Novelist Susan Straight talks about her new book, ‘Take One Candle Light a Room’

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LeTania Kirkland: This story was largely influenced by your own family and stories that you picked up from your own community. How did you bring it all together?

Susan Straight: These are stories that I’ve been hearing pretty much since I met my future husband, which was in the 8th grade. When we started hanging out a lot at his family’s house, there were all these men who were always around telling stories, and one story that I heard at a family reunion was, someone was standing behind me, and said to my father-in-law, ‘Oh, how did you all get to riverside?’ My father-in-law, who is from Tulsa, told how his family came, and he said, ‘How about you?’ This person was from Louisiana, and he told the story about how he got to California. That was the basis of the whole Mr. Mcqeueen story, which is that someone had a beautiful daughter, and Mr. so and so was gonna come get her one night, so they had to pack up and flee to California.

Kirkland: The main character, her story has a lot to say about race, class and family. Do you feel that her character crosses racial boundaries and that these themes even blur the lines of race and class?

Straight: I have these three daughters that are of mixed race. I just wrote an essay about mixed blood. We talk a lot about how America is clearly not a post racial place. In fact, I think we might be moving to a much more… place of racial separation. The character of Fantine, it’s funny, my oldest daughter thought she was a jerk in the beginning. My oldest daughter looks that way. When we used to go places, people would think she was Samoan or Hawaiian or Algerian. The entire room changes when someone says, ‘I’m black, African American or even, I’m mixed race.’ When I was working on this book, I realized there are two kinds of people: the people who stay, and the people who leave. Fantine left. She considers that the complete eruption of any ties. It has to be about race and class.

Kirkland: You’ve made a commitment to writing about the places east of Los Angeles. I don’t think a lot of people realize how diverse the Inland Empire is. How do you think that diversity has influenced your work?

Straight: Oh, there’s no place like the Inland Empire. My kids and I, when we travel around, it’s astonishing to them when they go someplace else, how segregated that place might be. In riverside, because we grew up in this neighborhood, right next to a military base, I had friends who were half Japanese and half black, and half Egyptian and half Hawaiian. All of these people that I grew up with, we then married each other. When people try to break down what racial designation someone is in Riverside, it’s actually pretty funny sometimes. I do have a commitment to it I think because I’m parochial, but I also feel like, I remember reading Ernest Gaines, and he said he went to the library when he moved from Louisiana. He went to the library in San Francisco, and he said, ‘I read all the Russians, but my people weren’t there. I always thought that I wanted people from the Inland Empire to be in fiction in the same way that Flannery O’Connor’s people, Louise Erdrich’s people and Joyce Carol Oate’s people were in fiction. I wanted my people to be there, too.