizabeth Taylor circa her thinnest, most luminous days, June Cleaver in her crispest dress and most elegant pearls, and Sandra Dee during her sweetest, just-learning-how-to-surf phase. All of them in blackface. I used four portraits for each woman. The first frame is the original, how they looked as we saw them on film, on television, in pictures. The second frame looks as though someone has flung mud on their faces. Or shit. Cadmium Red and black, thick, thick oil paint, and I put one dollop somewhere on their faces — the forehead, the cheek, the chin. I wanted the viewer to be surprised, to wonder what was that muck ruining sweet Shirley's dimpled cheeks? The third portrait is full blackface. I put rags on their heads, made their skin completely brown, and fattened them all, desexualized them, gave them big clown lips stretched in magnificent smiles so that they all looked like they just walked off a box of pancake mix. In the last portraits all the faces are scratched up, as if someone else or the subjects themselves had tried to scratch all that dirt off their faces. I was trying to collapse time, layer irony. My intent was not to infuriate anybody. I was hoping to simply arouse thought, discussion, and consideration. I didn't realize how someone could get furious just by seeing Sandra Dee with big, doughy tits, a rag on her head. Shirley Temple's face, not altered in the least, a replica of an original photo of her in blackface, except I painted her sitting on the steps of a dilapidated apartment building, broken wine bottles all around her.
There were more portraits. Reagan eating a big piece of watermelon. Leif Garrett, one of my several girlhood crushes, eyes popping out of charcoal face, fishing off a riverbank in tattered trousers. George H.W. Bush stealing across a burning field with two chickens under his arms.
Massimo doesn't quite get this phase of my work. I've shown him images from the past, none of them with layers of irony, all the mammies and uncles I could find on film, on toothpaste packages, selling detergent. Little Shirley Temple in blackface, just a normal scene in a Hollywood movie. He sees what I'm doing, but doesn't appreciate it, not really. He's told me this, himself. But I've told him that he's not my audience, the European who's been in the States for only fifteen years. And anyway, I'm past that now. The art I do now comes from any and all things that don't seem to go together because this is what I appreciate about life and living. There is race, but there are also lots of other things. Things that aren't supposed to fit and go together but nevertheless do. I'm not very good, putting together all my pieces of discarded things. But it is also who I am.
* * *
MAMA WAS RIGHT. It aint been but one year and my princess costume dont fit no more. Mama was finna throw it away cause we moving but I thought I might could still fit it. When I tried to put the mask on the rubber band snapped out the staple on the side, and the sleeve split when I tried to put my arm in it. Thats when Mama throwed it in the trash. I didnt care, not really. I was looking at all our stuff packed in boxes and happy to be moving, going somewhere. To a better place, Daddy say.
A while back, after Daddy had done already decided we was moving, Owen came home with blood dripping down his arm. The Crips had done cut him up because he wasnt gone join they gang, not cause he didnt want to, but because Mama say Daddy would beat his ass if he did.
After Owen come through the door bleeding trying to make it not look bad, Mama called Daddy at the car factory and told him all about it. He musta ask how Owen look cause I hear Mama say, He bleeding, but he look awright. Ima call the ambalance, though. Then she say, Um hum, un hunh. Nod, say, Okay then, I wont. And hang up the phone. Your daddy coming home to run you to the doctor hisself, she tell Owen, and he stand there squeezing his arm with a towel Mama gave him. Mama dont know how to drive, and we only got one car anyway.
Daddy got home, took Owen to General Hospital, and got him thirty-two stitches. But when they got home, Daddy was mad. He stand with one hand on his hip, quiet. He take his cap off and turn it around in his hand some, then he put it back on. He say, Take me to the mothafuckas that cut you up. I got something to tell em.
They was gone but a little while before Owen come back grinning and calling Daddy Shaft, but Daddy wasnt grinning. Owen say Daddy walk down to 83 Street, found two of the boys that cut Owen, and told them if they ever touch his boy again, he was gone kill they black asses. They aint bothered Owen since. Good thing there was Daddy. I dont think them boys would of listened to Mama like they did Daddy.
Now we moving to a place that aint got no gangs, so it dont matter to us no how.
ALL OUR STUFF in the van, and Mama hugging folks and Daddy shaking hands. We packed and ready to go. Me and Cassandra sit on the steps, and I think I want to remember what she look like, but I dont know why since Im gone see her again. We both got Baby Alives that pee and boo boo and eat and drink. When Mama holler at me to come on, lets go, me and Cassandra trade dolls at the last minute and say we gone trade em back next time we see each other. We gone babysit each others kids. I trade my black Baby Alive for her white one, even though Cassandra done washed her hair too much and made it hard. Its different than what I had all the time at least. But still, I hold my black baby one more time and kiss it. I say, Goodbye, Baby Alive. Then Mama say she aint gone tell me again to come on here, and we get in Daddys Buick Wildcat and drive away from 932 West 80 Street, partment 8. I want to be prepared for my long journey, I tell Daddy.
Journey? he say. It aint but thirty minutes up the road.
I dont care. I take all kinds of books with me for the trip to the valley. Daddy say its the San Gabriel Valley and I never heard of that before, San Gabriel. But it sound pretty to me. I never been to where we going but I been to the desert and down South. It aint as far as all them places, but its far enough to read for a long time. I been reading Little House in the Big Woods, about traveling far from where you from.
Owen seen the house before. Daddy took him to see it, and Mama too, but I aint never seen where we going. Mama just say the house nice. Theres gone be grass in the front yard and the back yard. And no guns.
I look out the window before I read some more of my book. And after while L.A. start looking different. Dont see no trash in the street, no liquor stores, no Church's Chicken. We driving on a long highway. The sign say 60 with Pomona next to it. I see hills on both sides of the freeway, green and yellow, thats the color of the hills, and theres flowers in patches, yellow, white, and purple. And cows way off in the fields. Not a whole bunch, but cows anyway! Big and brown. I get happy to see the cows and I say, Look, cows. They make me happy cause I never see no animals never, not where I lived, not even hardly cats and dogs, except at the zoo. Got to be down South to see animals. But how can this be so close to L.A. and be so different? How come I never seen this before if its so close?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Elsewhere, California"
Copyright © 2012 Dana Johnson.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
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