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Tonight: Susan Straight at the Hammer

December 1, 2010 |  5:31 pm

Susanstraight_2006 Susan Straight appears at the New American Writers series at the Hammer Museum on Wednesday night; she'll be in conversation with Tisa Bryant, a professor of creative writing at CalArts.

Straight, who was a National Book Award finalist in 2001 for "Highwire Moon," is a dynamic stage presence, an animated raconteur overflowing with stories. Her life, as she wrote in a piece for the L.A. Times in October, informs her work.

My nephew came to live with us just as I was finishing "Take One Candle Light a Room," a novel about a Los Feliz travel writer named Fantine Antoine who's deliberately distanced herself from her rural family and refused to take in her orphaned godson, Victor. Fantine wants little to do with her past. She's willing to send Victor expensive leather bags and postcards of Italian paintings, but she doesn't want him to actually stay in her Art Deco apartment building.

My nephew had slept on our couch in Riverside many times. But permanent life was hard at my house. You had to be in school. There were chores. Those two rules.

I'd felt guilty about him, or I wouldn't have been so obsessed with this novel, wouldn't have realized it was really about clan. The tribe. Your people....

Sensei is my ex-husband's oldest brother's fourth son; his mother is a woman we've never met, who lives in another state. I am called "Auntie" by 21 nieces and nephews, 23 young cousins, and 18 great-nieces and -nephews who are babies and toddlers.

It seems complicated to outsiders. But it's not.

Straight is likely to explain this Wednesday night, and talk specifically about how her family concerns seeped into "Take One Candle Light a Room." Not only are her ideas about family, race, and place powerful, reviewer Susan Salter-Reynolds writes -- her style can be stunning, a remarkable juxtaposition of beauty with the unbeautiful. 

Straight writes about the Paloma dump the way F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about the Long Island Expressway: "La Paloma rose up beside the freeway, a low mountain with its own ecosystem of spindly eucalyptus trees and fountain grass all around the base — to hide what the huge mound really was. Our refuse. Our midden. The place someone would excavate to know about us in hundreds of years."

Tisa Bryant's work includes editing"War Diaries," an anthology of black gay men’s desire and survival published by AIDS Project Los Angeles. Given that today is World AIDS Day, there's a good chance they'll talk about that, too.

The conversation between Straight and Bryant begins at 7 p.m. The event is free; parking at the Hammer after 6 p.m. is $3.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Susan Straight in 2006. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times