It’s no secret that Literary Los Angeles is hotter than the Mojave. The following essay is a dispatch spotlighting a new bookstore and several recent books.
The latest great news is the opening of a new bookstore in Boyle Heights, OTHER BOOKS / OTROS LIBROS on Cesar Chavez and Cummings. Located a block from the legendary eatery Guisados, the new store is a collaboration between the proprietors of Seite Books, formerly in East Los Angeles and KAYA Press. This new store is highly anticipated because Seite has always had an incredible collection of titles and KAYA Press is one of the West Coast’s most innovative presses. Seite was forced to relocate because their lease was not renewed on their original space and this new partnership puts them on an even busier street in collaboration with KAYA, so it’s a double blessing for aficionados of local literature.
On Thursday, October 20th at 7.30 PM, they are going to be celebrating the launch of KAYA’s new edition of AND CHINA HAS HANDS, a novel by the eccentric Marxist agitprop writer HT Tsiang. Tsiang is a mythical author who died in 1971 and is buried down the street from the new shop in Evergreen Cemetery. The book release party will feature an all-star cast of literary heroes including the novel’s editor, Floyd Cheung, Ed Lin, Kima Jones, Iris de Anda, Jen Hofer, and Sesshu Foster. Their soft opening is Thursday, October 20th, but many more events are being planned as we speak.
Other Books / Otros Libros
2006 East Cesar e Chavez Avenue 90033
Serve the People: A Word on Six Books
Similar to many English, Poetry and Writing instructors, I am always reading several books at once. Simultaneously I am always grading stacks of student essays and other writing assignments along with my family commitments, so I rarely have the time to write about what I read with the detail that I’d like to. Nonetheless, I have come across so many engrossing page-turners in the last several months that the following account includes an eclectic offering of first rate books that necessitated this short essay.
Gentre Re Place Ing by Jessica Ceballos, Writ Large Press
This 37-page chapbook fuses documentary poetry, Los Angeles history and creative nonfiction in an experimental register grappling with gentrification across Los Angeles in 2016. The author wants to bring the disappeared back home. The text tackles issues like how do the less fortunate exist in an ever-expensive landscape, asking questions like: “Where did they go?” “What exactly is a BIG city?” “What does community mean?” and “What does affordable housing mean to you?” Ceballos urges us to take the detour because, “Today is sadder than yesterday, and twice as sad as the day before, I don’t want to know how it will feel tomorrow, not right now anyways, so I’ll hold my breath until it all disappears and there’s no one left to say goodbye to.” Highlighting Chinatown and Highland Park, the Los Angeles native Ceballos wants us “to build something again, after the undoing.”
Serve the People by Karen L. Ishizuka, Verso Books
The subtitle of this book, “Making Asian America in the Long Sixties,” sets the tone for the fascinating and thorough history explicated in this work. Ishizuka shows how Asian American political identity emerged in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Seattle beginning in the Vietnam era and extending into our contemporary period. Through spotlighting the community of activists, artists and writers that helped create this transformation, Ishizuka begins by tracing how the Asian American community was originally more fragmented between only Japanese, Chinese and Filipino enclaves. Furthermore, she shows how Asians were often invisible because the media and political policies always focused on black and white relations, ignoring other groups in the process. As the author declares in the Introduction: “in the late 1960s, pushed by a racist war against people who looked like us and pulled by a promise of a Third World that called for self-determination instead of assimilation, Asians throughout the United States came together to create a home we never had. We called it Asian America.”
One of the most compelling passages in the text shows how independent newspapers like Gidra: The Monthly of the Asian American Experience, kick-started a whole cavalcade of underground Asian American publications filled with essays, poetry, graphic arts and photographs. These publications are now like time capsules and many of the authors in these pages all went on to great careers as writers and educators. Sesshu Foster and Amy Uyematsu are examples of two important authors that started in publications like Gidra. Serve the People’s “Foreword” is written by Jeff Chang and the range and depth covered within these pages makes this tome essential reading for anyone interested in the past, present and future of what it means to be Asian American.
