Chronicles of out East, in Inlandia

Special to The Times

Some places in California exist, or so it seems, to make the hipper towns look good by contrast. There's Barstow, Bakersfield and all of the Inland Empire, the formless sprawl that covers western San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

For many, the Inland Empire brings to mind meth labs, smog pockets and the Salton Sea. David Lynch named his new film after the IE, as locals call it; and while the film is not about the Inland region, the term serves as shorthand for a Lynchian dystopia.

But now Heyday Books, located in one of the state's cooler ZIP Codes -- Berkeley -- is attempting to turn the IE's mutant image to its advantage. The publisher has a new anthology, "Inlandia: A Literary Journey Through California's Inland Empire," which it considers the first step in a campaign aimed at boosting the region's self-esteem through literature.

The contributors themselves -- M.F.K. Fisher, Norman Mailer, Joan Baez, Joan Didion, Raymond Chandler and Calvin Trillin -- confer class. Another ego lift is the name "Inlandia" itself, coined last year by Riverside poet Juan Felipe Herrera, who teaches creative writing at UC Riverside and, for a class assignment to write a regional story, was looking to replace the militaristic-sounding Inland Empire with a more mystical nickname.

Today, to celebrate the publication of "Inlandia," the Riverside Public Library will host an Inlandia Festival, with a daylong series of readings by local authors along with music and a display of historic photos.

Heyday's publisher, Malcolm Margolin, hopes the anthology will help orient the thousands of newcomers who have recently moved to one of the fastest-growing regions in the U.S. "I think readers will see there's a possibility of great writers among them," he said. "They're not just in a debased suburb of Los Angeles."

The question remains: Can you polish a region's image through stories and poems? It's not the first time Heyday has tried. The publishing company administered literary CPR to another maligned sector of the state, the Central Valley, via its 1996 anthology "Highway 99: A Literary Journey Through California's Great Central Valley."

Margolin's devotion to the state's popular and unpopular sectors began in the late 1960s, when he migrated from Boston to the Bay Area in a VW bus. He established his company in 1974 and became known for visually pleasing books on California Indians and other regional topics.

Prior to publishing "Inlandia," Margolin had visited the Inland Empire on brief forays to view desert wildflowers or visit friends on a Banning Indian reservation. But he never thought of the area as a literary seedbed until he began sifting the state's literature for the Heyday anthologies "Under the Fifth Sun" and "California Uncovered." Suddenly he realized there was a lot of good writing coming from a place that made his Berkeley neighbors roll their eyes.

"There's something about living in the shadow of Los Angeles that takes the pressure off," Margolin said, speculating on why the area is rich with young writers. "I don't want to set up false expectations, but I think the place is set for something like a renaissance."

When the James Irvine Foundation offered Heyday a grant to launch a publishing program in the Inland Empire, Margolin and "Inlandia" editor Gayle Wattawa first wanted to make sure they weren't infringing on the territory of local publishers ("The last thing I wanted was to be a colonist," Margolin said) and also that there was a literary infrastructure in place.

It's not enough to publish books, Margolin said. To nurture a literary renaissance, you need bookstores, universities and venues for readings. He found all that -- and no local publishers.

A vital part of the infrastructure is the UC Riverside Writing Program, where nationally recognized writers such as novelists Susan Straight and Chris Abani and nonfiction author Tom Lutz teach.

Straight, who wrote the introduction to "Inlandia" and is the author of five novels including the National Book Award finalist "Highwire Moon," championed the inclusion of lesser-known, up-and-coming writers. Among them are E.J. Jones, who writes about the black community in Blythe, and Alex Espinoza, who sets his stories in a fictional Colton.

A young Corona writer, Michael David Egelin (who died of cancer before the anthology was released), had never been published before; some of the other writers had only been published in small literary journals. In "Inlandia" they appear alongside the likes of John Steinbeck and Mailer.

The earlier pieces included in the anthology hearken to a once-pastoral IE. There's Englishman J. Smeaton Chase, camping in an abandoned Chemehuevi village with his horse, Kaweah. And John Jakes describes the tourist trains that once brought sightseers out from L.A. to glory in the IE's citrus groves.

The modern selections, in contrast, have the forlorn flavor of Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska" album. In Gayle Brandeis' selection, dead fish crunch underfoot at the Salton Sea; Trillin writes of an everlasting barrio feud. In Gordon Johnson's depiction of life on the Pala Reservation, the Ramona pageant -- representative of a more venerable IE -- is a family joke.

If it's hard to see how all this helps the IE's image problem, it's important to remember Heyday was not seeking chamber-of-commerce fluffery. "This is not a PR campaign," said Kathryn Morton, cultural programs coordinator for the Riverside Public Library and a member of the advisory committee for "Inlandia." "This is real literature about a tough type of place where people develop fabulous resilience and strength."

For Morton and others who believe in the power of literature, a true picture of the IE's ethnic diversity and struggles may be just what the place needs. "What's striking about the book is the sheer quality of writing coming out of the Inland Empire, especially the writing program at UC Riverside," said Mike Davis, an author and urban theorist known for his apocalyptic works on L.A., "City of Quartz" and "Ecology of Fear."

Fontana-born Davis, who has a piece in the book, said the Riverside program is turning out some of the best young writers in the country. Students at the more celebrated UC Irvine program (where Davis once taught) have the writing chops but not the multigenerational, multiethnic life experiences of kids in the IE.

"This is the future now," Davis said. "This is where young voices are apt to be most interesting."

Straight said she advises her students not to look to the New Yorker for their model but to their own immigrant, working-class lives in the IE. "What can you bring to the table that nobody has?" she said she asks them.

The young voices of Inlandia, however authentic, weave a less coherent picture of a place than that presented in Heyday's Central Valley anthology. While the Central Valley is held together by a long flat highway and a central industry -- farming -- the IE is laced with unconnected highways, communities and industries such as tourism, cement and prisons.

Inlandia does claim a uniting geography, 10,000-foot mountains and spacious deserts, that the historical selections acknowledge. Mary Austin, for instance, writes about the blue ranges of the San Gorgonio Pass. But the newer writers pay little attention to the landscape, as if they are too busy fighting for survival to notice the peaks and arroyos.

The IE, Margolin concluded, "is a constellation of unrelated stars. People in the Central Valley feel themselves to be a united culture while the people in San Bernardino feel themselves to be quite different from people in Palm Springs."

Released last month, the book already is sparking the discussion Margolin hoped for. A popular topic of debate: The name Inlandia itself. While some like the dreamy tint, Riverside Press-Enterprise columnist Dan Bernstein wrote that he initially felt the name was too "sugar-plum precious" for the earthy region. And the University of Redlands has purchased 1,500 copies of "Inlandia" to distribute to the faculty. Next, Margolin said, he'd like to take a crack at the equally misunderstood counties of San Diego and Orange.

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The Inlandia Festival at the Riverside Public Library is today, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For information, call (951) 826-5369 or see www.riversideca.gov/library and click on "Events."

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