José Vadi on Mapping a Changing California
This Week on Otherppl with Brad Listi
José Vadi is the guest. His debut essay collection, Inter State, is available from Soft Skull.
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From the episode:
Brad Listi: I think that’s maybe the word for it, it’s a mecca. People come to California to find their fortune. People historically have come here to make a better life for themselves and escape maybe not so great situations. There’s also this coastal thing that’s happening. The American story unfolds from east to west, migrationally, and I guess with the exception of Hawaii, this is as far as you can get. There’s always been the joke, that Los Angeles is the city at the bottom of a hill into which everything slides. People came here, they had no further to go. It doesn’t apply to everybody, but there is some truth to this idea that if people wound up here, they were running as far as they could go. They got to the ocean and stopped. And there’s a certain kind of person to whom that journey appeals.
José Vadi: Yeah, yeah. And that really speaks to the whole frontier stereotypes surrounding the gold rush and things like that. One thing that was interesting researching the book was learning how much the federal prospectors and purveyors of various industries—whether it was railroad or steel or just the federal government and the collusion between those industries at the time—how much of California was really quote-unquote discovered and developed in the wake of the loss of Mexican control in 1848. That decade of 1850 to 1860 is just heavy in terms of drying up rivers and implementing more agricultural industries. Even for me, I think there’s only been a seven-month period when I’ve lived outside of California, and I learned a lot researching this book as well. And there’s still a lot that was omitted.
But yeah, it’s crazy to drive through the Central Valley, which is so stereotypically—with the exception of the orchards and some of the trees and some of the farms you see—it’s so overwhelmingly dry at times. You’re seeing how that all used to be this entirely different topographical situation. And then you start thinking about how parts of San Francisco used to be sand dunes and all this other stuff. It’s just interesting examining your relationship with place, especially as this climate is changing. So much of this book was written during wildfire seasons that kept getting longer and longer throughout the state.
There were a lot of different ways that the land itself and the topography and its changes were informing the way that I was researching the histories behind Inter State and and how that spoke to those migratory patterns, like the different challenges that people had to face. People that had never encountered snow before now tasked with crossing the Donner Pass. Things like that are insane to think about, especially if you’ve never seen the Donner Pass and you just show up on it today, 2021, and you think about people trying to scale that thing. I mean, it’s unfathomable. It’s a remarkable state. It really is. From skate spots to to the mountains.
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José Vadi is an award-winning essayist, poet, playwright, and film producer. Vadi received the San Francisco Foundation’s Shenson Performing Arts Award for his debut play, a eulogy for three, produced by Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s Living Word Project. He is the author of SoMa Lurk, a collection of photos and poems published by Project Kalahati / Pro Arts Commons. His work has been featured by the PBS NewsHour, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Daily Beast, while his writing has appeared in Catapult, McSweeney’s, New Life Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review of Books, SFMOMA’s Open Space, and Pop-Up Magazine.