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‘Sparks’ author Ian Johnson on Chinese ‘challenging the party’s monopoly on history’

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‘Sparks’ author Ian Johnson on Chinese ‘challenging the party’s monopoly on history’

One of the first things Xi Jinping did after being named general secretary of China’s ruling Communist Party was tour an exhibition at the National Museum on the eastern edge of Tiananmen Square.

It was called “the Road to Rejuvenation.” News photos showed Xi and other top leaders standing reverently before photos and artifacts that traced the long arc of China’s modern history. The symbolism was hard to miss.

In his new book Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and their Battle for the Future, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Ian Johnson says Xi unveiled the concept of the “China Dream” at the museum on that fall day in 2012. “That goal was closer at hand than at any time in recent history, Xi said, because the nation had learned from its history,” Johnson writes.

In the following years, Xi would put on display a dogged obsession with controlling the historical narrative — shuttering independent journals, muzzling outspoken scholars, jailing critics he accused of “historical nihilism,” and re-drawing the boundaries around school curricula.

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Yet through it all, a handful of people chronicling China’s “grassroots history” has been fighting back. Johnson calls it a movement, and his book tells their stories. They are people like the filmmaker Ai Xiaoming, who made a documentary about an all but forgotten forced labor camp in the desert. And the journalist Jiang Xue, who has protected the history of an underground journal from the late 1950s that attempted to record the privations, and desperation, experienced during the famine resulting from the Great Leap Forward.

NPR caught up with Johnson recently. Below are excerpts of the conversation.

Your book is about these creators of “minjian lishi” (民间历史), grassroots history, in China, and you write that it amounts to a movement. I want to dive into that in a little bit. But first of all, maybe you can talk a little bit about the backdrop, about the context in which this is happening.

This is a movement that really I think — this is one of the things I try to push, promote, in this book or try to make clear in this book — that’s been going on since the founding of the People’s Republic of China nearly 75 years ago. And even before that, going back to before the party went into power, people who have been challenging the party’s monopoly on history. But it is continuing today, even in Xi Jinping’s China. And I want to push back on some of the dominant ideas that we sometimes get abroad, that there’s absolutely nothing going on in China except for a dystopian surveillance state. I think that’s definitely part of the story, for sure. And I’ve reported on a lot of human rights problems and challenges in China over the decades — and it is worse now than it was five, 10, 15 years ago. But there are still people who are at it today. There are still people who are keeping alive the idea of a more decent, humane China that confronts its problems of the past and thereby lays the groundwork for a better China of tomorrow. These people have not been crushed.

Describe why you call it a movement.

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There’s a way of looking at protests as a three-act play, and we often look at the third act, when people are out on the streets with placards, something like Tiananmen Square in 1989, as being a classic example of that, for example. Or the Falun Gong protests of 1999 and 2000 … when there’s real action and you can see it. But the the foundational work for any successful movement is usually laid in person-to-person contacts in very often more personal ways than we imagine. It’s not social media, right? Social media is completely overrated in terms of getting social movements and change off the ground. You can get a straw fire like that. But … to get people to really commit to something, you have to have the person-to-person relationships, and that’s the sort of thing that I try to describe in China. It’s it’s not, you know, millions and millions of people across the country [recording and consuming grassroots history] but I would say it’s tens and tens of thousands of people who are interested or active in this kind of movement. And it’s much more widespread than it was, say, four or five decades ago.

Why do you think this exists? Can’t the party snuff it out? Why doesn’t that happen?

People want a more just country and they think that in order to do that, you have to, you know, deal with your past and so on and so forth, and you have to challenge the party’s right to rule and so on and so forth. But the mechanics of how it’s really taken off, I think, over the past two decades are basic digital technologies…This is the digital technologies of email, PDFs, of digital cameras, which are make it possible to make a documentary film…You can make a magazine on a PDF. This has really been a game changer.

