As the title of Jonah Raskin's new book, Natives, Newcomers, Exiles, Fugitives: Northern California Writers and Their Work (Running Wolf Press; $15), implies, it's a volume for outsiders, wanderers, and hometown lifers alike. Numerous times throughout the book, Raskin, who moved here from New York, compares literary life on the two coasts, and I was stunned to read in the introduction, "When I first arrived from New York in 1975, our writers seemed few and far between. Folks ventured forth to see the prize pigs, sheep, and cows that the 4-H kids nurtured…The fairs and fundraisers still go on, but now there's a book culture to go with the agriculture."
He's right. Things have changed. When I first moved here three years ago, I was immediately struck by how you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting a person of the pen. Which is just Raskin's point. Northern California has, in the past quarter-century, not fostered a literary scene as much as a loosely-affiliated community of writers, bound by a love of this place.
Natives, Newcomers pulls together Raskin's Sunday book section columns from the Press Democrat over the past few years (his other work has also appeared in these pages), and the anthology covers a wide swath of writers: international bestsellers, local celebrities, cult favorites. Through profiles and interviews, Raskin takes a magnifying lens to 32 authors and their respective dots on the Northern California map, with a decided Sonoma County focus.
Unlike New York, Northern California has no one tiny slip of an island to pinpoint as the center of everything; our writers are spread out over valleys and mountains, from San Francisco to Mendocino. Sure, there are recluses, bohemians, lefties, hipsters, and showmen, but Raskin finds no distinct archetype, except that mélange of cultural experiences and values that California cradles.
Collectively, the columns form a vibrant tapestry. Every writer spins a thread, and a profound sense of place, rather than shared experience, binds them all together. Some of them no longer make their homes here, but there's a stamp of golden, rolling hills and towering redwoods burnished on their brains that they can't shake.
Natives, Newcomers also brings us closer to the region's literary big guns—Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Isabel Allende—and introduces (or perhaps reintroduces) us to writers whose works deserve a wider audience, like Gerald Haslam and Greg Sarris. Raskin's inclusion of nonfiction writers such as Alicia Bay Laurel (author of the back-to-the-land guide Living on Earth ), celebrity chef Michael Chiarello ( Napa Stories ), and teen-guide writer Mavis Jukes ( The Guy Book ) keeps his book from having a cliquish "novelist's club" tone.
Mystery fans will be delighted to find profiles of Sarah Andrews, Bill Moody, Bill Pronzini, and Marcia Muller, while poetry lovers will appreciate insights into Jim Dodge, Diane di Prima, Don Emblem, and others.There's a busybody delight in reading about all of the renowned authors whom we may be potentially rubbing elbows with at the supermarket. And Raskin's supplemental list of selected books by Northern California writers is helpful and well-chosen.
For the curious reader, Natives, Newcomers, Fugitives, Exiles offers glimpses of writers whose lives may or may not be so different from ours. It's constantly enlightening, and there is no way to escape the book's covers without feeling the hunger to search out works by the writers therein.