Straight, Susan 1960–

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Straight, Susan 1960–

PERSONAL:

Born October 19, 1960, in Riverside, CA; children: Gaila Sims, Delphine Sims, Rosette Sims. Education: University of Southern California, B.A., 1981; University of Massachusetts at Amherst, M.F.A., 1984.

ADDRESSES:

Office—1607 HMNSS Bldg., Department of Creative Writing, University of California, Riverside, 900 University Ave., Riverside, CA 92521 E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER:

Inland Empire Job Corps, teacher of gang members, dropouts, and refugees, 1984-85; Lao Family Community, teacher of recent refugees from southeast Asia, 1985-86; Riverside City College, teacher of English, 1986-89; University of California, Riverside, lecturer, 1988-92, professor of creative writing, 1993—. California Youth Authority (prison for young offenders), leader of a writing workshop.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Milkweed National Fiction Award, 1990, and New Writers Award, Great Lakes Colleges Association, 1991, both for Aquaboogie: A Novel in Stories; I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked out All the Pots was named a notable book by the New York Times Book Review, 1992; Guggenheim Fellowship for distinguished individual achievement and exceptional promise, 1997; University of California, Riverside, Distinguished Humanist Achievement Lecturer award, 1998; Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, 1999; Gold Medal for Fiction from Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, California Book Prize, and finalist for National Book Award in fiction, 2001, all for Highwire Moon; O. Henry Prize, 2007, for short story "El Ojo De Agua"; Edgar Award for Best Short Story, Mystery Writers of America, 2008, for "The Golden Gopher"; Riverside Community College Alumnus of the Year, 2008; Pushcart Prize.

WRITINGS:

NOVELS

Aquaboogie: A Novel in Stories, Milkweed Editions (Minneapolis, MN), 1990.

I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked out All the Pots, Hyperion Press (New York, NY), 1992.

Blacker than a Thousand Midnights, Hyperion Press (New York, NY), 1994.

Bear E. Bear (juvenile), illustrated by Marisabina Russo, Hyperion Press (New York, NY), 1995.

The Gettin Place, Hyperion Press (New York, NY), 1996.

The Hallway Light at Night (juvenile), Hyperion Press (New York, NY), 1999.

Highwire Moon, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2001.

A Million Nightingales, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2006.

The Friskative Dog (for young adults), Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 2007.

Work represented in anthologies, including Best of the Decade from TriQuarterly, The Pushcart Prize, Volume 16, Race: An Anthology in the First Person, Los Angeles Noir, Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real Life Parenthood, and Skin Deep: Black Women and White Women Write about Race. Contributor of stories and articles to periodicals, including Harper's, Family Circle, Salon, Westways, TriQuarterly, Ploughshares, Los Angeles Times Magazine, North American Review, Ontario Review, New York Times, Nation, Zoetrope, and McSweeney's. Commentator for National Public Radio's All Things Considered.

ADAPTATIONS:

Highwire Moon has been optioned for film by Little Monument Pictures.

SIDELIGHTS:

Susan Straight's novels often focus on people marginalized by American society, including working-class African Americans and Mexican migrant laborers. Straight is white, but she has spent most of her life in the racially diverse Los Angeles suburb of Riverside, and these experiences inform her books. Some of her works are set in a fictional California community called Rio Seco, which is based on her hometown. Straight began writing stories as a teenager, with encouragement from a teacher at Riverside Community College. She earned a scholarship to the University of Southern California, where she continued to hone her writing skills. Her stories were published in several magazines, including Ontario Review, edited by the notable writer Joyce Carol Oates. Then, in 1990, she won a contest sponsored by the publishing company Milkweed Editions. As part of the award, Aquaboogie: A Novel in Stories was published.

This work consists of fourteen related stories about African Americans in Southern California. Some stories focus on an older generation of blacks who have migrated to California from the South—primarily Mississippi—and are trying to maintain a rural quality in their lives. Others center on a younger set of people who value their material possessions and are tempted by the availability of drugs in the neighborhood.

