In connection with ICW’s “What Does California Mean?” conference in April 2008, then USC student Anna-Marie McLemore wrote a prize-winning essay, “Orange Country.” ICW reached out to Anna-Marie for her current thoughts on California and an update on her work. Below is McLemore’s update that mentions her third novel, Wild Beauty, due in October followed by an excerpt from her original essay from 2008.
By Anna-Marie McLemore
California became my family’s country. It became our home even when it broke our hearts. Even when it was drought-scarred. Even when wildfires turned the sun red. Even when I learned that growing up Mexican-American meant this country was both my home and a place I may never truly be welcome.
Wild Beauty is the story of women making a home on land they know may turn on them. It’s a story of women whose hands make gardens and whose hearts can be poison. Maybe it’s in my blood, the parts of Mexico my family came from. Maybe it’s from growing up a Latina girl in California. But the idea of home, the landscape of it, is both beauty and fear. It’s the understanding that anything can happen, and how that truth is both wonderful and terrifying.
Excerpt from “Orange Country” by Anna-Marie McLemore (2008)
California is the only place I know where the sky, just before the sun vanishes, flashes to the pink-red of the jamaica my great-grandmother made from hibiscuses and rose petals, but that my cousins and I mixed from packets we bought in the same grocery aisle as Kool-Aid and powdered lemonade. California is the only country I know that my great-grandmother could have built from the magazines she found in her older sister’s dresser drawers, and that my father could have fallen in love with through the creased paper of citrus crate labels. Those born in California – my mother, my brothers, me – find their heartbeat here. But everyday the air between the clouds and the earth trills and vibrates with the life of thousands who, like my roommate, are finding their center of gravity in the current of the Santa Ana winds.
For all my enchantment with this country called California, I have never looked at an orange as though it held a teaspoon of stardust. Maybe because I was born here, I am less likely to notice how oleander flowers, set in their dark leaves, move like clouds in the night sky, or how spring comes on so fast and warm that apricot trees blossom all at once, for only a few days.