Picks and Pans Review: Talking With...

updated 07/25/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/25/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

>Susan Straight

MIXED BLESSINGS

"THERE WERE HELICOPTERS PATROLing the neighborhood even when I was little," says Susan Straight. "They got into all my early stories, and I remember a writing teacher at Amherst saying, 'Where did you grow up? Saigon?' "

The answer is Riverside, some 90 miles inland from Los Angeles—which Straight, 33, has transmuted into Rio Seco, the mythic setting of her fiction. She hails from Riverside's tough, racially mixed East Side, a place with "graffiti on the palm trees" and where "everybody is half something—half Filipino, half Japanese, half German, half black," she says. Straight studied creative writing at the University of Southern California and later at Amherst (James Baldwin was one of her teachers) before returning to the hood in 1984, where she lives with husband Dwaync Sims, 35, a county corrections officer she met in eighth grade, and their two daughters.

Straight has no plans to move, despite the urban violence she evoked so vividly in her previous work, the 1990 short-story collection Aquaboogie and her 1992 novel, Been in Sorrow 's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots. "Riverside is all I know, but I know everything about it," she says. That her husband is black has only deepened her understanding of—and affection for—the mixed cultures thriving in the city. "Not that my characters are based on my friends, but all the same we never get to read about people like us," says Straight. "It's nice to think that after we die, someone like us will be in these books and live on."

From Our Partners