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review by Jason Kirby

The inside cover of Sesshu Foster’s City Terrace Field Manual features a stark black-and-white photograph depicting skyscrapers on the smoggy Los Angeles horizon. But these buildings are not in the foreground. Instead, the majority of the frame is crammed with houses, houses that look as if they’ve seen better days. From the vantage point of these ghetto dwellings, the big buildings, the centers of wealth and power, seem miles away.Reading this 1996 Foster collection is like being inserted into that photograph. He writes from the perspective of an outsider, a man who understands what race and class conflicts have done to the city he grew up in, and yet refuses to let bitterness overtake him. UC-Santa Cruz, and our creative writing program specifically, are privileged to count him as an alumnus. It seems difficult to say where this book would be shelved in your local bookstore: fiction, poetry, autobiography? City Terrace Field Manual defies classification, it is all three of those genres at once. The reader is presented with 167 vignettes of the author’s life, growing up in the Los Angeles neighborhood of City Terrace. Despite the constant blurring between fact and fiction, it becomes clear over the course of the book that Foster is of mixed Japanese, Latin American, and Caucasian heritage, although it appears that City Terrace is a predominantly Latino neighborhood. As a narrator, he seems to identify most closely with that Latino side of himself, while never turning his back on the other ethnic roots which give his life more complexity and richness. For example, in the fragment beginning “Why black is in style,” Foster declares:

Los Angeles is my city, I sucked on her neck, gave her purple hickeys before she backhanded me out a car at 35 MPH on a turn in Highland Park. From a street corner, all the Chinese signs in Alhambra declare her love. Korean signs of Koreatown are just another word for feelings. Beautiful hair of Vietnamese noodles. Wonderful smile of oranges sold at East L.A. on-ramps. Big bottles of pigs feet & giant kosher dills on the counter at every corner store. (51)

The celebratory and embracing style of the writing is immediately evident, despite the grittiness and violence which also pervades the book. Foster has a truly modern, realistic grasp as a writer on California, a state which becomes more like its own nation every day, a nation of immigrants and many languages. Placing pigs feet next to Vietnamese noodles is an odd, jarring pastiche, but it works.This brings up the overall disjointedness of Foster’s narrative, which cannot really be called a narrative at all. Instead, we get episodes, moments in time that are remembered sometimes with aching attention to detail, sometimes with hazy, stream-of-consciousness thought-pictures. This presentation seems intentional on Foster’s part: a life is being displayed before the reader which cannot be told in a simple, linear narrative common to most Western fiction. Here, the poetic side of his work takes over, offering an escape from stale forms, dragging us by the hand into a world rich with contradictions and complexities.And what a world it is. One of the greatest pleasures in reading City Terrace Field Manual is the way his prose assaults the five senses. In the fragment beginning “Hey, Manny,” the author reflects:The Texaco on Eastern burned down, where Ernie the wino once lived. Remember his face, fried like chorizo, cracked in the morning sun? His clothes greasy black, stretching his hand out to us on our way to school. He looked like that all the time, then one day he puked his guts out and lay face down in black blood. (9)

It is harrowing details such as these, so vivid it almost seems they can’t be fiction, which give this work its lifeblood. Foster tells it like he sees it; there is no time for philosophizing or sermonizing to the reader. He lets the memories speak for themselves.

Memory plays a huge role in how Foster tells his small stories. Most of the fragments are related in past tense, some in present, but never in future. This again seems to be a conscious artistic decision: it is as though in a neighborhood as tough as City Terrace, the only thing that matters is right now, and what got us to that moment. The future can wait until tomorrow. Foster underscores this dependency on the past with multiple references to photographs, such as “Orale, carnal, check out this photograph I found: it’s from the old days out in the desert! What bad-ass dudes!” (163). While it is unclear whether the voice employed here is Foster’s own or that of a friend, we get the feeling of a cluster of homeboys gathering around, peering at a yellowed photo and laughing as it resurrects old memories, some pleasant, some not. And although there is no cohesive narrative to the book, memory does provide some of the few threads which patch it together. For example, the phrase “the thin knife edge of light in dead flies on the windowsill” is first voiced on page 14 and then repeated in the seemingly unrelated fragment on page 161. Such lacing of evocative language throughout causes the reader to question the nature of memory itself, and Foster’s reasons in presenting it this way.

