Between 2000and 2003 Donna Ware of CaliforniaAuthors.com and Paddy Calistro, publisher of Angel City Press, watched the California Arts Council lose 97% of its funding: the over $30 million 2000 budget was slashed to $3.1 million. In 2003 the Arts Council spent 9 cents per capita, the lowest amount in the nation, and cut all writing and arts programs in the schools.
In dance, for example, series after series of programs were shut down. The Grand Performances series at California Plaza in downtown Los Angeles, the BalletFest at Cal State L.A. the New World Flamenco Festival at the Irvine Barclay Theater and the Summer Dance at Santa Barbara—all were canceled. So Ware and Calistro decided to put out an anthology of California travel anthology, donating all the funds to the Arts Council. Thus the state’s budget crises generated this book: My California, edited by Donna Ware, was published in 2004 with 27 writers focusing on one spot in the state they cherish.
The anthology has some famous writers: Michael Chabon tells us about his hometown Berkeley, describing how that the town is overflowing with “genius, neurosis, passion, and rapture.” He later adds that Berkeley has some of the most literate homeless in the nation: among the homeless are “poets, sages, secret Napoleons and old fashioned prophets of doom.” If Steinbeck ended Grapes of Wrath the late 1930s, Gerald Haslem has carried on the story of his native Central Valley in his twenty-seven books. In My California he gives us a gem in his essay “almost home” about a visit to his birthplace, Oildale, a community of Okies now just north of Bakersfield. Haslem knows the Valley: he introduces us to his great-great grandparents who came there from Mexico in the 1850s. He evokes the Oildale of his childhood in the 1950s of fishing in the Kern River—a river landscape destroyed after Isabella Dam was built.
The anthology has two wonderful essays by new California authors. William Saroyan is dead but now there is Max Arax, who like Saroyan is an Armenian-American from Fresno. A Los Angeles Times reporter, Arax just published King of California, a brilliant book about J.G. Boswell, who controls more than $1 billion worth of water rights and real estate in the Central Valley. In My California Arax’s story “The Big Valley” describes his family’s relationship to the land: his immigrant grandfather who planted 250,000 Calmiryna figs; his father who left the farm for a USC football scholarship; and his own story of cultivating an orchard and vegetable garden around his suburban house.
Another LA Times reporter is Hector Tobar, who has written the brilliant novel The Tattooed Soldier about Guatemalan refugees in Los Angeles. Tobar’s novel, set during LA’s 1992 riots, is simply the best piece of fiction about those riots. For My California he has a wonderful “ode to Caltrans,” a paean to LA’s freeways. He details how the freeways have intersected all the rites of passages of his life, including his birth when his immigrant mother, who didn’t have a car, was prepared to take a bus to the hospital. Luckily, a neighbor at the last moment drove her on the Hollywood to Santa Ana Freeways.
California deserts have had their writers starting with Mary Austin at the turn of the century. Now Deanne Stillman, author of Twentynine Palms: A Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave, carries on this tradition of writing on the desert. Her “rocks in the shape of billy martin” is a wonderful evocation of escaping “television mines of Hollywood” by annual drives out to the Mohave Desert, particularly the timeless wonder of Joshua Tree National Park.
This book has some wonderful essays by the newest Californians. Firoozeh Dumas, a Persian-American who published her Funny in Farsi, has written “Bienvenidos a Newport Beach.” In this lovely piece Dumas talks about her family moving into a planned community in Newport Beach. There they looked like the Mexican gardeners, so a neighbors would ask them to speak Spanish to the workers. Anh Do, whose family runs the Nguoi Viet Daily News, the oldest Vietnamese-language newspaper in the United States, gives a wonderful piece describing her hometown Little Saigon in Westminster, Orange County.
Yes, this book helps you catch up with the changes in California and meet some upcoming new writers, and help the arts budget. This book might not refund all the writing and arts programs in the schools and get the dance programs reinstated, but it’s a start