California writers explore our past, promises in a trio of books
The state of California, physically and metaphorically, is always shifting. Once the symbol of raw American promise for gold-seeking pioneers, California has been tamed into a major agricultural producer with more than 25 million acres of farms and an economic force that ranks fifth in the world.
What can’t be tamed is nature, not all the way. California’s wild eschews domestication, as evidenced by seasons of drought and runaway wildfires. What will ultimately be California’s destiny — a capitulation to nature’s way or an uneasy truce with it?
A new crop of books aims to take an accounting of California, as it was, as it is now and what it promises — and threatens — in the near future. “Hummingbird in Underworld,” a memoir by Deborah Tobola, captures her nine years of teaching and managing the Arts in Corrections program at San Luis Obispo’s California Men’s Colony. Edited by John Freeman, former editor of Granta and executive editor of Literary Hub, “Freeman’s: California” enlists a collection of well-known writers to illuminate their vision and version of the West Coast. California-via-Canada’s Joni Mitchell offers nostalgia in “Morning Glory on the Vine,” a collection of her drawings and handwritten lyrics from the “Blue” era.
Mitchell’s book may be the most openly nostalgic, but there is a wistful quality to “Hummingbird in Underworld: Teaching in a Men’s Prison,” which opens with Tobola’s father taking his young daughters to dine at the prison cafeteria where he worked as a guard in the late ’50s. By 2000, Tobola has taken a job teaching poetry at the same “Cadillac of prisons,” the California Men’s Colony, or Camp Snoopy as it’s called by the inmates. She doesn’t romanticize the system, or her position, which grows to include staging several original plays; instead, she’s frank and even wry about its myriad challenges.
Early on when she’s still learning the ropes, Tobola hires an employee, only to realize after belatedly checking his file, that he’s a rapist. She describes another of her employee-inmates as “smarmy” and laments the high rate of recidivism. It’s all the more striking then when Tobola, a mother of two, describes feeling maternal toward Alejandro, a talented poet who joined a street gang when he was 12. In one of the book’s many quietly sad scenes, she sees her former student after he’s been sequestered in another building for several months and stops herself from an embrace. “I would have been ‘walked off’ — escorted off the prison in a humiliating march, for ‘overfamiliarity’… Instead I take a step back. ‘Keep writing,’ I say. ‘Promise me you’ll keep writing.’” Indeed, Tobola’s dedication to keeping these inmates attuned to their creative spark is what gives this humble memoir its powerful shine. There are people like Tobola who never give up on the forgotten.
Assimilation, or rejection of the notion, is a running theme throughout “Freeman’s: California,” whether to the demands of California’s wild or the dominant capitalist culture. In one of two pieces that take on the devastation of the wildfires, William T. Vollmann delves into the 2018 Carr fire, graduating from a flimsy paper mask to a respirator with carbon filters. Vollmann, who extensively researched global warming in his two-part “Carbon Ideologies,” writes that “we can expect ever larger, faster, more dangerous wildfires for the rest of our lives.” He depicts his wanderings in the Carr fire as a visitation to the future, lending a surreal edge to encounters with fatigued waitresses, an unhoused man rescued from flames by a stranger and fire chiefs and police officers so used to the smoke that they go without masks.
In Reyna Grande’s standout piece, “My Mother’s California,” she describes how her mother left her children in Mexico for Los Angeles. Grande and her siblings eventually follow, but they live with their immigrant father who raises his children to reap “The American Dream 2.0.” Grande’s mother, by contrast, is a cash-strapped vendor at a swap meet, unconcerned with learning English or how to drive, much to her children’s irritation and shame. At college, Grande makes a documentary about her mother and sees for the first time Juana’s enthusiasm for sales. She sees “not a woman beaten down by her poverty, but rather, a woman whose humble aspirations filled her with gratitude for a life that was a tiny bit better than what she’d escaped from.” This doesn’t reconcile their two versions of California, Grande is quick to point out, but it provides a glimpse of understanding.
Another strong piece is “How to Bartend,” Rabih Alameddine’s raucous remembrance of working as a San Francisco bartender during the AIDS crisis, watching soccer matches with a group of regulars who remind him of boys he went to high school with in England. “They had a sense of humor that matched mine. They could, and would, make fun of everything,” including Alameddine, but the relationship also has its tender flashes. “Freeman’s: California” has a few pieces that feel less than vital, but work by Lauren Markham, Robin Coste Lewis, Héctor Tobar, Jennifer Egan, Oscar Villalon and Rachel Kushner elevates it to a necessary piece in a literary California collection.
Since Joni Mitchell suffered a brain aneurysm in 2015, one of many health challenges of late, she has made only a handful of public appearances. It’s reassuring then to see Mitchell freshly release “Morning Glory on the Vine,” a collection of more than 30 original paintings steeped in a bygone era. Initially conceived as a holiday gift in 1971 for her “kind of noveau riche” friends, as she writes in the book’s foreword, “Morning Glory” shows off Mitchell’s shadow career as a painter — she dropped out of the Alberta College of Art in Canada when she was 20. Mitchell was closing a three-album creative marathon, culminating with “Blue.”
The new book includes rich portraits of friends and lovers, such as Judy Collins, Graham Nash and a particularly startling image of frequent collaborator Neil Young, his hair in bold lines around his stern face. Some sketches reveal her insistence on living in the moment: A composite portrait of a Central Park audience was interrupted only when Mitchell was dragged onstage to perform. One of the most evocative paintings is of her dining room window, a basket of fruit in view. The serenely saturated image practically brings on the taste of coffee in the morning light, the stillness and introspection. The book’s art pieces are cut with lyrics from “Big Yellow Taxi” and other classics, as well as poems written in her cursive. A revelation for her devoted listeners, ”Morning Glory” is a comforting and intimate look at what caught an artist’s eye when she was at the peak of her chaparral mountain.
Wappler is the author of “Neon Green” and a former co-host of the Pop Rocket podcast.
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