Strange and Suggestive San Francisco

In this guest post, Tam May explores the influence of San Francisco in her life and her writing. She is the author of the recently published collection Gnarled Bones and Other Short Stories. Each story in the collection is set in San Francisco.

From [one’s] window on Russian Hill one saw always something strange and suggestive creeping up through the mists of the bay.

Will Irwin, The City That Was: A Requiem of Old San Francisco (1906)

I believe in the idea that location is almost like another character in a story. It’s a personified element in the story and just as vital to the story as characters, plot, and dialogue.

My first impression of San Francisco in 1995 was like a deep breath. It’s hard to describe the atmosphere of the city if you haven’t been there. It’s a combination of open space, blue sky, bright colors, urban edginess, and communal warmth. The city expands from the height of Twin Peaks down to the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street spilling out into the bay.

I always love the drive in from the East Bay on the Bay Bridge at night. The darkness of the bay is a backdrop to the financial district with the blue lights of the Pyramid Building and the glowing strip down Market Street. There’s nothing slick or alienating about it. The buildings crowd around in a wave of welcome.

San Francisco is divided into neighborhoods and each one really has its own personality. North Beach has a windy, touristy attraction, The Mission festive colors of its largely Latino population, Noe Valley polished and uber-chic, The Sunset foggy and suburban. Although many inhabitants confine themselves to their own little neighborhood, they might live in the Sunset, work in the Financial District, and hit the bars and pubs in The Mission on the weekends. So many come to know the city like the back of their hand.

The setting for the majority of my fiction is San Francisco and the Bay Area and I don’t think that’s only because I lived there for five years. San Francisco was where I found my writing voice and my autonomy. The two are closely connected.

I grew up sheltered and overprotected. I often see my parents as two blind children wandering around Times Square alone, clutching one another’s hand. They always seemed lost in the big bad world and so isolated themselves from risk and pain. They raised me the same way.

When I first came to San Francisco at the age of twenty-five, I would place my psychological maturity somewhere around fifteen or sixteen. It was my first time away from my family. My decision to come to San Francisco was a slap in the face for my parents they were born and raised in Israel and though I was born there too, I spent my entire childhood in America and consider myself first and foremost an American. This was a bitter pill for my parents to swallow and, at that time, they completely rejected it. I can still hear my father screaming at me when I announced that I wanted to go back to the States and get an MFA in creative writing. In what world are you living, honey? My father, like any parent, was concerned that I would be able to earn a living and, more specifically, that I would find a good Jewish boy to marry and have kids and do what all his other friends’ kids were doing. My father, to say the last, was not exactly enlightened when it comes to women’s liberation.

The implication was I wasn’t living in the real world and I would never be able to get along on my own in San Francisco. I had these doubts too. I came to the city because my brother was there and raved about the beauty and freedom of San Francisco. He even put me up for a while in his apartment until I was working steadily enough to rent my own place a year later. Had it not been for him, I don’t think I would have had the guts to take the leap forward.

The first thing I did when I got to San Francisco was get a haircut. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but I marched into a chic hair salon on 24th Street in Noe Valley and asked the stylist to cut my hair short – very short. It was the first time in my life I could look how I wanted without my mother’s approval or criticism. At the time, it was just what my fifteen-year-old mind would have done, a belated teenage rebellion. Now I see it as a symbolic act. Symbolism has fallen out of favor in fiction, but the truth is that we act in symbolic ways all the time. Shedding my long hair wasn’t just an act of rebellion but a declaration of autonomy and freedom.

That was the beginning of my exploration of self. That year, I made an effort to be more social rather than remain the hermit I’d been for most of my life. I saw a lot of the city with my brother or with friends I made doing temp secretarial and clerical work downtown. I walked everywhere in the financial district so I could tell exactly how far Market Street, the main vein that cuts through downtown, was from whatever cross street I happened to be. I saw my first opera at the San Francisco Opera House with a friend from work. Leaning against the parapet of the back row with the other standing-room only, I was mesmerized by the beauty and power of Madame Butterfly.

I started to explore my writing voice that first year but I didn’t really find it until 2002. I went through a family crisis that moved me from my plain but lovely apartment in the Sunset out of the city entirely. I rented a small house near the BART station in El Cerrito in the East Bay. I was truly living alone for the first time. The crisis brought out emotions I had buried since I was a child. I came to recognize not just through living alone, without anyone to criticize or manipulate me, but also through formal psychoanalysis the disfunction in which I had been raised and the effect of my chaotic identity that both my family and I had ignored. I went back to reading poetic prose fiction, like Anais Nin’s Under a Glass Bell, a book that influenced me as a teenager. I also read Nin’s book on writing The Novel of the Future where I learned more about psychological reality, the basis of most of my fiction.

My voice emerged in short stories I began writing at the time, some of which are featured in my new collection Gnarled Bones and Other Stories. I also wrote a novel in three different voices about the alienation and destruction of a wealthy San Francisco family. The characters wove many of the emotional realities I was discovering and dealing with for the first time. That novel has morphed into a novella series I am currently working on made up of The Order of Acateon, The Claustrophobic Heart, and Dandelion Children.

San Francisco and the Bay Area are more than just beautiful and high-priced areas to live. To me, they are a symbol of freedom, areas where my authentic writing voice began to soar, the voice I am still always discovering.

About Tam May

Tam May was born in Israel but grew up in the United States. She earned her B.A in English before returning to the States. She also has a Master’s degree and worked as an English instructor and EFL teacher before she became a full-time writer. She started writing when she was 14 and writing became her voice. She writes psychological fiction that explores emotional realities informed by past experiences, dreams, feelings, fantasies, nightmares, imagination, and self-analysis. She currently lives in Texas but calls the San Francisco Bay Area home. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature and watching classic films.

Her first work of fiction, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories is available in paperback now on Amazon. The ebook will be available on January 19, 2017.

For more about Tam May and her works, please visit her website  at .

Photo Credits

San Francisco from Treasure Island Panorama by Tanel Teemusk. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

Goddess of Democracy in San Francisco, Painting by Stephen L Harlow. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.