When immigration and identity collide

A new novel reminds us that love can keep us together.

 

Lydia Kiesling’s debut novel The Golden State is an energetic work of fiction that sharply comments on immigration, identity and modern-day motherhood. Set in California, the story follows 10 days in the life of its resilient protagonist, Daphne, who is fighting to hold her world together as everything around her crumbles.

Her husband, a native of Turkey, has had his green card revoked under dubious circumstances and is stranded half a world away. Two students from the university where Daphne works got into a car accident while overseas — on a study-abroad program she helped arrange — and one of them is dead. Thrown into an emotional abyss, Daphne acts on that most basic of human impulses, and flees. The opening line of the novel reveals her thinking:

“I am staring out the window of my office and thinking about death when I remember the way Paiute smells in the early morning in the summer before the sun burns the dew off the fescue.”

And so Daphne impulsively strides out of her office, retrieves her 16-month-old daughter, Honey, from daycare, and points her Oldsmobile northeast, toward the doublewide trailer she inherited from her parents in the high desert of Northern California. Unbeknownst to her, an anti-government secessionist movement is gaining steam in her family’s hometown, and this already-overwhelmed woman is about to get caught up in the midst of yet more high-stakes drama.

A car outside of a 2017 State of Jefferson meeting in Redding, California.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

Kiesling, the editor of the online literary website The Millions, brings a wry humor to this emotionally charged story. At her wit’s end, for example, Daphne thinks about seeing her deported husband: “I am alone with our child whose first steps and first words you are missing and I sometime fantasize about meeting you at the airport with her and kissing you passionately and then throttling you until you die.”

Fair enough.

The book offers the reader a chance to compare the seemingly disparate cultures of Turkey, the emerging economy that is home to Daphne’s husband, Engin, and California, a nation-state unto itself. The two places share more similarities than most Americans imagine: Both suffer from random acts of public violence against civilians, and both have leaders with autocratic tendencies.

“The whole trajectory of our marriage has been westward,” Daphne says. “It’s true that in Turkey there is Erdoğan the tyrant sultan and also that there are safety concerns of various kinds but the last incident was the woman from Dagestan who bombed the police station and that was months ago and America is no picnic on that score what with roomfuls of murdered kindergarteners lying in their own blood. Oh God.”

And then, once Daphne arrives in Altavista, the heart of Paiute County, we meet her neighbor: Cindy Cooper. Cindy is a supporter of the State of Jefferson, a movement that believes that Northern California and southern Oregon should secede together and form their own separate state. Listening to her neighbors and family friends endorse secession, wallow in conspiracy theories and complain endlessly about government interference, Daphne thinks, aghast, “This is California.

Daphne is shocked by the nativism and ignorance she finds in her family’s community. Though they are kind to Daphne and her daughter, her neighbors espouse insular, xenophobic beliefs. They equate Islam with ISIS, believe that Barrack Hussein Obama is a secret Muslim, and think that the United Nations has a secret agenda to seize control of their homesteads.

The truth is that California is a wide and diverse vessel that can hold many ideologies simultaneously. A pluralistic society can be home to both an American wife and a deported Turkish husband, to a baby named Honey Mehmeto˘glu and State of Jefferson secessionists who want to be left alone, to bureaucrats in Sacramento and Salem who send more services to the would-be free state of Jefferson than they receive revenue from.

In the midst of all the action, Kiesling carves out small spaces in the novel to describe the California high desert in gorgeous, loving prose.

“The sky is a pallid, milky blue now, save a gray mass to the far north, with the shady apparition of summer rain high in the sky in the far distance,” Kiesling writes. “The valley is a balm after the ravages of town, a vast open view of soft-looking green grasses, the yellow sweep of hills moving up into low forested peaks at the basin’s far reach. It’s not verdant, not gentle, but it looks pretty good.”

In the end, Kiesling’s novel reminds us that love and family are the only glue that can keep us together, particularly when all else seems lost. She also shows us that home is an emotional bond as well as a physical place, and that sometimes running away from our problems makes us miss the solution that was right there in front of us.

Mary Slosson is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. She was formerly a correspondent for the newswire Reuters covering the American West, and has also served as editor of the Telluride Daily Planet in Telluride, Colorado. She is working on her debut novel.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DIRECTOR OF EXTERNAL AFFAIRS
    This newly created position with The Nature Conservancy's Colorado River Program will play a key role in the development and implementation of strategies to achieve...
  • PROGRAM OFFICER, INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES, NOVO FOUNDATION
    The Foundation NoVo Foundation acts from the original meaning of philanthropy: the love of humanity. The Foundation is dedicated to catalyzing a global social transformation...
  • ARMY OF THE DOG
    A new generation of monkey wrenchers hits the Front Range?
  • ANNIE CLARK TANNER FELLOWSHIP IN ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    The Tanner Humanities Center and the Environmental Humanities Program of the University of Utah seek an environmental writer to offer classes in Utahs Environmental Humanities...
  • ALASKA STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society works to protect Wildlands and inspire Americans to care for our public lands. We seek to hire a strategic, experienced leader who...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) seeks an individual to lead this 45-year-old organization as executive director, to carry on ICLs work as Idahos leading voice...
  • IDAHO RIVERFRONT:
    2+ acres, 400+ feet on Snake River, 2800 sf residence, NWF-certified wildlife habitat, excellent hunting, fishing, birdwatching, stargazing, sunsets & panoramic views. In the heart...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS IS EXPANDING - THREE JOB OPENINGS
    Guardians is expanding and looking for a few great people to join us in protecting and restoring the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health...
  • SUNNYSIDE MARKET SEEKS NEW PROPRIETOR
    Organic grocery/cafe at Glacier Bay needs a vibrant leader. Love good food, community, and Alaska? Join us!
  • NO INDIVIDUAL HEROES: OURAY MOUNTAIN RESCUE TEAM
    Ouray County, Colorado, a popular tourist destination, has dramatic mountains and amazing winter ice climbing. Challenging terrain and high altitude can push visitors to their...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM COORDINATOR - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Coordinator-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM MANAGER - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Manager-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM ASSOCIATE, SOUTHERN CA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Southern CA. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • THE BOOK OF BARLEY -
    Collector's Item! The story of barley, the field crop. 50 years of non-fiction research. www.barleybook.com
  • TEMPORARY ASSISTANT EDITOR
    Are you a climber and a writer who is passionate about mountain literature? Do you love searching through old alpine journals for stories of esoteric...
  • OWN YOUR OWN CANYON - 1400 SF STRAW-BALE ECO-HOME ON 80 ACRES - 3 HOURS FROM L.A.
    1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • GRASSROOTS LEADERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a full-time grassroots leadership director to oversee all aspects of the Grassroots Leadership Program. This includes ongoing development of...
  • RIVER TRIP LEADER & EDUCATOR
    Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • RIVER GUIDE AND EDUCATOR
    Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...