Frantic Transmissions to and from Los Angeles: An Accidental Memoir by Kate Braverman. Graywolf Press, 2006; 218 pages; $15
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
Kate Braverman grew up in Los Angeles in the late 1950s at the time when glitz was just beginning to be manufactured. It wasn't a destination city yet, it was the end of the line, the last outpost with an ocean view. Frantic Transmissions, chosen by Robert Polito as winner of the 2005 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, chronicles the trajectory of Braverman's Left Coast generation with a voice of singular power. Born in 1950, Braverman grew up in Los Angeles and Berkeley. She graduated from Berkeley High School and UC/Berkeley with a degree in anthropology. She was an antiwar activist in Berkeley, a punk poet, a single mother in the East L.A. barrio, and a woman in and out of recovery at AA meetings. In her 40s, Braverman left Los Angeles for a six-year odyssey in a 150-year-old farmhouse in New York's Allegheny Mountains.
In wide-ranging transmissions, Braverman deftly contrasts the social histories of Los Angeles with her new, traditional and isolated rural community; describes the effects of the changing seasons on sun-informed psyche; and is astonished that a remote dwelling surrounded by an apple orchard can offer surprising consolations and disappointments.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
Her 1989 Palm Latitudes remained, I said to Kate Braverman, one of my favorite California books. She answered, "It was my true love song to Los Angeles. I felt that the real Los Angeles novel was not about white people. As I became more and more an Angelino, and more indigenous, and spoke only Spanish and lived in the barrio and had my baby there, I felt the winds of García Márquez. I wrote Palm Latitudes as a survival book, a textbook for my daughter on how to survive, as if I was leaving it in a time capsule for her."
I asked about the title of this newest book.
"I felt it was important to say that it was an accidental memoir. It had not occurred to me that the book formed a memoir, until I had taken essays, short stories, stand-up comedy routines, and laid out sequences of poetry.
"As a California writer, I am an experimentalist. I believe in genre-demolition. I think that the work that Joan Didion and Hunter Thompson did in demolishing the patrician vestiges of privilege, that call themselves 'genre,' that that all happened quite some time ago. And, yet, these changes don't seem to resonate through the culture the way one might think they would.
"What I have discovered is that unless a reader is headlined into taking on a book that is complex and demanding, if they don't think that it is de rigueur, they simply won't. My work always needed to be framed and presented to people because I think it is too complex for a reader to take on unless it is adequately framed for them. There was no infrastructure in Los Angeles, or probably in California at all, to provide the context that my work needed.
"I expected that as time went on that a context would appear. Frantic Transmissions is part of an attempt to make a map of my fictional poetic terrain, in a way that might make navigating the waters of Braverman more accessible and also not seen as dangerous as perhaps it has in the past.
"I give you a map of the country, and when you go back and read the fiction you will understand something about the region, the kingdom, the era, the currency, dialect, deities, of which I am speaking. So, that was one idea for Transmissions."
The trip itself, from California to New York, said Ms. Braverman, "was a very interesting odyssey -- embarking on the classic, mythic American road trip. We packed up our whole life in Los Angeles and drove across the country to the extreme remote world of the Allegheny Mountains. We went looking for the Great American Dream, and like Hunter Thompson we saw things along the way that were beyond belief. Where we lived in Allegheny County is the poorest county in New York. It's fifth-generation Appalachian poverty. People have not worked in generations. I was astounded when I went to our neighboring town for the first time, in the Appalachian Mountains, because I had never seen anything like it.
"I can see it, now, vividly. It was a cross between documentary footage from a Kentucky mine in an impoverished Appalachian village, plus there was a sense of rawness. I expected to see corpses, hear bullet rounds in these streets. They looked post-war.
"How different it is to be an urban person than a rural person. I have never done anything but live in cities, except for when I have been on the run, which required me to live in Hawaii in a shack without electricity in the jungle for 18 months. I was on the run again for two years in Northern California, but essentially I had always been a city person." Ms. Braverman laughed, "I am a Berkeley High and U.C. Berkeley graduate. I took my degree in anthropology.
"Anthropology was perfect because I knew I was going to write, so I wanted to study as much about man as I could. Saul Bellow also took his undergraduate degree in anthropology."
Did Ms. Braverman think MFA programs in writing were of particular value to would-be writers?
"I get asked about MFA programs all the time. My answer is that you're not only defined by what you know as a writer, but it's equally important what you resist knowing, what you delete from your consciousness. To enter into an MFA program, you have to have a sense, an instinct that you trust, because it asserts itself as part of your DNA, which is another reason why so much writing that I read is not sustaining, because people try to inflect their politics or their agenda into their characters without recognizing that if you have a character that is made of real DNA, that your character will, by itself, either on acts of commission or omission, engage in the politics that you truly support anyway. They will manifest themselves in how your character arranges flowers in a vase. It comes from the inside out.