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Oakland in the '50s: Local Author Q&A

Taylor Wiles | December 29, 2011 | Story Reviews

Setterberg grew up in San Leandro in the ’50s and ’60s, and he currently lives in Oakland. He is also the coauthor of Under the Dragon, California’s New Culture.

SF: There were plenty of people who grew up at the same time and in the same place you did. Why did you think your story was worth making a whole novel of?

FS: A big thing for me was writing about the pioneering years of the suburbs. But more than that, I wanted to write about class. Given the moment we’ve arrived at now with the state in such horrendous condition, I look back and see the heroic and visionary action of so many people at that time. The people I grew up around who would never set foot on a college campus themselves—they made it possible for people of my generation to go to college for free.

Why did you decide to fictionalize your boyhood?

I tried writing it as a memoir, and I had a couple attempts at making it more fantastical— the dead spirit of my father looking incredulously at my cozy little middle-class life today—and that didn’t work. Then I said, “I’m going to write, and every time the impulse hits me to lie, I’m going to give myself license to do it and see what happens.” Moving between what was real and what was not seemed to be the key to hitting the right tone.

Which parts are fictionalized and which are mostly true to your real life?

What’s most true is the character of Franklin, the father. His history holds to my father’s history. He was an immigrant from Canada, and he did spend three and a half years in the TB ward in San Francisco. And the physical place, Jefferson Manor—I actually grew up in Washington Manor in San Leandro—but in spirit it’s the same place. The individuals who populate the book otherwise, they could have existed, but they didn’t.

Why does the mother character appear so infrequently in the book?

My mother was an extraordinarily loving, easy person to be with. My dad was a complicated and difficult person. If I had had an easygoing, uncomplicated relationship with him, I probably wouldn’t have written the book.

What was it like living in the Bay Area during the early years of the Black Panthers?

San Leandro was such a white town—such an anti-black town, that there was a collective fear of thriving, booming, wild Oakland. It was like you were a thousand miles culturally from what was really happening.

How did your parents respond to what was going on with the Panthers in Oakland?

Mostly they ignored it because their interests were domestic, keeping a job, staying afloat. They would have seen it as not their world.

The chapter about the Panthers also includes the narrator’s discovery of jazz. In real life, did you associate race with music at that time?

Yes. [In real life] my high school band was called the Post Raisin Band, which was a play on the cereal name. We were white and Latino kids who played black music entirely. The throbbing center of culture was black music—soul, rhythm and blues. We played at the union halls, carpenter halls, the naval base in Alameda, and all the high schools.

Is there anything in our collective memory of the 1960s Bay Area that doesn’t jibe with how you remember it?

I think people tend to sentimentalize it. “Oh, it was such a wonderful time. It was so safe and everything was fine.” Well, it was safe, but what’s not acknowledged was that the post-war world was built on the bloodshed of WWII—this enormous emotional trauma. That kind of dissonance—you’re not going to sit down and tell anyone about your years in the Pacific, but now you’re a rich burber. How did that happen? I knew that was underneath in a lot of households. It was in our household. In a world where every house seems the same, inside each of those homes, there’s a very peculiar life going on.

What did you do after you became an adult, which is where the book ends?

I went to Cal State Hayward for a couple of years, and then transferred to Berkeley for a year. I hitched through Europe and Africa, and came back to try to learn how to write.

You weren’t drafted for Vietnam?

I wasn’t. I was in the second lottery, and my number was a little above what was called.

What’s changed the most in the East Bay suburbs since you were a kid?

One thing that’s changed extraordinarily—the demography of the suburbs has changed fantastically. The neighborhood I grew up in and also places like Fremont. Now these are places where the whole world has arrived. The immigrant culture wasn’t as big as it is now.

Have any of the people you grew up with read the book?

I’ve heard from a lot of people I grew up with, but there aren’t key figures who would recognize themselves in the book. I’ve spent most of my life here in the East Bay, and I talk every week with two or three people I grew up with. To me, this is still kind of the small town I grew up in.

The Book Review in San Francisco's January issue.


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