I’m on a northbound San Joaquin train heading up the Central Valley back to Chico with my son. We’ve been in Los Angeles (& North Orange County) since Monday night. And I’m sitting here on this train looking out the windows at parched dry land and blue-gray tinted skies thinking about what a wonderful land this place of my birth really is. No wonder I set so many things here in my stories. No wonder when I think of literature and poetry I think of Los Angeles and not NYC or New England or the Pacific Northwest–all those places that still have book stores. I think of Los Angeles instead–the city whose storytelling we think comes to us only in pictures and music, not words.
So much has happened this week in literary Los Angeles and will continue to do so. I’m only experiencing the tiniest fraction of it but there are some things that are going to stick with me, I know, for months to come.
On Tuesday I met with my past. And what I mean by that is I was interviewed for my tiny corner of the LA Zine making universe as I was one of those chicks back in early 1990s who stole time on Xerox machines to print out her words and force them upon others. I also was an early spoken word junkie at Koo’s Arts Cafe in Santa Ana. So there’s now footage of Lysa Provencio and I admitting to feminist vegan rants and lunchbox purses.
And for a moment I saw the clear lineage of who I was at 20 to who I am at 40 now working with Heidi Moore and Wretched Productions on Beauty’s Edge the documentary on Alternative Modeling. It all comes together. The pieces are falling into place. We ate healthy all day and I was reminded of Annie Hall scenes on Hollywood Boulevard and the ordering of mash yeast but of course Lysa and I stopped at Brite Spot for a Rueben sandwich on the way to the freeway because if Los Angeles is about anything it’s about balancing your good with your bad.
On Wednesday I drove out to Fullerton in my grandmother’s car. Grandma doesn’t go many places anymore, but she still gets that supportive gilnt in her eye, sometimes confused, sometimes direct, always on my side. I need that still. I feel a little lost parking at Cal State Fullerton as it’s three times the size it was when I graduated and I had worked on campus for at least a year. I park on the top of a structure with a pool below it. We never had a pool in my day. The Campus Crusade for Christ and the rest of the religious booths (and complete lack of political booths) comfort me in an odd way. At least this is a constant I can hold onto even if I think it’s all bullshit.
The English department chair is amazingly kind and witty and fun as is the teacher whose Creative Writing course I will be the guest of in a few hours. We go to lunch at the newly revamped hotel across the street with a swanky looking bar. But I’m a good girl and order the ahi salad and water instead of a manhattan and bread. I can do this alumni thing I think to myself.
On the campus and in the classroom I notice something amazingly cool to me. I notice that CSUF is not a few brown faces in a sea of white faces anymore. The white faces are the minority or more exactly–no one sticks out because no one looks on the face of things to be the sole representative from his/her corner of the universe. I think of that while the students discuss a short story from Sad Girls which they were assigned to read.
In the background, I’ve been reading/following the shit storm that is AWP16 Los Angeles. I realize that here in this particular creative writing classroom of 53 students in North Orange County, that none of them will have to endure critiques where their peers and professor hold up their words as examples of their culture. No one will think them quaint or offering a window into worlds unknown. No one will question their use of Tagalog or Spanish or Chinese or American English slang in their stories. No one will question the motivations of their characters if they do not fall upon stereotypical lines because this glorious generation of writers is starting to move beyond. This is indeed a glorious moment. Think of it. We get to be just like white writers. Just writers– not representing anything other than our own minds and our own thought processes and our own imaginations.
A smallish framed Chicana girl in the back row raises her hands during a Q & A part of our 90 minutes together.
“I don’t have a question,” she says, “I have a comment. You know what I liked about your story? I liked that I knew these girls in the story were Chicana but you never made it a point to tell us that. I like that you showed us them as people first.”
See? Fucking younger generation, I love you. If that girl in the backrow was on an AWP committee to decide panels and what not then none of this crazy shit happening now would have ever happened.