There are magazines in China, underground history magazines, one in particular that I write about in China in my book, that have been going on for 15 years, since 2008, and they have 340 issues now and they’re still publishing every two weeks. Now, that begs the question, as you say, why doesn’t the government just snuff it out? I think there’s a couple of reasons for that. If you wanted to be cynical, you could say, well, the government doesn’t think they’re a threat, so they just let it go. But that doesn’t then explain why the government makes such a big deal about history… I think the thing is that they can arrest some of the better known people, but people who are just privately investigating something and circulating it on a slow burn level, that’s harder for the party to get a grip on. Individuals, again, yes, you can follow somebody all the time and harass them and put them under house arrest and cut their their Internet connection. But you can’t really do it to all these people all the time.

It’s the same cast of characters who’ve been involved in [that journal, Remembrance] all these years, right? Their survival, that’s interesting to me.

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One is, they have been careful to stop their historical explorations around the year 1980. So they’re not talking about Tiananmen Square or COVID or something like that. They’re looking more at the Mao era… They don’t go directly into the current era of Chinese politics, so that protects them to some degree.

The other thing, which is an interesting takeaway that I didn’t realize when I went into this project is the productive interaction between people inside and outside China. You know, it used to be in the past when a dissident went overseas, they were kind of isolated and they often became sort of a sad figure or somebody who was railing against the party or something like that. And they had zero impact back in China. But now there are a lot of people in China who have contacts overseas and back and forth, people traveling back and forth a lot more. So in the case of Remembrance, they have young grad students and young historians, Chinese national historians in the United States and elsewhere who helped them edit it and keep it going.

This is not mass market stuff for the most part, which you point out in the book. So what’s the point? Why does it still matter? I mean, as you ask near the end of the book, is this is the work they’re doing pointless or is it trailblazing?

Right now, one of the main people I write about, she quotes — there’s a famous quote by Hannah Arendt that in dark times, any bit of light blinds us. And we don’t know, is this just a candle flickering in the darkness or is this the blazing sun that will become important? And I think now there’s a little bit of flickering, but what we don’t know is what will happen in the future. I think any social movement starts with small groups of people, small numbers, and it can grow over time. Things that were once considered outlandish or radical are now considered mainstream.

The characters who you talk about in the book all make sacrifices to do what they’re doing so. Why do they do it?

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The one thing I wanted to make clear was that … they’re not dissidents in the classic sense of somebody who’s completely dropped out of society and is railing against the government. All the people, pretty much all the people in my book have one foot inside the system. They own an apartment. They have jobs… So what motivates them, I think, is just a belief that many people have, that in order for any society to move forward it has to be able to confront its past. And many of them are also, in a way, very patriotic. I can remember talking to some of the people who write about the Cultural Revolution. They say, you know, we don’t want all the research on the Cultural Revolution to be done at Western universities. It shouldn’t all be done at Harvard or Stanford. It should also be done here in China. And so as Chinese people, we want to be doing this research, too. And even though right now it can’t be widely published inside China, we want people in the future to know that at this time in the 2020s, there were people inside China who were doing this kind of research, who were documenting the people, the eyewitnesses before they died out, making videos, documentary films. Some of it maybe just a message in the bottle to future generations, but they view it as kind of a sacred duty to tell their country’s history the way they see it.

Do you think their actions in some way speak for a larger group, or to a larger group, and have an outsized impact?

It’s hard to know in an authoritarian state, you know what the interest is. But history in China has always been really popular and people are really history obsessed in China. So I think that their work does speak to a broader group of people who are interested, may be in different versions of reality than the reality presented by the Communist Party, its whitewashed history and its justification for ruling the country, which a lot of people can kind of tell, doesn’t really hold up… These people do offer more credible explanations for how things unfolded in the past, and I think that’s why when there are cracks in the system, such as last year, after all the big COVID protests, these people rise up and that’s where they may come up again in the future as well.

You write in near the end of the book, “In essence, the Chinese Communist Party’s enemies are not these individuals, but the lasting values of Chinese civilization, righteousness, loyalty, freedom of thought.” Can you explain that a bit?

If there’s one central idea, it’s the idea of righteousness. And along with that is the idea that truth will prevail as well. And I think that [these grassroots historians] view the suffers of the past, of the Mao era, but even of the current era, as people who deserve justice and that some kind of justice has to happen in order for a moral society to be constructed. This is a really old idea going back to Confucius. So you don’t have to be a believer in any sort of Western ideas to be attracted to this if you’re Chinese. There was one guy I talked to who uncovered this this massacre in southern China in the 1960s. And, you know, he was a very sort of crude and funny, garrulous old guy. And he says, you know, I can kiss [a–] as well as anybody, but there’s one thing I can’t do and that’s turn black into white.

