We first met Avery in two of the stories featured in Dana Johnson’s award-winning collection Break Any Woman Down. As a young girl, she and her family escape the violent streets of Los Angeles to a more gentrified existence in suburban West Covina. This average life, filled with school, trips to 7-Eleven to gawk at Tiger Beat magazine, and family outings to Dodger Stadium, is soon interrupted by a past she cannot escape, personified in the guise of her violent cousin Keith.
When Keith moves in with her family, he triggers a series of events that will follow Avery throughout her life: to her studies at USC, to her burgeoning career as a painter and artist, and into her relationship with a wealthy Italian who sequesters her in his glass-walled house in the Hollywood Hills. The past will intrude upon Avery’s first gallery show, proving her mother’s adage: Every goodbye aint gone. The dual-narrative of Elsewhere, California illustrates the complicated history of African Americans across the rolling basin of Los Angeles.
Dana Johnson lived in the same LA County suburb I grew up in, and went to the same middle school, high school and college I attended. This novel is the coming-over-age story I doubt I'll ever have the courage to write, about growing up in the San Gabriel Valley, negotiating race and identity in a very particular socioeconomic space, and discovering one's voice through art. It is beautifully written and full of such perfect descriptions of place that I felt homesick throughout. The narrator Avery is the nerdy, wordy blackgirl friend I wish I'd had growing up.
Where you’re from and what you look like might not be who you are.
Avery Arlington, a black girl originally from South L.A. and West Covina, grows into a university-educated artist, marries a very successful Italian immigrant businessman, and comes to live in the Hollywood Hills, while staying in touch with her white wild-child girlhood best friend Brenna and a ne’er-do-well cousin. Alternating chapters flash back to her childhood, episodes that illustrate the rural simplicity of her Tennessee-bred parents, their work ethic, hopes for their family, and pride, and the difficulties of escaping the constrictions of stereotypes. The chapters dealing with her childhood are told in dialect inherited from her family, but as the narration tracks her adolescence and adulthood, the voice shifts to a more conventional English as she learns to assimilate, even while trying to find a balance in maintaining her own identity.
When Brenna objects to her listening to Michael Jackson, Avery defends him: “So I let him sing his song. Maybe, if he hadn’t hated himself for looking the way he did. Maybe if he had someone telling him before, earlier, before he ever got on a stage, something different about himself. Maybe then he wouldn’t have tried to move bone and skin and hair into shapes and textures and colors that he thought made him better. Or maybe, if he just could have been all of that, mixed up, in peace, weird and black in the first place. I tell Brenna all of this as we’re driving down the hill.”
The younger Avery considers herself a master of blending in, not making waves, but as she grows up, she begins realizing the value of unusual combinations, of doing things in a wholly original way, and that, rather than trying to keep people and things in their own little boxes, mixing thing up, in life, as in art, expands their potential exponentially. In keeping with her artist’s sensibility, she knows that to know things as they really are, one has to really look, to really see, and that the juxtaposition of disparate things and people and ideas can only have a liberating effect. Through her art she is able to express herself as a unique individual and resist the pigeon-holing that society is all too ready to inflict on her as a black woman.
About Brenna, she says, “She doesn’t understand that she had a luxury, as little as she and her family had. She had the luxury of not having to listen to all the voices [cousin] Keith and I had to. I didn’t think I could afford to ignore the voices. They were everywhere, all the time, but I found help, a place to put the voices, a way to turn them into something I was saying back.”
Angelenos will enjoy Avery’s localized descriptions. Her love for the Dodgers and Vin Scully are almost palpable, and her descriptions of Palm Springs (college spring break! Woo hoo!) reflect a first-time visitor’s common reaction to the stark beauty of the desert. And for anyone who grew up in the ‘70s, the song lyrics strewn liberally throughout the book are fun, some of them bringing melodies into my head that hadn’t been there for years.
Music resonates throughout, as do ideas about the complex interrelated values of different types of work and money (commerce vs creativity), race and class, identity and conformity, and the power of society’s expectations to shape us. Avery is able to resist the voices that might have derailed her, as they do other characters, and to have the courage to be herself, through her connections with family, friends and the power of her art.
