The American road trip is a well-known and well-loved trope of both literature and film. Numerous (mostly male) protagonists have set out with just a dream and the open road ahead of them; even in the best-known female road-trip narrative, Thelma and Louise are unencumbered. But in Lydia Kiesling’s debut novel The Golden State, when protagonist Daphne flees her sedate life in San Francisco for the high desert, she does so with her toddler Honey in tow. Daphne’s Turkish husband has been unable to return to the United States – a ‘click-of-the-mouse error’ – and Daphne is on the verge of a breakdown. She hopes a stay in her family’s unused mobile home will bring quiet and clarity. But clarity proves elusive, as Daphne’s dream of escape collides with the reality of lone parenting and a deeply divided world. The Golden State is a novel about class, a fractured America and above all, motherhood.
Alone with her daughter Honey, Daphne struggles to maintain her sanity. Her experience of mothering is one of immense highs and lows, extreme tedium and wondrous love. In Daphne’s own words: ‘I think how nice it is to be with her and how simultaneously not-nice.’
‘I was really interested in putting down in words that experience of being with a small child,’ Kiesling tells me when I speak with her on the phone in San Francisco, ‘because it’s such a singular experience, and just not one that I had seen reflected. I have two small children, and before I had my first child – I had her before writing the book – it seemed like I was in a weird place with what to read about it. Because on the one hand there are all these very saccharine pieces, starting from pregnancy and leading into parenthood, you know: every bite that you put in your mouth, you should be thinking about whether it’s good for your baby, sacrifice yourself on the altar of motherhood and enjoy every minute…and I knew not to trust them, necessarily. Then there are these really important and wonderful pieces of writing that talk more about the reality of it. There were a lot of personal essays I would read about things like post-partum depression or post-partum anxiety, or terrible birth experiences.
‘All the people that are like cherish every minute, it’s a wonderful time – that is true sometimes. And so is the other part, when sometimes you want to put the baby in the garbage.’
‘I was so kind of conditioned to be fearful of the experience because of reading some of that writing’, she continues, ‘that when I had my baby I was expecting to be miserable and absolutely hate it. And I think it’s good to know that that is a possibility, but I was very lucky in that I didn’t have post-partum depression and had a pretty easy birth. Things went well. I liked the baby a lot and was very happy! That felt surprising to me, because I had been expecting only bad things. There were a few months in the post-partum period where I was like, This is fine! People make too much of a big deal out of this! Then for me…it turned out that the toddler period was much more challenging. So I was like, oh, both things are right. All the people that are like cherish every minute, it’s a wonderful time – that is true sometimes. And so is the other part, when sometimes you want to put the baby in the garbage and think what have I done to my life? I understood that you can have both of those feelings, and neither of them discounts the other, or has to stand in for the entire experience.’
Kiesling explores this duality of experience to great comic effect in The Golden State. ‘I think this is the happiest moment of my life,’ Daphne thinks, ‘not only because of the smile on Honey’s face the smallness of her body the love for me she communicates with her entire being but because of the almost erotic knowledge that soon she will be in bed, the whole evening ahead of me without her.’ I asked Kiesling about the humour that permeates the novel. ‘I think that’s just my sensibility. There’s a certain amount of deflection Daphne uses, and all people who use jokes use them sometimes to avoid getting to the heart of things. But it can also be a way of making your own experience of life slightly more enjoyable, if you can be your own slightly self-deprecating narrator. I mean, raising a child, some things just are funny. And if you can’t find them funny then it’s going to be miserable.’
Along with a desire to write honestly about motherhood, setting was a key inspiration for Kiesling when writing The Golden State. ‘I know there are many writers who write with a plot in mind already, but for me it’s place, feeling, experience,’ Kiesling explains. ‘I was thinking a lot about the part of North-Eastern California where my mom grew up and where I used to visit all the time when I was little, but since my grandparents have died I just don’t have as many opportunities to go there. It was on my mind a lot, and I was thinking about how to write about it. I really wanted to capture it and get a chance to live in it a little bit.’ Kiseling’s father worked in the Foreign Service while she was growing up, so she moved around a lot and never lived anywhere longer than two or three years at a time. ‘So there’s an extent to which I kind of latched on to this one place that was reasonably constant in my life, even though I never lived there, and it was honestly antithetical to the places that I did live,’ Kiesling says. ‘I always lived in big cities and so [North-Eastern California] was fascinating to me because it was both a foreign and familiar place. There was a certain amount of nostalgia in my own way of thinking about it that I felt had to be inspected.’