The book brought Straight praise for her use of language and her detailed characterizations. Judith Freeman wrote in the Los Angeles Times Book Review: "Time after time … I was struck by the simple beauty of the writing: ‘a windshield full of dry light and bright floating dust’; a dawn that ‘didn't take but a minute to make a day in August’; pepper trees whose branches hang ‘limp and dusty as a sick rooster's tail feathers.’" Freeman also admired the portrayals of such characters as Lanier, a pork butcher who is harassed by sub-developers, and Nacho, an aspiring artist who leaves California and works as a janitor in Massachusetts before exposure to racism causes him to return home.

Both Freeman and Amy Boaz, critiquing for the New York Times Book Review, remarked on Shawan, a young woman who loses a friend in an act of violence and comes to regard her power to turn her portable radio on and off as one of the few means of control in her life. Boaz called Aquaboogie "a book by a writer whose love for her characters infuses her work with the dignity and urgency they so clearly deserve." Margaret Camp, writing in the Washington Post Book World, observed that the novel "vividly captures people who know the rhythm of their own lives. They twist and turn to its beats, yet they remain partially submerged, trying not to drown."

Straight is motivated to write partly because she feels her novels can change negative perceptions of African Americans and the areas in which they live. She also wants her work to foster empathy in those who often misunderstand the experiences of blacks. In the Riverside Press-Enterprise, Donna Kennedy noted that the author hopes "that a police officer will read [her story] ‘Safe Hooptie’ and know what it's like to have your neighborhood under siege, that a teacher will recognize [the character] Demone in ‘Training’ as representative of other black children stereotyped as slow learners." Kennedy further related: "You don't have to be black to step into the lives of these characters—they're human beings doing the best they can in love, death, fear and loss of hope. It does take extra skill to survive being black, however, and Aquaboogie is a dance metaphor for that ability."

I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked out All the Pots focuses on Marietta Cook, a black woman from Pine Gardens, South Carolina, where the inhabitants lead simple lives and speak Gullah, an African-influenced English dialect. Upon the death of her mother—her father died before she was born—Marietta moves to Charleston, one of the state's major cities, where after encountering some discrimination, she finds work at a fish market and has a short-lived romance with a fellow employee, resulting in the birth of twins, Calvin and Nathaniel. She takes her sons back to her hometown for a time, then returns to Charleston, where they grow into outstanding football players. They eventually attend college in California and get the opportunity to play professional football with the Los Angeles Rams. Their upward mobility changes Marietta's life, and she has some difficulty adjusting. The move to the California setting allows Straight to revive some characters from Aquaboogie.

Several critics had positive things to say about I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked out All the Pots. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., writing in the Washington Post Book World, saw a few weaknesses in the plot but noted that as he read, he developed a "steady admiration for [Straight's] sentence-by-sentence craftsmanship, her ability to capture complex settings and situations." While Tribune Books contributor Patricia Spears Jones thought the character of Marietta could have been more fully developed, she admired the novel's "confident depiction of black life in Southern California, its interest in the work of blacks in the South and its competent introduction of aspects of African American culture." Leon Rooke, commenting in the New York Times Book Review, remarked that the novel "is admirably constructed, and the author's vision sure. Ms. Straight's way with her characters and their sundry environments is deft and assured." Some reviewers found the Gullah dialect somewhat hard to comprehend, but Rooke called it "wonderful talk … a patois that flows in delicious abundance through this yeasty, lavishly detailed … novel." In summing up the novel for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Doris Grumbach wrote: "A beautiful book. A noble woman. A world I never knew, until now."

Highwire Moon tells the story of an undocumented Mexican immigrant worker and her California-born daughter. The immigrant, Serafina, comes north to find work and eventually falls in love with Larry, a rough-edged but good-hearted American truck driver, and they have a daughter, Elvia. On an errand with three-year-old Elvia, Serafina is arrested and then sent back to Mexico, while Elvia is placed in foster care. She develops a close relationship with one foster mother, but eventually she is reunited with her father, who loves her but lives an unsettled life. When Elvia is in her teens and pregnant, she becomes determined to find her mother—who, meanwhile, is seeking her.

