Jasmin Darznik's historical novel 'The Bohemians' follows Dorothea Lange’s West Coast transformation – The San Diego Union-Tribune

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Jasmin Darznik’s new historical novel, “The Bohemians,” traces iconic photographer Dorothea Lange’s early career in San Francisco. Just like Lange, Darznik’s family experienced the city as a new beginning, decades later.
“My family fled Iran during the Iranian Revolution,” said the best-selling author. “For my parents, San Francisco was a beacon of freedom, as well as a place of great beauty and cultural diversity. I think the city held much the same allure for Dorothea Lange.
“There is another parallel: Writing the novel forced me to look hard at San Francisco’s history, particularly its treatment of Asian immigrants. It’s this history Dorothea must reckon with in the novel — and ultimately transforms her from a society photographer to the great artist we know.”
“The Bohemians” chronicles Lange’s budding career, which shaped her into an influential Depression and World War II photographer. The plot combines a glittering bohemian art colony, friendships, racism and self-invention.
Darznik’s debut novel, “Song of a Captive Bird,” was a New York Times Book Review “Editors Choice” and Los Angeles Times best-seller. Her books have been published in 17 countries. Currently, she’s a professor of English and creative writing at the California College of the Arts and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.
Q: Who was Dorothea Lange, and why did she relocate to San Francisco?
A: Dorothea Lange is one of the most highly regarded photographers of all time. Her photographs of the Depression, particularly “Migrant Mother,” are her best-known work. She also took thousands of other unforgettable photographs, including those she took of the (World War II) Japanese Internment.
A New Jersey native, she came to San Francisco in 1918 when the portrait studio where she’d been working was closed. Since she couldn’t go to Europe, she went west. During her first days in San Francisco, she was robbed of all her money. That was the end of her travels and the start of a whole new life.
Q: What was Monkey Block, and what’s there today?
A: Monkey Block was the nickname for Montgomery Block, an artists’ colony that housed some 800 artists and writers over its 100-plus-year history in San Francisco. Mark Twain lived there, and so did Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. In 1959, it was demolished to make way for a parking lot. Ten years later, it became the site of the Transamerica Pyramid, which stands there now.
Q: Why is the fictional character, Caroline Lee, a large part of this novel?
A: One of the joys of writing fiction is that you can interrupt history and insert stories that have been lost or forgotten. Caroline Lee is based on Lange’s Chinese American assistant. In some places, her name appears as Ah-yee, but she’s literally without a name in most accounts, referred to only as the “Chinese girl.” In tandem with exploring Dorothea Lange’s artistic coming-of-age, I wanted to explore the kind of life this young woman might have led. I imagined her as mixed race, an outsider, a child of immigrants or perhaps an immigrant herself — experiences I knew well. I wanted to celebrate her place in Lange’s story and suggest how she may have influenced Lange’s vision and work.
Q: What did the camera teach Dorothea Lange about life? What do you think she’d say about today’s cell phone camera?
A: Lange once said, ‘A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera.’ She felt photography could teach you to pay closer attention to the world as you move through it. Does the ease of taking pictures nowadays encourage that kind of attention or dissipate it? I often feel pulling out my iPhone creates a barrier between what I see and what I feel. I think that would’ve troubled Lange. On the other hand, cell phones are playing a vital role in current social justice movements around the world, and that’s something I believe she’d very much celebrate.
Q: What minor character did you have the most fun writing?
A: I fell hard for Consuelo Kanaga. She was one of the first women journalists in San Francisco. When they met, Lange was still a decade away from documentary photography, but Kanaga was already melding activism and art. Dorothea Lange admired her enormously. As I began writing “The Bohemians,” I knew I needed someone who could go places other women couldn’t or wouldn’t go. Consuelo was that woman.
Q: What two writers inspire you?
A: For the breadth of her interests, and the brilliance with which she tackled them, no one compares to Virginia Woolf. I recently re-read “A Room of One’s Own” and was thunderstruck. In terms of contemporary writers, I’m drawn to Saidiya Hartman, particularly her recent book “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments,” which weaves the personal, experiential, imagined and archival.
Q: What are two of your “to be read” books?
A: My next novel is set in 1930s and 1940s Hollywood, so I’ve been steeped in books about that time. Top of the stack are “The Star Machine” by Jeanine Basinger and “MGM Style: Cedric Gibbons and the Art of the Golden Age of Hollywood” by Howard Gutner.
The Bohemians” by Jasmin Darznik (Ballantine Books, 352 pages).
When: 4 p.m. Sunday, April 11
Where: Hosted by Adventures by the Book: “The Bohemians”: A 1920s Jazz Age Virtual Adventure
Tickets: $32 plus tax (includes Zoom event admission plus hardcover copy of “The Bohemians,” shipping within the U.S. and signed bookplate)
Phone: (619) 300-2532
Online: adventuresbythebook.com
Davidson is a freelance writer.
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