Zibby is joined by essayist, poet, and playwright José Vadi to discuss Inter State, his collection of essays about his relationship with his home state of California. José shares how he first found his way to writing and publication through his poetry, which projects he’s worked on to document his grandfather’s personal history, and what he is working on next. (For those who have listened to the episode: a heel flip is a maneuver in which you impart spin on your board using the heel of your front foot while doing an ollie, or lifting into the air without using your hands.)


Zibby Owens: Welcome, José. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Inter State: Essays from California.

José Vadi: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure. Tell listeners why you decided to write all these essays about California and what the general theme of them is and why, the whole thing. Give them the whole thing.

José: Totally. Being born and raised in California, I’ve always had a lot of questions about this state and my family’s history connected to it. This book was, through a collection of essays, an attempt to answer a lot of questions about me, my family’s history, and our relationship with California, a state I love dearly. As a skateboarder, as a grandson of a migrant farmworker, as a son, as a husband, you see me going through all these different stages across the Golden State.

Zibby: Wow, love that. Which piece of the puzzle were you most surprised to have come out in the book? I feel like sometimes when you’re collecting all of your past work, you can — I was just actually talking to Susan Orlean about this a minute ago about her book, On Animals. That’s her collection of stories. I was wondering when you analyze, looking back over all of them, the themes that come out, do you realize anything new about yourself when you find out what you’re writing? It’s like backwards detective work.

José: Yeah, that’s a good way to phrase it. You are thinking about why these historical moments in your life are so significant to you, why you’re still unthreading them and unspooling them and really trying to understand why these things matter, what you’re holding onto. That delicate balance between memory and nostalgia, revisionist history, and everything in between, what is authenticity when we’re thinking in these kind of contexts? A way of tackling that for me in this book was trying to just stay honest to who I am in these moments reacting to the subject material at hand in these different roles that I’m playing in different moments. Some of those roles, I’m putting myself in. Other roles are kind of projected onto me. It was interesting writing this book and seeing why these things matter to me. How am I understanding it through my own experiences?

Zibby: Interesting. Just to back up a lot, when did you start writing? When did you know you wanted to be a writer? When did this all begin? Or did you know you always wanted to be a writer?

José: I got into poetry first. Maybe I wasn’t a good MC or a good rapper and I was just like, poetry’s a —

Zibby: — Oh, stop.

José: I was very young.

Zibby: Failed rappers writes collection of essays.

José: Poetry was the first spark that got me into it when I was thirteen. I started getting some work published really early in college. I grew up in Southern California and moved to Berkeley for college and got pretty wrapped up into the spoken word and the poetry scene there and started working for literary nonprofits and stuff like that and got into plays and writing plays and really just getting different artistic opportunities while becoming a student and getting some professional chops underneath me. Around that time, especially writing your first play and getting your first grant when I was twenty-four, twenty-five and just doing temp work, nine-to-five stuff in between in the financial district in the city, San Francisco, I was like, this is a hustle that might be the rest of my life, potentially. Understanding how that could come about took a lot of time. I didn’t really get into writing essays until I went to Mills College in Oakland for creative nonfiction. That two years gave me an understanding of, oh, this is the type of format I’ve always been trying to get at. Understanding what an essay can do for you as a writer, how you can manipulate it or just use the form, it was invaluable.

Zibby: I read the essay you wrote about Oakland and how you said that nobody wants to go back to Oakland, and yet there you were.

José: At least, folks from San Francisco not wanting to go to Oakland. That dichotomy is probably still at hand. I was just in Oakland yesterday.

Zibby: You described the area in which you lived as — maybe it’s not where you lived, but the area in which you were at the time of writing — as somewhere people want to pass by. Yet there you were.

José: Downtown Oakland at the time when I was moving there was pretty bare, or developing I guess you could say. Now it’s changed in a lot of different ways. Oakland is a very unique, one-of-a-kind kind of city, much like San Francisco.

Zibby: I’m in New York. I feel like that’s pretty unique and one-of-a-kind, but whatever. California’s okay, I guess, in terms of geographies. When you started writing essays and figuring out that that form was really working well for you, what was that publication journey like? How does it feel to you when you have something in The Atlantic or something versus a book out?

José: It’s a real trip. Coming from more of a performing arts side of things to — even just having your show documented in any capacity is a miracle. Is there a photographer on site? To have this thing that we can hold and point out is a trip. It started with my relationship with Mensah Demary at Soft Skull. He’s now the editor-in-chief of Soft Skull Press. He started as an editor for Catapult’s web magazine. Through the slush pile of a different publication, he basically kindly rejected me and then kept me in the loop and invited me to submit pieces for Catapult. That turned into “Getting to Suzy’s,” which is included in the collection, as well as “Standing in the Shadows of Brands” and another piece that’s in the collection that’s about going to see the band The Mars Volta at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. When I submitted a California inquiry, that’s when, in 2017 — these pieces are kind of between 2015 and 2017, is when this stuff started. 2017 is when he was like, “Maybe we should consider a collection about California. I’m seeing a thread here about all these things about very much the Bay Area and starting local.” Around that time, too, I digitized a tape of my grandfather that I filmed years ago when I was still at undergrad documenting his story, just a straight-up visual oral history of his life. I’d never digitized it. I wanted to preserve it knowing that tapes expire, much like hard drives. That was a huge catalyst for writing the essay “Inter State.” Those trips around 2018, 2019 tracing some of the fields and paths through which my grandfather migrated in California, that changed the whole scope of this project.