Still Dirty by David Lau, Commune Editions, An Imprint of AK Press
The 53 poems in this collection accomplish the rare feat of critiquing 21st Century economics, poking fun at popular culture and singing poetically all at the same time. As Dominic Luxford states in The Believer: “Lau’s poems take place at the periphery of consciousness; try to look directly at them, try to explain what they are saying and they blink away. These are poems that exist in a fun house of connotation, poems that are simultaneously creative and destructive.” Some of the poem’s titles corroborate with this. For example, “Neanderthal Street Journal,” “Fleur de De La Soul,” “Lumumba Zapata College,” “Short Talk about Freud,” “Dialectic in a Barbaric Bog,” and “Skid Row-kyo.” My personal favorite in the collection is “Panegyric.” The piece melts sarcasm, political commentary and cartography in four quatrains. The opening couplet sets the tone: “I’m kinda pissed some drainbow/ stole me Leica at the festival.” The piece travels from the Tibetan Plateau to the Inland Empire to Chinatown to North Long Beach with references to cigarette paper, guerilla forces, technologies and single-use cities. It’s worth quoting the final seven lines to reveal how Lau brings it all together:
They held together much
work from the deepest
diametrically opposed Chinatown technologies,
single-use cities and the party
crew form of petty theft, plus Lopez Cabral’s
laconic register of implicit critique—
He got the skinny on developments in North Long Beach.
Lau’s poetic register juxtaposes all of these elements seamlessly. Originally from North Long Beach, Lau attended UCLA as an undergraduate and then did his graduate work at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Now working as a professor up in Santa Cruz, Lau edits the journal Lana Turner and remains embedded in the poetry and activist communities in both the Bay Area and Southern California. His latest book, Still Dirty is experimental, socially conscious and extremely contemporary. Read it at your own risk. Lau will be in Los Angeles at Beyond Baroque on October 30th at 2pm to celebrate the book’s release.
Map of an Onion by Kenji Liu, Inlandia Institute
Coming in at just under 50 poems, this collection by Kenji Liu is what Timothy Yu calls, “A Poetry of Interruption.” Liu notes in the book’s “Foreword,” that documents like birth certificates, passports and citizenship papers are central to family narratives as well as help define official identities for Asian Americans. These papers, as Yu writes, mark “a history of migration, departure and arrival, rejection or belonging.” They also “erase, enforce or repress.” This is the paradigm Kenji Liu begins with to address his own family identity and Asian Americans at large in this cycle of poems. The poems use “interruption,” to interrupt these documents with other languages like Chinese, Spanish and Japanese to reflect Liu’s own border-crossing history. Through the text several of these poems are translated into one of the three languages noted above as well as many of the pieces have words from these languages within the poem.
In addition to these documents, Liu also uses found materials and collage methods to meditate on colony, conquest, citizenship, language and place. Some of the titles reveal his aims as well: “Deconstruction: Papers,” “A History of My Complexion,” “Your Father Tongue,” “Deconstruction: Capital,” “A Son Writes Back,” “Migratory Daughter,” “Heart Sutra After Cremation,” and “Between the Two.” In the poem, “Martian Chronicles,” he declares: “The bridge we crossed is lined with dust./Even our dreams can’t go back.” The poem “In Orbit Around New York City,” states: “Every layer of history in a thing.” Liu is bridging cultures and eras within his work. He hopes to, “fold maps so our places can meet.” As transnational as Liu’s poetic mapping is, he is still very personal and loyal to his family through the entire text. Liu’s efforts ended up garnering him the Inlandia Institute’s “Hillary Gravendyk Prize,” in 2015.
