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Regional Interests

José Vadi’s Essays Reclaim California with Voices from the Margins

In 1979, literary critic Michiko Kakutani proclaimed “California belongs to Joan Didion.” The writer—who grew up in Sacramento—shot to fame in the late ’60s and spent her illustrious writing career enchanting readers with her observations of the Golden State, the mercurialness of the Santa Ana winds, and the lives of hippies in Haight-Ashbury. She did this in her quintessentially unsentimental and journalistic prose and, as many have pointed out, from a perch; she lived in a mansion in Brentwood (a tony L.A. enclave favored by celebs like Marilyn Monroe and Joan Crawford) and partied with the Hollywood elite. Her name became synonymous with a certain aesthetic that was later emulated by countless other thin, white, wealthy women. Didion’s legacy looms over California like a long shadow. In recent years many literary voices have argued this as a reason to rethink her canonization as “St. Joan” (as Vanity Fair dubbed her in 2016).

The subheading of writer Myriam Gurba’s recent essay, “It’s Time to Take California Back from Joan Didion,” reads: “The first lady of West Coast letters needs to share that honor with the Mexican diaspora.” The argument Gurba and others present is that her dethroning would give rise to new voices that are more representative of the racial and economic background of the U.S.’s most populous state. One such voice is that of Oakland resident José Vadi.

José Vadi, author of ‘Inter State: Essays from California.’ (Bobby Gordon)

Vadi is the grandson of Mexican framworkers, a poet, and a lifelong skater. His new book, Inter State: Essays from California reads like salvage ethnography from an amateur anthropologist. “I fear losing California,” he states in one of the book’s seven related essays. That fear propels him to study it, take grainy pictures, and preserve it in the way he knows best: in words. His voice offers earnest narration about gentrification and other changes that he recognizes have the power to turn him into “a modern-day Okie” in his home state.

“The California dream is inherently stratified,” Vadi explains to me. “It’s based on class, and as a result of that, it’s based on race and geography.” Mapping that changing geography is the work of Inter State. In essays like “Standing in the Shadows of Brands,” and “14th and Jackson,” Vadi explores the way the tech industry has altered the landscape of San Francisco. Expansive development projects for luxury housing complexes continue while the homelessness epidemic worsens; the city’s skyline is altered by brands in a way Vadi notes is “akin to SimCity’s logical apocalyptic end.” In an essay titled “California Inquiry,” he writes: “The biggest question facing this state isn’t just its survival but its destruction.”

California is a palimpsest; there are cities and stories that were erased to make room for the ones that exist now. Vadi’s dispatches about gentrification sanitizing Oakland, the state’s many unheralded laborers (like the incarcerated men and women who work shoulder-to-shoulder but not dollar-for-dollar with our firefighters), and the tech and population booms reshaping the state, are an attempt to unearth those stories.

11th Street at Kissling, Fifteen Fifty Luxury Rental Apartments under construction in background, San Francisco, 2018. (José Vadi)

At the root of Vadi’s connection to California is his grandfather who passed away in 2011. “A lot of these essays are answering questions I had about my family’s relationship with the state, and my own,” Vadi explains. The book is a way of honoring his grandfather and the many like him who lived an “under-the-table existence.”

“Everyone in my family who was a male of that generation was working in the fields,” Vadi says. “Even today in 2021, in the wake of a federal Cesar Chavez holiday, Latin voices, Mexican voices, Chicano voices—however you want to define it—are still very much on the back burner of the literary scene’s priorities.” His writing transposes those voices from the margins to center stage by letting them assume their rightful place as co-authors of the story of California.

For many, California has become more of an idea than a place. Splashy and hyperbolic Visit California ads depict the state as a racially harmonious utopia where everyone lives at or near the beach. Vadi reflects on how the success of that marketing strategy impacted his youth: “You mention you’re from California and people think that you spend your physical education classes surfing.”

“No one’s talking about Rosemead, California,” he points out, “or Whittier, or Paramount, the cities that you as a kid grow up visiting family in across L.A. County.” Inter State connects us to these under-chronicled regions via Vadi’s memories.

Author José Vadi with his grandfather Antonio Gomez, early 2000s. (Vadi family)

His literary agenda is also intrinsically a political one. “I really wanted to represent L.A., not just East L.A. the neighborhood, but that entire swath of San Gabriel Valley and that perspective of going east to west in L.A. versus starting at the coast and going downtown,” he explains. “It’s a different geographic alignment.” This realignment is the key to Vadi’s larger mission of getting readers to see California from a new perspective.

Inter State comes alive because of the intimacy Vadi infuses into his archiving. This intimacy can be attributed to Vadi’s background as a skateboarder. “It creates a more dynamic relationship between yourself as a citizen of the city and place,” he remarks of the sport. “You begin to see the subtle nuances, whether it’s cracks or graffiti, or scrapes in the ground, or certain tags that are from skaters or like-minded underground groups communicating with one another or with the city in a way that many citizens may not understand.”

In The White Album Didion wrote, “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself … loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” Vadi’s meticulous retracing of his family’s footprints across the state—down to the exact placement of the orange tree, chiles and aguacates in his late grandfather’s backyard—is exemplary, obsessive and claiming. To him, California is “a disjointed mosaic of a state,” but like so many other Californians, he wouldn’t want to live or die anywhere else.

José Vadi’s ‘Inter State: Essays from California’ is available Sept. 14 from Soft Skull Press. Details here.

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