The Back Room


“what kind of girl am i?”

Lynell George
somebody need a map to understand you
–Lucille Clifton

Every scene needs a backdrop: a location that awakens a collective or an individual’s energy. That environment might not be a single milieu but, rather, a set of vivid locales, where action can unspool, find its momentum. May it inspire artistry or resistance: place can be muse.

I didn’t realize how thirsty I was for a piece of art to address just this, until I began wandering through Alison Mills Newman’s Francisco, a marvel of a lost-and-found novel. Its bohemian landscape bristles with a host of lively first-, second- and, especially sui generis third places, befitting a transmogrifying 1970s California scene: funky guesthouses, hidden-in-plain-sight recording studios, loud cafés, beach-city jazz clubs, neighborhood pizza joints, piano lounges, dive bars, and still-rustic stretches of the Pacific Ocean.

First published in 1974 by the independent press Reed, Cannon & Johnson, Francisco is a sly, poetically rendered time-capsule. Part dreamscape, part genre-fluid testimony, threaded through with an epistolary casualness, it blooms with the distinctive trappings of late-twentieth century California counterculture. Deceptively slight in size, it swirls with commentary on media, politics, class, race, a burgeoning second-wave feminism, and the flex and flare of the Black Power and Black Arts Movements. It’s about living outside the lines, but, too, it's about searching for one’s center.

Showing never telling, Mills Newman captures the potency of resistance, setting in motion a kinetic world full of artists of all description. But what keeps surfacing, the afterimage that lingers, is a sense of time and place, a captivating look at a California that now largely feels like a mirage.

Photograph by Lynell George

In its first pages, Francisco’s protagonist (also “alison”), a twenty-one-year-old Black woman, is blinking awake — not just on this particular morning, but in her life. A disillusioned actress and practicing-in-spare-moments musician, she is building her world, seeing where the borders between her old and new life emerge. Tucked away in a guesthouse in San Francisco’s Cole Valley, she takes stock, “where i was staying all by my own self, which was just what i needed.” The cottage, even if borrowed, is a sanctuary, a way to step gently back into the world.

In these jury-rigged alt-spaces and its looseness, Francisco invites the question: Who might you be if you lived free-form, in a figurative workshop or laboratory or co-op atelier? A lifestyle that refutes the copycat, “company man” 9-5 grind, an open frame where survival takes on a more nuanced meaning than paycheck-to-paycheck?

Mills Newman ushers us into those in-between-spaces, those available-for-only-a-moment hideaways that don’t just nest in our memories, but help form them. Swerving back to Los Angeles, her senses ignited, alison steps back in time to share a remembrance as vivid as a snapshot:

chris was all tripped out behind her apartment on hollywood blvd, cause it was huge with a stairway leading up to a large bedroom with windows looking out on the bushes, trees and houses across the street. a lovely living room, good sized kitchen, little dining room area, ornate bathroom, all for one hundred and fifty dollars […] maybe she was twenty-two or three then. she was living with a thin nineteen-year-old boy-man named jimmy […] i had just broken up with a man i had lived with for a year. a golden-tanned irish-mexican man who introduced me to bob dylan, full moons, candlelight dinnas as an ordinary ritual not a special one […] i don’t know, chris and i just hit it off.

As Alison/alison drifts in and out of vibrant circles up and down the coast, I placed pins on a mental Golden State map. North Beach, Cole Valley, Berkeley, Oakland, Baldwin Hills, Echo Park, Silver Lake, the South Bay, Watts, West Hollywood, Hollywood proper. Northern California and the Pacific Ocean possess her whole heart — but a variegated Los Angeles, with its quirky inflections, beguiles, rising out of the all-too-often literary haze of dismissal or disdain. Mills Newman evokes that complexity with a sure, keen specificity. As a native Californian, I recognize and revel in her landscapes.

Roy Hankey, Sunset Boulevard, Los Feliz, courtesy of the Roy Hankey Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Hollywood is not Los Angeles, nor is Los Angeles Hollywood. Mills Newman’s vignettes sharpen this truth. As a young Black performer, the author didn’t just “find work,” but landed big: prime-time, network TV. Francisco’s alison likewise couldn’t stomach the cost of it; the studio heads and producers who expected body and soul: “i’m an actress, not a prostitute, i youthfully protested.”

By the time we encounter alison, she’s attempting to put some real distance between those predatory men in power, and that past self. Perhaps a year or so before (time is elastic in Francisco’s universe), she’d read a message on the scrubby SoCal landscape, in the face of a mechanic who winds up into the Hollywood hills to diagnose her ailing car:

that old man was music. he had a cap on his head, polka dotted in filth and grease. […] he had neva seen me on t.v., which was a nice feelin — he was so beautiful, a rich skinned blues black man […] the smile was like the root of a tree, so deep, so alive, so nurtured in light […] i wanted to ask him desperately what gave him so much peace, what was that joy? but a suffocating shyness came out of nowhere and choked me [...] in a poof he and his truck were gone. […]
alison, there goes the real star.

