In 2014, I published a personal essay with the Atlantic online: a commemoration of my witnessing of the Tiananmen Square uprising and massacre in Beijing, China, back in 1989.
The success of this piece encouraged me to go on writing in the essay format. Today I’m at work on three pieces. Please contact me if you’re interested.
“Our Sister Lena: Or, What’s Right With the Catholic Church”
“Hitler and My Husband”
“Why We Women Can’t Wait Either”
An early personal essay:
Now that I’m more used to chronicling my own life for public view, it’s funny to recall that twenty years ago, when the Los Angeles Times asked me to write a piece for the “Very First Person” column, I stuck mostly to writing about Helen Jackson.
April 5, 1998 | KATE PHILLIPS, Kate Phillips is the author of "White Rabbit" (Houghton Mifflin/HarperCollins), a novel set in Laguna Beach, and is completing a book about Helen Hunt Jackson, to be published by the University of California Press
Raquel Welch in 1959. Anne Archer in 1969. Who knows when another rising star might shine in the title role of the Ramona Pageant? This month, the pageant opens in Hemet for its 75th year, once again presenting an elaborate outdoor theatrical adaptation of Helen Hunt Jackson's 1884 novel. A handful of former leading ladies have promised to return for special anniversary celebrations. Chances are these actresses will be recognized only by seasoned members of the pageant’s large supporting cast, made up annually from the local community. But I hope the former Ramonas will show some chutzpah in Hemet, flashing extravagant smiles, oozing glamour like Raquel Welch.
On a spring afternoon eight years ago, I went to the pageant with my grandmother. She was 87 then, approaching the end of her life. She was small and frail. The day was very hot, even by Hemet standards, and the open-air amphitheater fried in the sun. My grandmother struggled to maintain her cool with giant therapeutic sunglasses, an old white tennis visor and frequent trips to the shaded restroom area. She had read and reread Jackson’s novel over the years and had long dreamed of seeing it enacted. It was a modest dream, one that should not have tempted fate; so it was with growing anger at life’s petty injustices that I watched her grow faint and bewildered in the heat.
After about an hour, we abandoned the show and walked slowly out to the parking lot. My grandmother moved in a daze, looking straight ahead, refusing eye contact. She didn’t say anything, but I sensed the disappointment she was doing her best to hide. Today, the fact that we managed to make it through even half the performance seems to me amazing – a testament to my grandmother’s strong will, and to her love for the story of “Ramona.”
She adored everything about it. She admired the beautiful orphan Ramona, Jackson’s half-Indian, half-Scottish heroine, who patiently endures an unhappy youth on the Southern California ranch of her austere Spanish guardian, Senora Moreno. She thrilled in Ramona’s love affair with Alessandro, a dashing Luiseno Indian from Temecula. She pitied the young couple as they struggled to set up home in one Indian village after another, only to be driven away by greedy, unscrupulous U.S. settlers. She was saddened by Alessandro’s death at the hands of a white settler and relieved when Senora Moreno’s son, Felipe, rescued Ramona from misery.
In a way, the enthusiasm my grandmother felt for the novel was a sign of her age: In the 50 years following “Ramona’s” publication, people around the country felt a similar passion for the book. My grandmother had an aunt in St. Paul, Minnesota, who was named after Jackson’s heroine. In Colorado, at the remote spot high on Cheyenne Mountain where Jackson was buried in 1885, countless pilgrims paid tribute to the beloved author, piling up stones on top of her grave until they eventually created such a clutter Jackson’s body had to be moved to a private cemetery. In Southern California, Jackson’s novel was transformed into local legend. Restaurants, streets and whole towns were given the name Ramona, and a vast tourism industry developed around the story, generating tens of millions of dollars in revenue.
What is the appeal of “Ramona”?
For my grandmother, a native Southern Californian who despised the bland sprawl of concrete that had spread over her once majestic homeland, and whose heart was unwilling to accept the local culture’s relentless focus on what is new, or at least renewed, “Ramona” offered the solace of a colorful, pastoral past. Set in the 1870s, it depicts a time when native Californians – Indian, Spanish and Mexican – struggled to maintain their hold on an agrarian land against the encroaching order of U.S. industrialism.
