I was at a magical gathering last night–starlight, fire-glow, sea air, and an expanding circle of plush deck chairs occupied by a few dozen striking women. As the conversation shifted focus: from Cabernet to chicken farmers; chicken farmers to iPhone apps; iPhone apps to the genetic composition of jelly fish… it eventually landed on literature. And it wasn’t too long [insert vampires, a certain non-vibrant color spectrum, and a post-apocalyptic survival game] before someone asked: “Well you wrote a book, how much of it is real?”
It’s a tricky question, that one. Because unless you’re dealing with the aforementioned supernatural creatures or speculative geographies, it’s hard not to say: Everything.
It’s hard not to say: Nothing.
I’ve been living with this book, with these characters for years now. To say I know them intimately is comical. I know them surgically well. I birthed them in the painful, messy, magical way all bodies are brought into being. But that doesn’t mean I am them. That I know them off the page. That I’ve dated them. Held them. Or covered my screams as they fell to their death from high, rocky places.
Magdalena, the protagonist of So L.A. and I have lived in a lot of the same places. And we’re both blonde. But that’s about the extent of our similarities. Moving to Los Angeles from Berkeley was extremely difficult for me and I suppose that, in part, is how Magdalena was “born.” Perhaps I was unconsciously embodying a B-movie cliché, but I really did take my first steps on the streets of Los Angeles in a pair of Birkenstocks and a tie-dyed sundress. I wasn’t tan, I didn’t have a designer purse, and even kitten heels made my ankles wobble. It took a good three years before I felt comfortable wearing a bikini, even to the beach, but I was surrounded by these insanely beautiful women who seemed to have been raised in string bikinis and had no qualms wearing them to school. In fact, I was teaching a class at USC called “Social Issues in Sex & Gender,” and one of my students did exactly that. She showed up to class in what people from Berkeley might consider a string of macramé potholders, or maybe a dream catcher? Either way, she was wearing this extremely revealing “bit” as a dress and I was simultaneously awestruck and horrified.
Was she mindlessly objectifying herself or was she making, as she claimed, a bold feminist statement? Magdalena has a lot of moments like this; moments where the means and the ends get confused and tangled up by someone else’s perception.