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Sanora Babb (1907–2005)

Author of Whose Names Are Unknown

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Sanora Babb was born in a Native American community in Oklahoma. Her father was a professional gambler who moved his family around throughout her childhood, finally settling in one-room dugout on a family farm near Lamar, Colorado. Sanora did not attend school until the age of 11, but managed to graduate as class valedictorian of the local high school. She attended the University of Kansas, but could not afford to continue, and after a year transferred to the Garden City Junior College. She began working as a journalist for The Garden City Herald, and several of her articles were reprinted by the Associated Press. In 1929, she moved to Los Angeles hoping to work for the LA Times, but with the start of the Great Depression, the job evaporated. Sanora was homeless for a while but eventually found temporary work as a secretary with Warner Brothers, among others. She also wrote short stories and radio scripts. Like many other writers on the political left in the 1903s, she joined the U.S. Communist Party and visited the Soviet Union; she later quit the party. In 1938 she returned to California to work for the Farm Security Administration. She traveled the Central Valley and kept a detailed journal on the tent camps of the Dust Bowl migrants, which she used to write her novel, Whose Names Are Unknown. Random House planned to publish it, but John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath had just been issued and Sanora's book was shelved; it was not published until 2004, a year before her death. Sanora Babb met her future husband, James Wong Howe, the Chinese-American cinematographer, before World War II. In 1937, they traveled to Paris to marry, but their marriage was not legally recognized in California for several years because of anti-miscegenation laws. In the early 1940s, Sanora Babb was West Coast secretary of the League of American Writers. She edited the literary magazine The Clipper and its successor The California Quarterly, helping to introduce the works of Ray Bradbury and B. Traven, and contributed her own short stories to many periodicals. Two of her stories were chosen for the 1950 and 1960 editions of the anthology series "Best American Short Stories." She befriended many other writers, including William Saroyan and Ralph Ellison. Sanora Babb was blacklisted in the 1950s due to the influence of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and lived in Mexico City for a year to protect her husband from harassment. During this self-imposed exile, she completed The Lost Traveler (1958), inspired by her early life experiences; it became her first published novel. Her fictionalized memoir An Owl on Every Post was published in 1970.
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