Some reviewers praised the book as an unflinching yet compassionate depiction of life among migrant workers and among residents of Southern California's poorer communities, scarred by drugs and crime. Its "gritty portrait" is "softened by the boundless love" that Serafina and Elvia have for each other, commented Molly Connally in School Library Journal. Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, related that Straight "creates passages of lacerating beauty as she ponders our capacity for both brutality and kindness." Library Journal critic Eleanor J. Bader noted that the novel makes the political personal, and consequently, unforgettable, and summed it up as "highly recommended."

With A Million Nightingales, Straight switches her setting to antebellum Louisiana to tell a story of slavery and the disruption of another mother-daughter relationship. The protagonist, Moinette, is the daughter of Marie-Therese, an African American slave on a large plantation, and a visiting white businessman who raped her. Marie-Therese is loving and protective of Moinette but unable to keep her from being sold to another master. The bright and beautiful Moinette's life in some ways mirrors her mother's: she endures rape and other forms of violence, and bears a child from whom she is separated. She resolves, however, to gain her freedom and to reunite with her loved ones.

Some critics deemed the novel a well-written and compelling study of various types of oppression, not only of African Americans but also of white women and religious minorities. A Jewish character, in danger because Louisiana forbids Jews to live there, quotes a song lyric that provides the book's title: "I have a million nightingales on the branches of my heart singing freedom." Straight's work "effectively evokes the conflicted melange of races, nationalities and cultures" in early-nineteenth-century Louisiana, remarked a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Brad Hooper, writing in Booklist, voiced a similar opinion, calling A Million Nightingales "a richly textured picture of antebellum plantation life." To New York Times Book Review contributor Megan Marshall, the novel is "a deep consideration of the servitude all women experienced then" and "a powerful and moving story, written in language so beautiful you can almost believe the words themselves are capable of salving history's wounds." Dennis Lythgoe, a reviewer for the Deseret Morning News, thought Straight had "accomplished what few historians of slavery have been able to do—to show slavery close to the way it was, to give the reader unparalleled insight into the workings of the slave's mind." He recommended that the book, although fiction, be used in U.S. history classes.

Straight also has written novels for young people, among them The Friskative Dog, about nine-year-old Sharron, whose deep attachment to her stuffed dog grows even stronger after her father leaves the family. When the dog disappears as well, she goes through an emotional crisis, and readers see her struggle and learn to cope. To some critics, this book, set in Straight's favored locale of Rio Seco, was a skillfully crafted tale of a child going through turmoil. Although "more psychological study than plot-driven story," it is a "beautifully written narrative," observed a Kirkus Reviews critic. A Publishers Weekly reviewer called it a "curious novel" and found it "difficult to pinpoint … the appropriate audience" for the story. BookLoons Web site contributor J.A. Kaszuba Locke, though, pronounced it "easy-breezy in flow and storyline, just right for chapter book youngsters." A Children's Bookwatch commentator deemed it a "gentle tale of change and acceptance," while Kathryn Kosiorek, writing in School Library Journal, noted that it is "rich with the setting of southern California."

Discussing that setting, Straight once told CA: "I still live down the street from the hospital where my whole family was born. We have relatives living in the hundreds nearby. Even when I went away to college, I was always homesick, and I always wrote about my community. No one remembers I'm white, because I've been around so long; I'm just Gaila and Delphine's mama.

"I think I'll keep writing about the same area, and the same kind of people because that's where my heart and my life stays. When I write, I don't have any particular audience in mind. I write to make myself feel better. When someone I know dies, or goes to prison, or gets addicted to drugs, I know I can't change things, but I can write a story to make things different in my mind. I can control the world on paper. I can stay up all night, after my family goes to sleep, and imagine I'm someone else in a different, safer, better world.

"There's no chance that I'll get impressed with myself as a writer. When I found out Aquaboogie won the fiction prize from Milkweed, no one was home but my then-six-month-old daughter, Gaila. I picked her up from her crib to tell her how happy I was, that I was going to get published, and she threw up all over me, then smiled as if to say, ‘Yeah, but you still have to get down on your knees pretty often.’ And when I got one of the first excellent reviews for that book, my agent called to read it to me, but I was crying; one of my best friends from childhood had gone back to living in the streets, using drugs. I had to tell my agent that things in the real world, my real world, seemed far from success."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Atlantic Monthly, September, 1996, Phoebe Lou-Adams, review of The Gettin Place, p. 112.

