My parents got married in 1962. My father was a Californian, the child of Californians. My mother was born to Californian parents, but in icy, flat Montana, where her father had been temporarily posted in his work as an FBI agent. Sometimes I imagine what my two grandmothers might have talked about at the wedding. My paternal grandmother, born to immigrants and raised in a rough neighborhood in Oakland, never finished high school, but my mother’s mother was the first woman in her family to go to college. She’d been born on a ranch in the remote mountains of northern California, the last of fourteen children. What that escape cost her, I do not know.
Last fall, in the latest round of wildfires, the land that had surrounded that ranch was incinerated. The ranch itself was razed years ago. Its remnants lie beneath the waters of Whiskeytown Lake, a lake created by a dam, because California is starved for water. All the people in the previous paragraph, except my mother, are dead. The stories of the California they knew, the ranch and the lake and the people, are becoming ghostly.
In 1978, Joan Didion and her husband sold their house in Malibu and departed for the East Coast. But Didion, ever the reporter, followed the stories of the fires that seared Southern California in the wake of her departure. “Horses caught fire and were shot on the beach.” As the fires reached 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, “birds exploded in the air.” She wrote that burning houses did not explode; they imploded, “as in a nuclear strike.”
Today we might think of Didion as a New Yorker. After all, she has lived in the Big Apple, growing bonier and smaller as she moves into very old age, longer than she ever lived in California. But her familial roots plunge into the delta soil of Sacramento, five generations deep. In The White Album, her chronicle of California’s nightmarish cycle of disasters in the 1970s, she summed up California’s notion of destiny in a single sentence: “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.”
When I walk to my office in Wheeler Hall at UC Berkeley, I walk beneath Joan Didion. This past year, in an attempt to convey the significance of the university’s one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary to our anxious, hustling students, the administration placed banners around campus imprinted with images of famous alumni and faculty: our gene splicers and atom slicers, our poets and politicians hover above us as we huff up and down the campus’s hills, human engines cranking to keep the institution moving forward. Wheeler Hall looks like a wedding cake and is home to English on its upper floors and writing in the basement, the root toiling to feed the crown, and the image of a slender, youthful Didion hangs just in front of its easternmost doors. Sometimes I’ll ask my nonfiction students if any of them are from Sacramento. A few will usually say yes. And I have them read Didion, and Richard Rodriguez, the self-described “scholarship boy,” another alum from Sacramento, and another beneficiary of the California Master Plan for Public Education, which guaranteed a college education for every qualified Californian.
Interviewed by the magazine Boom: A Journal of California in 2014, Rodriguez was asked if he felt like a Californian writer. He spoke about the Mexican California and the Asian California, the Russian California and the Black California. And he spoke about the muscular, beautiful body of a man he’d admired when he was young. The man’s shoulders were marked with spots, which would darken in the summer. Years later, the man died of skin cancer. Rodriguez said that was the moment he understood that “California would take its toll. And California would not forgive. And California would remember everything you did in the sun, as it reminds me. There is nothing you did that day, carefree you in the California sun, that California doesn’t remember.”
The fertile delta in Sacramento that fed the imaginations of a young Didion and a young Rodriguez is now overcrowded with sprawling developments built for people fleeing the Bay Area’s staggeringly expensive housing. The new units are all beige and tan, like the land around them. My classrooms are still full of scholarship kids like Rodriguez, like my grandmother, and myself, but they come in a greater variety of hues. Many are the first in their families to attend college, many the children of immigrants, or immigrants themselves. Many are undocumented. Many are transfers from community colleges. All of them are still attempting to carve out a new narrative in California, where self-creation is still a thing. The trick is managing to survive in a place that does its best to self-destruct with unnerving frequency.