The Straight Path
By Tamara Vallejos
There’s a rich tradition of celebrated authors who have dedicated themselves to capturing the essence of California’s cities in writing. Both Los Angeles and San Francisco, for example, could go head-to-head in a March Madness-style tournament and still have piles of worthy novels about them on the sidelines. And don’t even get us started on all those tomes mortalizing Riverside and environs.
Well . . . That may be an exaggeration. But the disparity between Inland Empire appearances in literature and those of other Golden State regions would be far more dramatic if it were not for local author Susan Straight.
“I was talking to someone yesterday who grew up here, too, and left for school and then came back,” says Straight, just before heading off to teach a creative writing course at UC Riverside. “We were talking about how everybody makes fun of you when you come back. Like, ‘Oh, you’re such a loser, you came back to Riverside.’ But he said that he looked up one day and thought, ‘Wait, this is a great place to live.’”
Straight couldn’t agree more. She herself was born and raised in Riverside, leaving only for undergrad at University of Southern California and an MFA program at University of Massachusetts Amherst, before returning to settle down and share her hometown’s stories with the world.
In her two decades of work, Straight has authored eight novels and a children’s book, including Highwire Moon, a finalist for the 2001 National Book Awards. Her essays and short stories are no less celebrated, appearing in Harpers, Salon and others, with honors including a spot in 2011’s Best American Essays anthology and a prestigious Edgar Award for the 2008 noir piece The Golden Gopher.
Though she bounces from form to form, style to style—“I do love them all equally, but in different ways”—there’s one major through-line in most of her work: deep roots in the Inland Empire and a profound respect for the people who have also made it their own.
Much of Straight’s fiction, in fact, is set in the town of Rio Seco, a fictionalized version of Riverside. The place is populated with diverse characters who often recur throughout her work, and whose ties to one another are a nod to Riverside’s own interwoven community.
“There are things that are so unique to a place like Riverside,” Straight explains, when asked why she’s stuck to this particular literary path. “Like the fact that the military is how a lot of people got here. Or how we’re people who grew up knowing somebody whose mom was Japanese and their dad was black, or their mom was Filipino and their dad was white. That’s really specific to Riverside, it is part of the reason we were always so integrated.”
Straight also points to the endless stories she’s able to unearth around her, a skill at least partly due to curiosity cultivated as a young reader, when most of the books on her shelves were her father’s mystery novels.
“I tell my graduate students that the mystery plot tends to travel around a location, presenting a large swath of society—whereas literary fiction stays more static, right? It’s between two people or it’s in one space or something like that. But the mystery genre requires that the protagonist go out and talk to people.”
Going out and talking to people is exactly what Straight has done for her latest project, More Dreamers of the Golden Dream, which opened at Riverside Art Museum in April. The exhibition is a collaboration between Straight and talented photographer Douglas McCulloh, who regularly work together documenting the Inland Empire through photos and words. But for the RAM show, they focus largely on the people and places of Riverside’s Eastside, like local mainstay Zacateca’s Restaurant or Straight’s own family.
Continuing in her path as part of California’s literary tradition, Straight very specifically selected the exhibition’s title as a play on Joan Didion’s classic essay Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.
“I thought she was writing beautifully about us, even though she didn’t know the Inland Empire very well and was just visiting this crazy place. So for me, writing as a native, I picked the title More Dreamers of the Golden Dream, who are people outsiders may not know, but who came here to lead a better life.”
Or, in Straight’s case, about those who were born here and would never dream of going away.