MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
And I'm Alex Chadwick.
Novelist Susan Straight is often compared to another California writer, Joan Didion. Both are successful, both write about California in ways that are not always flattering.
BRAND: But while Didion comes from generations of pioneer stock, Susan Straight writes from a different perspective. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates visited her at her home in Riverside, and she has this profile.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:
People tend to open up around Susan Straight. Maybe it's because she looks so approachable. She's tiny and very friendly in an easy, how-ya-doing sort of way. That makes Straight the recipient of some amazing stories, like the one she heard a few years ago that became the catalyst for her most recent novel, A Million Nightingales. She got it from an African-American neighbor who was explaining why he moved to Riverside, California from Louisiana.
Ms. SUSAN STRAIGHT (Author, A Million Nightingales): And he said well, you know, I had this beautiful daughter. And Mr. So-and-so was going to come and get her. So one weekend, we packed up and we just all came out here and we never went back.
And when I say that to people like in an audience and they'll say oh, my gosh when was that? You know, 1910? That was 1953. That was 1953. And this beautiful daughter was something that an older white man felt that he had the right, that he could just go get her, and she - that was going to be that. And that the father had no say.
BATES: Straight is in her sunny kitchen, unpacking groceries she'd hauled on a road trip yesterday for her middle daughter's basketball team. She goes out to check on Fudge and Butter, the chickens she keeps in her backyard.
Ms. STRAIGHT: Actually, I didn't collect eggs for three days, so I should see what's back here.
(Soundbite of chicken clucking)
BATES: In the living room, 17-year-old Gaila and 15-year-old Delphine are chatting as they piece together a jigsaw puzzle. Pictures of them and their 10- year-old sister, Rosette, are all around Straight's cozy, immaculate home. Their pretty faces - caramel, cafe ole, and cocoa -smile out from the photo frames. The story of one black man's flight from the segregated south to protect his daughter struck a note with Straight when she heard it.
Ms. STRAIGHT: I have not ever been able to decide how would my girls have fared if they came up in a different time? And that's - that was something I thought about for 10 years before I wrote this novel.
BATES: Straight's latest book, A Million Nightingales, is a tale of Moinette, a girl born to the laundress on a Louisiana plantation. She arrived in the world nine months after her Senegalese-born mother was offered as a fille cadeau - a gift girl - to a visiting sugar broker. Moinette became - as she describes herself in the book's beginning - her mother's bright hardship.
In this passage, Moinette describes her youth on the Bordelon Plantation.
Ms. STRAIGHT: (Reading) We lived between. Le quartier was one long street, houses lining the dirt road to the cane fields and sugarhouse, but a grove of pecan trees separated the street from the Bordelons' house. Tretite, the cook, lived in the kitchen behind the house, and Nonc Pierre, the groom, lived in the barn.
But my mother's house was in a clearing near three pecan trees at the edge of the cane fields. A path led from the main road to our yard. Madame Bordelon could see us from her second-floor gallery - could see what color clothes we hung, or whether we had washed the table linens, but she couldn't hear what we said.
Under the trees, my mother spoke to me every day, but only when she had something to teach me. And only when we were alone.
BATES: Straight's characters give voice to real people who don't often get the chance to speak for themselves. The bulk of her work focuses on present-day California, on her hot, sunny, hometown of Riverside. It's part of California's Inland Empire. Straight remembers first reading Joan Didion's essay on this area in Keeper's of the Golden Dream when she was a college freshman at the University of Southern California.
Ms. STRAIGHT: And I read that and I realized she was describing the lemon groves and the streets and the bungalows and people who kept chickens. And I realized that she was writing about us. So I came home that weekend - and it was beautiful writing - but I just felt like my people were being made fun of in a sense, because they were.
BATES: That experience, Straight says, made her want to be a writer. To not rely on others to tell the world where she was from.
Ms. STRAIGHT: The Inland Empire has always been the this place where people think, oh, out there they're, you know, they're country. And we are, in a sense. And out there they, you know, they make no sense out of me - and people do.
BATES: But, says Straight, out there does have its own life and it's own culture if you know where to look.
Ms. STRAIGHT: I was born three blocks from here. When you're in the same place, then I think you know how people talk, and there's that secret code that you can hear in their language. And instead of describing it as an outsider, you describe the same thing, but you're looking at it in a different way.
BATES: It is Straight's ability to look in this different way that has earned her high praise by critics and not a little puzzlement from readers, because Straight - the child of a Swiss mother and an Irish-American father - faultlessly incorporates the language of her friends and neighbors, most of whom descended from folk who fled the Jim Crow south before World War II to settle in this part of California. Straight's Riverside was and is a tightly knit community.
