Lit Major

Posted July 2, 2009 in Feature Story

In the popular American consciousness, the history of California reads something like this: In 1849, a horde of roughnecks stampeded west, struck gold, erected mansions on Nob Hill, and made San Francisco the city it is today. Three quarters of a century later, a horde of artist types and pretty faces stampeded west, shot movies, built Hollywood and made Los Angeles the city it is today. Somewhere in there, Junipero Serra founded missions, John Muir tromped around the Redwoods and William Randolph Hearst exiled himself to his castle and went crazy. But in those cultural CliffsNotes, large swaths of time are lost—how often do you hear mention of the decades after the Gold Rush, or the centuries of Spanish colonization, or the millennia of native culture?


This collective forgetting extends not only to times, but to places—perhaps most strikingly, to the Inland Empire. If San Diego is L.A.’s beer-buzzed, sunburned younger brother, the IE might be one of the state’s neglected stepchildren, a quirky, misunderstood loner. Even Wikipedia described the IE as an “intermediate area between Los Angeles and San Diego.”


But to the Inlandia Institute (and the four million people who live here), the Inland Empire is more than just a blank space. It’s a land rich in history, extraordinarily diverse in both population and landscape—and home to the next chapter in recognizing a vibrant regional literary tradition and cultivating a burgeoning movement.


Fighting for their writes

As the poet Larry Kramer wrote in The Geography of Home: California’s Poetry of Place, “My California is the shadowland of the glamorous coast, an inland, raw, dramatic place of rugged, delicate landscapes and equally outrageous human dissatisfactions and hopes.”


For well over a century, fine writers like Kramer have been producing excellent literature that captures the stark beauty of the Inland Empire and dramatizes the lives of its Okies and migrants, Mormons and movie stars.  Sadly, much of the work has been neglected, dismissed as atypical, or considered rooted in California more generally, but not the IE in particular.  However, many of those orphaned works have found a new home.


The recently established Inlandia Institute is recovering, publicizing and celebrating those works of literature as part of its larger mission to promote arts in the region. The Institute is a partnership between Heyday Books of Berkeley and various cultural groups in the IE who aim to publish books and sponsor programs that deepen the awareness of the region’s history and culture.


December 2006 was the genesis of the Institute, during a literary festival at the Riverside Public Library surrounding the book launch of anthology Inlandia: A Literary Journey through California’s Inland Empire. Facilitated by Marion Mitchell-Wilson, at that time the library’s fund development manager, the festival was such a success that it left both participants and attendees wanting more.


“It became clear that this was just the beginning,” said Mitchell-Wilson, and shortly after the conclusion of the festival, she told Heyday publisher Malcolm Margolin that she would love to build a literary center around the Inlandia anthology. Margolin, equally excited about the possibilities, promised to put Heyday’s resources behind the project. An architect by trade, Mitchell-Wilson has an eye for both beauty and organizational detail, and according to Margolin, she is the Institute’s brains and brawn, as well as its heart and soul.


Prague? L.A.? Forget it

After Inlandia, edited by Heyday’s Gayle Wattawa, Mitchell-Wilson and the Institute turned to other projects, publishing Doug McCulloh’s recent Dream Street, an excellent documentary account of the construction of a San Bernardino County subdivision (and the subject of the Weekly’s  May 14 cover story). Dream Street will be followed by No Place for a Puritan: The Literature of California’s Deserts, edited by College of the Desert professor Ruth Nolan, who has been actively involved in Inlandia since its inception.


From the start, the Institute has been a grass roots enterprise, and its cultural programming is extensive, including a partnership with the Alliance for California’s Traditional Arts that has resulted in a recent afternoon of music, dance, food and crafts with a local Hungarian social club. Upcoming events include an evening with Rohini Acharya, an exceptional artist in the dance of the Indian subcontinent, and a reading of translated Polish poetry. For those who enjoy writing as well as reading, Nolan is leading a workshop this summer at the Riverside library, every Thursday evening from 6:30-8:30PM, and dozens of writers, from twentysomethings to retirees, have honed their craft in that engaging, supportive environment. Nolan also led workshops last year at the library, which were so productive that the best work was collected into a chapbook, Slouching Toward Mt. Rubidoux. The Institute is also offering workshops for teenagers, and it is these younger writers who especially excite those involved in the Institute.


“The Inlandia Institute can awaken people to a greater appreciation of the place they live in,” says Mitchell-Wilson, “it can allow them to say there is something about where we live, there is unique subject matter, and thus inspire young people who might otherwise think they must go to Prague or at least L.A. in order to have anything to write about.”


“World-class literary activity”

These aspiring writers are a part of a new wave of talent flourishing throughout the IE.


“Not only is there a rich literary tradition in the Inland Empire,” says Margolin, “but there is world-class literary activity going on today. Contemporary writers in places like Riverside, San Bernardino, Colton, Blythe, Banning, Palm Desert and dozens of other communities are producing some of the most vivid and vital literature in America. I was thrilled at this literary ferment.”


This exciting moment in the IE reminds Margolin of the vibrant arts movement of Berkeley and Oakland in the Sixties and Seventies: “Authentic and innovative cultural activity often happens in the shadow of cultural power centers, in areas where rents are lower, the spotlight not as glaring, and where artists and writers can draw on the energy of a big city but not be absorbed by it.”


And indeed the region’s authentic and innovative writing is on full display in the Inlandia anthology.


In her introduction to the book, Riverside native and current UCR professor Susan Straight speaks for so many Inland residents when she writes of her youth, “It was a paradise, though I have since learned that the rest of the world might not recognize it.”


