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Meet the Capitol’s literary legislators

In California, Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine, is a minority party assemblyman. In Taiwan, he’s a defender of democracy, and in China he’s a running dog of American imperialism.

“I’ve gotten hate mail from Beijing,” DeVore said. “One of them started out, ‘You white pig.'”

The reason is his 2001 novel, China Attacks. Written with sinologist Steven Mosher, it chronicles just that: China launching an assault on Taiwan, as the pair predict it may do someday.

DeVore isn’t the only writer in the Assembly. In 2003, freshman Mary Hayashi, D-Hayward, penned Far From Home, a memoir that recounts her founding of the National Asian Women’s Health Organization. Subtitled Shattering the Myth of the Model Minority, it details health problems that Asian Americans suffer disproportionately, such as depression.

The book originally was intended to be a kind of wonky policy piece. But Hayashi said that her editors at Tapestry Press, a boutique academic publisher, kept asking her to put in more of her own story. By the time they were done, it had morphed into a political memoir that laid bare one of the most devastating experiences of her life: her older sister’s suicide at the age of 17.

“It was a struggle,” Hayashi said. “I really didn’t want to recap that incident.”

Those are just two of the most recent examples of the at least half dozen authors in the Legislature. For most of these authors, writing is a sideline for their “real” careers in politics, and perhaps a way to dispel the negative stereotype some people hold of detail-averse legislators whose staffs do all the real work.

But, as Hayashi’s book shows, it can also be a way to process difficult experiences. This is also the case for former Senator Jackie Speier, who termed out last year. She joins the list of published former legislators this month as one of four authors of This Isn’t the Life I Ordered: 50 Ways to Keep Your Head Above Water When Life Keeps Dragging You Down. This isn’t Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. Speier writes about her husband being killed by a red-light runner while she was pregnant in 1994, and about being shot five times and left for dead on a runway in Guyana during the 1978 Jonestown Massacre.

The most prolific author currently in the Legislature is probably Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, D-Compton. The chair of the Black Legislative Caucus, he penned The Black Politician: His Struggle for Power in 1971. Working with University of North Carolina Central University professor Jeffrey Elliott, he went on to write three more books in the 1980s and 1990s.

Two of these grew out of 25.5 hours of interviews with Fidel Castro that Dymally taped on two visits to Cuba in 1985. Some of this material first saw light in a Playboy interview with Castro that Dymally penned that year. The famously superstitious Castro insisted that it run in the August issue.

Dymally said that his meetings with Castro followed a predicable pattern. He would wait around the hotel all day for a phone call, which wouldn’t come until 10 or 11 p.m. Then a car would come get him and Castro would pontificate to him until 3 a.m. A congressman at the time, Dymally had to leave at one point to cast a vote on the MX missile program, but then he rushed back.

The only time the normally loquacious Castro clammed up was when Dymally casually asked if he had a girlfriend.

“None of your damn business,” Castro replied, puffing on a cigar.

Over in the senate there’s Jack Scott, D-Altadena, a former college president and Pepperdine University professor. In 1981 he edited a book of essays by John Witherspoon, one of the least-known signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Scott’s book stands out among works by legislators because it entirely predates his political career. But another legislative scribe strays the furthest from politics. In case you were wondering which legislator you’d want with you if you were stranded on a mountain, it would definitely be Assemblywoman Lori Salda


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