Everything I knew about cities, when I was a girl, I learned from stories. One novel that stood out for me was Marilyn Sachs’ Amy Moves In, a story which has a family moving into an apartment in a city, where Amy has to start at a new school and adjust to a new neighbourhood, experiences I struggled with too.
Marilyn Sachs was writing for a generation earlier than mine, but her books were readily available in the public and school libraries I frequented: I reread them often. As it turns out, Amy Moves In isn’t one of her San Francisco stories, however. It’s set in New York, in the Bronx, with Boston Road and Crotona Park figuring briefly, although mostly it’s about the apartment building and the stoop.
It reminded me, however, of another children’s book that I loved as a kid, which is set in San Francisco: Laurence Yep’s Child of the Owl (1977). Casey is just two years older than Amy, twelve, when her father’s hospital stay translates into Casey’s staying with her grandmother in Chinatown. As a kid, what stood out to me were differences between cities and towns, but with this story, Chinatown made San Francisco as different and new as it was for Casey. (It’s part of Yep’s Golden Mountain Chronicles, and there are others with SanFran settings too.)
But for San Francisco reading this month, I turned to Isabel Allende’s The Japanese Lover (2015), which I’d come across last month, looking for books set in Kyoto (it’s not, BTW). Translated by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson, it’s a story which Allende says “could only happen in San Francisco”. But, for all its regular mentions, the city is not as prominent as you might expect.
Instead readers are focussed on Lark House, where 80-year-old Alma Balasco lives in a retirement home, and then we move back in time. The germ for the story came from a conversation with a friend of Allende’s, who spoke of her mother’s 40-year-long relationship with a Japanese gardener.
Allende’s fictional version is based on the Redwoods retirement home, near her own residence, and she creates Alma Balasco, a young girl who comes to live with her aunt and uncle in their luxurious San Francisco family estate (with her Jewish family left behind in Poland pre-WWII).
Importance of family, women’s experiences of inequality and injustice, society’s inherent racism and classism, the process of othering, loss and grief, passion and romance, power and resistance, aging and memory: this is familiar territory to Allende’s readers. The I’ve-got-time-for-story pace of her prose, the abundance of adjectives and sassy retorts: it’s all here, just as it was in The House of the Spirits. (But no tour of San Francisco, as it turns out.)
Briefly but fortuitously, however, the city does appear in a short story by Willa Cather, “Two Friends”, which I read in Obscure Destinies (1932). Cather wrote the story in Pasadena in 1931 and describes Mr. Trueman’s move to the Saint Francis Hotel when it was first built, with his office “in a high building at the top of what is now Powell Street”. There, he played poker and read his mail and sat “tilted back in his desk chair, a half-consumed cigar in his mouth, morning after morning, apparently doing nothing, watching the Bay and the ferry-boats, across a line of wind-racked eucalyptus trees.”
The city comes alive in the documentary film We Were Here: The AIDS Years in San Francisco (Dir. David Weissman, 2011, 92 minutes):a powerful and engaging work. A blend of personal reminiscence with archival footage, protests in the streets to community and political actions: it really gives a sense of the pull that this city had for many who didn’t feel they belonged anywhere else. Also, it’s interesting to note the frequent use of terms like ‘epidemic’, ‘quarantine’, ‘vaccine’, and ‘transmission rate’: this isn’t ancient history. There are many sorrowful aspects to this film and witnessing the losses is staggering but there are also stories of resilience and it’s important to see what has and hasn’t changed.
Forever, Chinatown: An Artist Recreates His Childhood Chinatown in a Rapidly Changing San Francisco, directed by James Q. Chan (New Day Cinema, 32 minutes) is a short documentary about 81-year-old Frank Wong, who invested four decades in creating miniature models of the rooms from his childhood in the city. Some places, like a shoe repair shop, are still in operation today with visible differences; others are paralleled with contemporary spaces (e.g. an apothecary shop and a single-room apartment) and haven’t changed as much. Watching him “cook” a veggie stir-fry in a seasoned wok (made from a smooth piece of plastic purchased in a hardware store) is mesmerizing.
Relevant and riveting is California Newsreel “Black Panther” shot in Oakland, San Francisco, and Sacramento, featuring ranking members, Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, as well as Bobby Seale, who outlines the 10 Point Program. These points could be pulled from today’s headlines, including equal access to human rights like housing and education, beginning with freedom both in general and specifically freedom from police brutality and murder.
Similarly compelling, is the video “San Francisco State on Strike”, chronicling the five-month-long student strike (supported by 80% of students in attendance, although only 3% of the students in 1968 were Black, as compared to 12% in 1960) for justice. “On Strike, Shut It Down.” Watching the footage of the police moving in to disperse the peaceful demonstration could be from last week’s news. The strike continued, however, and eventually the first ethnic studies department at an American university was established there. In case anyone was wondering if protests work.
Here and Elsewhere exists because we can always find a way to widen our perspective on the world; even a casual encounter (in my case, a desk calendar from Made in Brockton Village, eco-friendly and sometimes bookish, can serve as inspiration. This year I’ve “travelled” to Copenhagen, London, Havana, Kyoto, and Paris via this prompt (and many other places in a more disorderly fashion!). San Francisco has only appeared here previously in the context of Maya Angelou’s memoirs.