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What does this movement say about China? In writing this book, what did you learn about the telling of history in China today?

One of the things I want to acknowledge with this book was to challenge the idea that there is no free thought in China, that the Communist Party is one that Xi Jinping controls absolutely everything. I wanted to show that there are still people in China who do have visions of another kind of China. There is another China out there. And that when we look at China from abroad, we sometimes have this idea that it’s completely hopeless and that there’s nothing worth knowing or experiencing there. And I think this is one of the reasons, for example, for the incredible drop off in the number of young people today studying Chinese going to China.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR’s international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.

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'I've lived in an incredible time': Comic Bob Newhart dies at 94

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'I've lived in an incredible time': Comic Bob Newhart dies at 94

Bob Newhart played psychologist Robert Hartley in the 1970s sitcom The Bob Newhart Show.

Gerald Smith/NBCUniversal via Getty Images


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Bob Newhart played psychologist Robert Hartley in the 1970s sitcom The Bob Newhart Show.

Bob Newhart played psychologist Robert Hartley in the 1970s sitcom The Bob Newhart Show.

Gerald Smith/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Comic Bob Newhart, best known for an everyman persona that powered two classic TV sitcoms, died Thursday morning of natural causes. He was 94. Newhart was the funniest guy in the room while playing unassuming characters who, in others’ hands, would have been setting up somebody else’s jokes.

Much of his success, according to Newhart himself, came from one mannerism: his stammer. It showed up in his first hit TV sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show in 1972, where he played a psychologist flummoxed by a long line of eccentric patients. And it continued all the way up into his guest appearances on CBS’ hit sitcom The Big Bang Theory starting in 2013, where he played a former kids TV show host bewildered by the fan worship of genius scientist Sheldon Cooper.

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The stammer made Newhart sound like an everyman, even as he was slyly proving he was the most hilarious person onstage. In a 2014 PBS documentary, Newhart recalled a TV producer asking him to speak faster once during a scene. Newhart told him: “This stammer has gotten me a home in Beverly Hills, and I’m not about to change it.”

In 2005, the comic told NPR that the stammer served his style of comedy, which some have described as “minimalist.”

“I like to get laughter out of the least and I think one way you do it is by giving the audience some credit for some intelligence,” he said

George Robert Newhart was born in 1929 in Oak Park, Ill. Raised in the Chicago area, he got a degree in business management and served in the Army during the Korean War before landing a job as an accountant.

Bob Newhart won an Emmy for his performance on The Big Bang Theory. He's shown above on set in August 2013.

Bob Newhart won an Emmy for his performance on The Big Bang Theory. He’s shown above on set in August 2013.

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Bob Newhart won an Emmy for his performance on The Big Bang Theory. He's shown above on set in August 2013.

Bob Newhart won an Emmy for his performance on The Big Bang Theory. He’s shown above on set in August 2013.

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Bored with accounting, Newhart began making up comedy routines over the phone with a co-worker. Eventually, he quit accounting and got a DJ pal to help him get a record deal with Warner Brothers. But there was one problem, as he told NPR’s Talk of the Nation in 2006, Warner Brothers told him: “We’ll record it at your next nightclub,” Newhart recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, see, that’s going to be a problem because I’ve never played a nightclub.’ “

Newhart had two weeks to develop material for his first record, The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart, released in 1960. It became the first comedy album to hit No. 1 on Billboard’s albums chart, launching his career.

“If you show fear, you’re dead meat,” Newhart told NPR in 2005. “So there was a lot of bravado in the first three or four, five years of my career. … I didn’t want people to catch on to me, you know, how I really didn’t know what I was doing.”

Another comedy album followed, along with appearances on TV shows and movies. But it wasn’t until 1972 that he landed the first of his two classic TV sitcoms, The Bob Newhart Show. He played Bob Hartley, a psychologist surrounded by eccentric, oddball patients.

