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Unearthing a Narrative
I can't remember exactly where I first heard about Mark Arax's most recent book, The King Of California: J. G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire. It was either on latimes.com or nytimes.com, and as soon as I finished the review I went straight to amazon.com to order it. I was six months into my Fresno return, and hungry for the history and context of this place I had started blogging about on Sour Grapes.
It wasn't exactly a beach read. I plodded through decades-long legal battles between the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers. I learned about Tulare Lake, a once-massive body of water that was left out of my fourth grade California history curriculum. With its tales of how Big Ag got so big, King of California didn't disappoint. I finished the book with a clearer picture of how, for better or for worse, the Valley got where it is today.
Arax is the award-winning author of In My Father's Name and California Light, and a senior writer for the Los Angeles Times magazine West. One of the few journalists able to cover the San Joaquin Valley with any depth, he lives in Fresno and calls himself a "foreign correspondent."
How do you get the Los Angeles Times to cover Fresno?
Well that's not a hard one because the Central Valley is good for all sorts of stories. It's like a foreign land in the middle of California. I consider myself a foreign correspondent.
All that bumping up of cultures and the poverty, it's a wild place. It's got this old kind of vibe that continues, that brought my grandfather here in 1920; that's the land. And you've got the newer people that are coming. It's like L.A. in the 1950's; you've got these two pulses going side by side.
How many times do you look at these national surveys and the Valley and Fresno come out number 1 or 2? Fresno is number one in concentrated poverty in the nation. The paper's interested in it. It's just a very interesting region. I was the state reporter in the valley. I'm now a senior writer for our new magazine West.
West launched last February as the new Sunday magazine for the Los Angles Times. Rick Wartzman, co-author of King of California, is editor. What are your plans for the magazine?
I'm trying to write about 12 long stories a year; about half will be about the Valley. I just finished a piece on the Lodi terrorism trial that will be in the magazine in about two weeks. That's kind of what I'm doing now.
You cover these stories in more depth than anyone. Does that make it more difficult to live in this community?
It's hard writing about the place you come from and its doubly hard writing about that place if you still live there. People have this misconception that if you live in the community you have to be a cheerleader of that community, like you're the Chamber of Commerce. I happen to look at it the other way, that you're doing a disservice to Fresno if you not pointing out those truths.
The best type of journalism is when you're helping a community look at things it doesn't want to look at. There's the yahoo element that says, "love it or leave it." Well, there's another option: if you love it you don't leave it.
Have you lived here all your life?
I was gone from Fresno for all of my 20's. I've been here 18 years. I always think I could write about this place from afar but I think there's an advantage to living here. That intimacy that you gain by living here can also blur your eye a little bit. You see things so much you start accepting things as normal. It's good to get out of this place and get perspective. I don't think any of our leaders have lived outside the area.
What about the mayor?
Yeah, he did live outside. I don't know much about the mayor. I can't get a real good handle on him. He's one of these guys that is really open to change and challenging the system but if you look at Fresno during his time its the same old Fresno way. Now they've decided to raise [development] fees for the first time in two decades. A proactive mayor would have been on that issue. But he pushed too late and that last growth boom happened and Fresno could have raised tens of millions of fees and now they'll have to wait for the next one.
There are a lot of people who think Fresno has momentum, with new people moving in and moving back. Do you think things are changing?
One thing that's interesting about growth is you almost import a kind of ethic you didn't have before. It's all about how insular you are. The Valley leaders are all homegrown and behind the times. What happens is now that people are coming from the outside they're asking, "How come you're lights aren't synched? That's how come everyone's speeding to get across town." That's a huge factor in our pollution. These cars just sit still. They're idling, going from red to red.
I used to attend these city council meetings in 1980's and 90's, and they were well attended. I go to these meetings now and people are beaten into submission. If someone actually gets up and speaks to anything counter to what's on the table they get upset. There's a rubber stamp way of doing things.
My pet peeve is the core of the city. That's what upset me about the 9,000-acre annexation. (Arax tussled with Supervisor Bob Waterson at an April LAFCO meeting over expanding the city limits by 9,000 acres. He called the Supervisor an "idiot" and also exchanged words with Orange Cove mayor Victor Lopez.) There's not enough dough to go around. Once we take care of the middle, then we go out to the edge.
We wonder why our kids don't want to live here. Well, you don't have a downtown. You're not hip. So kids just come here and see suburban sprawl. We need to work on getting hip. Maybe we're just hayseed. I see what the kids in Bakersfield are doing.
Really? You think Bakersfield is more hip?
Well, they've got Buck Owens and the country thing. The Crystal Palace.
This sprawl issue is about racism. Go to Woodward Park. Go to Copper River and see how many black and Latino faces you see. It's frustrating to see our leaders haven't connected the dots.
Have you ever thought about running for office?
I did this Town Hall speech, The Last Valley, and 700 people showed up. People asked me afterwards if I'd run for office. If I had another life I might. This writing life, it takes a long time to get to some bigger journalism to writing books, I think if you run for office it confuses things.
So you'd never consider it?
No I don't think so. It's tempting but I think it would be an impossible juggle.
You're working on a new book now.
This next book is going to be a collection of 12 essays about California. Some of them are memoirs. I go back to the story of that Weed Patch. I go back to tracing my grandfather's footsteps. The war on terror, the echo of what happened to the Japanese in the 1940's. To be Muslim in America today is not to have the right to free speech. Say something against America and you're in trouble. I see a lot of echoes.
I'm writing about the Valley's growth, and one immigrant family. I'm working with Matt Black. Matt Black is probably the best photographer in the Valley. He's followed a Trique Indian family back and forth across the border for two years. His photographs are stunning.
I'm just really doing these kind of big stories. Kind of trying to do something like Didion did in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. To me one of the main characters in every piece I do is place.
We're a place. We've got a narrative. William Saroyan felt that way. He loved and hated this place and he kept coming back. And I knew him well enough to be able to say that. That's where his narrative was. What is place? You can live a pretty good life elsewhere, but you're missing something if it's not in your narrative. You can establish a new narrative. You see something in the place and say, "I'm willing to put a toe down."
Arax will put a toe down at the River Center's Respite by the River this Thursday, May 25th. He will read from his recent West piece, "Home Front," accompanied by his son Joseph on piano. The reading begins at 7pm, visitors are encouraged to bring their own picnic dinner at 6pm. Dessert will be served at 8pm. This event is free.