At twenty-one years old, Lucia Berlin was homesick. It was 1957 and she was living in Albuquerque, where her first husband, the sculptor Paul Suttman, had left her with one young son and another baby on the way. Berlin’s parents had disowned her two years previously for marrying him against their wishes – they had bought her a ticket to Europe on the SS Stavangerfjord, and Berlin had let the ship set sail without her, choosing to stay in Albuquerque with Suttman instead. Now, she was stuck there. She felt completely alone.
This is when Berlin started writing: ‘to go home,’ as she put it years later. But where was Berlin’s home? By the time she arrived in Albuquerque she had already moved a dozen times. Between her birth in 1936 and her death in 2004, she lived in Alaska, Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, Texas, Arizona, Chile, New Mexico, New York, Mexico, California and Colorado – in houses, apartments and mobile homes, and briefly on the road, in a Volkswagen van. Other than the van, Berlin never owned a home. She always rented, and she always moved on.
Berlin’s son Mark Berlin estimated that she moved, on average, every nine months. She moved for her father’s job as a mining engineer, and for her husbands’ jobs: after Suttman, she was married to two jazz musicians in succession. Berlin moved to escape the heroin dealers who hounded her third husband, Buddy Berlin, in the mid-1960s. She moved because she couldn’t pay her rent. She once moved because she had accidentally burned down her own house. She moved to find work – as a housekeeper, a doctor’s assistant, a school teacher and a switchboard operator, among other poorly-paid, often ‘blue-collar’ jobs. She moved to take up a position as a visiting professor of Creative Writing at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1994. And then, at the end of her life, she moved to Marina del Rey to be close to her four sons.
Throughout these many moves, Berlin’s writing was her constant. Her son Jeff Berlin’s earliest memories are of ‘riding our tricycles around our Greenwich Village loft while Mom pounded away on her Olympia typewriter’ in 1961. And Berlin kept writing through decades of difficult marriages, single parenthood, alcoholism, recovery, and recurrent medical problems, including the lifelong scoliosis that eventually punctured her lung.
Although she was geographically transient, Berlin made a home in her stories; she only published short fiction, though she started (and subsequently discarded) two novels. She even described her stories as though they were spaces. ‘When you write a sentence it’s there and it doesn’t change and it doesn’t move and so it’s a location for me,’ she said. Several of Berlin’s friends and former students, who agreed to be interviewed for this piece, suggested to me that Berlin laid her foundations in her stories, rather than in the physical world. And her stories began to take up physical space from 1977 onwards, when they were collected and bound in books – Berlin was prolific in the last decades of her life, publishing a chapbook and seven collections with West Coast independent presses. Black Sparrow Press, in particular, became her literary home. The titles of Berlin’s Black Sparrow collections seem to confirm that she made her home in her fiction, from Homesick and So Long to Where I Live Now.
Through her writing, Berlin not only created textual homes, but gained access to a literary community in which she could finally put down roots. Many of her readers became her friends, editors and publishers. Alastair Johnston read Berlin before he met her, and ended up publishing her fourth collection, Safe & Sound. Johnston told me that Berlin typeset that collection herself, on his Linotype machine, and he remembers her setting each word with a meticulous care. The acknowledgements page reads: ‘I am deeply grateful to Alastair Johnston for his insight as an editor, patience as a teacher, & for instilling in me a profound respect for the craft of printing.’ Berlin and Johnston’s friendship endured.
Berlin’s stories are remarkable for their dark humour, bright prose and audacious lack of structural integrity – if her collections were houses, their hallways would change direction without warning, and their rooms would be bright and dark at the same time. If they were houses, they would be deceptively simple, but full of colours and smells, like her stories: in ‘Tiger Bites’ Berlin’s narrator asks us to ‘smell it, the desert. Caliche, sage, sulphur from the smelter.’
Berlin built her stories around her experiences. If her fiction is her home, she is there, at home, inside it. Her friend Lydia Davis writes that she narrates ‘her own life, lifted almost unchanged from the reality’: her stories can easily be read as forerunners of autofiction, and many of her protagonists share her name. But when Berlin started submitting to magazines in the late 1950s, the term ‘autofiction’ had yet to be coined. Editors didn’t know what to make of her unusually personal stories, and neither did some of her friends: the poet Robert Creeley dismissed her work as that of a ‘dilettante’ and recommended that she ‘be like a tree unto your husband’ instead.
The poet Ed Dorn, on the other hand, was always supportive – of all the connections Berlin built through her writing, perhaps her friendship with Dorn was the most important. Berlin had met him in New Mexico in the 1950s through her second husband, the jazz pianist Race Newton. In 1959, Berlin sent Dorn one of her earliest stories, ‘El Tim’, insisting that although ‘Creeley says I am an amateur,’ she knew that she was not. Dorn agreed with her, and urged her to keep writing and submitting her work. ‘El Tim’ was published in The Critic in 1961.