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As Newhart told WHYY’s Fresh Air in 1998, picking his character’s occupation was key. “We said well, you know, Bob is a listener; he’s like a reactor — he reacts to people. What occupation would lend itself to somebody who listens?”

The Bob Newhart Show ended in 1978 after six seasons, by Newhart’s choice. Four years later, he was in another sitcom — just called Newhart. This time, he was playing Vermont innkeeper and TV talk show host Dick Loudon.

That show ran eight seasons. Its famous final scene was suggested by Newhart’s real-life wife Virginia: It featured Newhart’s character waking up in his bed from The Bob Newhart Show, next to Suzanne Pleshette, who played his wife on the 1970s sitcom. There, he relayed to her his dream from the night before: “I was an innkeeper in this crazy little town in Vermont …”

Newhart had other TV series, but they didn’t last long.

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He worked steadily as a standup comic and character actor, appearing on shows like ER and Desperate Housewives. In 2006, he released a memoir called I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This. And that same year, he appeared on the Emmy awards in an inspired bit with Conan O’Brien: “Tonight I have placed beloved TV icon Bob Newhart in an airtight container,” O’Brien told the audience. “If the Emmys run one second over, Bob Newhart dies.”

It would be another seven years before Newhart won his first Emmy award, in 2013, for his guest appearance on The Big Bang Theory. The following year, NPR asked Newhart if there were any failures in his life or career that troubled him.

“No, I’ve lived in an incredible time,” he answered. “I’ve lived in the days of Johnny Carson, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin — incredibly rewarding times. … I could never look on my life as a failure — it’s far beyond anything I ever thought I would attain.”

Such humility was a fitting attitude for a performer who became a comedy legend by acting like the buttoned-down guy next door.

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I spent 4 hours and 20 minutes in the state fair’s new weed lounge. Here’s how it went

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I spent 4 hours and 20 minutes in the state fair’s new weed lounge. Here’s how it went

Last month, the California State Fair announced plans to allow cannabis to be sold and consumed on-site for the first time in its 170-year history. On Sunday, I hopped on a flight from L.A. to Sacramento, bypassed the stands of deep-fried foods and whooshing carnival rides and made a beeline for Expo 6 to watch the first symbolic smoke sesh firsthand.

Here’s how the first four hours and 20 minutes went down at the fair’s new weed lounge.

Noon

At the back of the California Cannabis Experience, a brightly colored sign beckoned in a font you might find on a vintage postcard: “This way to the Embarc Oasis, ‘High From California.’” Below it, a hastily printed paper sign taped to the double doors reads: “Sales and consumption start at 12:30 p.m.” Organizers explained that the original 11 a.m. opening had been delayed. The reason? Because of an unexpectedly cool morning, the flame retardant applied to the artificial turf in the consumption lounge tent hadn’t yet dried. (That’s right. Organizers were making sure the fake grass didn’t get burned alongside the real grass.)

Trisha Rogers, a fair worker stationed at the front door of the exhibition hall, told me that around 300 people had inquired about the consumption lounge’s opening since the exhibit’s 10 a.m. start. (According to a spokesperson, by the end of the first day, more than 1,000 fair goers visited the lounge.)

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Cardboard cutouts of stoner movie characters Harold and Kumar point the way to the California State Fair’s on-site consumption lounge.

12:15 p.m.

Somehow, without anyone in the crowd appearing to notice, one sign came off the double doors and a new one went up. The lounge opening was being pushed back another half hour to 1 p.m. Some in the crowd of 30-plus decided to busy themselves by retracing their steps through the collection of educational, weed-related exhibits. Others bided their time by adding to the Department of Cannabis Control’s nearby display (a large sign that asked “How do you enjoy your weed?” and invited answers by way of sticky notes). A few grabbed CBD-infused slushies from the bar or familiarized themselves with the recently announced 2024 California State Fair Cannabis Award winners whose names and products filled another entire wall.

people in line at a tented dispensary space

The dispensary run by Embarc, one of two on-site, offers a chance to purchase some of the 2024 award-winning weed honored at the fair.

1:15 p.m.

