Bestselling author Jasmin Darznik’s third novel
is a captivating read. Its 333 pages bring to life the heyday of 1920’s San Francisco bohemia as seen through the eyes of legendary photographer Dorothea Lange. Darznik focuses on Lange’s early life and friendships before she was famous. Below is my Q&A with the Bay Area-based writer.
I want to be a photographer and my mother said, you have to have something to fall back on. I didn’t want anything to fall back on. I knew it was dangerous to have something to fall back on.’ Dorothea Lange
What did she mean?
This is based on an actual quote from Lange. I think what she meant is that having a back-up plan can stop you from doing the thing you most want to do. She herself actually did have something to fall back on (she earned a teaching credential), but she dispensed with it quickly to pursue photography. It wasn’t at all prudent, but she essentially created this mindset in which failure was not an option.
How did Lange’s early life as a portrait photographer taking pictures of high society San Franciscans
prepare her for her later grittier depression-era documentary work?
On the face of it, these two bodies of work seem irreconcilable, but those early years as a portrait photograph honed her technical skills as well as those “soft skills” of establishing rapport with her sitters. During the Depression she shifted her focus to people who’d rarely been considered important enough to be the subject of portraits, but in doing so she was able to draw from her many years of working one-on-one with clients as a portrait photographer.
You have written three books – The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life, Song of a Captive Bird about the rebellious, feminist Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad and most recently The Bohemians. All three novels center on real-life women who struggled and fought to overcome societal challenges. Your Iranian family emigrated to the Bay Area when you were just five, and faced many challenges. Do you think your experience of being an outsider helped you to become a writer?
Absolutely. Immigration is a profoundly unsettling experience. It trains you to be a “first-class noticer,” which was Saul Bellow’s requirement for a writer. I never feel entirely at home anywhere—except in books and writing. I truly feel that writing saved my life. It’s a place where being an outsider isn’t just tolerated, but useful.
In discussing Song of a Captive Bird, you said, ‘an exemplary life doesn’t have to be a perfect life. An exemplary life is one that blasts open our sense of what is possible.” How would you apply that quote to Dorothea Lange?
Your book has many eerie parallels with today- the Spanish flu was raging, anti-immigrant sentiment, nationalistic fervour, Chinese hate crimes were on the rise, even the roaring twenties could be making a comeback. History seems to be repeating itself. Was it unsettling doing the research for The Bohemians?
It could be unsettling at times, but with respect to anti-immigrant sentiments and hate crimes, it wasn’t surprising. I often think about what Faulker said about the past being neither dead, nor the past. If you are an immigrant or a person of color, there’s never been a time when those stories haven’t been happening.
You can read the rest of my interview with Darznik here at 26, to inspire the love of words.