Freestyling

SOME YEARS back, I was working on big a project about race and identity and blending in Los Angeles. The pieces — a collection of L.A.-centered essays/profiles/interviews about what happens in the intersections of race and class and language — elicited a number of, lets say, humorous responses in the East.

One reader thought it was about “biracial identity.” No.
Another, kept trying to tie it to music — to “wiggers” and/or hip hop. Really, no.
And the best head-scratching response — “I fear it’s “too coastal.”

Too Coastal.

All this surfaced again as I finished reading and reviewing Dana Johnson’s novel, Elsewhere, California. I’d like to hand a copy of the book to each of those readers who were struggling to find some easy boxes they might be able to check that might describe what life “out there” was.

Johnson’s novel just confirms that that’s exactly not point. To simplify it wouldn’t be telling that story. It would be false. It would be something else.

L.A. is a collage, a vast project that feels forever-in-progress. If you’re open enough, you pick up pieces along the way — they become a part of you because they are part of your experience here. Proximity allows for all manner of re-invention. Johnson’s book travels through that tough terrain of forging identity outside of what expectations are, outside of models, outside of adequate — or available — language to discuss it.

Elswewhere, California conjures that blade-hot, smog-obscured L.A. of the mid-70s — caught between two huge terrain-changing movements — the last wave of the Great Migration of African Americans out of the south and the wave of white flight out of the city’s center — the basin. What would it be to be an Angeleno in conversation with who was left around us? In this sense, you could say that the journey does borrow from the province of hip hop: freestyling one’s way along the surface of the flow — making it up as you go. As it turned out, we were poised on the edge of what the rest of the country would experience — this life on the Pacific Rim was a warm up for a mad-mix of globalized everything — trade, work, language, music, food, philosophy and religion — navigating not simply the “other” but something brand new, an “elsewhere” that we would have to live in order to only begin to define.

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