Literature and the gift of words

In this age of Kindle and iPad and e-books, I write by hand, on little notepads, in my car.

I have written in my car since I was 22 and working on my first novel. Then, the car was a broken-down pale green Fiat. I sat in the driver’s seat while my then-husband worked on it in our gravel driveway, yelling at me to pump the brakes or start the engine. Now I write in my 2009 Honda CRV while waiting in the high school parking lot for my youngest, or even at the curb in front of my house — the way Raymond Carver used to — before I go inside.

I like looking up at the tree over me.

After seven novels, I lately have started giving away my books — real books, printed on paper that has been sewn and bound. It’s not because no one wants to buy them but rather because so many young people still want to hold them, pass them around, write in them and see their own names on the first page. And they often can’t afford to buy books, much less imagine owning an e-reader. In the last two years, I’ve handed out 1,000 free copies of “Highwire Moon” and 500 copies of “Take One Candle Light a Room.”

It all started in 2009, when I was invited to Antelope Valley College by a poet-activist who is a former student, Nicelle Davis, and she mentioned how many students couldn’t afford to buy textbooks. I suggested rather offhandedly that we use my honorarium to buy paperbacks to give to the students. More than 100 people came; we had 100 books to give away. I signed each person’s name in the front, and a small note, and I was astonished at how many of them cried and told me this was the first novel they’d ever owned. These were 18-year-olds, and also 35-year-olds, and some of them had me add their mother’s name, or their children’s, in case they never got another novel.

Seeing their reactions reminded me of the first books people gave me. When I was a 16-year-old city college student, a professor named Bill Bowers gave me a book by Edward Abbey. When I was a 17-year-old freshman at USC, one of three white students in professor Gloria Watkins’ African American literature class, I went one day to her office, scared because I was still afraid of professors and offices. She gave me a reading list, and then she turned to her shelves and handed me two books: “Nectar in a Sieve,” about an impoverished woman in India, and “Child of the Dark: The Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus,” about a woman making a life in a Rio de Janeiro slum. “You need these,” she said. Today, she uses the name bell hooks, and my daughters read her work, but to me, she is that woman who handed me her own paperbacks and said, “Keep them.” They are beside me now.


I have given away “Highwire Moon” to migrant families in Mecca who work in vineyards near the Salton Sea; next month, I will give that book away to Oaxacan migrant families in Greenfield, near Salinas. I gave away my new book last week to students at Cal State Dominguez Hills, young people and older ones, people born here in Southern California and in El Salvador, Mexico or Belize. Many of them told me it was the first novel they would own. Days later, I gave copies to a group of high school students from South Los Angeles after asking them, “What do you think are the three scariest words a stranger can ask someone?”

“Where you from?” some of them whispered, girls and boys. My new novel features a young man shot in the arm and another young man killed after those three words are spoken. My nephew was attacked last year after answering, “I was born right here” and pointing to the street behind him.

As I signed their names, the students talked to me about what they were afraid of, and where their mothers were from, and why they wanted to write.

Giving away books has made me happier than I could have imagined. I don’t always use the honorarium people offer me — City National Bank, the California Council for the Humanities, USC and other institutions have been generous in supporting the project.

My offer stands: Ask me to come; I will speak for free and give away books. I take great pleasure in writing someone’s name in a book, because from the time I was 5 and walked three blocks from my house to the grocery store parking lot where the library bookmobile was parked every other week — browsing in that hot, narrow space with my fingers running down the spines of all those novels — I always wanted to keep one.

Susan Straight’s novel “Take One Candle Light a Room” was just released in paperback. She will be giving away books Sunday from noon to 1 p.m. at USC’s Civic Engagement booth during the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.