So, let me say that, initially, the language threw me off so badly that I thought about putting the book down. Then I remembered that I spoke exactly the way Avery did when I was a child.
Suddenly, I realized that I had a bit more in common with this character than I'd assumed. We both had life experiences that resulted in transitions in character that manifested in our speech, primarily. This caused an immediate frisson in our connection with our families, but we still managed to hold onto a level of authenticity with our friends.
But this book gets 3.5 stars because it felt clunky. I read "Disgruntled" right before this (both have evolving Black female leads), and it was so smooth. Maybe it was this book's jumping forward and backward in time. It could also have been that only Avery seemed to be developed; the other characters stayed completely put.
But because of the other points, it still gets 3.5 stars.
Probably 4 1/2 stars, but I bumped it up to 5 because this book touched by heart. I really loved the protagonist, Avery, and her struggle to find herself, to be her own kind of black girl. This book has an interesting structure - alternating chapters from her childhood and her adulthood. Her voice as a child seemed spot-on to me. Avery is an artist, even before she knows it herself and I loved watching her discover that. Avery does not fit it easily anywhere - in her family, in school, anywhere except with a couple of friends who are as unusual as she is and with her cousin whose story is heartbreaking. Avery is a California girl and this book is loaded with throw-away cultural references, some of which I'm sure that I missed because of my age. But Avery takes them all in and combines them all to create herself and her art - unique and surprising. I loved this book.
This is obviously a book about identity boundaries and over stepping them. Avery, a black child growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, CA doesn't exactly have the tastes that one would expect of a black child of the 70's, 80's. Avery is the main character of this novel, and her story is told throughout the book alternately by both her adult and child-to-adult voice. I think the objective of the writer is to examine and expose the boundaries of blackness and feminine identity. I mean, how often do we examine the ideas we hold about what is the "ideal" black persona?
Avery listens to music that isn't typical "black" music. She dresses in a way that is deemed different and finds certain boys in the teen magazines of her day beautiful and yet none of them are black like her. Her father even asks her once, about some of the posters on her wall, "Who in the hell are all these white boys?" Avery seems to be haunted by the expression of "she ain't really black." The child-to-adult voice seems to be constantly struggling against the "ideal" black identity.
So my question is whence came this push out of common definitions of blackness and femininity? The style of writing is luxurious, and the growing child/grown-up perspective mostly works and doesn't distract from the story. I think a little more background is needed on Avery, to help us understand how she came to struggle with her identity. That is never really explored, or hey... that may be the point of the novel. Do all teenagers struggle with how they fit in? How they should act and move through each day?
Ultimately, this is a well written coming of age story, with Avery trying to figure it all out and navigate stereotypes of blackness and woman ness along the way. A journey worth taking. I wanted to give 3.5 stars, but you have to choose, so I settled on 4.
Voice and dialogue, got to have voice and dialogue, otherwise it's just a descriptive narrative and somewhere around the hundredth fluffy description and transcribed imagery I get bored. I mean I've read books that were all that, but they didn't grip me and keep me interested. I'll read a slightly less well written novel with a great voice and tight dialogue over flowery chit-chat any day. Thankfully this compromise is not the case with Dana Johnson's Elsewhere, California. Her protagonist, a young woman named Avery, screams dialogue and the narrative voice is incredibly strong. Johnson brings us into Avery's world hard, and doesn't let up. We're allowed into a young woman's thoughts and fears, in juxtaposition to her now, today, grown up, still dealing with the sameness of it all. Only her past won't let her move on, or maybe she's too afraid to just let it go. Either way her inner turmoil of making the change from her family's ideals to who she wants to be, or at least sees herself as, is the underlining current. Then throw in never quite fitting in, a sense of self-hatred, a bit of guilt, the constant of racism, and strangely enough: baseball, and you've a small notion of the complexity of Elsewhere, California. Not to sound horribly clichéd, but Johnson knocks this one out of the ballpark – well written, hella tight dialogue, a strong-ass voice that you'd have to be deaf not to hear. Read it!