Booklist, July, 1995, Mary Carroll, review of Skin Deep: Black Women and White Women Write About Race, p. 1844; July 1, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of Highwire Moon, p. 1984; January 1, 2002, review of Highwire Moon, p. 762; February 1, 2006, Brad Hooper, review of A Million Nightingales, p. 24; March 1, 2007, Nancy Kim, review of The Friskative Dog, p. 86.

Children's Bookwatch, August 1, 2007, review of The Friskative Dog.

Deseret Morning News (Salt Lake City, UT), April 16, 2006, Dennis Lythgoe, "‘Million’ shows Slavery's Reality."

Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 2007, review of The Friskative Dog.

Kliatt, March 1, 2003, Susan G. Allison, review of Highwire Moon, p. 28.

Library Journal, January, 1997, Nora R. Harris, review of Race: An Anthology in the First Person, p. 128; June 1, 2001, Eleanor J. Bader, review of Highwire Moon, p. 219; January 1, 2006, Jim Coan, review of A Million Nightingales, p. 103.

Los Angeles Magazine, March 1, 2006, "Boundary Issues," p. 158.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 18, 1990, Judith Freeman, review of Aquaboogie: A Novel in Stories, pp. 3, 12; July 5, 1992, Doris Grumbach, review of I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked out All the Pots, p. 8.

Nation, July 15, 1996, Molly E. Rauch, review of The Gettin Place, p. 43.

New York Times Book Review, November 18, 1990, Amy Boaz, review of Aquaboogie, p. 28; August 16, 1992, Leon Rooke, review of I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked out All the Pots, p. 15; October 27, 2002, Scott Veale, review of Highwire Moon, p. 28; March 19, 2006, Megan Marshall, "Women's Ways of Knowing."

Press-Enterprise (Riverside, CA), December 19, 1990, Donna Kennedy, review of Aquaboogie, pp. C1, C3.

Publishers Weekly, April 3, 1995, review of Bear E. Bear, p. 61; May 6, 1996, review of The Gettin Place, p. 68; April 12, 1999, review of Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real Life Parenthood, pp. 68-69; December 19, 2005, review of A Million Nightingales, p. 36; January 22, 2007, review of The Friskative Dog, p. 184.

School Library Journal, December 1, 2001, Molly Connally, review of Highwire Moon, p. 174; April 1, 2007, Kathryn Kosiorek, review of The Friskative Dog, p. 117.

Seattle Times, April 2, 2006, Tyrone Beason, "A Million Nightingales: A Bartered Body, a Soul Singing Free," p. L8.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), June 21, 1992, Patricia Spears Jones, review of I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked out All the Pots, p. 6.

Washington Post Book World, March 3, 1991, Margaret Camp, review of Aquaboogie, p. 9; August 9, 1992, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., review of I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked out All the Pots, p. 4.

ONLINE

Believer, http://www.believermag.com/ (May 28, 2008), Vendela Vida, "Susan Straight: My Whole Life Is on This Street."

BookLoons, http://www.bookloons.com/ (May 10, 2008), Lisa Respers France, review of A Million Nightingales; J.A. Kaszuba Locke, review of The Friskative Dog.

Curled Up with a Good Book, http://www.curledup.com/ (May 10, 2008), review of A Million Nightingales; Luan Gaines, interview with Susan Straight.

Department of Creative Writing, University of California, Riverside Web site, http://www.creativewriting.ucr.edu/ (May 10, 2008), biographical information.

Riverside Public Library Web site, http://www.riversideca.gov/ (May 10, 2008), Dominique McCafferty, interview with Susan Straight.

University of California, Riverside, Newsroom, http://www.newsroom.ucr.edu/ (May 5, 2008), "Susan Straight Wins Edgar Award."