Zibby: Wow. It is kind of crazy to think — when you were talking about saving things and drives, I recently did not a full-on oral history, but I interviewed my grandmother two years before she passed away. At her birthday this year, I played it for our whole family. They hadn’t seen it before. I had it as a little video. I asked her how she felt about dying. She’s like, “Don’t worry. I’ll be watching over you.” We were all crying. It was so sweet. I think to myself, what am I going to do with this thing? It’s on my phone. It’s the most important thing. Where am I supposed to put it? I have drawers of all these discarded hard drive things. The only thing that will not get lost is when you write and you print it out. That’s the only way. Pictures can be lost, but when you have a whole book or you have a whole — that’s the only way. No technology is going to take that away unless you only digitally print it. This is not so profound. I’ve had no sleep, so this sounds profound to me.

José: You presented it, though. You presented it to an audience, so to speak. In that way, you created this artistic relationship. You passed it on. Other people were able to witness it. That’s huge to create that testament. A lot of the book is about monuments too. These things that we do to — iconography or otherwise — to preserve and remember is really interesting, especially at a time in our American history where we’re taking down other types of monuments that are about darker times of our history as well. It’s interesting to think about all that in the context of when I was writing this book.

Zibby: It sounds like you definitely had a lot of different things in mind, and objectives. These are not just essays. You didn’t just whip these out. There’s lots of thought behind every single one. I’m kidding because, of course. What are you working on now?

José: I’m still definitely writing a lot about California, some different preservation efforts going on in California. I’m writing a lot about skateboarding, actually, and my relationship with it. I’ve been skating since 1996. I can still walk, which is amazing. I’m still able to skate in my later thirties now. Just talking about that side of my life through essays but also prose and poetry and approaching it from all different angles. One thing I miss in the pandemic is the ability to walk around cities and take photos more frequently, and not just photos of boarded-up buildings, but people.

Zibby: That’d be nice.

José: That’d be nice, let alone skateboarding. That’s what I’m focused on right now writing-wise.

Zibby: What moves can you do?

José: Nothing impressive. It’s all low-impact skateboarding, very much to the ground.

Zibby: It’s all impressive to me if it’s more than just getting down the block. Can you do jumps and all that stuff? Do you ramps and all that like in Clueless?

José: More so the curves, more so curve skating, very low-impact stuff. Heel flips have been the new trick as of late.

Zibby: Heel flips, all right.

José: They’re pretty fun.

Zibby: I’m going to have to google what a heel flip is after this. Maybe I’ll put it in the show notes or something. Aside from spending your time writing and skateboarding and delving deeper in California history, what are some things that you like to do?

José: I just moved to Sacramento after many, many years in the Bay Area, so I’m getting to know the Sacramento Valley and the whole area here. I’m a big wanderer. I love just going on public transportation and going to different galleries and bookstores and stuff like that. My wife and I actually love distracting ourselves with action movies. That’s a random thing that we like to do at night. On my side, obsessing over the NBA and basketball is a nice, healthy distraction lately. I was very thankful for the bubble and all that stuff as well as the WNBA. I want to shout them out as well. I subscribe to their league pass as well. It’s been nice seeing how the WNBA has been holding it down.

Zibby: My husband watches football — I’m sorry. Well, he does watch football, but he also watches basketball. There are just so many games. He follows the Lakers. There’s always a game on. It’s like, come on. Never-ending games. That definitely can capture anyone’s interest for a while. What books do you like to read? What are you reading now?

José: I read a lot of fiction, actually. I love Percival Everett. I love his novels. The Trees, that just came out this year, is a phenomenal work. I’m a big fan since his, I don’t want to say early days, but since his days starting in the poetry scene. Can’t say enough about Anthony So’s collective, Afterparties. Beautiful work. May he rest in peace. Jamie Cortez’s Gordo was another fantastic work that came out this year. I actually got to present with him in San Francisco for Litquake, the literary festival out there. Those are a couple. Sam Sax, an amazing poet, just phenomenal poet, I always enjoy reading their work as well. Solmaz Sharif.

Zibby: Awesome. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

José: It always helps to write. It always helps to have work to wrestle with versus an idea. Ideas are really great, but fleshing it out can never hurt, giving it a crack. Give it a try. Stay sharp. Not to belabor the basketball metaphor, but it’s kind of like a jump shot. You get better the more you try. Not that I have a good one, but I’m trying to.

Zibby: Or working on your heel kicks, whatever.

José: The heel flips, there we go. That’s my struggle right there.

Zibby: Yes, definitely helps to have something to write if you want to be a writer. Sounds obvious. Not so obvious. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your beautiful collection. Enjoy Sacramento.

José: Thank you for having me. Really appreciate it.

Zibby: No problem. Take care. Bye-bye.


INTER STATE by José Vadi

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