Jackson depicted early U.S. settlers in Southern California as grasping and immoral, hoping that her novel would awaken Americans to the injustices they were perpetrating against California’s Indians. My grandmother understood Jackson’s message, and for as long as I can remember she tried to respond, each year donating a portion of her Social Security check to Indian foundations. At the same time, however, perhaps inappropriately, she felt a personal identification with Ramona and the other dispossessed characters of Jackson’s story, seeing them as victims of the same relentless drive for development in Southern California that had continued long past the 19th century, destroying much of the beautiful countryside she had cherished in her youth.
She often told me of the drastic changes she had noticed in Claremont, the city 30 miles east of Los Angeles where I grew up. My grandmother had spent a year in Claremont when she was a freshman in college, back in 1920 and 1921, and she had sent my mother to boarding school there for three years beginning in 1948. In those early years, Claremont was a tiny town surrounded by orange and lemon groves all sparkling in bright, transparent skies--a place aptly named for its perfect view of the neighboring San Gabriel Mountains. The only air pollution my grandmother remembered came from smudge pots smoking in the citrus groves in winter.
After my parents moved permanently to Claremont in 1966, when my mother was eight months pregnant with me, my grandmother would visit her old town only to find the citrus trees replaced by tract houses, the smog so overwhelming that weeks passed without offering any glimpse of the nearby mountains. During my childhood, Claremont's college campuses and downtown area were still charming, but other parts of the city seemed to merge with all the adjacent cities in a giant mass of houses, strip malls and freeways that stretched all the way from the desert to Los Angeles. Naturally enough, I thought of my hometown as "suburbia"--a designation that never ceased to unnerve my grandmother. (It continues to annoy my mother. "Katie!" I can hear her gasp as she reads this essay. "Claremont is not a suburb. It's a town.")
For the past several years, I have been studying Helen Hunt Jackson's life and literary career. I've found many things to admire, including Jackson's social activism and an inner strength that allowed her to succeed despite many personal misfortunes. Because I am a writer drawn in imagination to my native California, I especially appreciate what Jackson did for the California novel. With "Ramona," the first American novel about Southern California ever published, Jackson inaugurated a powerful tradition in local literature, an anti-utopian tradition in which I would place my own writing.
Jackson began to envision Southern California as a lost utopia in the early 1880s, when she made two trips through the area. She came first on an assignment to write topical articles for an Eastern magazine and later as an official agent of the U.S. government, commissioned to determine the needs of local Indian tribes. Prior to her arrival in Southern California, Jackson had been a professional writer for more than 15 years. She had written four novels and more than a dozen popular short stories, and her literary preoccupations were already firmly established. In particular, a single theme is apparent in all of Jackson's early fiction: the triumph of simple virtue over adversity.
What Jackson saw during her visits to Southern California--the cruelty of some U.S. settlers and the despair of many Indians--made it impossible for her to apply her usual literary formula of triumph. It seemed to her that Southern California had been created as a paradise on earth, what she called an "island on the land." But she was convinced no amount of personal dignity on the part of California's Indians could succeed in maintaining paradise in the face of American rapacity.
In Ramona and Allessandro, Jackson created prototypes for a large cast of disaffected heroes who wander throughout subsequent Southern California literature as through a nightmare world, longing for consolation. So many different sorts of writers have created dystopian portraits of California that their combined efforts might well constitute an archetypal vision of the place. Witness the classic depictions of ruined California that appeared in a single period, around 1940, in Nathanael West's "The Day of the Locust," F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Love of the Last Tycoon," John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" and Evelyn Waugh's "The Loved One." A generation later, the dystopian tradition continued in Thomas Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49" and Joan Didion's "Play It as It Lays." And it still continues, in recent novels like John Rechy's "The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez" and my own "White Rabbit."
Why have so many writers seen California in terms of disappointment? After all, California is still a place of such natural beauty, such vast potential for human happiness, that millions of people continue to follow "California dreams" of establishing better lives here.
I believe the answer has to do with both the grandeur of such dreams and the tenuous nature of all human aspiration. As most adults learn, even simple dreams are often complicated by reality. Think of my grandmother out in that hot parking lot, trying to hide her sadness. Perhaps, too, it is the business of writers to be obsessed with disappointment--the fundamental subject of so much literature. Being professional dreamers, writers naturally like to invent characters who dream. But try as we might to depict human hopes as soaring upward, like so many soap bubbles blown into the sky, it seems we cannot stop ourselves from chasing a few bubbles back down to the earth, where dreams are broken.