The doors finally swung open to the cheers of a 60-strong crowd. A sign nearby proclaimed what they already know: “You’re making history today. You’re at the first State Fair in the world where cannabis is being legally sold.”

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The first stop in making that history was a visit to the on-site dispensaries (outside cannabis products are not allowed) just on the other side of those double doors. One is run by Embarc, which features some of the 2024 gold medal winners honored in the exhibition (they’re noted with gold stars on the menus), and another is run by the Equity Trade Network, which showcases legacy and social equity brands. (Bringing cash is a smart idea. There are also ATMs throughout the fair.)

The vibe in this indoor/outdoor space was energetic, almost electric as people pointed fingers at the wares inside the glass cases and budtenders scurried about bagging orders. THC-infused edibles and drinks purchased here can be consumed without going elsewhere, but no one seemed to be taking advantage of the few couches in the space.

A cannabis joint in front of a bag that reads "High from California"

Bobby Dennehy’s freshly rolled, about-to-be-smoked blunt is framed against a dispensary bag emblazoned with “High From California.”

Instead, once their purchases were complete, most people slowly made their way to an exit where they could do one of two things: either hang a right and ease back into the rest of the fair with its fried foods, zooming rides and agricultural displays — but where cannabis consumption is very much not allowed. Or they could enter a gate (clearly marked by cardboard cutouts of stoner movie characters Harold and Kumar), pass through an ID check and then take a short (about .11 miles) stroll along a path that leads under a towering set of bleachers, around the edge of a sports field, ending in a remote tented corner of the fairgrounds that can’t be seen by the general public.

1:20 p.m.

At opening, the mostly empty tent was giving awkward wedding reception vibes. The ground inside was covered completely with artificial turf, and there was a raised stage at one end and two groupings of wooden box-like structures at the other. (Are they seats? Tables? Did it matter?) The propaganda film-turned-cult classic “Reefer Madness” played on a screen at the back of the stage. A few high-top tables were hastily set up when it became apparent there weren’t many suitable places for folks to post up and roll a joint. (Attendees planning to consume on-site should be prepared to roll their own or buy a piece of paraphernalia or papers on-site. Fair rules prohibit bringing your own smoking gear.)

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“This is crazy. It’s getting it to where we want it to be — equalized [and] not just treating it like a criminal thing.”

— Ray Ochoa

1:28 p.m.

Ray Ochoa, 28, of Sacramento, stepped into the tent, sparked a CGO Hash Hole (a type of concentrate-infused pre-rolled joint) and became the first person to legally get high at the California State Fair. When told he was the first to fire up, Ochoa let out an enthusiastic whoop. His friends Yogi “Rollz” Romello, 27, and LaMar Mixon, 31, also from Sacramento, followed suit, sparking their own joints and marking the moment.

“This is crazy,” Ochoa said about having a dedicated place to smoke weed at the fair. “It’s getting it to where we want it to be — equalized [and] not just treating it like a criminal thing. We want to be able to smoke with the homies wherever everybody else goes.” His post-partaking plan? “I’m going to go get a little lemonade,” he said. “Gotta mix the terps with the terps. Then I’m just going to go walk around and chill and spend time with the homies.”

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A hand against a wall of colorful sticky notes

The California Cannabis Experience, the gateway to the consumption lounge, includes a wall bearing the question “How do you enjoy your weed?” and invites attendees to answer via sticky note.

1:35 p.m.

On the other side of the tent, a trio of men in wide-brimmed sun hats leaned against a table and got down to business. Pete Telles, 55, of Roseville, Calif., came to the fair with his father, Noel Telles, 85, visiting from Buckeye, Ariz., and their friend from Sacramento, John Matijasic, 73. The latter leaned his cane against the table and focused intently on rolling a joint of Pure Beauty New Jack City (a 2024 indoor flower gold medal winner).

A few attempts later, Matijasic had a functional joint that he proudly lit up and passed to his friends. “I’m smoking dope at the California State Fair,” he said with a sense of bemusement. “After this, I’m going to just sit down and watch people.”

Two men in straw hats smiling and smoking a joint.

Noel Telles, 85, left, and John Matijasic, 73, are among the first folks to legally light up a joint at the California State Fair. “It doesn’t get any better than this!” Telles told The Times.

