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Author Susan Straight Takes Us 'In The Country Of Women'

Author Susan Straight with her three daughters.
Cassandra Barragan
Author Susan Straight with her three daughters.

This week, the Code Switch team is sharing conversations with some of our favorite authors about the books we're starting the decade with. Today, senior correspondent Karen Grigsby Bates talks to Susan Straight about her new memoir, In The Country of Women.

I cannot even remember when I met Susan Straight for the first time—it's been that long. I do remember we were both starting out in our careers. We bonded over a shared passion for reading and writing, and over the challenges of bringing up brown children in a world that didn't always value them. She is good people, steady and true. Since our initial meetup, she's has gone on to receive critical praise for her novels (including National Book Award nominations) and I've gone on to...well, to interview esteemed authors like her.

To date, Straight has published nine novels, almost all of them hung on the spine of her hometown of Riverside, Calif. Her stories are saturated with issues of family, race, migration and history. Straight's latest book, In the Country of Women, tells the story of the women in her family—her Swiss-German blood relatives and her African American, Indigenous and Creole in-laws. I talked to Straight about what inspired her newest book.

Our interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

In the Country of Women is a departure for you—normally you write novels. Why a memoir?

I wrote it because I lost my mother-in-law when I was pregnant with my youngest child (who's now 24.) And I miss my mother-in-law. I wanted to honor all of the female ancestors: my mother-in-law, her sisters, her mother who had passed away. Everyone was passing away around me, and I thought this was a time to do it, so that my daughters would know their ancestors.

You paint a really interesting picture of life in Riverside. It's Southern California, but it's not what people think of when you say "Southern California." This isn't surfer territory, or 90210 territory. Why was it important to show people this place?

I'm so glad you asked that! Because America seems like this huge, monolithic place, and then it seems like a series of small villages to outsiders. But California is the one place that everyone says, 'Well, no one's really from there.' And you and I both know better.

I have friends whose people are Korean, and who have always been here. I have friends whose people came from New Mexico in 1842. And I went to high school with that family's seventh generation. I have friends whose parents came in 1880 as African Americans from Mississippi and Georgia.

I love telling people that we are a collection of people who all really fell in love because of migration and war. My generation, that was born here in the 1960s — our parents all had come from somewhere else because of the military, or places they didn't want to go back to. The cold and poverty of someplace like North Carolina or North Dakota. Or they didn't want to go back to the racism of Louisiana or Georgia or Mississippi. We were all their descendants, and we all married each other. So, in my neighborhood, I still see people I've known since kindergarten.

Funny. In that way, this book is a seriously American story, isn't it?

It's truly an American story! What I love is thinking about the way women moved across this continent because of war, because of poverty, and sometimes because they were fleeing the person who claimed to have loved them and turned out to be violent. And this was my way of honoring all of those women who came across the country by themselves. They did not have a man, ever, with them when they were traveling. They had a load of kids. They drove broken-down cars. They were untrained. They depended on the kindness of strangers. And then they got a job. I love this idea that people had migrated west, and that they were women, and that they were fiercely independent. Except for one, they all came to and were buried in Southern California. That was their promised land.

You made the decision to stay in Riverside and write about the people there—kind of like Flannery O'Connor did with her Georgia landscape. Your daughters, for whom you wrote this, grew up in Riverside. They know all the places you write about, and the huge extended family you're part of. But have they stayed here, or is the lure of other places too great?

Susan Straight with her young daughters.
/ Courtesy of Juli Jameson
Courtesy of Juli Jameson
Susan Straight with her young daughters.

Well, it was funny to write the end of the book, because my daughters have all left now — for Austin, for L.A., and for Oakland. And I'm here and their dad's here. And we will never leave. We're that anchor that reflects these six generations of women. We're the bearers of the story now. It's a strange place to be. But I couldn't feel luckier. When I look at the writers like Ernest J. Gaines, who we lost last year, or Toni Morrison, who plays a big part in this memoir — they are writers who always wrote about their place. This place is my destiny. It's what I'm here to write about.

For more of our book conversations, check out this week's episode of the Code Switch podcast. And check out yesterday's Q&A with Tomi Adeyemi here.

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Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.