Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Today at Necessary Fiction, I review Dana Johnson’s début novel, Elsewhere, California. Here is just a bit of what I had to say:

Avery understands the way that language works as a door between cultures because she’s been paying keen attention to speech patterns and the importance of words since she was a child. And Avery is a tester, interested in trying out words and phrases from other people—from Brenna’s poor, white and overly permissive family; from Joan, a kind and elderly white neighbor; from the young women of different cultures she meets in college; and even from her own family, those in California and those in Tennessee. To Avery, language is intricately bound with identity and so as Avery learns to speak several “languages,” her identity begins to crack and splinter.

This identity crisis begins young, and Johnson does a great job of showing the multitude of awareness moments in young Avery’s life, and the miniscule alignment choices that she makes, both with positive and negative repercussions, as she moves forward from child to adult and her world changes and shifts. There’s a complex negotiation going on here—who does Avery want to be? What are the boundaries to her identity and who or what has put those boundaries in place? Johnson doesn’t shy away from the more delicate questions of race and prejudice, and although the novel has what I would call a gentle narrative, it doesn’t pull its punches either.

My review says as much, but I really enjoyed this novel–its focus on language as well as the clarity and emotional complexity of Johnson’s writing.

Click here to read the entire review.

Elsewhere, California was an interesting book to read relatively close to Martha Southgate’s most recent book, The Taste of Salt, as well as one to consider against all my Gordimer reading, especially her latest, No Time Like the Present. In terms of The Taste of Salt and Elsewhere, California, both books deal with identity issues for African American women who have in some way left their working class or impoverished backgrounds behind, and both books deal with the protagonist’s relationship with a male relative who hasn’t been so lucky, a person the protagonist cares about but who also embarrasses and even frightens them. The main characters of these two novels are quite different, but the books share these general themes and it was interesting to compare how the authors handled similar ideas.

Gordimer is a different kind of writer than either Johnson or Southgate because she’s so often moving from the political to the emotional, and not the other way around. She’s also white, so that’s something else altogether. Regardless, both Southgate and Johnson take a more intimate approach, focusing their narrative on the interior life of a single character. No Time Like the Present is looking at similar issues really, especially the idea of a mixed culture marriage and the documentation of moments of prejudice in a society that is meant to be striving for equality between cultures.



2 Responses to “Dana Johnson – Elsewhere, California”

  1. Guilherme

    One more for my “TBR” pile. And this is an extremely insightful observation, a major coup on your part: “…she’s so often moving from the political to the emotional, and not the other way around…” I don’t think I’ve ever noticed that. The direction, that is.
    You know how to read. And you can write, too. Brava!

    • Michelle

      Thanks, Guilherme. It’s interesting to see how other (political) writers handle the balance of political and personal. I think Gordimer went from the personal to the political in much of her earlier work, and the other way around later on… except The PickUp, perhaps, and The Conservationist.

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