This man with his “root-tree smile” was a sign.

if i stay in hollywood, i’m gonna die

In that “rich-skinned” stranger’s mannerisms, voice, smile, alison conjures an attendant community: him sitting in a “church funky baptist pew,” or set up “jolly at a bar,” feeling at home in his place in his world. Rooted. Real. It’s this connectedness that Francisco so thoroughly evokes in its backspaces. What it is to sink in and be a part of something. What it means to make room for oneself, and in the offing, find family, a crew, a tribe.

And so she flees “Hollywood” the idea, Hollywood the business, if just for an intermission. Securing a sense of self requires it.

Roy Hankey, Hollywood, courtesy of the Roy Hankey Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Both of its time and in-the-moment, Francisco was for a time “lost” to memory. If not for the tenacious work of poet and UCLA professor Harryette Mullen, who researched and wrote about the book and its players, Jeffrey Yang of New Directions would not have stumbled upon the title or its elusive author. Intrigued, he searched out Mills Newman after he couldn’t locate a copy of his own; she popped a photocopy in the mail. After some conversations and some sensitive negotiations, Yang republished the novel this year.

How Francisco initially came into the world feels like a scene from the book itself: the writer Ishmael Reed, sitting in a Berkeley kitchen, glancing through some pen-to-paper pages Mills Newman left on the table. He’d been visiting with her and her boyfriend Franciso Newman (indeed, she would, outside the scope of Francisco, marry him). She drifted out of the room to tend to something offstage and Reed was taken by the prose, the situations, the voice. Later, he and writers Steve Cannon and Joe Johnson raised funds to send about a thousand copies into the world, thus announcing their newly minted publishing entity.

The pages, in their intimate, memoir-ish tones and fictional flourishes, piece together Mills Newman’s early, formative experiences: her time as a teen actress on Julia, the groundbreaking series starring Diahann Carroll; her creative sojourn to New York; writing poetry, acting, and singing. “There were a lot of child stars from that time who didn’t live to be thirty,” she told Sophia Nguyen in a recent profile for The Washington Post, “As a young teenager, it’s a very high frequency to exist on, especially as an African American young kid, there’s so much expectation.”

Having paused her acting career, she was still absorbing, challenging power and seeking inspiration. As she and Francisco drove long lengths of the state, finding their friendship pods in L.A. and the Bay, Mills Newman kept close notes, taking in the sites and scenes and characters simply as a personal chronicle. “It was my way of connecting to and keeping my art alive,” she told Ngyuen.

And while the book may have“disappeared,” she did not — she only entered a new chapter, a mind space, as she had, and would, time and again.

Photograph by Lynell George

New York was more than an intermission, or even an epiphany. It was a triumph, its teeming backdrop a main player:

roamed all ova harlem first only seeing its beauty, its magic, slowly seeing its pain. walkin along streets filled with nothin but black folks mostly, and rock n roll blastin from record shops, keepin you in musical rhyme, and the lower east side, the artists, the musicians, the madness.

On these streets she first begins to see herself in the reflection of a new mirror, within the eyes of people who see her for her. When she bounces back to the West Coast and into her “beautiful poet friend” Jonathan’s San Francisco guesthouse, a pilot light is on. The nonconformist that lived inside her as a young girl is freed. Nevermind what’s to come is a cupid’s arrow moment; in Mills Newman’s hands it circumvents cliché.

Tad, a painter who lives in Berkeley, hosts a small dinner gathering. Laying eyes on Francisco she takes him in as a camera would: his conquistador mustache and blue shoes with yellow tongues, his rap about the revolution, his ideas for his film about the Black Panthers. There are not sparks exactly, but something quiet ignites. In short time, Francisco becomes her devotion.

Montage-like and laced together in Mills Newman’s lowercase argot (part cadenced Black vernacular, part poetry), Francisco lifts off the page sentence by sentence, as if the text itself is charging forward. The scenes and situations share future/present space, fracture. Images skitter along like an art-film, shot with a hand-held camera. Characters appear, wedge a door open or find a seat, to chat for a spell before they tear off to their next adventure. They are, each and everyone, comrade or nemesis, her education.

As a text, Francisco is an atmosphere — and essential viewpoint — I had been searching for since I had, decades ago, happened upon Mardou Fox, the alluring Black bohemian hanging out in the hot center of a cool scene in Jack Kerouac’s moody roman à clef, The Subterraneans. Kerouac’s Mardou is based on a real woman, Alene Lee, a writer in her spare, along-the-edges time with whom he was briefly romantically linked. The book, published in 1958, haunted Lee, who felt her personal story had been pilfered, her voice altered, her motivations and struggles misunderstood. She died in 1991, never having found the place to publish her own version of things.

A point-of-view showcasing an artistic, bohemian Black woman finding her footing, her compass, and voice in an alternative landscape is evidence I have been seeking my entire adult life. I find it in Mills Newman’s observations. 

