Susan Straight's acclaimed book of short stories Aquaboogie instantly transports the Midwestern reader to a foreign landscape. While themes of love, family, and the yearning for independence are universal, the working-class black communities of Southern California are about as foreign to Minnesotans as the vineyards of France. Despite, or maybe because of this, the stories resonate with deep poignancy. Straight has a superb way of switching perspective through each of her unique characters and intertwining their personal narratives in subtle ways, leaving the reader longing to be part of the community. There is stark beauty in the simplest of descriptions. A woman braiding hair and listening to the melody of her new baby's gurgles while contemplating her husband's new mistress. A fresh ripe peach plucked and made into pie, or greens that grow naturally and are cut and shared with neighbors as a staple to every meal.
The greens that grew around each house, the always thick, tender grass, the springy tumbleweeds at the edges of the hollow, that was what he'd thought Green Hollows was named for when he was a child, he realized, but it was for the paint, uniform on all the houses that had once been quarters for the orange-grove workers.”
Yes, there are issues of race and drugs and crime, but that is not what keeps the reader's eyes glued to the page. This is a vibrant portrayal of life seen through a kaleidoscope of eyes. And yet, there are peeks into the well-meaning discrimination and lack of racial understanding that a lot of us are guilty of. This in-depth understanding is something Straight excels in.
The first poem he'd ever written was for a bush. He walked through the desert, going home from high school, and close to the road he saw a big, pointed bush; someone must have emptied out an ashtray there, because butterscotch wrappers, deep clear gold, and foil from chocolate kisses studded the branches. In the desert sunlight, it was a Christmas tree, glittered and reflecting against his arms, and he wrote a poem for the bush. His English teacher said it was very good, but not what she'd expected from him. 'Aren't there things you want to write about from your experience, your race?' she said.”
It is no wonder Milkweed Press chose it for their national fiction prize. One feels the depth of the stories deepens as Straight grows as a writer. It is important to note that the stories are not all new; several have been published in other publications. Some pieces even feel too good to be left as a short story and though the writing is strong, Straight has the potential to exceed the bits she has offered to us in “Aquaboogie.”