I had a hard time getting into this book. There's no plot, just a naïve girl growing up in Southern California. Yet, this is where I connected. I grew up about the same place, about the same time and also quite clueless, despite my reading and everything. It seemed to be trying very desperately to say something about race. That is front and center. Yet it doesn't go anywhere. The narrator ends up doing art, but without any guidance yet still "subversive" and full of subtext. The novel felt like it had potential but didn't go anywhere, which is exactly what happened to our main character. The first female in the family to go to college, and USC no less. As a black woman she couldn't get a degree in art, where her talent and interest lay, but got a smart degree in business. Then nothing. Ended up marrying someone with money.
Still the book hardly went anywhere. I found the lack of quotation marks just silly and annoying. They do serve a purpose! Well, I can hardly recommend this book. Likely it's one I will entirely forget in years to come.
It was good! I really liked Avery. I loved her honesty and openness, and seeing the world through her eyes. She's a complex character, and we see her grow so much throughout the book, and I really enjoyed that.
I would say, though, that none of the rest of the characters grew or developed at all. It didn't bother as much because the book really centered around Avery, and she was a great character, but still. I also feel like a lot of the conflicts of relationships between people were left unresolved, but even so, I really liked the ending. I feel like the last few paragraphs really brought it all together into something meaningful.
Also, the place descriptions were really good, and I got super excited seeing all the USC landmarks and experiences described.
Meticulously crafted book that interweaves past and present, tracing the coming-of-age story of Avery, a black female artist grappling to understand herself in a world that always seems to fit wrong. This novel is a quick read, but each scene, each sentence is packed full of significance. Like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, this is a work that manages to capture the nuanced experience of daily life in a racialized world, while also destroying one-dimensional categorizations.
I love the protagonist, Avery. Fascinating character with whom to explore the theme of shifting identity and traversing social worlds. The writing, using mainly two different styles--one for her youth and one for her more educated adapted adult self--was beautiful. Avery as a young girl's voice was so well wrought.
I did long for more development of her cousin, Keith, after his key incident with Avery's bestie Brenna. His life went off the rails at that point but we don't get to see much of that happening.
Still, the story is a beautiful exploration of not only race and class but also the ways we become our adult selves, the choices we make and the hand we're dealt, how the littlest things or encounters can shift us one way or the other, and how all these make us far more complex than the category boxes on the census forms, the stereotypes we put groups of people into.
3.75* I like pretty much love every individual element of this book: the writing, the nostalgia factor, the uncoventional protagonist, the character development, the flow of the story, I could go on. But... overall it was kind of anticlimatic. I recommend it though, sometimes you don't need tell a big story to create an enduring story.
This novel reminded me of Zadie Smith's NW in a lot of ways. The relationship between Avery (the black protagonist) and Brenna (her white best friend) was reminiscent of the relationship between Keisha (later Natalie) and Leah in NW, and Keisha's transformation to Natalie was similar to Avery's changing voice as she becomes more exposed to white culture. Both novels explore expectations dictated by race through the context of interracial relationships and characters who defy cultural stereotypes.
Avery's experience is tracked from her beginnings in a poor black neighborhood to a white middle class one to a private school and eventually a Hollywood Hills mansion. The novel demonstrates how race is a social construct, and how one's identity can be shaped by other's perceptions.
I loved discovering California through Avery's perspective and enjoyed her reflections. At some points the story moves too slowly, and fails to address some of the more interesting incidents that are mentioned, such as Brenna's pregnancy and Keith's path.
You’ve probably never heard of Avery Arlington, the protagonist of Dana Johnson’s novel “Elsewhere, California,” but you know her. She’s the childhood friend whose parents moved her out of the ’hood, and you never saw her again. She’s the awkward, only black girl in class. She’s the preteen who lingers at the magazine rack in 7-Eleven dreaming about being anyone other than who she is. She’s the college roommate or classmate who always looked and acted like she didn’t quite belong at an elite private institution. She’s the drunk, hot undergrad throwing herself at you for attention. She’s a ride-or-die Los Angeles Dodgers fan. She’s the woman with a class complex because it was her love for a man and not her hard work that lifted her out of poverty. She’s the artist whose installations on race and class make you uncomfortable when you view them. Continue reading here
The pain of adolescence and that point in adulthood where we finally figure out who we are are woven together throughout this very smart book. Johnson nails dialogue, as her protagonist, Avery's voice goes from childhood in South Central to growing up in the valley to gentrification in the Hollywood Hills. But all of Avery's voices anchor us firmly in where she is at the moment. Johnson creates an overall personal journey for our heroine without losing tension or interest along the way.