Because, you see, the AWP issues are exactly about that. The tone of David Frenza and Kate Gale of Red Hen Press both spoke to not seeing ethnic minority and disabled writers as people but instead as a part of white liberal tokenism. How is that any better than Bush who once told us he loved all his grandchildren including the little brown ones?
I had an amazing time at CSUF! Go Titans! I left campus all warm and fuzzy and proud to have gone there.
That night I was the featured reader at the World’s Stage in Leimert Park which HANDS DOWN is the best place to read in Los Angeles aside from Beyond Baroque and Avenue 50 and I would argue that the intimacy of it makes it better than anything a writer could experience. My friend and I sat through a typical Wednesday night workshop where two poets were critique stronger than I’ve seen in many graduate school critiques. And then I read a couple of stories from my newish book Sad Girls and the open mic followed with amazing Los Angeles voice after amazing Los Angeles voice. It was 100 degrees in there but I didn’t want to leave. There was a sharing of the heart and of story and no one needed to explain or over explain themselves. The stories people told in their poems exposed humanity in its sorrow and beauty.
And in the back of my head I’m thinking AWP this is your Los Angeles you are refusing to see. This will be the literary scene that won’t be at the conference because who wants to spend that kind of money? This is a room full of writers from Los Angeles — it’s not the few sanctioned tokens we are usually thrown to us but the real deal. There’s a man with a sweet voice who plays jazz guitar and whose songs I could listen to all night long who played during the open mic. When my husband and i were there in February we asked him if he had a CD out. We wanted to take home his voice any way we could. No he said, I just play a song on Wednesday nights.
And then late that night when I was cozy up in the guest bedroom at a friend of mine’s house I happened to hang with the Internet before I went to sleep and read more than I should have re: Kate Gale, Red Hen Press, AWP and various Defenders of the Realm and those rebelling. I thought back to the classroom at CSUF and how the demographic shift had caught me off guard for a moment. I thought that perhaps some of AWPs reactions to all things disgruntled Los Angeles are on that same vein:
They want us to be happy with the panels they’ve chosen and the ‘diversity’ they’ve hand-picked for us like some upscale artisan craft show because it proves to them that they are inclusive to include a few voices. How can you call us racists when we’ve let you in? The call goes. What they fail to understand is that Los Angeles is the very definition of diversity what other city in America and the world can boast that it’s one of the largest Latin American cities, Korean cities, Iranian cities, Armenian cities, etc in the world? How many other American cities have such a rich African-American cultural heritage? It’s really not about including minorities in your conference of writers. By sheer numbers alone, and the words that we write? We are your fucking conference. There are more of us than there are of you. If AWP is truly in the business of being representative of writers across America then they need to own it. In Los Angeles we are not the other, you are.
On Thursday morning my friends and son and I headed down Valley View avenue straight to Bolsa Chica State Beach. It isn’t the prettiest, but it is the closest. The water was clear and you could see schools of fish and baby sharks. We body surfed for two hours straight before heading back for a Thai food lunch and a nap. Even though I moved away from here in 95, my son and I are not tourists: We do the free things of Los Angeles instead.
On Thursday night I met up with three other women writers for a reading of our new works at Holy Grounds near Alhambra. Our stories were the very definition of diverse most of them set where we live or where we’ve been–in this case the great San Gabriel Valley area. We have stories out here, believe it or not. I read from my new manuscript that I’ll soon be shopping around Mary of the Chance Encounters.
The night was hot. The stage was beautiful. The crowd was intimate. The stories sometimes powerful, sometimes quiet. The patio felt like I was walking into Frida Kahlo’s blue house courtyard. Magic could happen there.
I’m on the northbound San Joaquin train sitting across from my son. We had a Famima! lunch of umeboshi, teriyaki seaweed, and rice chased with pepsis and cola gummies. I’m quite certain our Japanese fastfood lunch has in no way threatened his Mexican American upbringing. There is room, you know, for everything.