Dia Felix: Growing Up Uncanny in California
Dia Felix‘s debut novel, Nochita, is a coming of age story infused with larger-than-average doses of both poetry and grit. Its titular protagonist grows up weird in the California of the late 1990s, moving through various subcultures around San Diego before landing in the San Francisco demimonde of drag queens and peep-show girls. There’s some overlap with the world depicted by Michelle Tea in Valencia, and in fact Felix—who’s also a filmmaker—directed one chapter of last year’s Valencia: The Movie/s.
Just a few days before setting off on the Tea-founded Sister Spit tour, Felix expanded via email on the literary influences behind Nochita, moving beyond the coming out story, and living the bohemian life in San Francisco and New York.
Can you talk a little bit about how Nochita came to be? Anything in particular you were reading or observing or thinking about while shaping the story?
Overall I would say it felt in my own heart and mind like a kind of trumpet-tooting for a certain moment of youth. Not surprisingly, I was into some creative-nonfiction-y kind of stuff at the time, John Fahey, Ellen Miller, Sophie Calle, Isabel Allende, Paul Auster, Richard Hell, Francesca Lia Block—people who are rewriting their past, or overlaying different forces on top of history and geography, making things up to get to the heart of a time or place, or making a myth of reality. I’m always into that.
I think I was recasting a certain self, taking places and people I knew and making new outcomes. I was thinking about retelling genesis stories, claiming new territories, choosing our families, making our realities. It has a teenage feel to it, it has youthful ends and means. I wrote it in my twenties, so I was close to it, but still far enough away to have critical distance. And then I did some re-editing recently, for publication, and I changed a number of things, but I think I kept the rollicking, youthful, self-obsessed qualities.
It seems like we’re starting to see more queer coming of age stories that are specifically not coming out stories, with characters who take a more casual approach to their emerging identities, or who don’t even bother too much about the borders of their identities at all. Would you situate Nochita in the traditions of either queer lit or the coming of age novel?
Thank you for this question! I am definitely interested in talking about erotic self-discovery (or other-discovery) outside of the traditional “coming out” trope. My story and the story of most people I know is not that story. In art as in life I am interested in going where the heart compels us to go, the gorier, wilder, less sensible places. This is not to say that I have some political issue with people who are just plain “gay”. . . some of my best friends are gay!
Is the book set in any particular era? There are various references that seemed like they could function as period signifiers, but Nochita and her associates move in this world that is pretty disconnected from mainstream society anyway. What shaped your approach to the temporal setting?
Yeah, I guess like many kids and adolescents in the relatively comfy first world, Nochita is self-absorbed and fortunate enough not to notice her political era much. But, there are a few things—for one, the San Francisco depicted is decidedly the San Francisco of the late nineties, when the dot boom had just boomed and there was a kind of culture clash of the old guard wanting to keep it weird and getting displaced on a large scale, and this mushroom cloud of new money thinking they had discovered something super neato and thinking it was for sale, and sadly, because, you know, capitalism and stuff, it kind of was for sale, and it got sold. And this is a scenario we are seeing play out again now, where even the despised gentrifiers of the nineties are now getting priced out. The San Francisco you see in the book is probably a sentimental look at that time. In Nochita, you’ve got a bunch of queens living in a single room in the Tenderloin. You’ve got a nerdy entrepreneur with brand-new black jeans and his pinball machine in his office. You’ve got fancy diners being accosted by nude revelers. It was the late nineties for sure. Now I think people save their nudity for Burning Man.
You work with teens in a filmmaking program, right? Was that helpful in creating your mostly-teenaged protagonist? The earlier sections of the book feel like a pretty convincing portal into the kid-brain.
I’m glad it seemed natural to you. When I was writing this, I was not teaching, but I generally feel pretty close to the child-brain, and kind of thin-walled and skinless in general. I mean, I think I can enter other people kind of easily, at least on the level of imagination. And the teenaged brain, I don’t know if I’ve really left it, or if it’s left me. I’d like to think I’ve grown a bit around it, but my commitments are largely still the same as they were in my teens. I’m pretty teenaged. I still listen to the Smiths, I dance my legs down to the knees.
Knowing that you are also a filmmaker, it seemed to me that the book was structured kind of cinematically, with chapters/scenes just taking as long as they take and a lack of concern for the explanatory connective tissue you’d find in a more conventional novel. Do you find that there’s some cross-pollination between how you make films and how you write?
Filmmaking can be very rigid or very wild, and writing can be very rigid or very wild. The practices certainly inform each other, they each have their own set of tools, shiny knives that I am always looking at sideways. I mean, the grass is always greener, right? I think the two practices have the same core for me, like a two-headed cow, if you will. In both disciplines I am interested in creatively exploring the backstage spaces of human lives, how we are connected, compelled, and how things unfold in time.
As your bio informs me, you grew up in California but now live in New York. Do you identify a different feel to the literary scene in or writing coming out of those two places?
I grew up in San Diego, then lived in San Francisco for over 15 years, then moved to NYC a couple years ago. I have been in love with New York since I visited with my grandmother when I was 12 years old. I think I do a lot of things out of order in my life—we might say, in a “queer chronology”—so I feel like I started having my New York bohemian experience at 35. I came for a bunch of reasons, but one major one was that I wanted to be less comfortable and more ambitious, and I’m definitely less comfortable, and I think I’m more ambitious, and I also think I’m doing better work. The literary scene in New York is like its other cultural spheres, the fastest and biggest and widest-reaching and most committed that you can hope for. There is also certainly a lot of bullshit, of course. It’s been good for me overall, though I regularly have to remind myself that I “didn’t come to be comfortable.”
I know you’re touring with Sister Spit this spring. Are there any other exciting projects on the horizon for you?
Yes, I am so pleased to be participating in the Sister Spit Tour and sharing some new work there, and then settling in to work on my next novel. I am always writing poetry and I have a couple of complete poetry manuscripts which are trying to swim to the surface now too. I mean, they are complete, but maybe they will be published.
Photo via Radar Productions