A professor of creative writing at UC Riverside, Straight has long used prose to explore and celebrate rural parts of the state, including the Coachella Valley and the Inland Empire, where she grew up.
Straight's latest book and ninth novel, “Mecca,” is a story of intertwined characters with deep roots in the mountains, deserts and canyons of that part of Southern California; all are looking for some version of the California dream. “Mecca” refers both to the idea of a promised land and to an actual town in the Coachella Valley.
Here are some excerpts from Straight's recent conversation with The California Report Magazine’s Sasha Khokha, edited for brevity and clarity.
On many of 'Mecca's' characters having roots in California before it was a state
I find it fascinating when people think that no one's ever from California, but so many of us who are from this place have known each other for generations. And that's kind of what I was operating with in this book, is that sort of hidden California that's not hidden to us. We always see things through the lens of the freeways and the Santa Anas. I think you see the world in a different way.
I had friends in high school who were descendants of the Trujillo family, and they came from New Mexico in 1843. I remember when people said, ‘Who's a real Californian?’ And the Trujillos to me were true Californians. My mom was an immigrant who just got to this state in 1952 from Switzerland. She learned to speak English from Vin Scully doing Dodger broadcasts. So I figured I was the first generation.
I loved writing about [the fictional character] Johnny Frias because he was descended from [a Yuma Indigenous woman and] the Anza family, in my mind. [Juan Bautista de Anza was a Spanish colonizer who came to California in the late 1700s.] The place where they said Anza's party crossed the sand and a river is less than a mile from my house, and I walk to that place all the time with my family and my dog, and look across the river and think what it must have been like for them to cross back in 1774.
Excerpt from ‘Mecca’:
The wind started up at 3 a.m. the same way it had for hundreds of years, the same way I used to hear the blowing so hard around our little house in the canyon that the loose windowsills sounded like harmonicas. The old metal weather stripping played like the gods pressed their mouths around the screens in the living room where I slept when I was growing up. After I got off work this morning, the wind took a break, and I was knocked out for a few hours. Waking up to hear Rose Sotelo’s radio next door, playing ranchera music, tubas and trumpets thumping against the stucco, her canaries worried in their little songs.
But now that I was back on shift, the Harley was pushing hard against the biggest gusts, the Santa Anas blowing crazier than ever, the way they always did in the afternoons. Fierce from the nap. Brazilian pepper trees, the ones that grew in every vacant lot or frontage road area along the 91 and the 55 freeways, had those long branches like ferns or seaweed, and when the wind blew them sideways like skirts, I could see homeless encampments under a lot of the trees.
A Thursday in October. Santa Ana winds. 94 degrees. Fire weather. People were three layers of pissed off.
On the character of Johnny Frias, a CHP officer who faces racism, and whose friend's son dies at the hands of police
Johnny echoes all the guys I grew up with who were Black correctional officers or Mexican American patrolmen — and the racism that they get from all sides. And I just kept thinking about Johnny for years, hearing, ‘Why don't you go back to Mexico?’ And he's literally seventh generation from California.
I also wanted to write about what it's like to speak Spanish and speak English and have to learn that language in between, which is really called speaking American, when you grow up with parents who don't speak English. My mom had all these great stories about learning to speak American and not just English when we were growing up. But also I grew up with people whose parents were from Vietnam, from Laos, from Mexico, from Nigeria. When you think about it, all those different languages meld and have made American a completely different language.
So I think Johnny is fascinated by language. He's fascinated by what people see when they see him. And yet it's his job, as happens in the book, to come upon someone who's died in a roadside accident and have to sit and take care of that body until someone arrives. It was really interesting to write about it during COVID when the freeways were empty and people started driving 127 miles an hour. And my friends who were CHP officers said they'd never seen anything like that.
On building characters based on neighbors and friends
I’ve lived in the same neighborhood for my whole life. I was born in Riverside. I live three blocks from the hospital where I was born, and I lived in the same house for 33 years, and I still see people I went to kindergarten with. I play darts at the Elks Lodge, and someone during Darts League will tell me a story about the first time that they were a police dispatcher and got a call and it was for a terrible double suicide and that their son was the police officer sent out on that call. Stories like that happen all the time.
I just think about how even though we have this huge geographic area, we all somehow know each other. We all dance to the same music. I’m playing Art Laboe and you can sit out on the porch and hear that my neighbors are, too.
People come to my house and say, "I want you to write this down because no one else will ever, ever listen to me." So I guess my luck and fortune is to be the person that everyone tells their life story to. And my job is to represent my place.
On the character of Dante, a teenager whose great-great-grandmother walked behind the wagons of her Mormon enslavers in the 1850s
Dante is one of my favorite characters I've ever written. I was thinking about Dante as being one of those great, intellectual young kids who has to be obsessed with something. He’s obsessed with the galaxies.
As I was writing this, COVID really hit hard, and a lot of my neighbors are nurses. There's three nurses on my block and three nurses on the next block, and there were visiting nurses.
As I was working on this story about Dante and his obsession with the galaxies, I realized that his mom, Larette, who was a nurse, would probably have to go stay in one of those RVs so she wouldn't bring the virus home to Dante or his dad. And so I realized he was even more lonely because his father was working as an animal control officer during the day. And I was thinking about all the kids I know that got left alone during COVID.
On how grief and resilience shape her characters
The secret history of when someone holds grief inside them is what motivated a lot of the characters. They’re all tied together to me with the way they move through the world, whether they're traveling on the freeways, whether they're learning the language or the landscape of a new place.
I think that's what really keeps all of us moving forward: ‘Here's this secret I hold inside of me. It could be painful. It could be joyous. How do I carry this with me through the world?’ I think all the secrets that we carry, we end up helping each other in terms of storytelling. And for me, I feel lucky to be the one who gets to hear all the stories.
On what she wants people to take away from reading this book
I'd love people to take away the idea that California as home is not a construct. It's a place where every day, you know, in my neighborhood, everyone offers each other food. Everyone stands out on the sidewalk and talks. We all watch each other's kids. We all fix each other's cars. I couldn't imagine living anyplace but my neighborhood here, hearing Art Laboe from the front porch when I'm out watering. And then the visiting nurses would walk by and they'd say, "This is the best neighborhood we've ever lived in." And you wouldn't think it to look at it, but this place feels like home.
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