Some authors travel the world in search of material. Others stay close to home. Keenan Norris' new novel, "Brother and the Dancer" (Heyday Books), is set in California -- the town of Highland, to be exact, near San Bernardino in the "Inland Empire," where the author was born and raised. It's a place that doesn't appear often in fiction, but for Norris, 32, it's ideal -- a setting of extreme contrasts, one he calls "ground zero for a lot of America's problems." Those problems are embodied in the book's title characters, Toussaint and Erycha, African-American kids who live on opposite sides of Highland. In alternating chapters, "Brother and the Dancer" follows them from youth to adulthood, yielding a moving, tale-of-two-cities portrait of the region.
Norris, a recent recipient of the James D. Houston award for emerging authors, lives in the East Bay now -- after college at UC Riverside, he moved to San Leandro to complete graduate studies at Mills College. He currently teaches English and African-American literature at Evergreen Valley College in San Jose. But the Inland Empire continues to occupy a significant place in his imagination.
"Not too many people are writing about the area," Norris explained in a recent interview in Berkeley. "But I became more and more interested in its austere character, the severity of its weather patterns and its socioeconomic patterns -- that mixture of hyper-suburbia and de-industrialized American blight."
In recent years, the region has been a hub for minority flight -- the move away from cities to outlying suburbs. "We still have this stereotype about Chocolate City, Vanilla Suburbs," says Norris. "But black, Latino and Asian people have been the largest groups moving to the Inland Empire."
"Brother and the Dancer" is a study in contrasts. Toussaint lives in the suburbs; his parents are middle-class, and his two older sisters attend the University of Southern California. A sensitive student, he seems destined for success. Erycha, the dancer, lives on the poor side of town. Her dream is to study ballet.
"Toussaint wants to get out of the suburbs, and Erycha wants out of the 'hood," says Norris. "Toussaint's in search of the black community he didn't grow up in; Erycha wants to be a ballerina -- and ain't too many ballerinas there." The book begins with their first meeting at college orientation, then loops back to recount earlier episodes in their lives. Eventually, both families migrate to East Oakland.
Norris finds the humor in their struggles, from Erycha's boyfriend woes to Toussaint's short-lived glory on the high school football team, where his fellow players call him Tupac because they can't pronounce his name. "I really tried to avoid stereotypes," says the author, "to express things viscerally, as the characters would perceive them, not as what would be most poetic or diplomatic or politically correct." Norris' own childhood was closer to Toussaint's than Erycha's -- his Chicago-born father was a psychologist, and his mom, who grew up in the farm town of Raisin City, was a librarian. Keenan was an only child, one who started reading at an early age -- Steinbeck and Larry McMurtry were favorites. When he was 12, his dad gave him a copy of "Go Tell It on the Mountain" by James Baldwin. "He said, 'Read this and you'll know more about me,' " he recalls.
Norris started writing soon after, and his teachers -- including author Susan Straight, who became a mentor at UC Riverside -- took notice.
"Brother and the Dancer" is his first novel. The book grew out of a series of short stories he began in 2003; eventually, he decided to merge them, with the characters' ties becoming "a kind of organic linkage." Norris is still an avid reader. His interests are wide-ranging, and one of his passions is street lit. He's become an authority on the genre and is the editor of a recently released book of critical essays titled "Street Lit" (Scarecrow Press).
On the day we talked, he said he was also close to completing his second novel. Titled "The Almost City," it's set in San Bernardino.
"It's about the city that should have been Las Vegas," he says. "The Mob was all in that area during Prohibition, and liquor got moved into SoCal through there. It's a kind of underground history of the city -- one that's not in the textbooks."
Norris says he doesn't understand why so many emerging authors write about places far from home. "People grow up in Oklahoma and write about New York," he says. "But California is what New York was 150 years ago. It's the port of call, the destination of humanity, and it's where so many of this country's problems are getting sorted out."