“In the meantime the Bottom had collapsed. Everybody who had made money during the war moved as quickly as they could to the valley, and the white people were buying down river, cross river, stretching Medallion like two strings on the banks. Nobody colored lived much up in the Bottom any more. White people were building towers for televisions stations up there and there was a rumor about a golf course or something. Anyway, hill land was more valuable now, and those black people who had moved down right after the war in the fifties couldn’t afford to come back even if they wanted to. Except for the few blacks still huddled by the river bend, and some undemolished houses on Carpenter’s Road, only rich white folks were building homes in the hills. Just like that, they had changed their minds and instead of keeping the valley floor to themselves, now they wanted a hilltop house with a river view and a ring of elms. The black people, for all their new look, seemed awfully anxious to get to the valley, or leave town, and and abandon the hills to whoever was interested. It was sad, because the Bottom had been a real place. These young ones kept talking about the community, but they left the hills to the poor, the old, the stubborn–and the rich white folks. Maybe it hadn’t been a community, but it had been a place. Now there weren’t any places left, just separate houses with separate televisions and separate telephones and less and less dropping by.”
from Sula, by Toni Morrison
A FEW MONTHS back, I posted a note about being poised to go down a rabbit hole.
I didn’t realize how true that was going to be.
I apologize for the radio silence, but I’ve been working on “Radio Imagination.”
Since the beginning of this year, along with my other usual reporting, writing and city wandering, I’ve been doing weekly research at the Huntington Library, preparing for a big project for Clockshop, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit art organization. Clockshop’s founder, filmmaker Julia Meltzer approached me, and several other writers, artists, academics, to discuss an idea that she’d been fleshing out for sometime.
Her plan was to create a year-long series of events, spanning the city all dedicated to the legacy and impact of San Gabriel Valley-based, science fiction writer, Octavia E. Butler. Going in, I only knew the boldfaced details about Butler and her work, but I was tasked with creating a “posthumous interview.” Though I wasn’t quite sure what that would look or sound like, I liked the places it allowed my brain to go.
A few weeks into the Octavia E. Butler archive at the Huntington Library, I knew it would become less and less clear before it would find focus. She had a big, busy life and there were many possible paths to travel — I just had to trust the process.
I’ve never quite been inside someone’s head the way in which Butler has allowed us to be in hers. She was a avid and honest chronicler of her life — her work, her surroundings, her worries, her triumphs and disasters. Moving through pages of journals, letters, commonplace books, mimics the effect of her whispering to herself as she goes about her tasks. We’re eavesdropping on process, the roundabout road in building narratives — both on the page and in life. Tomorrow four writers, Robin Coste Lewis, Tisa Bryant, Fred Moten and I — will premiere new pieces inspired by our time in the archives, listening to Octavia spin stories about life on so many different planes.
I can’t express what a gift this experience has been.
We are sold out (!) for tomorrow night’s event at Clockshop, but if you want to try to fly standby, those waiting will be admitted if ticket holders do not show. A podcast of the event will be forthcoming so stay tuned.
TO CELEBRATE this year’s Big Read title, Fahrenheit 451 — and its author, the late Ray Bradbury — we’ll be convening 4/17 at the Craft and Folk Art Museum to chronicle your L. A. stories on the spot. The event “Type Writer: An Afternoon of L.A. Stories Typed Before Your Eyes” will be held from 4 to 7pm in the Museum courtyard. Bring your typewriter and join in. For more information about the event and The Big Read click here.
I’d better get my “home row” fingers limbered up.
IT’S BEEN oh-so-quiet around here because I have had to corral my attention. I feel lucky to say that I have had several big, deeply-involving projects occupying my imagination.
This one truly has been an honor to participate in. For the last few months, I’ve been paging through science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler’s papers achieved at the Huntington Library in San Marino.
It has been a rare and singular experience to be so up-close to an author in the middle of her process. It is a bit like walking around in the echoing expanses of her head.
I am in the midst of stitching together a new piece based on the experience for the project, “Radio Imagination” — a year-long tribute to Butler and her powerful legacy. I’ve been tasked with putting together what we’re calling a “Posthumous Interview” — I’ll write little here about that except to say the images you see above re just a sample of the items from the vast archive I’ve been using as inspiration.
We’ll be previewing our works-in-progress on April 23rd at 6::30pm at Clockshop in Frogtown. The evening’s event features readings from Tisa Bryant Robin Coste Lewis, Fred Moten and me. You *must* RSVP. . Space is limited. Click here for info and tickets (Suggested donation is $10).
(images courtesy of the Octavia E. Butler papers at The Huntington Library)
TONIGHT we discuss LA on foot and David L. Ulin’s new book SIDEWALKING at the Ruskin Art Club. For information about the event and tickets, please click here
ONCE AGAIN Vromans Bookstore in Pasadena outdoes itself with an elaborate Banned Books Week display. This time each title is outfitted with a backstory — about where and why the “notorious” volume made the list. I haven’t picked my title yet but as you can see there are many to choose from.
Exercise your right and freedom to choose.
Just before I hopped out of town for a brief pause, I was able to speak to writer Claudia Rankine about her book Citizen: An American Lyric and the staged version that will be up at the Fountain Theatre here in L.A. until October 11.
Here’s a snip from the intro:
On the American “stage” — within mainstream media and in public discourse — the discussion of race and racism is often defined by spectacle: an event that we can collectively point to that plays out on our screens, large and small. It might be the grievous roll call of black lives cut short by raw acts of violence; or it might take shape in next week’s headlines — a bungled arrest or denial of dignity — that eerily mirrors incidents of three generations ago.
While those high-profile, super-charged moments are indeed odious and shameful, they are indicative of a deeper malady affecting the American psyche, writer Claudia Rankine argues in her most recent book, “Citizen: An American Lyric.”
Often, Rankine notes, these high-profile conflagrations — New Orleans post Hurricane Katrina, the murder of Trayvon Martin — are viewed with confusion or are categorized as aberration by those who don’t move through life with black skin. For those who navigate daily through fraught territory, the belief or assumption that racism is largely “behind us” is both a powerful articulation of privilege and a violent act of erasure.
To read the interview in full click here.
I JUST finished floating through nearly 900 pages of dreamy recollections — those of poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Two books arrive, just months apart, that provide a fresh look at the publisher and poet who was responsible for creating the necessary support for a new generation of thinkers and writers. Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books — both the publisher and book store — has served as north star in San Francisco’s North Beach for generations. I review two books for the Los Angeles Times — Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals: 1960-2010 and “I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career” The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg – 1955-1997 .
You can find the review here.
Both books are beautiful offerings. The journals, a vivid testament to the life of the mind; the letters, a celebration of the evolution of a long and tender friendship.