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.
"Corrections are possible, even in a career such as mine; it is the 25th anniversary of my first born, Lithium for Medea, my first novel, but I'm afraid Los Angeles did not have a critical infrastructure to deal with that book in 1979. I think the Los Angeles Times saw themselves as having a missionary duty, which they followed. That was to bring the barely literate heathens of the region as filtered through New York. Lithium for Medea is probably the first girl rite of passage story written by a Los Angeles girl."
Ms. Braverman's work encouraged other L.A. women to write. "They tell me that; they say, 'What you did is you gave me permission.' I never stopped in my battle to have women inhabit the page with the same dimensionality and the same arsenal of weapons as men. They haven't had this. Because, first of all, when we talk about literature, we're only talking about what men have said about what other men have written.
"Our women have been able to vote less than one hundred years. The first woman's voice I heard was Sylvia Plath. Joan Didion's would have been the second. Democracy was probably my favorite Didion novel. I recently reread The White Album, and the essays hold up, although I must tell you I had great loathing for the National Book Award memoir, her newest book. I no longer felt that she had the power to convince me.
"Women have to behave on the page like they're all nurses, housewives, librarians, that women are confined to the same jobs they're consigned to in life, the same roles that the patriarchy in literature, and in everything that we call law and order, the gravity of this world, is such that the rules for men and women are different. I would say that, historically, the personal elements of women's lives let their poetry, fiction, novels, and essays be derided and dismissed.
"When men lead lives of disturbing chaos, when men abandon children and collect divorces and run red lights drunk, accumulating essays with extravagant appetite -- we admire them. Men are, by the intensity of their passion, the heroic embodiment of the mythic, tormented artist so that their emotional defamations, the silly and collateral damage of their activities are rendered insignificant. When women exhibit similar behavior, when women engage in risky endeavors, when women respond to the lore of pharmacologically conscious dissection, we call them mentally ill. They can be disposed of. For a male, risk and deviational war wounds, men receive metaphorical purple hearts, while -- for the same behavior -- women are locked in institutions.
"For the 35 years of my writing life, I have battled stereotypes about what girls and women are allowed to do or say or think or feel. It's remarkable when one thinks that Plath's work is almost 50 years old, and she is still not in the canon."
"And," I said, "her late poetry is often considered excessive."
"That's when she did her greatest work. She dared to complain about the smog of cooking and the smog of diapers, and what it's like to be abandoned with two children on the coldest of winter days. How dare she write poems complaining about this?
"The child is having a tantrum, and she had no money and couldn't get the heat on, and one thing and another, and the fact that her rage -- women are not allowed certain upper stratus of emotions. It's considered impolite. Women are supposed to be as if at a tea party on the page. 'Would you like more sugar with that? Are you sure you have enough napkins?'
"Plath is still being castigated for her work. While women are the dominant number of readers, one has to wonder what they are finding as models for their identity since all they are given are conventional, anemic renderings of the female experience.
"I set out to reclaim girlhood. I wanted to make this region that I knew as a child, barefoot. I can only know a region when I've had my body exposed to it, when I've been rained on by it, when I've been sunburned by it, when elements have stamped across my flesh and told me their stories, in indelible ways.
"I knew Los Angeles like that. I knew it from being a child, walking the streets in vacant lots, down to the Santa Monica Pier. You must walk a city, and its side streets, and climb its hills and be scratched by the vegetation to know the different sounds of what is danger in the air."
"Are you glad you've come back to California?"
"Yes. One thing I learned, when I was gone for those six years in self-exile, is that there is a kind of progressive, experimental feel that California has. I live here in California, but it is as easy to take my cultural bearings from Mexico City or Bangkok as it is from the East Coast or Europe. The literary climate here is so open for confession. I think our writers in California are more confessional because we're more open, we're less traditional. I think we're more influenced by things other than the standard American perimeters because there really is no border with Mexico.
"There's this continuous region. Vegetation is the same for hundreds of miles, up almost to San Francisco, you could still be in Mexico. So, I think that when you live in a border area, that this influences your thinking. Frantic Transmissions talks about that, what it was like to grow up in a region that is nothing like what the fictional national interpretation is.
"Growing up in Los Angeles, I was assigned to typing, apron making, meatloaf making -- because of socioeconomics."
"How is your meatloaf?"
"My meatloaf is spectacular."
"Mine is terrible."
"Not mine. It's one of the few things I can cook because I don't cook. I try to do as few unnecessary diverting tasks as possible. I know that there are many professional women who will do things like plan their court calendars around soccer practice and ballet schedules and their children's enhancement activities.
"I think we give our children a false sense of their importance and entitlement, and how real can they believe our feminism is if we are not practicing it? My daughter grew up with a mother who said, 'I was writing before you were born, I will be writing during your life, and I will be writing after you have your own children. I do not carpool, I don't throw victory parties.' My daughter has grown up to be a self-reliant individual.
"I think that it's absurd to see friends I have that are writers, forming their lives over very trivial activities going on with their children, and I would like to stress that there are alternative strategies to the pure pressure of being like everyone else. Many of these child enhancements and constant soccer things are just a new form of consumer consumption. Now, every child is studying seven sports, three musical instruments. They have to have their haiku translation book out by their 13th birthday. They seem to have professional mothers who are perfectly able to divest themselves of their professional duties to supervise completely what are now rituals of no significance.
"Now that my daughter is older and I'm able to look at her peer group, I don't see that the kids have made real disciplines of what they were exposed to, or that they have continued to progress or continued to avail themselves at all of any of these enhancements."
"Well, the new book is wonderful."
"It's meant to be subversive, and I hope that that comes across. It took a long time to understand the new region where we lived and to understand what happens when people live in a remote, isolated community, where it is dangerous to leave your house. If you haven't swerved into a ditch or been hit by another car, or gone off the road, you were lucky. Because where we lived, driving conditions were so bad that having an accident was like having the flu -- it was just a question of who would have a car wreck when.
"A kind of smallness of purpose sucked into a community like that, a sense that to get anywhere is so difficult that when someone called to say the 9/11 attack had happened, and they said it was in New York, I said 'New York, America?' Because it was so remote where we lived, that everything had become abstract -- New York, Boston, Paris, Peru. It was all equally inaccessible. It was much like being marginalized as I'd been when I was a poor girl in Los Angeles.
"I'd never lived in a little town before, and to find that people are violently against change, and they're so fundamentalist in their religious beliefs, and so rigid in their essential philosophy, I was not prepared for that. The psychological climate of difference between California and where we lived, was as extreme as the actual climate. I'd never been in a situation like that before. But there were some lovely, lovely things about it -- to experience fall, living in a maple forest. I had a sense of marvel when I grew my own pumpkins and when the trees' leaves turned pumpkin orange, and to understand what a harvest ritual is, whereas in a major city it's just another consumer consumption opportunity.
"But it is good to be back in California. After this self-exile, I'm able to see Los Angeles and California with a clarity and an appreciation that I don't think I could have before."
On Friday, March 3, at 7:00 p.m., Kate Braverman, winner of the 2005 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, will read from Frantic Transmissions to and from Los Angeles at D.G. Wills Books, 7461 Girard Avenue, La Jolla, 858-456-1800. Free and open to the public.