Dana Johnson, Book CoverJohnson, Dana. Elsewhere, California. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2012. 276 pp. $15.95 (paper).

[View title on Goodreads.com]

Reviewed by Ciara Miller

Dana Johnson’s debut novel, Elsewhere, California, largely concerns coming of age during the 70s and 80s when practically no one fits neatly into black and white social boxes. Her narrator, Avery Arlington, is reshaped by white television shows, white friends, white schools, and white romantic interests. Even the mother of one of her childhood classmates blasts Diana Ross in her vehicle but disallows her son to date Avery because she is black (199). Avery’s first known home is on 80TH Street in Los Angeles, where she can’t go trick-or-treating because rival gangs, Bloods and Crips, are at war. There, she witnesses her father punch her mother in the eye and her mother chase her father down the hallway with a butcher knife for returning home from work thirty minutes late (10). When she is nine-years-old, her family moves to a working-class, predominantly white suburb, West Covina. As an adult, she visits a hypnotherapist to cope with her past while fearing she will be viewed as: “A bright and articulate woman.  An affirmative action baby.  A bourgeois snob. A hard worker. A whiner” (11).  She grows up to be an assemblage artist married to an Italian immigrant lawyer and lives in a huge modern house atop a hill in Los Angeles.  Her conflict is negotiating the several identities her life has afforded her.

The novel is written with two distinct narrative voices—the coming-of-age Tennessee vernacular Avery borrows from her parents and the Standard English television voice she aspires to have as a child. Johnson crafts a portrait of Avery’s life by assembling scenes from her past and present. Sometimes the reader may question the purpose of receiving so many details. Are they intended to foreshadow a major event or depict Avery’s life as more realistic? Johnson finesses every aspect of her protagonist, allowing readers to easily forget Avery is fictional and almost approach the text as a memoir. The Freytag plot model traditionally used to understand the progressive order of a story (typically including the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement) will only misguide readers. The book bears no clear beginning, middle, or end.  It instead shows how the past effects the present by alternating between scenes from Avery’s childhood and adult life.

In West Covina, Avery’s two main playmates are Brenna and her cousin, Keith. Brenna is white, physically developed, and unrestrained. Her mother and father look and act young. Brenna’s mother always has a cigarette in her mouth and allows her daughter to light them for her (71).  Contrarily, Avery’s parents preach hard work and respectability. They do not raise her to necessarily assimilate to white societal norms but to rise above black stereotypes (73).  Keith chooses to ignore the intricacies of his social position. He allows his white male friend to call Avery a “nigga” and even takes the blame for Brenna when she steals a silver watch from their neighbor’s home. When Brenna and Keith engage in a romantic affair as teenagers, Brenna’s parents blame Keith’s family: “You don’t teach him that he can’t just do whatever he wants? That’s what he does? Just goes around screwing little girls” (184). In this moment, Brenna’s father appears oblivious to her promiscuity as well as the fact that she and Keith are the same age.

Avery’s husband, Massimo, is a rags-to-riches immigrant who uses his story of struggle as a lens to critique Avery’s friends and her upbringing.  He believes “life should be beautiful and should be loved beautifully” (102).  Thus, he considers the adult Brenna to be “coarse” and finds her usual drink of Red Bull and Vodka laughable, as well as her preference for working at her mother’s daycare and waitressing at Chili’s (102).  Johnson showcases how ethnicity and class differences complicate race through their clashing. Additionally, the distance between Massimo’s reality and Avery’s leads him to an opaque understanding of her history. He believes that artists are made in big cities such as Los Angeles, and often tells his friends that Avery is from L.A. instead of West Covina though she lived most of her childhood in the suburb (18).  He also hates for Avery to listen to Partridge Family tunes despite the fact that she listened to their music as a kid. In Massimo’s world, Americans and their constant discussion of race is as “inconsequential as a gnat” (20).  However, race plays a significant role in Avery’s vision of herself, her artwork, and even her relationship with him. The woman he wants to know her as is a far stretch from the girl she once was with untamed hair covered by baseball caps, who would have never thought to shave her hair (her adult hairstyle that he prefers), and who did not know how to speak English eloquently.