‘There’s an extent to which I kind of latched on to this one place that was reasonably constant in my life, even though I never lived there.’
Nostalgia permeates The Golden State in ways both personal and political. ‘Nostalgia is a big part of American politics right now,’ Kiesling tells me, ‘a very misplaced nostalgia.’ At the same time as Daphne reminisces about happier times with her husband, now far away in Istanbul, a small fringe group who want to secede from California and create their own mostly rural state (‘taken straight from various political currents that are happening in California right now,’ Kiesling explains) take a series of increasingly extreme measures to make themselves heard. ‘We’ve lived here all our lives and this was just a paradise’, a member of the group says during a hearing at the tiny town’s courthouse. The rose-tinted glasses are certainly off for Daphne’s rides through the landscapes of the oft-mythologised Wild West. ‘Maybe the malaise, all the rotting homes and sagging enterprise, are punishment for taking the land,’ Daphne thinks. ‘Maybe nothing good is ever happening on this land again for anybody.’
Daphne’s enforced separation from her husband Engin is due to an unlawful confiscation of his green card at the US border, followed by drawn-out and confusing attempts to navigate the appeals process of a seemingly impenetrable bureaucracy. ‘We’ve both just given up on it ever being resolved, which is probably what the Department of Homeland Security is hoping for,’ Daphne thinks. ‘A general degradation of morale resulting in one fewer green card.’
‘It’s this weird mix of bureaucratic ineptitude and malevolence’, Kiesling says of American immigration policy. ‘It makes for a hugely dangerous combination. In the novel it creates a situation that’s frustrating and awful, but it’s not as purely violent as what we’re seeing right now in the news. But I have the sense that what we see now happening at the border is the same…it’s malevolence and ineptitude. It’s just fuelled a hundred-fold by the people that Trump surrounds himself with. I think all the tools were there for our immigration policy to be horrible and for American sentiment to be easily co-opted in this way. It seems now that the muzzle is off in terms of how people are treated at our borders. And that’s been really awful to see.’
‘It’s this weird mix of bureaucratic ineptitude and malevolence…It makes for a hugely dangerous combination.’
Kiesling wrote The Golden State while the Obama administration was in office, but its themes of dying small towns and punitive immigration systems feel particularly relevant in America’s current political climate. I asked Kiesling if the change in administration has affected perceptions of some of the themes of the novel. ‘I wish that I didn’t feel it was so on the nose in some respects,’ she says. ‘But you know, we all have different things that shape the way we think about politics, and one of mine is that I lived and worked in a very conservative area in 2009 to 2010. This was at a point in time in American politics where there was something called the Tea Party. They were ultra-right wing, very similar to the MAGA people you see now. They hated Obama so much. I worked in this office where I would get these God-awful email forwards that were incredibly nativist, Islamophobic and xenophobic. There are people who have read my book who think I’m painting too ham-fisted a picture of what the views in some places are, but you know, when you get those email forwards…there’s nothing nuanced about them. They’re real. So yeah, that’s just a current that I have been aware of for some time.’
While writing the novel, Kiesling also worked as the editor of arts and culture website The Millions. I ask how her work as an editor informed or impacted her own writing. ‘I think if I was editing fiction that would have been very disorienting,’ Kiesling says. ‘But the issue was less one of how craft or voice can invade your life, but how emails can invade your life. I found I could do non-fiction writing at home, but to write the novel, because it was so different, I had to go to a different location. I would go to a coffee shop. If I started answering any emails or doing administrative work it was so easy to let that take away the best, most productive time of day. I found the best way to do it was just get there, immediately turn off the internet on the computer, and ideally leave my phone at home for a couple of hours. I’m no longer the editor at The Millions – I’m now a contributing editor, so they keep me on the masthead but I don’t actually have to do anything – and once I stopped, the psychic weight of not having to deal with the inbox was significant.’