Monday, March 23, 2009

Location, Location, Location

Santa Monica Library Panel explores Los Angeles as backdrop for story

Yesterday I headed out to attend a panel discussion on “Los Angeles as Literature” at Santa Monica’s beautifully designed modern main library. I was particularly interested in this panel because I have always fallen in love with places. Also, when we write, our setting is so important for flavoring what we get down on the page. After soaking up some sun for a precious five minutes in the library’s courtyard, I wandered inside to meet a fellow writer at the MLK Jr. Auditorium entrance.

David L. Ulin, The Los Angeles Times Book Editor, served as the discussion’s adept moderator. The authors were a fittingly diverse trio. Cecil Castellucci is a young adult writer and the author of Beige. Nina Revoyr is a Japanese-American novelist (The Age of Dreaming). Gary Phillips is the Black writer/creator of the Ivan Monk mystery series (Bangers).

The panelists addressed the author’s job of breaking through the stereotypes of a place to find its real identity. Typical depictions of Los Angeles they identified included the world of Hollywood and an urban gangland. Nina Revoyr pointed out that beyond the stereotypes are so many untold stories. Gary Phillips shared that he was inspired to write about our city because the Los Angeles described in the many mysteries set here was not the place he knew.

Nina noted that one way stereotypes get established is that writers use “shorthand” to tell about a place. One of the favorite LA neighborhoods she has written about is Crenshaw, and this writer wanted to bring out its racial diversity as it is often thought of as a Black neighborhood. The panelists also brought out another reason a place get inaccurately depicted; that is when outsiders take a quick take on a newsstory, and are influenced by the misinformed ideas of the place that they bring with them.

Cecil talked about how her home neighborhood of Silverlake influences her writing, with its spirit as a creative space. This line of thought was reflected in a comment by Gary that a writer must immerse him- or herself in a place and among its people to get an accurate picture. It is not enough to just read about it.

The speakers, including David Ulin, explored LA’s real identity. They noted that since Los Angeles is constantly evolving (like many other places), we must make it a point to re-learn our city if we are to write accurately about it. One aspect that brings about change here is the steady influx of outsiders streaming in to LA. Nina pointed out that this is a young city, still finding its identity. David mentioned how LA finds itself always compared with New York and San Francisco (it seems these comparisons can make us defensive at times as Angelenos). Perhaps our strength is an identity that was spoken of by Nina (which I believe is often true), that this is a place where things happen first… a trend-setting city.

I was left with the impression of a place that is like a mosaic. So many slices of life that themselves have smaller parts and stories within. I was reminded of my early days in Los Angeles when I traveled all over the city to write pieces for the Los Angeles Reader. This served as a good foundation, and enriched me. I want to make a point of continuing to move through many sections of LA. A note of hope for our city that came out of the panel is that a more expansive mass transit system here may make us less neighborhood-centric and more open to the many diverse neighborhoods and people who make up our great city.

P.S. By the way, David Ulin mentioned that most of letters people write about the book pieces in The Los Angeles Times are complaints. If you love books and read The Los Angeles Times, please send positive and appreciative letters about its book coverage to the paper and its book editor.

Best regards,

Robin Quinn
Senior editor/writer
Quinn's Word for Word / Brainstorm Editorial - Los Angeles
Specialists in alternative health, nutrition, psychology, spirituality and self-help books