(Adam Tschorn / Los Angeles Times)

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“This is the exact reason why I’m here today,” Pete Telles said. “To have the ability to purchase and consume and be with like-minded people — and to be with my father, who is a legend to me. We’ve been coming to the fair every year since the mid-’80s.” The younger Telles described being able to consume cannabis legally in public with his father as the best feeling in the world. “It’s like heaven,” he said.

A few puffs later, Noel Telles looked out from under the wide brim of his Ace Hardware sun hat and offered his own assessment. “This is wonderful,” he said. “It doesn’t get any better than this!”

1:53 p.m.

The tent felt less cavernous. Part of that had to do with the 31 people here, most of them smoking up in couples, troikas or quartets, but it also had to do with a handful of folding chairs that materialized out of nowhere. “Reefer Madness” continued to play, but the dialogue was all but drowned out by the social smoking scene. I ducked out of the consumption lounge briefly to stroll the fair. Even though I was very much not high, I managed to eat a sausage the length of my forearm.

3 p.m.

When I returned, Ochoa was gone (presumably on his quest for lemonade), but his buddies Romello and Mixon were holding court near an industrial-sized fan that was circulating their smoke like dry ice vapor across a film set. They were joined by a bunch of friends wearing matching T-shirts emblazoned with the name Frosted Flavors, a Sacramento-based social equity brand specializing in indoor cannabis grown under LED lights.

“[I]t feels like we’re living in the future a little bit …”

— Heidy Santamaria

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A woman with long fingernails rolls a joint.

Heidy Santamaria tries to get a joint rolled in time to spark up in the tent by 4:20 p.m.

(Andri Tambunan / For The Times)

A man in a straw hat lights a joint

Dustin Mahoney Villafuerte lights up a joint on the first day of legal on-site consumption at the California State Fair.

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A man holding a joint

LaMar Mixon is one of the first three people to light up legally at this year’s state fair along with buddies Ray Ochoa and Yogi Romello (not pictured).

4:15 p.m.

Heidy Santamaria, 26, and Stefania Gagnon, 21, both from Sacramento, sat on folding chairs in the middle of the room. Santamaria was attempting to roll a joint from a jar of Sync SF Strawberry Runtz flower in time for a 4:20 p.m. celebratory smoke. It was a task made more challenging by her exquisite nail art. “This is cool,” Santamaria said about the ability to buy — and consume — cannabis on-site. “I was telling her inside at the little bar[-like] dispensary that it feels like we’re living in the future a little bit. Because when we were growing up, we never thought we’d be able to do something like this.”

A group of people smoking and celebrating on stage.

A group of cannathusiasts takes to the stage inside the consumption lounge tent at 4:20 p.m. to the sounds of Rick James’ “Mary Jane” and celebrates being able to get high legally at the California State Fair for the first time.

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4:20 p.m.

The smoking tent’s population grew to 53, the highest (literally and figuratively) of the day so far. Rick James’ song “Mary Jane” started playing as a handful of celebrants, including the Frosted Flavors guys, took to the stage with joints in hand.

“Welcome to 4:20 for the first time legally at the fair!” someone yelled into the microphone. “Light ’em up!” Everyone in the tent obliged, inhaling deeply and then exhaling one very large — and now very legal — communal cloud of smoke into the air.

Know before you go

There’s no guarantee you’ll have the same level of lounge experience that I did, but if you’re planning to visit the cannabis exhibit at the California State Fair (Cal Expo, 1600 Exposition Blvd., Sacramento), here are a few things you should know:

  • Bring a government-issued photo ID card. (You must be 21 to enter.)
  • Don’t consume cannabis products outside of the designated lounge.
  • If you leave the dispensary or lounge with any opened cannabis product packages, they’ll need to be sealed inside a tamper-proof bag by security personnel upon exiting.

The cannabis exhibit is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday through July 28. Also, the hours for on-site cannabis sales are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily (except for July 19), and the consumption area is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily for the duration of the state fair (except for July 19).

Single-day tickets for the fair are $18 for adults and $14 for seniors 62 and older.

