In the Country of Women’ celebrates the ‘love of thousands

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Susan Straight has called Riverside home her entire life. The arid, inland California city may be much more unassuming than neighboring Los Angeles, but for the acclaimed author, Riverside’s diverse community holds myriad stories that have provided endless fodder for her career as a novelist over the last three decades. For some, including generations of her family, Southern California also became the epitome of “the golden dream.” Now, Straight has turned the lens inward with the debut of her first memoir, “In the Country of Women,” publishing Aug. 6 by Catapult. The book provides not only a richly detailed and intimate look at the life of the author and her family, who have lived in Riverside within the same 5-mile radius for decades, but brims with the stories of the six generations of immigrant and multiracial women — bonded by blood, marriage, and circumstance — that form her robust extended family and paved the way to Southern California for their descendants. Straight, a distinguished professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, started writing the memoir in earnest five years ago, but said it really began at a gathering in the driveway of her eventual mother-in-law, Alberta Sims, who reached out her hand to the then 16-year-old offering to make her a plate of food and changed her life forever. “That’s the first night that I heard my mother-in-law telling these stories in the kitchen,” Straight said. “I started it with the driveway — what the driveway meant to me, as a human, as a woman, as a Californian … We held all the important moments of our lives there, just this long strip of cement.” Straight has collected her family’s stories over 40 years, encouraged to write them down by her late mentor, James Baldwin. She became compelled to record them in the last few years as older generations began passing away. “The most important thing was that people were dying,” she said. “Those storytellers and what they remembered from their grandmother who had been born to someone who had been enslaved — I didn’t want to lose that. In a family like ours, all these stories exist like legends in the air.”