Berlin and Dorn’s correspondence continued for decades. In the mid-1970s, he introduced her to the founders of Zephyrus Image, the San-Francisco-based press that published her first chapbook in 1977. Berlin was forty-one years old and had spent the previous fifteen years struggling to finish stories while working, drinking, and raising her four sons on her own. She later said that ‘it seemed like writing was a self-indulgence’ during this period, but seeing her work in print renewed her confidence. The story published in this chapbook – entitled ‘A Manual for Cleaning Ladies’, and later retitled ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’ – emerged from Berlin’s experience as a ‘cleaning woman’ in Oakland and Berkeley in the mid-1970s. Like her narrator, Berlin may have found ‘come and blueberry jelly on the sheets’ of one employer. Like her narrator, she may have added ‘a few pennies, even a dime’ to the ‘little rosebud ashtrays’ in the houses she cleaned, to make a point.
But autofiction is not autobiography, and Berlin’s stories are not straightforward accounts of her life. August Kleinzahler, another close friend of Berlin’s, warned me that she is an ‘unreliable narrator’ of her experiences. Berlin herself admitted that she wrote ‘totally different versions’ of, or ‘takes’ on, one reality. ‘Stars and Saints’ is one take on her experience of Catholic school: her narrator is unjustly ‘expelled from Saint Joseph’s for striking a nun,’ although the narrator insists that she is innocent. Meanwhile, in ‘Dr H.A. Moynihan’, Berlin’s protagonist ‘struck Sister Cecilia one hot Texas day and was expelled.’ We are left wondering whether Berlin really did slap a teacher at her school in El Paso.
Several of Berlin’s friends spoke to me of her love for jazz, especially pre-bop and bebop. Just as jazz improvisation reworks and transforms the musical themes on which it is based, Berlin’s stories rework and transform her experiences. Her favourite track was Lester Young’s ‘Polka Dots and Moonbeams’, which makes a cameo in her story ‘Point of View’. Young sustains one sweet, sad mood throughout his solo on this track, and Berlin’s story captures the same mood. ‘The window is steamed,’ says her narrator as she listens to Young on a car radio. ‘In the steam of the glass I write a word,’ she adds, without telling us what it is. Like Berlin, Young suffered from alcoholism. Unlike Berlin, he died of it – in Manhattan in 1959, a few months before Berlin moved to the city.
Making a home in her fiction ultimately helped Berlin to prevail over her alcoholism. When she started drinking she was ‘a single mother with four kids,’ she explained – ‘my self was just totally lost.’ She hid bottles of Jim Beam behind her washing machine and repeatedly woke up in County detox wards. But through the stories she wrote, she made connections, who became friends, who became a support network. Dorn offered Berlin the teaching job at CU Boulder, where she found a ‘community of peers’ of ‘a kind she’d never had before,’ in the words of another close friend, Stephen Emerson. The literary community around Berlin in Boulder helped her to stay sober, and encouraged her to write.
Berlin’s stories had relatively few readers until a decade after her death. It was only when Farrar, Straus & Giroux published her posthumous collection A Manual for Cleaning Women in 2015 that Berlin became well known. FSG’s collection reached the New York Times bestseller list within weeks of publication, welcoming a global audience into Berlin’s textual homes. Sadly, she was no longer alive to enjoy the book’s success.
Why did it take so long for her work to come to light? Emerson suggests one possible reason: that she published exclusively with small presses. Berlin had a negative early encounter with the mainstream publishing world – she wrote to Dorn in 1960 that she and Little, Brown were signing a contract for first option on a novel, but she deplored the ‘mercantile ring’ of the deal. She told Dorn that it hurt her to sell something she hadn’t yet written, and that her editors hadn’t yet read. ‘Nothing has ever hit me quite so hard, morally,’ she wrote. Berlin abandoned the novel and the deal with Little, Brown. She only sold short stories for the rest of her career, and never submitted to a mainstream press again.
Another explanation for Berlin’s long obscurity may be that her writing has been miscategorised, and accordingly misunderstood; she has long been grouped with authors among whom, ironically, she would not have felt at home. Granta itself is indirectly to blame for this. In 1983, Bill Buford dedicated the magazine’s Summer issue to a literary movement he named ‘dirty realism’ and defined as a new movement of American authors writing ‘about the belly-side of contemporary life’. He cited Raymond Carver as its representative author. Berlin was not included in that issue, but reviewers have categorised her with the dirty realists ever since – even though Berlin started to write decades earlier, around the time Buford would have been learning to walk. While Berlin admired Carver’s work, she insisted that she ‘wrote like him before I read him’; and when asked in 1990 how she related to ‘the new minimalism’, of which dirty realism is a sub-category, she replied, ‘I don’t.’
On the surface, Berlin’s stories have a great deal in common with those of the dirty realists, both in subject matter (poverty, alcoholism, city buses) and in style (realism, minimalism, dark humour). But whereas Robert Rebein writes that dirty realism is about descending ‘into the darkest holes of society’, Berlin’s work moves in the opposite direction. The fiction in which she made her home does not descend into the dirt, or darkness, of urban alienation – it emerges from that dirt. Berlin wrote in pursuit of a sense of belonging, and her fiction is a homecoming.
Lucia Berlin’s Evening in Paradise and Welcome Home will be out with FSG and Picador on 1 November.