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Author Archive: "Susan Straight"

What Happened Then?

I'm a short blonde woman, nearly invisible, and everywhere I go, people tell me their stories. At the DMV, our clerk relates how her mother came from Cape Verde, off the coast of western Africa. At the gym, a woman tells me an astonishing story about how a sister poisoned a brother and stole his best friend. Trimming sunflowers in my front yard, I listen when total strangers stop and say, "I heard you're a writer — I have a story for you." An elderly woman, standing at my fence, told me about a baby born to a white high school student and a Chinese shopkeeper, back in the early 1900s, and where the baby ended up.

Everyone wants someone to listen, and I'm the only writer in my community — I write letters for people who can't, I write the funeral programs and obituaries for our family and friends, and at night, I write novels. I've spent the last five years working on Take One Candle Light a Room, a novel based on four indelible elements: a porch story, a murder, a snatch of overheard conversation, and a face I saw sometimes when I was 18.

Years ago, I wrote letters to the Veterans Administration for a close friend's father. Mr. G liked to sit on my porch after we finished composing. One day, he told me how his father died when his mother was pregnant with him, deep in the pine forests of Florida, and how when he was seven, he was tired of being hungry, so he walked with a hammer to a farm a few miles away and killed a pig. He dragged the pig back to his mother and told her he wanted some meat. The fierce anger of his desperation was still in his throat even at 65, his turquoise eyes stark against his brown skin.


My two youngest chickens are outside now, looking almost like cartoon versions of themselves because they are teenagers. They are six months old, which is adolescence for them. The black speckled one is named Smoke, and the golden-yellow one is Butter. They are Rosette's chickens, as her dad brought them when they were one day old for her, but really they like to hang out with me because I always turn over rocks and bricks so they can find the bugs underneath. They have eaten nearly every insect in the back garden, which means the roses and blackberry vine and lavender are bigger than ever.

One of our twelve rabbits got out of his cage again, too, so it looks like some version of Easter chicks and bunnies on steroids scampering around, because they are all so big now. (We've had rabbits live to be ten years old. This one is four.)

I didn't know I would like the chickens. These chickens. I have hated some of the other chickens my ex-husband brought, because two turned out to be roosters (we promptly gave them back to him, as he lives in a ...


A boy named Christian spit on my youngest daughter Rosette yesterday on the school playground. When I went to the school this morning to see the vice principal, another mother whom I've known for ten years said, "How come it's always the boys named Angel or Christian who are so bad?"

I didn't have time to look for him on the playground. I know what he looks like, because we've had trouble with him all year. He is a white kid, ten years old, stocky, and wears camouflage pants. His hair is streaked and highlighted and colored. (That always makes my daughters and me suspicious — he's ten, shouldn't he be out riding bikes or feeding the dog or playing ball, rather than sitting for extended periods with complicated beauty products on his head? I mean, my girls all have hair to their waists and we don't spend that much time.)

In November, this same boy called Rosette a nigger. Now, the word seems offensive, even when written here, and we're used to seeing the coy version. The n-word. But he didn't call her the n-word. That's not ...


And then the mail came. A nice big envelope about Wordstock, the book festival in Portland which I can't wait to see. I love the poster. I'll be reading from my novel at the festival, and I'll get to see the azaleas and rhododendrons and blossoming trees in town.

I'm staying, in Portland, with a friend who grew up in Riverside, a block from where I sit typing now. She's a great tour guide for Portland, the lovely old neighborhoods, the school renovated to the coolest collection of restaurant, bar and movie theatre I've ever seen. Portland is a great book town, with Powell's as the center of book culture, and I always meet the most interesting readers there. This time, I know my friend and I will get to talk about Beverly Cleary, and Ramona, and Klickitat Street.

I heard an interview with Beverly Cleary on NPR a few weeks ago, and the wonder in her voice as she talked about growing up there, and how she created the characters in her much beloved children's books, reminded me of why some of ...

Power Walk — Not

There was a feature article about the new book, with a photo of my three daughters and me, in the Los Angeles Times yesterday, I found out in the morning via email. I don't get the Times every day. I tried, but it gets stolen from the sidewalk in front of my house if I don't pick it up at dawn.

So after I took everyone to school, which involves two hours of driving around in the same circles because they are in different schools, I decided to walk to the market and get the Times. It's almost a mile. I was pretty happy, walking under the oak trees and carobs lining our old sidewalks, thinking about myself, wondering how I looked, about my book and having a lot more people know about it, until I turned down one street and saw a brown pit bull running loose. He was actually leaping around in people's yards and up onto their porches in a crazed way, as if he'd taken some PCP, but I remembered from my former neighbor's pit bulls that crazed was their normal appearance. I was scared. I've seen ...


Yesterday was Easter, and that meant I spent most of the day wrestling with a sixteen-pound ham, dismantling it with sharp knives and thinking of my mother-in-law and my children's ancestors and even some of the characters in my novel.

My novel is set during slavery in Louisiana, from 1811 to the early 1840s. Meat was used for reward and punishment during slavery, and some people in the novel always crave flesh. Their bodies need it, and their minds desire the equality of the meat — the people who owned them ate ham and bacon, and the owned were lucky to get white salt pork or innards.

I wrote one scene where a woman steals ham to repay someone for kindness, after the fall butchering of hogs on a plantation. The ham — the pink feathery flesh of the leg, made me think that we are only animals as well, when I wrote about the butchering.

My mother-in-law, Alberta Sims, taught me to make a good ham, and to share it with everyone. My own mother was born in Switzerland, and for Easter, she concentrated more on the eggs and desserts and chocolate. Growing up, ...

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