Another memory which permeates the text is a memory of revolution. This is not necessarily revolution on a grand, national scale, but more often little revolutions which the author observed and even instigated in his own barrio. Foster cleverly invokes the Filipino revolutionary writer Carlos Bulosan when on the page 32 fragment, he states: “America is in the Heart and we are in the canebrake, we do not want to see St. Quentin again.” By name-checking Bulosan’s famous novel of immigration and awakening to a radical consciousness, Foster asks the reader just how far revolution for America’s impoverished racial minorities has come since Bulosan was writing in the 1940’s. This doubting of the power of activism continues in the book’s longest fragment, which begins “Maria Altamirando was our community spokesperson” (117). In very straightforward language, Foster details to the reader how the work of his local, predominantly Hispanic chapter of the Progressive Anti-War Organization (PAO) was undermined by uncaring white leadership in Washington D.C. Included in this story is the tale of Maria Altamirando, whom Foster portrays as “selling out” a bit to claim a leadership role within the PAO organization. He comments on her ascension out of LA later in the fragment: “And I wonder what she’s doing far away across the country, over there in the capital, surrounded by white folks and politicians” (120). It is interesting here how Foster maintains the revolutionary fervor of Bulosan without succumbing to that man’s misogynist slant (in his vitriolic depiction of union organizer Helen, for example). Foster seems to recognize that ultimately race and gender intersect in more subtle ways than Bulosan could have imagined, and that sometimes the rise of an individual must take precedence over the dreams of a community. He doesn’t seem to have hate in his heart for Maria, only a sense of wonder as to how she could have succeeded when so many others have failed.

Finally, as with Bulosan, Foster remembers youth. His teenage years form a good portion of these fragments, and he captures lovingly the confusions of being young in a world of backbreaking landscape work, hot dirty skies, and gang warfare. In an evocation of these themes, he writes: “the families walking through heat waves at Evergreen Cemetery; ragged-assed palm trees & friends who’d rather read magazines than try to think–hey, whatever, whatever is left; whatever you allow–you know what I’m saying–I’ll take it” (111). This kind of desperation, a sort of grasping for an identity in a fractured world, are at the heart of this book. The passage above captures those feelings when they are clouded by teenage angst, but in the final, extremely moving fragment, Foster clarifies the meaning of another childhood incident:

My dad floats a world away on his shining fucking sea and a cop confiscates the Swiss army knife he sent me for my birthday. The cop loves the knife, he smiles as he puts it in his pocket; “Kids like you are not allowed to carry knives.” Because of that, I despise my dad more than I hate the cops. (168)

We are chilled, as the author can look back on such a story with enough analytical power to make sense of it all, to realize that hatred from the white race only brings on more hatred within the communities they oppress. This careful portrait of internalized racial fury puts Foster in the company of such luminaries as Toni Morrison, who have spent careers dissecting what he states so bluntly (and so well) in just a few lines. Such is the amazing power when poetry and prose are combined, and when a writer has the courage to look at childhood outside the maudlin, idealized model many slip into. Instead, Foster takes on his formative years with the true grit and ambiguity that was really there, and from that experience creates powerful, socially-relevant art.The title of this work, City Terrace Field Manual, is paradoxical: it fits and it doesn’t fit. On the one hand, the book does not give instructions for living in such a harsh environment, as the word manual might suggest. In fact, it seems to raise more questions than it answers. But on the other hand, like any good field guide, Foster’s book gives the reader an wholly unique, wholly immersive feel for the landscape of City Terrace. In those nauseating details, we are right there with him, walking along the cracked asphalt, choking on the smog–bringing to life Foster’s reminder: “I exist. That means trouble” (37). City Terrace Field Manual is searing and shot through with sunlight, and it cannot be ignored.

Jason Kirby is a double major in literature/creative writing and sociology. This is his last year at UCSC.
(c) 2001 Creative Writing Program

May 2010
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