(Soundbite of car engine)
BATES: On a driving tour of town, she passes a part of the past that is fast vanishing.
Ms. STRAIGHT: See the trees right here? This orange grove stretched from there, from here, all the way up to the top of that street. And this was the orange groves that, you know, used to run in and steal your fruit and play.
BATES: Ann pauses to greet a group of elderly men who are chatting in the shade.
Ms. STRAIGHT: Hey, Mr. Gainer(ph).
Mr. GAINER: Hey, how are you doing?
Ms. STRAIGHT: I'm fine. How are you?
BATES: Straight does not write about these people from a remove. She feels she's one of them, and the feeling is mutual. Although she and Dwayne Simms(ph) - her ex-husband - are now divorced, she's still very close to him. His people are her people. They consider her NBA - negro by association.
Ms. STRAIGHT: I guess I've been around so long that most of my family forgets I'm white. They used to tell white jokes in front of me all the time, and I'd say, well that's pretty mean. And they'd look at me and go, oh, yeah, I guess. Whatever. And then they'd tell another white joke.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BATES: Straight isn't offended. She knows that she's not the kind of white person her in-laws are mocking. They're mocking the kind of white person who readily assumes black means less than, inferior, and who assumes Straight feels the same way because she looks as they do. Those remarks irk her.
Ms. STRAIGHT: It's like I'm a spy. I'm a spy for both black, white, everything. And so it's really, really hard to hear that, and I always say something. In fact, I always think, God, that's so funny. Because my ex-husband, he looks like Shaq, but he has hair.
BATES: This, she says, has an immediate effect.
Ms. STRAIGHT: And you want to stop a conversation cold, I love saying that. But I hear stuff all the time, and especially if someone doesn't know I'm a writer - which most people don't, because I don't talk about it at all.
BATES: It's not that Straight is ashamed of being a writer. It's just hard to explain to her working-class neighbors. When her children were toddlers, Straight would take them out in the stroller - she had no car - and steal a few moments to write while doing errands.
Ms. STRAIGHT: I would park the stroller on the sidewalk, get out my notebook, and start writing. That's how I wrote the stories in Aquaboogie. And people would come by and they'd think I was homeless. They'd offer me a dollar or a ride.
BATES: She'd explain she was fine, just using the time to scribble a letter or a grocery list.
Ms. STRAIGHT: And people got used to seeing me with the notebook and the stroller, but they never knew what I was doing.
BATES: They still don't. To most of her neighbors, Straight is not a literary celebrity. She doesn't have the luxury of living an undisturbed, contemplative life. Instead, she's someone they can call at midnight during a crisis, someone to swap child-care duties. She's a good neighbor, a good friend, a good listener. That means she often pits her writing between the demand of her over- scheduled life. But Susan Straight feels being available - to her children, her in-laws, her neighbors - has actually made her a better writer.
Ms. STRAIGHT: You've got to admit, people give me a lot of great stories. Sitting around listening, look how lucky I am to hear all these great stories that have worked their ways into my novels and stories.
BATES: And eventually onto our bookshelves. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.
(Soundbite of music)
BRAND: To hear an excerpt from Susan Straight's newest book, visit our Web site, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Susan Straight is a collector of stories with a uniquely Californian view of the world. That viewpoint animates her latest novel, the saga of a mixed-race slave girl in the American South, which explores the human drive to escape captivity and find a measure of personal liberty.
Susan Straight was born and raised in Riverside, Calif. But she writes from the perspective of those who came to the Golden State from somewhere else.
Straight collects stories. One in particular -- from an African-American neighbor explaining why he moved from Louisiana to rural Southern California -- is at the heart of her novel A Million Nightingales.
The neighbor packed up his family and left Lousiana in one eventful weekend, eventually settling in Riverside. His goal was to protect his daughter from a white man who -- in the segregated South of 1953 -- had made her a sexual target.
Straight's book explores the human drive to escape and find a measure of personal liberty.
A Million Nightingales follows the saga of Moinette, the child of a Senagelese-born laundress on a Louisiana plantation. Moinette is of mixed heritage; her mother was offered as a fille cadeau -- a "gift girl" -- to a visiting sugar broker, and Moinette was born nine months later.
Moinette, a "mulatresse," is sold off as a teenager to another plantation and plots her escape from her new masters, using her wits to protect herself -- and later, her own son and daughter.
Straight has three daughters of her own, and that fact was both a catalyst and an influence on the book.
"I had not ever been able to decide how my girls would have fared if they had been born at another time," she says. "And that was something I thought about for 10 years before I wrote this novel."