Susan Straight weaves the past and present into stories that reflect the lives of millions of ordinary people in Southern California. Her tenth novel, “Mecca,” publishes today, March 15, by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
“I wrote this book for you, for us, about us,” said Straight, a distinguished professor of creative writing at UC Riverside whose memoir, “In the Country of Women” was published in 2019. “I wrote this book about our students too, who are trying to write about Hemet, Fontana, Rialto, Bloomington. Why can’t these Inland Empire cities be centerpieces of a great book? Of course, they can.”
The Inland Empire is the heart of Southern California, surrounded by roads and highways that allow drivers to head west to Hollywood where some of her characters live, as well as east, into Mecca, the agriculture community in eastern Coachella Valley.
“To me the heart was Thermal, Oasis, Coachella, all the places my mom loved to go when we were kids. To Indio for the Date Festival,” said Straight of the eastern Riverside County communities where her characters come alive. Her award-winning novel, “Highwire Moon,” also unfolds in portions of the Coachella Valley.
“Mecca” has already received praise by the LA Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Publishers Weekly, and The Press-Enterprise, among others.
The novel has fictional characters — but all are inspired by true stories or events that have occurred in the Inland Empire. “Mecca’s” backdrop is the very real Santa Ana winds, Interstates 10, 91, 5, as well as the date palms and the canyons where characters such as 39-year-old Johnny Frías, a California Highway Patrol officer, has to deal with encountering love, death, and disrespectful drivers who question his brown skin and the citizenship they associate with it. For Frías, a fifth-generation Latino, there is constant code-switching between Spanish and English, and as he put it, a need to “learn a third language: American.”
“Mecca” narrates several stories, all intersecting like the deep roots of the pepper trees Straight often brings up. The men and women who live in Mecca — many recent immigrants from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca who only speak Mixteco, one of many indigenous languages in Oaxaca — are employed as housekeepers, landscapers, and agricultural laborers, and who are figuring out how America works while they raise children now attending universities like UCLA. Many of them live in constant fear of ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In “Mecca,” Straight writes: “In California, everything had three layers as well, which had surprised Ximena these last four months. At Seven Palms, there were the male doctors, who cut and abraded and altered the bodies; the American women — nurses and therapists and stylists — who touched the bodies for the days afterward; and the Mexicans who touched everything else.”
For Straight, many of these narratives are a mix of history, of stories shared by friends and neighbors, and of stories she personally experienced. Straight knows about working with her hands. Her father owned three laundromats and she helped clean them. Later she picked oranges, including from the orange trees in her own yard, she’s got a scar that runs across her left forearm to prove it. She also knows about COVID-19 and the impact it has had on families, on nurses. She has seen her own friends, as well as nurses at Kaiser Permanente while she takes her mom for medical visits. Last May, amid the pandemic, she spent a lot of time at the hospital as her father faded away from Parkinson’s disease.
“Going out to the desert, we saw the way date groves worked, the people who worked them. Then you have the orange groves in Riverside … all that beautiful geometry and the freeways that are arteries, all these beautiful geometries that make up the Inland Empire,” Straight said. “That’s something I teach my students too. Write from what you know, from where you are.”
It’s that personal connection to the region, the streets, the fields, the workers make it easy for Straight to construct “Mecca’s” setting in the Inland Empire. There was no need to pretend or imagine what a certain city would look like. She carries the Inland Empire close to her heart — just as her character, Johnny Frías, she said.
Susan Straight, taking “Mecca” on the road:
March 15 – Los Angeles, CA – IN PERSON
Skylight Books with Ivy Pochoda
Details: Skylight Books
March 29 – Portland, OR – VIRTUAL
Powell’s Books with Lydia Kiesling
Details: Powell's Books
March 31 – New York, NY – IN PERSON
Greenlight Bookstore, Ft. Greene
Details: Greenlight Bookstore
April 11 – San Francisco, CA – IN PERSON
Green Apple Books with Vanessa Hua
In partnership with Alta Journal
Details: Green Apple Books
April 14 – Riverside, CA – IN PERSON
UCR Arts, Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts
Doors open at 6 p.m.
Reading: 6:30 p.m.
Meet the author and book signing: 7:30 p.m.
April 19 – Bexley, OH – VIRTUAL
Gramercy Books with Stewart O’Nan
Details: Gramercy Books
April 21 – Palm Desert, CA – IN PERSON
Arts & Letters at UCR Palm Desert Center
Details: UCR Palm Desert Center
May 4 – San Marino, CA - VIRTUAL
Huntington Library With Hector Tobar
Some praise for “Mecca”
"The author’s love of the Inland Empire and its people shines through on every page, and there is a Didionesque quality to Straight’s depiction of SoCal characters living in the shadow of prejudice and poverty, but in place of Didion’s free-floating anomie there is fierce compassion. This evokes the best California fiction."
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"The grasslands and desert, the endless blue skies torn by the Santa Ana winds and the fires that will burn it all away. Susan Straight has written a hymn to all that have called the Golden State home. Spoken in a multitude of languages, Mecca is about America's dream and finding the perilous pathways through its history."
“A masterpiece. So elegant and beautiful, but muscled with the blood of the past—and its echoes to all things—in a sun-bleached future. Susan Straight conjures the dusty back roads and arroyos of a California where destiny is as fraught as the desert flowers on the side of the 10 freeway.
This is a wonderful book.”
"Susan Straight’s page-turner of a novel Mecca corrals contemporary Southern California life while simultaneously allowing readers to see previously invisible histories. Straight’s remarkable empathy for all her characters shows her to be a loving novelist, honestly respecting the people she captures so masterfully. Just like the highways and freeways that make up the arteries of California, Straight reminds us of our collective geopolitical bloodlines, and does so with great, imaginative power."
—Helena María Viramontes, author of Their Dogs Came with Them
“An epic novel that examines issues of race, history, family and the idea of destiny through the interlocking stories of a group of native Californians . . . Johnny Frias, a Mexican-American highway patrolman navigating a traumatic past, is a character no reader is going to forget.”
—Emily St. Martin, LA Daily News