Roy Hankey, 101Hollywood Freeway, Hollywood, courtesy of the Roy Hankey Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

In certain aspects, Francisco is a road novel, told in visceral, stream-of-consciousness bursts of radiance. As she drifts along the spine of the Pacific coast, our narrator renders these keepsake moments in sentences as kaleidoscopic as an artist’s sketchbook, or a filmmaker’s storyboard:

In North Beach she settles in with a friend over “salad and wine [to talk] about old times and new times comin at enrico’s.”
In Berkeley she abandons a party with “nothing but white folks dancing to the rollin stones,” taking a walk with a painter friend to talk “about life and love and games.”  
In Hermosa Beach, at the Lighthouse Café “pharoah sanders was playin [...] all that good music flyin, people easy. ornette coleman — made me feel like i was in n.y., down near the lowa east side.”
In L.A. she settles in for a visit in Silver Lake “section near the downtown where Mexicans and grey folks, black folks, and all kinds of folks live togetha cool.”  

I can’t help but compare map pins — hers and mine. We traveled similar paths, a decade or two apart, to find and claim ourselves. So many of her stops are key backdrops to my own artist’s story. I fell in and out of love in Echo Park, on a block long-time locals still call Red Hill, a nod to its revolutionary past. I worked for a time at a bristly alternative newspaper in Silver Lake, lived in a rickety sublet in Venice that played host to writers and ska bands. I possessed a San Francisco zip code, which allowed me to frequently rush past Enrico’s on my way to my mecca, City Lights Bookstore. I interned in Hollywood for an alt/indie film distribution company back when those streets were sketchy enough I carried my high-heels in my hand, even midday, in case I had to sprint out of the way of sudden mayhem.

Like alison, I’d hoped these landmarks and backdrops and sacred places would put me on a path toward, and in conversation with, a new kinship circle. Each bungalow court, each corner booth, each front porch, each café window seat meant something to me: an offering toward my growth as a thinker and writer, a Californian who knows how to parse the region and make it legible, who can discern the coded messages in the landscape.

Roy Hankey, Sunset Boulevard, Echo Park, courtesy of the Roy Hankey Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
So many of the books evincing counterculture life from the 1950s forward, written by men, present women as muse or support staff, along the edges. Mills Newman’s text shimmers with (and hints at) much more.
i always wanted to go ova to mc breed’s and make a demo of my music to send to someone to hear, so that maybe they will produce it, but you know sometimes i just like bein with francisco. i forget about my music — i forget about myself sometimes. […] i’m gonna change. i’ll have to, cause my music haunts me and i’ll have to get it out. i played my music one night at mini’s can do in s.f. before i sat down at the piano bench before my fingers hit that beautiful upright piano the folks applauded. i blushed, then lifted my head up into a smile […] i like just playin for friends, for folks you know. i don’t always feel like i got to get out there to make a record and carry on. but i sure did love playin that night at mini’s can do […] i hadn’t touched [the piano] for six months, cause i was hurtin from some of the experiences i had had before tryin to do an album. i went down to mc breed’s to record, howeva he wasn’t there.

There is tension of course, even in these idylls, or maybe because of them. That silvery spotlight moment at Mini’s Can Do is one of the few vignettes where our narrator lingers on her own artistic desires. Her longing. Less a quibble than a wish, I would have loved to reside a little longer inside her creative world — her art, her practice, her own desires and designs to be heard in the world. I’d like her wish to become true. 

In an early scene, she and Francisco debate “revolutionists.” “I hate revolutionists,” she pushes back,“i’m tired of all that who shot john. they all turn out to be movie stars in this country anyway.” In a moment of real, cultural revolution, they both decide, revolutionists are “somebody — anybody who does somethin true in the world — free from being held back by the manipulative powa” of money.

While the plot — and, to be frank, alison’s focus— lies in getting Francisco’s film out into the world, his way, it is the experience of “rollin around” in Mills Newman’s cadences that seduces. I am most transfixed by her. Her unconventionality. Her stream-of-consciousness brain at work. She is a revolution inside herself, determining her borders and limits, coming and going as she wants. Protecting the heart, as much as one can, while remaining vulnerable to and articulating feelings. I wanted her to choose herself, wanted to support and encourage that voice, that bearing, the girl with the wild, uncombed hair who didn’t think that men looked twice — and at root it didn’t matter.

i’ll just go on and walk through these streets believin in what i believe […] the gift of art for the survival of the human heart. 

The image Mills Newman sees reflected in these pages, five decades later, does not mirror the being she inhabits now. It doesn’t mean, however, that that sensuous, questioning woman is gone. As Mills Newman writes in the new edition’s afterword: “i also look back in gratitude to my younger, free-spirited self for making a few choices that kept me alive ... to her i say thank you.”

Francisco is a testament to revolutionary spirit, to pushing and seeking, testing boundaries, breaking through. It’s a celebration of the laboratories and workshops that allow us the space —

To step out of expectation.
To be loud
Or soft
Or mysterious
Or ornery
Or joyous
Or simply —

“you only live once,” the Alisons remind us. “why miss out on being you?”

It’s true that those old spaces, those old vibes are defunct — Mills Newman’s and mine. But if not for these locations, the order in which I landed in them, and the people with whom they put me in contact, I would not have located myself. This self.

We caught a lucky break.  

Lead Image: Roy Hankey, Sunset Boulevard at Night, courtesy of the Roy Hankey Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

The Back Room