“Small-Town Tales,” by Michele Serros, appears in PEN America 4: Fact/Fiction. This talk was presented, in slightly different form, at a PEN Twentieth-Century Masters Tribute to John Steinbeck.

Small-Town Tales

After my mother had a hectic day at work, she’d take some books and go into her bedroom to escape. Her two favorite authors were Danielle Steel and John Steinbeck. I remember her reading John Steinbeck in the evening, and she’d carry the book with her to bed, and she’d be crying or laughing, and my father was jealous. One time he said, “Who is this Steinbeck my wife takes to bed every night, this man with big ears?”

And my mother—who worked a day job as a draftsperson, and at night took art courses—would save her money to get early editions of Steinbeck books. I remember seeing them in our home, these hardcover novels. Way before eBay, she found ways to get those early editions. At that time, we didn’t have a couch in our living room, we needed a new septic tank, and here was my mother purchasing books. She also went to the Steinbeck festival every August in Salinas, California. Seeing my mother’s passion, seeing her follow that passion, was inspiring to me. What kind of man, what kind of writer, inspired her to do these things? And I came to believe that the greatest gift a writer could give was this gift of escape. My mother could go into the bedroom, or take a trip to Salinas, and just escape from the chaos of her life.

And that made me want to pursue my own writing. I grew up in Oxnard, California, about sixty miles north of Los Angeles. I tried to glamorize it by saying, “Oh, I grew up between Malibu and Santa Barbara,” which sounded nice. But what could I write about as a young girl in Oxnard, especially a young Chicana, a young Mexican American? In my neighborhood, in my middle school and high school, there were very few books. I don’t remember any by authors with Spanish surnames. What could I possibly write about?

One time we took a trip—we were going up to San Francisco—and we drove through Salinas. My mother got excited and said, “This is where John Steinbeck is from.” Soon afterwards she gave me a book that took place in Salinas, and it captured my imagination. I realized that I didn’t have to be a globetrotter and write about the grassy knolls of England or the beaches of Spain. I could write about what I have a passion for. And my passion was Oxnard: the people in my neighborhood, my community, my family members. John Steinbeck gave me a sense of direction.

When I relayed the story of The Grapes of Wrath to my father, he shared his own history as a young boy working in the orchards near Gilroy, California. And that was something I never knew, that was something my parents, my great aunts and uncles had kept from my sisters and me. We were fourth-generation Californians, and they tried to make us very, very acculturated, as comfortable as possible—they didn’t want us to know what a hard history they had. Hearing about that history was a turning point for me—reading Grapes of Wrath, and then learning about my own family, and their experiences working in day camps, working in orchards and fields.

In 1991 my mother asked me to go to the Steinbeck festival with her. I was excited. I had read Steinbeck’s work, I had driven through Salinas, I knew where we were going. She ordered the two tickets, and we were set to go in August, but my mother died in May of 1991. I took the trip anyhow, and being in Salinas made me feel connected to her again.

Coincidentally, as I was getting ready to come here this evening, my father called. He lives in California. I said, “Dad, I’m just leaving, I’m going to do a tribute for John Steinbeck.” And he said, “Who?” And I said, “John Steinbeck, you know, the writer Mom liked.” And he said, “Oh, the guy with the big ears! He still takes away the women from me. He’s still got it.” And I said, “Yeah, Dad, he’s still got it.”