Joan Didion. Illustration by Julia Felsenthal.
The archetypal California girl is long, lean, and tan with knobbed knees and ankles and salt-tangled, honey-colored hair. I am short and pale, with skin that burns and hair that snarls so that I leave the beach pink, itchy, and disheveled. I grew up in Los Angeles, where the land disappears into miles of ocean. Green coastline erupts above and before the surf, going soft as it fans out into sand and disappears into the crash and spume. No one needed to remind me that I was out of place. My body rejected the state, could not enjoy it, looked ugly in it. Surfers rode California waves, stroking her curves, while I looked on, reading a book under my umbrella. I wanted California but it didn’t want me.
I read to escape: fantasy fiction, strange worlds. Even New England was foreign, with its dark winter, snow, and sleet. I watched California roll by on countless screens—Clueless, 90210—but this only made the place seem more impenetrably glossy and unreachable. I existed as an aberration, a blip of grey static interrupting the screen’s bright sheen.
I made plans to leave, applied to colleges anywhere but here and talked about needing to meet people who hadn’t grown up in California. We were a breed apart, I imagined, all of us sun-addled, complacent, with our surfer-inflected drawls. (It took me years to properly recognize my own accent; sometimes I think it gets stronger the longer I stay away, yearning for home, stretching and flattening my vowels: “Oh fer suuure.”) We had grown up in a balmy, flattering climate on land that always threatened disaster. The calm that came from being raised in an unstable paradise was too much for me. I wanted to meet my neurotic people. I wanted to go east and get cold.
Of course, no one knows this better than Joan Didion. She loves the state as only its exiles can; she recognizes that California is a land for the stupid and beautiful and she knows that there is still a romance to it that, even if you are not stupid or beautiful, makes you wish to belong. I began to read her seriously in my own exile, in a Connecticut dorm room, where she remade California into a land of words, a place I recognized for its splendor as well as its terrible power. Finally, here was a landscape so wholly encompassing that it had room for us all—even its shaky, withdrawn daughters.
Joan Didion is the patron saint of girls like me, and it was not until I was gone that I learned that I was not some lone misfit but one of her tribe: girls who grew up bookish and uncomfortable, who left home only to find themselves drawn back to it. I had no idea that I was a California girl until I left and found myself, finally, somewhere else. It turned out to be pretty nice but it will never be home.
Didion has often been criticized for her remove, for her coldness to so many of her subjects. It is true that her ire can rankle; though I find Slouching Towards Bethlehem faultless, the cruelty in parts of The White Album is hard to take, and The Year of Magical Thinking is hardly tender. I idolize her and I’d never want to meet her; one way and another, I am certain she would not approve.
Didion comes off as a woman too self-possessed to be charmed, which is, funnily enough, what’s so charming about her: to read her is to have the privilege of hearing what that quiet girl in the corner is thinking, the scene sharply observed, sharply described.
But the psyche at the center of her work remains elusive: she describes her world and she describes her mind but she also, often, describes the disconnect between the two. In The White Album she reproduces her psychiatrist’s report; she is not at all shy about her neuroses or her tendency towards migraines, a particularly nervous headache. Somehow, this only makes her seem more powerful: she is physically tiny, constitutionally frail, and entirely unafraid. She passes judgment on others; she lays herself bare on the page. Didion is the writer we want to be: unafraid of our own weaknesses and contradictions, capable of making the usual mess of chaotic human experience into art.
I suppose that describes the task of any great writer, but Didion manages to speak to a particular breed of misfits. You know at least one of us: well dressed if a little prim, a book in every handbag, and a pen for good measure. We can mistake frumpiness for elegance. We are wary to the point of cynicism. We savor solitude, but do not particularly like to be alone. We have found her and now, sometimes, we find each other: the book spines on bedsides tables marking a kindred spirit.
It can be troublesome, all these lonely hearts in pursuit of a single woman, each of us convinced of the primacy of our own claim on her. She helped us to see ourselves, to find our sisters, and we want her to recognize us in return. But these days I try to look beyond that, because that is ultimately just a masked desire to inhabit her voice, to watch it speak through me, and that can’t possibly be the point.
I am only one girl speeding along coastal highways, losing myself as California spreads into ungoverned ocean. I can’t account for the place or myself, not yet, at least. Didion opened my world: reading her, I stopped reading to escape and started reading to better know a place I had taken for granted. So now I love the writer and the state both, as best I can: selflessly, eyes wide to the possibility of loss, always with my arms open, embracing.
Zan Romanoff was born and raised in Los Angeles; she now lives and works in New Haven, Connecticut.
A version of this essay appears in the zine Girl Crush.
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