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Success on the Edge of the Literary Landscape

Two writers share a passion for Southern California's untidy corners.

November 12, 2001|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most everyone knows Southern California for its broad, breathtaking vistas, the provocative curve of coastline or its vast grid--the stock-footage flourish of the establishing shot.

Getting up close, though, has proved a challenge. Moving out of the cliche of Southern California and into the hidden particulars has always vexed, confused or stymied outsiders, who cling to the common notion that "there is no there there." But senses attuned by years of observation find worlds where others see a drive-through neighborhood, a void.

Writers Wanda Coleman and Susan Straight have long worked at the edges of the literary landscape, obsessively tending corners of Southern California soil. Uncompromising in style and content, they have found the large truths of small places and told them in big voices, giving import to lives too often scrawled in margins. And they have not just subsisted but thrived.

Coleman and Straight don't dabble in grand myth-making or polishing the California dream. Instead, they have persisted in writing peeled-back stories of race, class and language--with all of their untidy intersections.

This year both authors have been nominated for the National Book Award, Coleman for her collection of new poetry "Mercurochrome" (Black Sparrow Press, 2001), which engages a broad range of themes from poetry and the academy to day-to-day, between-the-lines racism, and Straight for her novel "Highwire Moon" (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), in which she returns to her fictional Inland Empire neighborhood of Rio Seco.

They appear on a list of nominees that New York Times book critic Janet Maslin referred to as "eyebrow raising" in a recent piece. Just what Maslin's assessment might have meant, Straight and Coleman can only guess as they meet to discuss the awards and their work. But the comment doesn't surprise them. They, too, could find their nominations "eyebrow raising," most notably because they reached this rung without compromise--despite all the urgings to the contrary they got along the way.

"I was sending out these stories, and people were saying, 'This worldview is so bleak,"' says Straight, casual in jeans and a rust-colored sweater, her butter-colored hair tucked behind her ears. "And I'm in Riverside thinking, 'Really? That was one of my cheerful ones.' At that point, a bunch of my friends were dying of drugs or accidents. I couldn't figure out anything. I just kept writing the same stories and would just put them away in the closet. I thought--there's another bleak story. And it's set in Riverside. It wasn't even from L.A."

"Well, that's been part of the criticism [of my work], too bleak or whatever," says Coleman, her drape of dreadlocks hanging loose, framing a serious face, her spectacles balanced, trademark fashion, precariously at the tip of her nose. "I'm sorry, I'm an urban animal. ... I'm not about writing about some young couple sitting under the sweet gum tree down in the Delta--that's not my trip."

They sit at a table crowded with colorful plates of L.A.'s version of comfort food--taquitos, burritos, warm chips, hot salsas--in a fancifully overdressed Mexican restaurant on the Silver Lake/Echo Park border.

Aside from passing nods and quick "hellos" at book festivals or panels, Coleman and Straight have never sat down to compare notes on their writing, the publishing world and the local literary scene they share. Their missed connections have been a function, they figure, of busy lives and the Southland's sheer size. Both have come to lunch today with stories, family photographs pulled from wallets and brag books, memories triggered by this neighborhood's looping streets and impossible hills.

Straight's father once lived in Echo Park, and a great aunt studied to minister with evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson at the Angelus Temple just down the road. Coleman recalls a moment long ago when she and a first husband tried to move into the area. "But no one wanted to [rent] to a mixed couple. Particularly when I was pregnant and black."

This small crook of a neighborhood, tucked away from even the fringes of gentrification, is much like the ones they both visit repeatedly in their work--full of workaday people who are tested by the limits of economics, time, opportunity and luck. The renderings in Straight's four novels and a collection of stories have a vastness that is at once rich and arid. Coleman's poetry pulls details into tight focus. Even the briefest couplet is long-lingering--an ever-blooming pile of bills, stark street violence against soft sunsets, the lethal combination of exhaustion and worry. The poems, even at their starkest, unspool lyric documentaries filled with the particulars of urban life in communities of color.

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