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Literature: A Novel Take On Familiar Figures

By Paul Wilner

Jasmin Darznik
Jasmin Darznik

Marin County–based author Jasmin Darznik explores an underreported side of San Francisco’s artistic history in her timely new novel, The Bohemians, which focuses on the bond between photographer Dorothea Lange and her Chinese American assistant, the City’s fertile climate for creative experimentation — and an anti-Asian American bias that seems all too familiar.

Much is made of the changes in San Francisco due to the tech invasion and gentrification. Is it still possible to be a “bohemian’’ in the Bay Area — can the artistic spirit thrive (or even survive) here?

One of the epigraphs for The Bohemians is a line by Will Irwin: “San Francisco isn’t what it used to be, and it never was.” Art and commerce, the bohemian and the businessman, have been closely connected from the start here. That said, I do know people who are keeping that bohemian spirit alive, but it’s rough going. Without teaching, I couldn’t be a writer in the Bay Area. Will the pandemic fundamentally alter any of this? I don’t know, but for the first time in years I can tell prospective students that they’ll be able to find housing here.

How did your research into Dorothea Lange’s connection to the Monkey Block artists’ colony in North Beach — now the Transamerica Pyramid — play into shaping the narrative?

The Bohemians began with Monkey Block. I’ve always been enchanted by artist colonies — Hemingway’s Paris, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Greenwich Village, Mabel Dodge Luhan’s Taos. I knew I wanted to write a novel set in San Francisco, but discovering Monkey Block settled it. Even though I grew up in the Bay Area and had spent countless hours traipsing through North Beach, I had no notion at all that the City had once had its own Latin Quarter. I began scouting around for people who’d been part of that bohemian scene and landed on Dorothea Lange, who’d come to the City as a young woman in 1918.

Research and writing are entwined processes for me, at least until the story begins to take on a life of its own. At that point, I back away from my research and return when I’ve got what feels like a solid draft. As much as I love research and feel genuinely inspired by it, there’s a danger in freighting a story with too much fact.

The Bohemians (Penguin Random House) San Francisco takes center stage in Darznik’s new novel.
The Bohemians (Penguin Random House) San Francisco takes center stage in Darznik’s new novel.

The reimagining of Caroline Lee, the real-life “Ah-yee’’ or “Chinese girl’’ who was Lange’s assistant, is haunting, given the recent outbreak of violence against Asian Americans. How did your experience as an Iranian immigrant inform your approach to this story?

One of the best parts of writing fiction is that you can interrupt history and insert stories that have been lost or forgotten. At this point, the story of Dorothea Lange’s assistant is one that can possibly only be known through an act of the imagination, which is also an act of empathy. As an immigrant and daughter of immigrants, I grew up around women — my mother and grandmother — who were in certain ways invisible. Nothing I read in school suggested that people like us had a place in literature. Everything I have written has been a way of revising that story.

Lange’s tempestuous romance with the artist Maynard Dixon is vividly portrayed. What did her contemporaries think of the inherent gender inequality in the relationship?

In the case of the women artists around her, it wasn’t so different from their own experiences. Imogen Cunningham was against Lange’s marriage to Dixon on account of the age difference between them (and minced no words about it), but her reaction had a lot to do with the realities of her own marriage and experience as a mother of two small children. One after another these wonderfully free-spirited bohemian women confronted the hard, even impossible, choice between work and family. For the ones who married artists (as both Lange and Cunningham did), there [was] their husbands’ egos and ambition to contend with. In the case of both women, they eventually found ways of fulfilling their own ambitions.

Most people know Lange’s work chiefly from her Depression-era photography, chronicling Dust Bowl families. What made you decide to focus on her earlier years, hustling to make a living shooting society portraits?

Lange’s later years are relatively well known and I felt no particular pull toward retelling them.

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