Nationality: American. Born: Riverside, California, 19 October 1960. Education: University of Southern California, B.A. 1981; University of Massachusetts at Amherst, M.F.A. 1984. Family: Married Dwayne Sims in 1983; two daughters. Career: Teacher of gang members, dropouts and refugees, Inland Empire Job Corps, 1984-85; teacher of recent refugees from southeast Asia, Lao Family Community, 1985-86; teacher of English, Riverside City College, 1986-89; lecturer in creative writing, University of California, Riverside, 1988—. Awards: Milkweed National Fiction Award, 1990; New Writers Award (Great Lakes Colleges Association), 1991. Agent: Richard Parks, 138 East 16th Street, Number 5B, New York, New York 10003, U.S.A.
Aquaboogie: A Novel in Stories. Minneapolis, Milkweed Editions, 1990.
I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked out All the Pots. New York, Hyperion, 1992.
Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights. New York, Hyperion, 1994.
The Gettin Place. New York, Hyperion, 1996.
Bear E. Bear, illustrated by Marisabina Russo. New York, HyperionBooks for Children, 1995.*
Susan Straight Comments:
I hope, like Faulkner and Morrison and others I admire who write about their homelands, to till my own little postage stamp of soil, my area of southern California. In each of my novels, in nearly every story, I hope to make the landscape I love, which frightens some and fascinates others, become immortal.* * *
Susan Straight's fiction takes the themes first explored by Richard Wright—the racial oppression and internal torment of destitute, ghettoized African Americans—into 1990s southern California. Straight is white. She's an expert documentarian of this turf, though, because it is also hers. She has lived in mixed-race Riverside, California, all her life. The vividness of her work interrogates essentialist assumptions that America's racial divide makes writing from the point of view of "the other" impossible.
Straight is concerned with the conflicted space of the poor black neighborhood. The characters in the fictional Rio Seco in Aquaboogie, a collection of interrelated short stories, are both constricted by and wordlessly loyal to their Westside neighborhood. Westside has been shaped by racism and poverty, but it still holds the power of home. The outside world, even with its material and/or professional advantages, not only fails to offer an escape from racism, but also leads to existential isolation. In "Off-Season," Rosa, a sportswriter, and Donnie, a basketball player, move from Westside to Hartford, Connecticut, a transition that so destabilizes Donnie that he beats his wife. Nacho, the protagonist of Aquaboogie 's title story, moves to western Massachusetts to go to art school. He supports himself by working as a janitor. He is so ostracized by his co-workers that he's distracted from his dream of becoming an artist, his thoughts turning instead to working with his father back in southern California, "outside, pushing together piles of cut-smelling leaves and trimmings, steaming grass." But romanticizing home is exactly that. When, in "Hollow," Nacho returns to the "cut" smell, he discovers that it comes from the land of a greedy white developer—whose next conquest is the home of Nacho's aunt.
Yet in I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots, moving away from home eventually frees Marietta. It's a long, hard struggle, though. Marietta is from Pine Garden, South Carolina, where her taciturn nature doesn't fit in with the chatty ways of the Gullah-speaking community. She seeks her fortune in Charleston, gets pregnant with twin boys, and during their childhood bounces between the city and Pine Garden, working menial jobs, conscious of the civil rights movement broiling around her. Her boys' success as professional football players leads her to southern California, where her attention shifts to their careers, tainted by stress and steroids. Though Marietta finds the enlightened West Coast hardly that at times, she ends up making her home there. A fish out of water in Pine Garden, at least she can "swim" in southern California.
First introduced in Aquaboogie, Darnell Tucker in Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights isn't nearly as mobile. He is a hard-working black man, surrounded by the crime, drugs, poverty, and despair of his Rio Seco neighborhood. Despite his diligence, he is expected to self-destruct by both whites and blacks. As his father-in-law puts it, "Every nigga got his own poison." All Darnell wants to do is work with the forestry department, fighting fires. The flame is a clear enemy compared to the tumultuous world and divided loyalties he feels in his neighborhood. But the fires take him away from his family for weeks at a time, and he eventually decides to stay in the more complex battle ground of Rio Seco. There, he makes do by developing a persona that bypasses blackness. Whites want Asians, not blacks, in charge of their lawn care, so Darnell puts out flyers of "Tuan's Oriental Landscape Maintenance Service," answers the phone with a clipped accent, and sends himself out as the black employee of this fictional boss.
In The Gettin Place, the life of the Thompson clan is turned upside down when three dead bodies are found burning in a car on the family's property. Seventy-six-year-old Hosea and his sons are immediately suspected, and Hosea's unspoken past comes crashing down. At age six, he survived the 1921 race riots in Greenwood, a black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The "sweet, blood-laden smoke" drifting from the burning bodies on his property recalls that awful time, making an immediate, sensory link between the injustice of the riots—which started after a black man accidentally bumped a white woman in an elevator—and of being under suspicion for a crime he did not commit. It is as if, more than seventy years later, Hosea can't shed the retribution, however erroneously inspired, of the Greenwood riots. Sixty miles away, the Los Angeles riots begin, a reaction to another injustice against a black man, a conflagration born of the same rage Hosea and his son, Marcus, the narrator of the tale, cannot afford to express.
—Lisa A. Phillips
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