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Festival of Books: Susan Straight and novelists examine the cultural fallout of 'those who stay and those who leave'

May 1, 2011 |  2:22 pm


During the panel “The Art of the Novel” on Sunday, novelist Susan Straight said that while writing her new book she learned there were two types of people: those who stay and those who leave.

An informal poll of the audience revealed a large population of people who no longer live near where they were born –- those who leave. (This may be a particularly Californian quality.) In fact, all the novelists on the panel have written about (im)migration in one way or another: Straight’s "Take One Candle Light a Room," Francine Prose’s "My New American Life" and Mona Simpson’s "My Hollywood."

While the books can be described as political, they portray a particular type of domestic politics, the contours of which are often more private and subtle. In their novels, the characters move between cultures, sometimes between the U.S. and other nations (Albania for Prose, the Philippines for Simpson) or within and between particular American cultures (Straight).

Moderator Susan Salter Reynolds praised the panelists for their power to imagine the “other,” perhaps “the most political thing you can do in fiction.” Simpson described how, after spending time with Filipina nannies in the neighborhood playground she felt more comfortable in the voice of the nanny in her book than the other “demographically closer” character.

Prose, inspired by travels to Eastern Europe and teaching at the City University of New York, tells the story of a young Albanian woman who comes to New Jersey and also becomes a nanny of sorts, trailed ominously by three Albanian men in a black SUV. (The novel came out of a story originally written for Lexus magazine.)

Straight’s novel portrays characters who migrate back and forth between California and Louisiana, in efforts to escape the past and find a future. As Reynolds pointed out, the women on the panel all participate in literary culture in remarkable ways. At one point Reynolds referred to Prose as “fierce,” a “combination of Frida Kahlo and Virginia Woolf”, but that descriptor could easily be applied to all the panelists.

Yet, beyond the politics, the authors also illuminate nuanced corners of American life, almost as if, as Straight explained, each book is “like a different human being.” In the end, the authors hope to achieve a goal expressed by Simpson as the creation of something “beautiful and meaningful distilled for the future.”

-- Chris Daley

Photo: Author Susan Straight in front of the Golden Gopher bar. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times