Oh, and one more thing: Once you’ve had your history-making smoke, skip the fried foods and carnival rides and instead go right next door to Expo 4. You’ll get to enjoy the visual feast that is the Animation Academy. You can thank me later.

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'This Great Hemisphere' tackles racism, classism, and political power struggles

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'This Great Hemisphere' tackles racism, classism, and political power struggles

Mateo Askaripour’s sophomore novel This Great Hemisphere is a sprawling speculative-fiction narrative that tackles racism, classism, and the perpetual power struggle of politics. But it also delivers a heartwarming story about a young woman learning to navigate the world.

Sweetmint is a young invisible woman living somewhat separated from the rest of her community in the relative calm of Forest Twenty-Six. She has done everything well in her life, and now finds herself about to interview for an apprenticeship with Croger Tenmase, known as “The Chief Architect” — and the Northwestern Hemisphere’s savior and leading inventor. When she gets the apprenticeship, her life changes.

Unfortunately the change is short-lived, as Sweetmint’s beloved older brother, who mysteriously vanished a few years ago, is rumored to not only be alive but he’s also suspected of killing the Chief Executive of the Northwestern Hemisphere. With authorities looking for her brother, Sweetmint must use her intellect to find him first. Meanwhile, the hemisphere’s elections are right around the corner, and those involved are willing to go to any lengths to acquire the power they crave.

This Great Hemisphere is a complex, expansive novel packed with too many elements to discuss here. Askaripour possesses a powerful imagination, and it is in full display. Besides the stark differences between the “Invisibles” and the DPs — the “Dominant Population” — the author delivers strange worlds and technology, bizarre rituals, and lush descriptions of places, things, and events. More importantly, Askaripour uses the Invisibles and DPs to explore otherness and racism in interesting ways. That the narrative will be about these topics is clear early on, when the prologue that sets up the story — which takes place in New York City in 2028 before the story jumps to the year 2529 – with a white woman harassing a Black homeless woman who is pregnant “to save a Poor Black Child™ from its Neglectful Black Mother™.” For the rest of the narrative, those who are invisible are second-class citizens — they don’t have the same jobs and opportunities and are called things like “vizzers” by the DPs. Besides the social critique on the surface, Askaripour shows that hatred and misunderstanding, along with the slurs that usually accompany those things, are so deeply engrained into society that even getting close to extinction doesn’t make people good to each other.

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While This Great Hemisphere is rich, multilayered, and contains some dazzling passages, the narrative is not without flaws. Perhaps the biggest one is the way the author dedicates pages upon pages to things like painting rituals and politics but never really goes deeper into things like languages, the big changes the world has gone through, or how the invisible people came to be. This novel is, in part, an interesting blend of speculative elements that go from science fiction to fantasy. This means that the worldbuilding has to be there, and when it comes to that, Askaripour certainly delivers. However, the story is also a twisty political thriller with elements of crime and mystery — and those genres demand a faster, tighter pace, which the novel never delivers.

The sophomore curse is not an issue for Askaripour. Sweetmint is a memorable character, the world the author created for this novel is impressive, and the social critique is doled out in a way that it accomplishes what it sets out to do without ever becoming preachy or overpowering the rest of the elements that make up the narrative. Also, some of the things the author brings to the page are unique and show he paid a lot of attention not only to detail but also to the inner landscape of his characters. For example, the rumoya, “the life force flowing through all Invisibles, unique to each of them, influencing thought, feeling, and action” is so important that it emerges as another character in the novel, a ubiquitous presence that sometimes acts like a soul and sometimes like a sixth sense or an inner voice. Small details like that, which are sprinkled throughout the story, show Askaripour is a voice to watch.

This Great Hemisphere is large in many ways, which is good, but it’s clear that some of the important details that held this world together were lost somewhere between Askaripour’s gifted imagination and the page. The novel is sometimes touching, sometimes wildly engaging, and sometimes slightly disjointed and sluggish, which makes for an interesting reading experience in which some passages grab you and won’t let go and others make you want to quickly power through just to get to whatever is next. Despite these flaws, the strength of the novel and the clarity of its messages make it a recommendable read, especially for those who enjoy complex worldbuilding.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on X, formerly Twitter, at @Gabino_Iglesias.

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