In author Dana Johnson's first novel 'Elsewhere, California', family, friendships, and the defining of one's identity are tackled, in this seemingly coming of age tale.
"Now I know that there is, sometimes, an extraordinary difference between how someone appears, how they may act, and what is truly the matter, the person, at hand".
The above quote sums up exactly what protagonist Avery is grappling with throughout this novel. The idea of attempting to define her identity in an absolute and unrestricted way. Avery is initially introduced to readers within two of the stories featured in author Dana Johnson's award winning collection of short stories, 'Break Any Woman Down'.
After reading and enjoying that book, I was elated to read 'Elsewhere, California'. I found myself intrigued by Avery, with her unapologetic eclectic lifestyle, and unbiased view of the world. As a result, I wanted to delve deeper into her character, which this book provided. Although not a typical coming of age novel, readers are given a full picture of the protagonist, as the time period of the story changes with each section/chapter of the book. This dual narrative approach to the prose truly allows the reader to receive a full scope of the main character.
I enjoyed author Johnson's depiction of California. She authentically captured the style, food, music, and dialect perfectly. As a lifelong northerner, I definitely gained more insight into the California culture.
Although a well written story, I wish Johnson would have discussed the fate of Avery's cousin Keith in more detail. However, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to others.
Three and a half stars. Quite good in the first half to three quarters of the book, great switching of perspective and language. It's a fictionalized autobiography, which is fine and it succeeds for quite a while, good characterization, enough imagined to make this take off from strict "as it happened" (nothing wrong with that, of course). I guess, for me, in the 'rising above' narrative of the last third, quarter of the text the story flattens, becomes predictable, but more importantly almost flat, that the best writing and telling here come from the conflict and uncertainty and darkness of the world from which the successful author/storyteller sprang, in a way as though this character, and her world, stop being interesting once the past is surmounted, or, as though the author lost steam, or her edge, or had to meet a deadline and just finished the book. Another thought I had was that because the protagonist and author are Black, and because of the rarity of her/their experience of academic/literary success, problematizing the storying of her ascension to a privileged status held almost entirely by White folks for a number of reasons becomes very difficult. That it's the unquestioned, implicitly deserved, 'natural' course of How Things Are of ownership of such status that allows a deep questioning of its worth and costs of achieving it, and that stories of Black ascension need to be told in such a way that first gives a place in this 'natural' order. Celebration first, ironic and tragic questioning, second. Perhaps. But the book definitely flags towards the end.
I read this book as part of California Book Club, and I waited to attend the webinar with the author before writing the review. To be honest, conversation with the author did not make things clearer for me.
It was not an easy read, and now, looking back, I think I just didn't find the main character very likeable. It is easy to like a character struggling with self-identification when you actually see the struggle. The fight. I didn't see it as much in Avery. More of going with the flow and contemplating. Even in the older age.
Also, I never really grasped what the narration was aiming at. There was no culmination per se. According to the synopsis, "When Keith moves in with her family, he triggers a series of events that will follow Avery throughout her life". Well, that trigger is not very well-defined in the book. Everything is just kind of an even slow roll.
The book is likeable in the sense of recognizing the city of LA, icons, legends. But that's about it for me.
Everythig else just seemed kind of smudged, and not in a good way.
PS I found it odd that the question of children was never, not once, brought up with regards to Avery. If the book was meant to portray a cultural phenomena you'd think building a family of your own would be part of it. Whether child-free is a conscious choice or not. I don't know why, I just noticed this element was lacking, and never given any thought or explanation.
I was so amped to read this book when I first heard about it. There were a lot of moments when I felt like the text transported me to California with Avery's inner circle and to my own childhood which is so similar to Avery's that I think that's what really endears me to the book as a whole. Then there were a lot of moments when I was ready for it to end and getting a little antsy like a two year old made to sit still for more than 30 minutes.
