Inter State, the new collection of personal essays by José Vadi describes a psychogeography of California. He explores a place that exists within his imagination, his thoughts and memories, and sometimes within his lived experience. This writing evokes examples like Jacques Roubaud’s The Form of the City Changes, Alas, Faster Than The Human Heart or Julien Gracq’s The Shape of a City.
Vadi is a contributor to various publications, including Catapult, McSweeney’s, and the Los Angeles Review of Books; he is a playwright and poet; and he has worked as a communications professional for two decades, and it shows. He has a mature voice; intelligent yet probing. And each essay has the wit and candor of a conversation with a knowledgeable friend. He addresses several main themes, from family history to the broader history of farmworkers, to music and his own adolescence. Above all he describes an ambivalent relationship to the place called California, drawing on his own experience and his heritage as a Latino, of Mexican and Afro-Boricua descent.
In the titular essay, Vadi travels through the Central Valley seeking clues about his grandfather, who traveled to California from Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl: “There’s never been a time that I’ve driven through the Central Valley without thinking, ‘Is this where he worked?’ Those orchards, buzzing by in rows of skeletal wrath– did he rest in their shade, away from the highway? For years I thought Abuelo’s work stopped at the Salinas Valley, before I heard about trips as far north as San Jose. I can’t trace all the miles, but I can go to those fields that have been razed and seeded and destroyed and irrigated and dammed… I can trace those parts of the regurgitated re-profited California to which he contributed his labor, his blood, his life.”
This is an essay about discovery. Vadi visits the National Cesar Chavez Memorial. He visits the Arvin Sunset Labor Camp, where “the famed community hall… has withstood generations of storms, unwilling to meet the same fate as those faded Okie shacks almost melting into the San Joaquin Delta near Stockton.” He drives past a cross commemorating the death of thirty two bracero farmworkers, the deadliest automobile crash in U.S. history. And as he drives he uncovers the history of the farm workers, like his grandfather, that brought so much wealth to the famed Salad Bowl of the World. Looking at these places, revisiting the history works against the rub of time and markets.
Most of Vadi’s essays encapsulate a movement across space. He visits locales. He observes change. And he makes himself present in a space. And this movement doubly serves as a metaphor for movement through time. One of the principal arguments of the text is the persistent sense that visiting a place, seeing a place, commemorating a place is important.
Vadi self-describes as an aging hipster, a reformed skater attempting to live in a corporate world: “I’m obviously and painfully soft compared to my former self, everything I’d hate myself for being. I’m searching for the mischief that was critical for me, once a straight-edge and studious teenager in a strict Brown liberal home, dedicated to living, writing “CARPE DIEM” in Wite-Out on my skateboard’s grip tape.”
Some of the most exciting and elegiac pieces in the collection relate to his positionality within an aging counterculture: the world of skateboarding. In these essays he captures the energy and vibrancy of skate culture. We get the sense that there is something magical in the hidden, or disappearing, memorials of skateboard culture across the gentrified urban environments of contemporary Los Angeles and San Francisco. Vadi almost hearkens back to Stendahl as he joins young skaters, or an aging pro to shred a familiar landscape: “Within that split-second pop of my initial ollie, a montage of skate history flies across my mind along with the rush of not just experiencing, but realizing the experience is occurring on hallowed ground. The moment my board even touches the asphalt, I can feel the rush of being there, imitating Eric Koston, Tony Ferguson, Keenan Milton, Guy Mariano, Jason Dill sessioning that infamous random Los Angeles schoolyard.”
There is also the music that defined his Boomer mother’s adolescence: “I play songs that make Chicanos, old-timers, hip-hop-beat purists, ex-cons who ride on Central Valley Amtrak trains, skateboarders, and me feel at home. These are the sounds that blared from cars and amphitheaters during my mother’s time in Los Angeles, and that are probably blaring out of the cars that sometimes crowd 24th and Mission on Friday nights, the lowrider shows drowning out the done of gentrified Bernal Heights. These songs are for those Chicanos who’ve spawned across the Central Valley, through all of California, Arizona, and Nevada, and still tune in to listen to their ritual – The Art Laboe Connection – six nights a week, a show on air long enough to reflect the 1950s sound that started it.” Vadi suggests that there is something important in the continued performance of low-rider jams, the survival of vibes.
He is personal in his fears around erasure: “I fear losing California. I already lost both my grandfather and, per his request, his home in La Verne, the home I walked to daily until the age of seventeen, sold to a family who felt an old, well-maintained orange tree, one whose shade was cast so wide and dark it defined the first caverns of my nascent definitions of fear, was worth chopping down to afford them the luxury of nothingness, a bigger backyard and market-bought citrus. So, too, are the chiles gone, the tomatoes, the lemons, the aguacates, the nopales, and most notably, the stretched out plastic lawn chairs topped with repurposed cushions, where Abuelo would lie beneath any number of trees in a quiet safety.”
Vadi is authentic in discussing fears around his own precarity. His own fears of erasure. And the tenuous bonds, so heartbreaking, that hold families together. “Families are papier-mache levels of balance, emotionally, socially and historically, and each moment shared is a time-stamped reminder of what’s occurred and what can never be again. “ In one essay, an unfortunate car accident threatens to unravel his hard fought grip on familial togetherness. And his descriptions of the men in his family, masculinity’s impossible push and pulls, provide moments of tenderness, insight, and heartbreak.
It’s a clear eyed collection, lyrical and well researched, anchored by Vadi’s charismatic and thoughtful voice. At turns fascinating and heartbreaking, Inter State explores California in an irresistible movement from a disappearing past to a fearful unknown.
Inter State: Essays from California
By José Vadi
Soft Skull Press
Published September 5th, 2021
Joseph Houlihan lives and works in Minneapolis, MN.