I first went to San Francisco when I was eighteen. I ate couscous in a youth hostel and got a tattoo and bought a pair of paisley pants in Haight-Ashbury and I was reading a lot of Kerouac so my diary is full of words like crazy and gone and every second person I met was a zen lunatic. At the hallowed City Lights bookshop I found Joyce Johnson's Minor Characters, her memoir of coming of age during the Beat generation and set to underlining it and making notes in the margins. San Francisco's Beat Museum didn't exist then, but now it's a showcase of beat-related literature, an intense hub of cultural ephemera. From the website: The Beat Museum is dedicated to spreading the spirit of the Beat Generation, which we define as tolerance, compassion and having the courage to live your individual truth. In one alcove there was a collection of photographs of women writers and associates, led by a quote from Brenda Knight's book, Women of the Beat Generation: the Writers, Artists and Muses at the heart of a Revolution:
"Why were there so few women among the Beat writers? and (Gregory)Corso, suddenly utterly serious, leans forward and says: "There were women, they were there, I knew them, their families put them in institutions, they were given electric shock. In the '50s if you were male you could be a rebel, but if you were female your families had you locked up."
I'm fascinated by the lives of these women who were outside convention, and am reading whatever I can get my hands on. While away I read and enjoyed Helen Weaver's The Awakener - you can map Jack Kerouac by the women who've written about him - but how else would we have female accounts of this period in history? I find this so interesting - it's also why I'm drawn to books like Mary McCarthy's The Group and Rona Jaffe's The Best of Everything - they can be seen as feminist texts because they tell women's stories. (NB: further reading on marginalised women in beatdom here).
My SF trip ended with a reading at the Sausalito library - I read from Girl Defective and gave out a little zine about Tales of the City and share-houses and talked about the process of the memoir- it was lovely to see West Coast friends and share food and wine on a warm night with the bay all glittering around us. The Sausalito library has a community-run bookshop upstairs which was full of treasures - things I've been searching for like Reyner Banham's Los Angeles, the aforementioned Helen Weaver, and a photographic supplement to The Diary of Anais Nin. I had to be prudent with my purchases (hate that!) but now that I'm home I have spread out my artefacts and story-sparkers, my 'litter-ature': books and postcards, a zine about Marlon Brando, articles to read and leads to chase up, and once I get over my cold I will get down to the serious business of putting it all into some kind of order.
I travelled to the US as a recipient of the UNESCO Melbourne City of Literature Travel Fund, and was hosted in San Francisco by the VAR program.
(Many thanks to the directors and artists of Varda Arts Residency; to Melita, Ruby, Laura, Karen & Kathy; to Sausalito Library; to the UNESCO Melbourne City of Literature Travel Fund; to the inspirers and to my family.)