Nostalgia is the Constant State of Our Living: Chasing Ghosts in José Vadi’s Inter State

Jari Bradley

For anyone originally born and bred in California, a typical phone conversation back home consists of the latest cultural landmark lost to the newest novelty taco shop, how impossible it is to afford an apartment without having an additional three to four roommates, and just how much we miss being back in the Bay, LA, or any part of the state beyond or in between. Every one of us, whether we’d admit it or not, is chasing ghosts. Our living, whether just making it by the skin of our teeth in the very neighborhoods we grew up in, or couched in-between some obscure corner of the country, is a constant excavation of the skeletal remains of past hangout spots and cultural markers responsible for the very ways we were raised. Many of those old haunts had served as tethers to the generations of our grandparents newly migrant to the housing projects of San Francisco, who filled in the labor demands of the industries of the first and second world wars—to those places where our parents sweated out fresh afros and perms under red lit basement parties for an entrance fee of a quarter a head during the Black Power and Free Love movements. Displacement is no longer a simple term used to describe the forced removal of the very people responsible for the culture and vibe of “The City by the Bay,” but the lived reality of every native who lives in a perpetual state of nostalgia.

José Vadi’s Inter State is a homage to the very place where each of us Californians long to return to. The first time I encountered José Vadi’s voice, I was a youth poet in a local nonprofit literary organization for teens in and around the Bay Area. Inter State is infused with some of the same passions many of us youth poets had back then, not just for our craft, but for our immediate surroundings—for our respective slice of the City or the Town. Vadi echoes the very growing pains of those of us who moonlighted as formidable proponents of the mini halfpipe and open mic alike. Written with all the angst that only a grandson of a Mexican farmworker can muster, Vadi opens up the landscape of California as a breathing, living history susceptible to the erosion of time, memory, and development.

It is the hold that the past has on our present that seems to dictate whatever potential future we feel we can have. The playlist selection Vadi describes curating every Monday night in his essay dedicated to a local dive bar, Suzy’s, a place situated between the poorest and the most affluent neighborhoods of San Francisco, reads as a routine swan song for the beloved city that made writers and artists of many. Vadi’s writing also exemplifies how life in the city means having to stare increasing disparity between the poor and the rich in the face, while dancing and sharing drinks with your ghosts in the middle of it all. Inter State forces us to look unflinchingly at all of the contradiction and loss embedded within the borders of a state plagued with memory-starved thirty-somethings longing for a sense of the home they’ve watched disappear right before their eyes. In the essay “Standing in the Shadows of Brands,” Vadi writes one of the most poignant lines on the condition of an erosive collective memory suffered at the heart of San Francisco, stating, “When a city’s populace is wiped of its longtime residents, so goes the collective memory of this city, replaced instead with a victor’s pen stroke’s spoils, romanticizing the city’s history away.” For many of us originally born and raised in Californian cities, this is the crux of where we find ourselves—pitted against forced removal and loss of memory that perpetually drives us to question just what home is anyway. Nostalgia is the constant state of our living. We are driven by a longing for a home we once knew, but can no longer access outside of a sepia set backdrop in our minds. This state of being has etched out a complicated relationship to the future and what it holds for our generation of Californians, knowing that the very fabric of our lives can be up for demolition at a moment’s notice. And while this is truly no way to live, it is nonetheless a state of living that many of us have been made to endure. 

In his titular essay, Vadi makes a trek through the Central Valley shadowing the younger versions of his grandfather who had a vital role in establishing those local economies with his bare hands. Vadi paints a vivid portrait of himself standing in the face of his Abuelo’s legacy, the one he tilled the once-fertile soil of those valleys for:

For years I thought Abuelo’s work stopped at the Salinas Valley, before I heard about trips as far north as San Jose. I can’t trace all the miles, but I can go to those fields that have been razed and seeded and destroyed and reirrigated and dammed and flooded and manipulated to a science so exploitative that the soil barely recognizes itself in these valleys of abundance, exportation, growth, and water—I can trace those parts of the regurgitated, re-profited California to which he contributed his labor, his blood, his life.

As Vadi explores these fields, I am driven to pursue an excursion of my own that leads me back to the various fields of my grandmother, who raised me in what became one of the most expensive cities in the world. How she managed to traverse the fields of Shreveport, Louisiana, born to a family of sharecroppers, through the heart of Los Angeles as a young, soon-to-be-wed woman caring for her first child, my father, until finally settling in San Francisco, raising her then-deceased first born’s only child, myself, as I helped her pick and wash fresh collard greens from the backyard of our family home. Vadi’s writing reminds me of how many working class Black and Brown families’ hands are led back to the soil in places that would eventually disown us, making us endure a cruel condition of erasure that consistently denies the contributions of these mighty people we descend from, who gave every part of themselves to the social contract of uplift in this country. A social contract that they signed with their own blood to pass down to their children’s children. Despite their efforts, we descendants have grown to witness this contract be broken and nullified by the ongoing greed of industries that demanded so much of their bodies and ours. It is no wonder that the very fields Vadi and his Abuelo stood in have also undergone intense ecological change, resulting in persistent and ever-growing wildfires let loose upon the local lands, razing homes and histories alike—making ghosts of it all. 

The treks Vadi makes between Oakland and San Francisco, or South and Central California, are symbolic of the treks many of this generation are making each day of our lives. The constant eulogy that is home: the mourning involved in all the spaces responsible for our voices. Inter State is a testimony to those of us struggling to stay in our family homes just as much as it is to those of us forced to ship parts of ourselves in boxes across the nation. Those of us forced to rep our city from the frigid cold of the East Coast and the Midwest, or the hot and humid regions of the South, some of us returning to the very land our parents' parents' parents fled from to get to the West Coast in the first place. To read Inter State is to encounter the lived realities of the generation of Californians Vadi represents, tasked with retracing our steps in whatever ways we can to make sense of what haunts us, of what keeps us in a deep state of persistent longing. Vadi’s writing embodies every aspect of what it means to live under a state of nostalgia, fighting desperately to forge home out of the things we’ve lost in the fire; and the endless attempts we make at wresting the possibility of a future up from their ashes.

Jari Bradley (they/them) is a Black genderqueer poet and scholar from San Francisco, California. They have received fellowships and support from Callaloo, Cave Canem, Tin House, The Pittsburgh Foundation, and The Heinz Endowments. They are currently a PhD candidate at the University of Houston, and an Inprint C. Glenn Cambor Fellow.