Lucia Berlin

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Lucia Berlin (November 12, 1936 – November 12, 2004) was an American short story writer.


Berlin began publishing relatively late in life, under the encouragement and sometimes tutelage of poet Ed Dorn. Her first small collection, Angels Laundromat was published in 1981, but her published stories were written as early as 1960. Several of her stories appeared in magazines such as The Atlantic and Saul Bellow’s little magazine The Noble Savage. Berlin published six collections of short stories, but most of her work can be found in three later volumes from Black Sparrow Books: Homesick: New and Selected Stories (1990), So Long: Stories 1987-92 (1993) and Where I Live Now: Stories 1993-98 (1999).

Berlin was never a bestseller, but was widely influential within the literary community.[citation needed] She has been compared to Raymond Carver and Richard Yates.[citation needed] Her one-page story "My Jockey", consisting of five paragraphs, won the Jack London Short Prize for 1985. Berlin also won an American Book Award in 1991 for Homesick, and was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.[1]

Early Life and Adulthood[edit]

Berlin was born in Juneau, Alaska and spent her childhood on the move, following her father's career as a mining engineer. The family lived in mining camps in Idaho, Montana and Arizona, and Chile, where Lucia spent most of her youth. As an adult, she lived in New Mexico, Mexico, north and south California and Colorado. She was married three times and had four sons.

Work Influences and Teaching[edit]

Throughout her life, Berlin earned a living through a series of working class jobs, reflected in story titles like "Manual for Cleaning Women," "Emergency Room Notebook, 1977," and "Private Branch Exchange" (an old term for switchboard operators).

Up through the early 1990s, Berlin taught creative writing in a number of venues, including the San Francisco County Jail and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. She also took oral histories from elderly patients at Mt. Zion Hospital.

In the fall of 1994, Berlin began a two-year teaching position as Visiting Writing at University of Colorado, Boulder. Near the end of her term, she was one of four campus faculty awarded the Student Organization for Alumni Relations Award for Teaching Excellence.[1] "To win a teaching award after two years is unheard of," the English Chair Katherine Eggert said later in an obituary.[2] Berlin was asked to stay on at the end of her two-year term. She was named associate professor, and continued teaching there until 2000.

Berlin was plagued by health problems, including double scoliosis. Her crooked spine punctured one of her lungs, and she was never seen without an oxygen tank beside her from 1994 until her death.[3] She retired when her condition grew too severe to work, and she later developed lung cancer. She moved to Los Angeles to be closer to her family, and to assist her breathing, as Boulder's elevation of over 5,000 feet complicated her lung condition. Lucia died in her home in Marina del Rey, on her birthday, with one of her favorite books in her hands.


  • Manual for Cleaning Women, Zephyrus Image Press
  • Legacy, Poltroon Press
  • Angels Laundromat (1981), Turtle Island Press
  • Phantom Pain (1984). Bolinas: Tombouctou Books[4]
  • Safe and Sound (1988)
  • Homesick: New and Selected Stories (1990)
  • So Long: Stories 1987-92 (1993)
  • Where I Live Now: Stories 1993-98

Critical Praise[edit]

"I would place her somewhere in the same arena as Alice Munro, Grace Paley, maybe Tillie Olsen. In common with them, she writes with a guiding intelligent compassion about family, love, work; in a style that is direct, plain, clear, and non-judgmental; with a sense of humor and a gift for the gestures and the words that reveal character, the images that reveal the nature of a place." —Lydia Davis, New Ohio Review, on the story Manual for Cleaning Women

"[The stories] are told in a conversational voice and they move with a swift and often lyrical economy. They capture and communicate moments of grace and cast a lovely, lazy light that lasts. Berlin is one of our finest writers and here she is at the height of her powers." —Molly Giles, San Francisco Chronicle, on So Long

"Berlin's literary model is Chekhov, but there are extra-literary models too, including the extended jazz solo, with its surges, convolutions, and asides. This is writing of a very high order." —August Kleinzahler, London Review of Books, on Where I Live Now

"In the field of short fiction, Lucia Berlin is one of America's best kept secrets. That's it. Flat out. No mitigating conditions. End of review. Well, not quite… [It is] characteristic of all Berlin's stories, a buoyancy: however grim and 'unworthy' her characters, she enters and explores their lives with unfailing high spirits.... A drug rehab center in New Mexico; a story called 'Electric Car, El Paso' ('It was very tall and short, like a car in a cartoon that had run into a wall. A car with its hair standing on end.')... The Christmas party at the dialysis center. 'The machine makes a humming sucking sound with an occasional slurp.' Hundreds of bubble lights on the Christmas tree that gurgle and flow. The man who had had a cadaver transplant. The man who looks like a sweaty manatee. The girl who looks like an albino dinosaur, or an anorexic whippet.... And it goes on, relentless. We're in the West Oakland detox, the residents in the TV pit, watching 'Leave It to Beaver'.... 'Dust to Dust': 'There are things people just don't talk about. I don't mean the hard things, like love, but the awkward ones, like how funerals are fun sometimes....' In more ways than one, this book is Lucia Berlin." —Paul Metcalf, Conjunctions: 14, on Safe & Sound

"This remarkable collection occasionally put me in mind of Annie Proulx's Accordion Crimes, with its sweep of American origins and places. Berlin is our Scheherazade, continually surprising her readers with a startling variety of voices, vividly drawn characters, and settings alive with sight and sound." —Barbara Barnard, American Book Review, on Where I Live Now


External links[edit]

pp 33–34