East Hollywood: Memorial To Reason by Harry Northup, Cahuenga Press
Divided into 9 sections and including over 100 pieces, this nearly 300 page book charts Harry Northup’s 50 years of involvement in Los Angeles Poetry. Northup is perhaps best known for his 35 plus years as an actor and his roles in several Scorsese films including Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. Nonetheless, Northup has been a central figure in LA Poetry, dating back to the last 1960s. One of the first pieces in the book is a short prose essay about the early days of Beyond Baroque. He explicates the history of the famous literary institution and also describes the ethos of the early poets who met there. He states: “Emersonian self-experience, devotion to language, study, hard work, precision & transcending reality through the imagination were stressed.” Northup was one of the original poets there from its earliest days back when Beyond Baroque was located on West Washington Place, which is now known as Abbott Kinney.
The core of this collection is made up of poems, but there are a few short prose memoir pieces reflecting on his love of baseball and a few tributes to his early mentors. Some of the pieces are list poems and other catalog works breaking down East Hollywood and the various locales he walks through. There are a number of pieces like “View from Mariposa Avenue,” “Fountain Avenue, East Hollywood,” “Kaiser Walk,” and “In My Neighborhood,” that demonstrate how much he loves his longtime home neighborhood, the city’s characters and Los Angeles at large. There are also serveral poems like “Love Poem to Holly,” and “For My Love Sleeping,” that are dedicated to his wife, the equally illustrious Los Angeles poet, Holly Prado. Northup inhabits a unique space in Literary Los Angeles. As much as he had originally come from Hollywood and the machinery of the film industry, there are very few that describe the city as honestly and in as straightforward of a manner as Northup does. He humbly states that the, “The walks in East Hollywood, films at/local theatres, my wife’s cooking & the/fresh flowers she brings home, our bed,/ her arm, cats & fan, poetry & baseball/save me, nourish my dazed spirit.”
Lost Canyon by Nina Revoyr, Akashic Books
Over the last 15 years, Nina Revoyr has written five award-winning novels that each uniquely explicate Los Angeles in all its technicolor glory. Lost Canyon subverts Revoyr’s previous books by taking the protagonists away from the City of Angels and placing four Angelenos up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for a weekend backpacking trip. The four-day trip ends up becoming a matter of life-or-death and bring the main characters into contact with an antigovernment white supremacist group and a sprawling marijuana garden. Whether she is describing the picturesque Sierras or the inner psychology of her characters, Revoyr is a potent painter with her prose.
She creates four diverse characters that are each from a different corner of LA. Gwen Foster is an African American counselor for at-risk youth who works in Watts, Oscar Barajas is a single father and real estate agent from gentrifying Highland Park, Todd Harris is a golden boy attorney on the Westside as well as an LA transplant from Wisconsin and Tracy Cole is their Japanese American trainer and hiking guide for their mountain adventure. The conversations and inevitable trials and tribulations that arise from these very different characters encountering one another in this captive space make this book very contemporary.
Moreover, the twists and turns of the intricate narrative create a powerful social commentary that reveals deep insight on race, gender and class. Embedded throughout the text are dozens of insightful passages that comment on these factors and life in Los Angeles. For example, “Todd inched down Sunset, past the Standard, Chateau Marmont, and finally to La Brea, where he took a left to get up to Franklin. He passed Yamashiro, the Hollywood Bowl, turned north again toward Griffith Park. As he got farther from the Westside, he felt the tension subside, felt his job and the Colsons and even his stale marriage become part of the world he was leaving behind.” As this quote reveals, the deeper the characters venture out of their comfort zone and into the wilderness, the more the stresses of their LA lives fade away and they are faced with unforeseen danger and unexpected terror as they struggle to survive amidst the shady characters waiting for them up in the High Sierras.
Revoyr masterfully employs reversal and the second half of the book reveals one surprise after another. Revoyr’s 2003 book Southland has been lauded for its penetrating insight on multicultural relations in the Crenshaw District and Lost Canyon continues her tradition of writing narratives that are equally thrilling and truthful.
I will be back next month with another essay covering another stack of books.
Thanks for reading and to be continued…