The best parts about this book are the characters. They are all fully-fleshed out. They're horrible sometimes, but they're realistic. The themes are interesting too, which I didn't think about until a few days after I finished the book. The bond between kindred spirits/friends vs family vs romantic partners; your real self vs who people conceive you to be; the way your past and the past actions of those close to you always kind of haunts you and hangs around. The exploration of these themes is interesting and something that Dana Johnson does really well.
There isn't really anything bad about it. One of the main plots (or I guess it's the only plot) concerning Keith seems awkward and unnecessary (so much so that I had to try really hard not to skip those parts), but I guess there's a reason for everything.
Family trauma is front and center in this novel. Mainly, the way it can both mold and push one to escape the generational curse of poverty. Chapters jump back and forth from present day, when the main character Avery is getting ready for her gallery art show, to her childhood and throughout her college days living just outside of LA. With these time jumps comes a lot of code switching as Avery learns the ways of suburbia and is around a majority of white people for the first time in her pre-teen life. This was a pretty creative stylistic choice by the author and it made reading the book feel like you were navigating the socio-linguistic areas of the protagonist’s brain. Definitely triggering for anyone who has experienced sexual assault or corporal punishment. This was one of the most awkward, strange, and aloof Black girl characters I’ve ever read on the page and that felt personally very soothing/validating. Although I couldn’t put this book down, the descriptions of the type of art made by Avery were a bit obvious and ham handed. That said, I’d be interested to read more from this author!
Fell in love with the main character -- Avery -- right away, an African American girl growing up in LA and then moving (just slightly farther away) to a southern California suburb. Just a few chapters in, we are introduced to Avery as a young woman, a college grad and professional artist, living with her successful Italian boyfriend in an architect-designed house up in the hills. These two parts of Avery's life -- and her family and friends -- are so skillfully braided together by Dana Johnson that -- even though the circumstances are so different -- we absolutely believe in this character whatever age she is. Johnson also uses language so beautifully, marking the passage of time and circumstance with depicting the different way Avery addresses the world. Any more would be a spoiler. Wonderful book! Thank you, Dana Johnson!
A slow-burning, coming-of-age novel rooted in Californian nostalgia and black femininity. Not universal, but deeply thoughtful and true to the youthful struggle for belonging. I wish there were more books like this so that I could have some foundation to compare it to. The exploration of Avery's navigating her blackness, art, education and relationships, romantic and otherwise, rang true to me in an unsettling way. They are presented with such clarity and innocence it's almost startling. Most novels exploring the lives of black women are not afforded the luxury of innocence or ignorance that are so plainly a part of humanity and growing up. It was affirming and mystifying to read a book that truly reflected a childhood but also refused to ignore the realities of race and gender and poverty and more importantly, how these all come together throughout our lives.
This book was freakishly weird and good. Avery is a Black girl growing up in SoCal. She is the same age as me so a trip through her childhood touched on the same childhood I had. Except I was a white girl in NorCal. Instead of listing the ways in which we were similar or different, I will tell you that these points made the story that much more alive for me! Ah, Shaun Cassidy! My first boyfriend. She got me right away with that. And random meals made with odd cupboard findings, oh yes, been there, ate those! But for those who did not see reflections of their own lives in Avery's story, the themes were still incredibly poignant and obvious. The divide between her worlds is wide and watching her navigate between who she is, who others see her as, and who she wants to be drills right to the heart of being female and Black. I loved that the story felt realistic and not sugar coated.
Identities are complicated, and Avery, the main character of this novel occupies more than one in-between space. She's a black woman who was born in urban LA, but moved to the suburbs, traversing blurry racial and class boundaries. She is a kind of in-between person in temperament as well. She's gregarious but subdued, her self-esteem is blurry (she's told she's overweight and homely, yet also beautiful). She marries as wealthy Italian man. And she's an artist. All told, she's an indelible character. Johnson tells Avery's story shifting back and forth in time, tracking between events in her childhood and the eve of a group gallery show that she's ambivalently a part of. The novel's nod to California comes at a fittingly oblique angle. The perspective is about finding a place in a West Coast culture which is not as breezily monolithic as its stereotypes suggest.