When Avery attends The University of Southern California, she slowly morphs into the self-actualized woman who later marries Massimo. At USC, she is confronted with class differences amongst people of her own race. Her black roommate, Anika, moves into their dorm room with an abundance of possessions, including a television and a car. She is even allowed to swear in front of her dad, similar to Brenna. Race and class become comparative social privileges for Avery. During one critical scene, Anika turns off her television as Avery is watching the last Dodgers game of the Championship Series. The two twist the television from side to side until Anika finally pushes Avery, who fires back, “don’t you ever touch me again or I will punch you in the face. I will. I swear” (227). Avery’ self-respect grows as she learns that there are some snobbish people who have never had to wait or ask for anything and that she does not have to yield to those who are privileged. A difficult task, Johnson creates characters that are so believable that the reader can literally find herself yelling at Anika for turning off the television and cheering Avery on for defending herself.

What seems to be the most climactic moment of the novel is when Avery discovers that her cousin Keith robs her home with Massimo, stealing a picture she drew of herself and Keith kissing as children.  Johnson doesn’t show the reader how he fits into Avery’s current life, besides a brief phone conversation they have in which he confesses to stealing her painting for profits.  He tells her: “I want you to give me some money. You got money [. . .] Niggas always talking bout they ain’t go money and then look how they living” (208). Considering he serves as a looming presence throughout the book, it feels odd that he never reappears in the flesh, although he can be seen as the ghost that haunts the memories of Avery, Brenna, and even her husband Massimo. He is the phantom of American history—the black man committed to disrupting the peace of those who have historically taken from him. He internalizes the assumptions made about him during his youth and becomes the crook people perceive him to be instead of conceiving the possibilities of his life.

Avery’s artwork mirrors her experiences as a child, although it is often regarded as offensive, racist, or according to an article published in the Sentinel, “unsettled in their critique of iconic negrobilia images” (19). Her art includes iconographic figures, such as Shirley Temple, in blackface wearing a head scarf with a big clown smile—indicative of many representations of African-American women. Her art challenges norms of American beauty and race relations while illustrating what she considers to be the complexities of  people who are placed in reductive social boxes. As a child, she once compared Brenna to Jan from the Brady Bunch for her red hair and freckles while likening herself to Marcia (140).  As an adult, her art is an assemblage of characteristics unexpected of particular races, but it portrays people as she has experienced them. She draws Brenna in a Foxy Cleopatra outfit to exemplify her tough, kick-ass attitude.  She draws Keith with red hair perhaps to capture his teenage romantic affair with Brenna (206).

During one pivotal scene, Avery imagines a family in “abstract, geometric shapes and patches of brilliant colors” that allows one to see each aspect of the children without the specifics of what they are made of being obscured or melted into a pot. She then stands before her bathroom mirror with its large frame colored in chipped, white paint revealing the brown wood underneath. Massimo thinks they should get rid of the mirror or paint over it, but Avery thinks they should let the paint “run its course” (169). Her vision of family and the mirror are metaphors for her appreciation of the numerous experiences that have shaped her. Her identity rejects the “either, or” option that Massimo prefers. She is an amalgamation of many spaces, classes, and racial and ethnic influences. She allows the standardization of whiteness to “run its course” and reclaims the fullness of her identity.

In the final scene of the novel, Avery pushes a security guard for accusing her nephew of stealing a purse during her art exposition. Her nephew is a half-Korean and half African-American surfer and skateboarder who wears sagging pants and an afro pick in his hair. Avery appreciates his identity which defies white societal norms and stereotypes of black men. She pushes the guard again and again, reemphasizing “This is my show. Mine”(273). She takes ownership of her family, her childhood, her artwork, and her dignity. She also indirectly stands up for Keith and the many times he is accused of committing crimes in spite of his innocence. She learns to respect her history as an African-American woman who comes from many places that can never be neatly defined though they have afforded her richness of character.

___________________

Ciara MillerCiara Darnise Miller was born and raised on the west side of Chicago. She is a Louder than a Bomb poetry slam champion who has been a featured performer at various high schools, colleges, and writing organizations throughout the United States including: Berkeley High, Chicago Academy of the Arts, Marymount Manhattan College, Milliken University, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and the Nuyorican Poets Café.  She is the author of self-published chapbook Black Dorothy, and is published in numerous Young Chicago Authors anthologies, as well as StarWall Paper, What I Know Is Me—Black Girls Write about Their World, Dark Phrases, The SLC Review, and Saul Williams’s forthcoming MTV anthology Chorus to be released September 4TH, 2012. She is a Sarah Lawrence College graduate, a Cave Canem fellow, and a poetry MFA and African American/African Diaspora MA candidate at Indiana University where she received the Graduate Fellowship. She approaches writing by taking influences from any speck of truth she can find.