The anthology is in many ways a geographical recovery project, presenting to the world a region they might not previously have recognized, through literature they might not have known: Cahuilla creation myths, diaries of the Spanish exploration, accounts of Mormon settlers introducing citrus fruits into the San Bernardino valley. The anthology also reclaims authors such as John Steinbeck and Joan Didion as not just California writers, but specifically voices of the Inland Empire.


Expose the prose

For those who have never experienced the region, the anthology is a fine introduction, and the quintessential elements are all here: the groves, the undulating heat waves, the red desert, the blue mountains, the artificial oddity that is Palm Springs and most of all the vast demographic range of the region’s residents.


And for those who are already familiar with the IE, the anthology offers not merely the satisfaction of self-recognition, but also moments of real newness and surprise. Marisa Silver’s “The God of War,” originally published in The New Yorker, tells the story of a single mother in Bombay Beach near the Salton Sea and her two socially outcast sons. Each sentence is powered by a brutal lyricism, including a hospital scene that includes the marvelous line, “In the waiting room, the television hangs like a loose tooth from the ceiling.” Or consider the statement preceding The Geography of Home, in which Larry Kramer writes, “After accepting a job [in San Bernardino], I met the local writer. ‘There used to be some poets here,’ she said, ‘but they turned to writing pornography.’ When I laughed, she looked sternly at me, ‘There’s not much difference, you know.’”


Or the essay that concludes the anthology, Mike Davis’ outstanding “The Inland Empire,” which in a few brief pages captures not only the demography, but also, more impressively, the sensibility of the region. As the best writing always does, these and other pieces in the anthology make the strange familiar and the familiar strange, showing a bit more what is to be human, from the angelic heights of love and loyalty to the pits of violence and degradation. To quote Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, excerpted in the anthology, “strange things happen to them, some bitterly cruel and some so beautiful that the faith is refired forever…” 


Desert noir

In an anthology as broad as Inlandia, the range of themes and subjects is immense, but during the course of its compilation, those who spearheaded the project began to realize that some of the pieces had more than setting in common. They found an unusual combination of the eerie, the gritty, the stylized, the gothic and the violent, for which contributor Ruth Nolan coined the term “desert noir,” a genre unique to the Inland Empire. Certainly this category would include Calvin Trillin’s “Todo Se Paga: Riverside, California, February 1979,” which details a decades-long blood feud between two Riverside families; the excerpt from Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park, which sketches the luxe artifice and weird stasis of Palm Springs; Gayle Brandeis’s excerpt from The Book of Dead Birds, a gruesome, haunting account of wildlife killed by agricultural runoff along the Salton Sea; and a chapter from ur-noir author Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake, in which private eye Philip Marlowe drives from the furnace of the valley into the cool of the mountains only to find a heat of different sort.


Some of sections of Davis’ “The Inland Empire” also have a noir vibe, in particular a telling exchange with a longtime Fontana resident: “‘This used to be a good neighborhood.’ He gestured toward the sagging bungalow shaded by an elderly pepper tree across the street. ‘There was bikers and truckers Regular people. Now,’ he said fiercely, ‘there’s goddamn yuppies everywhere.’ He was obviously referring to the new ‘Falcon Point’ subdivision a few blocks away. Although the dental assistants, schoolteachers and paralegals who live there are scarcely ‘yuppies’ by West L.A. standards, I took his point. The new Fontanans tend to be intolerant of the old-timers’ penchant for junk cars and biscuits and grits.”  


Dreams and madness

Perhaps the most striking of the desert noir pieces is  Didion’s tour-de-force essay “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” a work of reportage focusing on the immolation of a dentist in 1960s San Bernardino and the subsequent murder trial of his wife. Its opening paragraph is an extraordinary introduction to a specific place and time, and in a few sentences manages to sum up an entire region’s state of mind: “This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country.  The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of subtropical twilights and soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave . . . There has been no rain since April. Every voice seems a scream. It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows.”


Although it contains references to the heat of the Santa Anas and the desolate foothills of the San Bernardinos, and although its subject is a grisly death and sensational trial, it is not these primarily which make it a work of desert noir. The essay thrums with unease, not merely at the quick mangling of the American dream that results from its blind pursuit, but a deeper disquiet about the fragility and unknowability of the human psyche, a fear that the foundation of the human spirit is no more stable than the plates of the San Jacinto Fault. The desert is a place of dreams and madness, of death and mirages, and just as the fear of standing over a precipice is not falling but jumping, and what Didion and other authors in Inlandia understand so well is that the real terror of the Mojave is that its craggy edges and lurid barrenness mirror the chaos of the human mind. But what saves the desert noir genre and Inlandia more generally from fatalism or even nihilism is the sort of secular mysticism found in so much of the anthology, the awareness that beneath the raging winds of the desert and the raging winds of the human mind, a bedrock remains. At the edges of the myriad cultures that compose the IE are the self-emptying practices of Buddhist monks, the Paiute belief that a supernatural power resides in everyday objects, the self-deprivation of the solitary Desert Fathers, and these have found their way to us in altered form; despite it all, the world endures and so do we. Although the Inlandia Institute is a celebration of a place, just as importantly, it reminds us of a time—its stories are ropes lashing us to the past, ropes tossed with hope into whatever lies ahead.


The Inlandia Institute’s creative writing workshop summer session is every Thursday at 6:30PM thru July 20 at the Riverside Public Library, 3581 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside, (909) 826-2420; Free and open to the public but reservations are requested.






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