Kinfolk, Kinship, Kindred

THIS HAS been a big week for Octavia E. Butler fans and stans, with the launch of “Kindred,” the limited series, on Hulu. I’ve only been able to see two episodes thus far and so there will be no spoilers here, no fear.

This week, my essay for Sierra magazine about Butler’s circuitous path toward publishing Kindred went live. Her manuscript was rejected 15 times by publishers, until Doubleday made a home for it in 1979. It became her breakthrough book.

In my piece, I reach back to the seeds of the novel, a story Butler told many times over the course of her life: While in college, she’d overheard a conversation in which another student claimed that if he were alive in the antebellum south and enslaved that he would have fought back. That declaration haunted with her. Would he have? Could he have? How would he know?

Bravery and survival looked like something different back then.

She started to investigate. To puzzle those “what ifs” out on the page. Drafts and drafts of pages in which characters, stakes, plot points and scenarios changed again and again.

From my piece:

When she was done, Butler had written a gripping, spectral, and genre-defying novel she called Kindred—the story of Dana, a 26-year-old Black woman setting up a household with her new husband, a white man, in 1970s Southern California. Dana, inexplicably, becomes unstuck in time. In an instant, she is transported back to a marshy riverside on a plantation in antebellum Maryland and must blindly feel her way around the territory to root out the extraordinary circumstances that not only landed her there but also continue to pull her across time and space.

I know many people who are meeting for watch-parties and post-screening book groups. I already knew that I was not going to be able to “binge” something like this, that it would have to be something I explored in chapters and so, it will take me a bit to get through. That’s okay. It took Butler years to distill and write and publish. I will honor that process.


We Have a Special Going On …


My publisher Angel City Press is offering a special deal through December 15, 2022 on A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler.

After the piece in The New York Times ran a couple of weeks ago, there was a run on books and it sold out at a *certain* online retailer. But fear not, there is not shortage! There books to be found.

You can order directly from ACP. Details below.

Follow this link to the store.

I just signed stacks and stacks of copies, so grab yours while the special lasts:

The Books That Made Me

ITS BEEN so very long since I’ve posted here. Apologies.

I’m going to try to do a quick update of some pieces in the next few days.

I always enjoy working with Joe Wakelee-Lynch at LMU magazine. He enjoys knocking ideas around, the more abstract, the better. That gives the writer a lot of room to roam and daydream.

This piece was one of three I pitched. I had some stray seedlings of ideas swirling around in my head. I’d told him about another couple of pieces I’d been working on that felt a bit like archeology. He liked the idea of going back to foundational texts. During the first months of the pandemic, I found myself revisiting certain themes or authors (not necessarily the book that was on the syllabus or the very book I had once spent a summer with), but the re-reading took me back to the person who started out on this journey to be a writer.

It was an important journey and it has been wonderful to be in conversation with other people about their own foundational reading lists, their own “shelves of selves”

You can read the piece here with the most gorgeous illustrations by the amazing artist Melinda Beck. She captured the feeling of what it is to collage together a life of words.

Artwork by Melinda Beck


IN A MONUMENTAL year of swerves, set-backs and dead-ends, to hold this in my hands feels like a miracle.

This book is the fruit of many, many days, weeks, months and years of requesting boxes, thumbing through files, squinting at looseleaf pages filled with line after line of drafts. Reading. Absorbing.

The Pasadena-born writer, Octavia E. Butler willed her papers to the Huntington Library and shortly after the archive opened in 2016, I accepted a commission from Los Angeles-based arts organization Clockshop to work on a piece that was part of their “Radio Imagination” initiative, a year-long exploration of Butler’s work and legacy. As I was putting the finishing touches on my piece, I thought I was turning the corner of completing my work in the reading room, but instead I stumbled on a quote of hers that took root in my imagination. Butler was often asked: “What is science fiction to you?” An answer she settled on and often repeated was: “Science fiction is a handful of earth, a handful of sky and everything around and in between….” Science fiction allowed her the latitude to create a new reality, a new world, and ground that world, at first glimpse at least, in the familiar.

This quote resonated deeply. Mostly because I’d clocked in so many hours reading though her day-to-day prescriptions for clearing writing hurdles, solving a financial crisis and wrestling shape-shifting fear. Also, I held in my hands the often humble items — her bus pass, her library card, her dime-store notebooks and hand-me-down diaries — she used to achieve miraculous gains in her life

I couldn’t have asked for a more appropriate subject to work with and through during a global pandemic. As I re-read her words about habit, grit and ultimately “bounce” — there was a message for today and the next day.

“A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler” isn’t a biography nor is it an literary analysis, but you see the early paths, influences and obsessions. The book is a focused exploration of those tools and interior maps Butler utilized to create a life that was larger than anyone could have imagined for her.

The book publishes on October 20th and the first online event will be held that evening, hosted by Eso Won Books via Crowdcast. I’m honored to be in in conversation that evening with Ayana A.H. Jamieson who is the founder of the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network

To hold a place, you can register here.

Also you can pre-order here from Angel City Press.

The Original Green Book.

I GREW up eavesdropping on all manner of serpentine stories about road travel.

Drive at night. Drive all the way through. Don’t dare  talk  to anyone.

As much as I love to   explore, I knew that this came with risks.  Writer and photographer Candacy Taylor’s  deeply researched and important new book, “The Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America ” examines the fraught territory of the open-road for black  travelers.  Taylor’s book connects the dots between  Jim Crow segregation, redlining to present-day racial and socio-economic  disparity.  It is an impassioned plea for present-day activism; a call to revisit these sites that once symbolized freedom and  power, and build on the history of hope.

I review the book for the Los Angeles Times.

From my piece:

Publisher Victor Hugo Green, a black mail carrier in New York with a seventh-grade education, said he’d come to the idea while observing a Jewish friend consult a kosher guide to plan a vacation in the Catskills. Taylor, however, suspects a more complex origin story. Green, who also managed the career of his musician brother-in-law, had no doubt absorbed stories about the travails of securing safe accommodations on the road; those anecdotes would have been influential as well.

Green teamed up with fellow postal worker George I. Smith to create the guide. “The first edition was only ten pages,” writes Taylor, “but it was a mighty weapon in the face of segregation.” Green’s brother, William, later joined Victor and his wife, Alma, to produce the guide out of their Harlem home.

At the outset, 80% of the listings were clustered in traditionally African American communities, including Harlem, Chicago’s Bronzeville and Los Angeles’ black enclaves stipulated by racial housing covenants and held in place for decades by redlining. The “Green Book” became a trusted brand and an emotional touchstone due to Green’s vision, grit and stamina and the guide’s consistency and reliability.



You can click here  to read the  rest.





BY CHANCE, I began my reading (or re-reading) of this early work  just as we hit peak Santa Ana season.

The winds yowling and the fires zipping across the county. I’m a native and yet it never ceases to be frightening. Knowing the potential keys up everything.  Didion writes with the edge of a knife:

“I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it, and almost everyone I have seen today knows it too,”  Joan Didion writes in ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem.’  ‘We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks. … To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.’

I review the new Library of America collection of her work “Didion The 1960s & 70s, ” for the Los Angeles Times.  Click here to read the full review.

L.A. Stories: Redux

IT’S BEEN a long stretch of silence around here. That’s mostly due to big deadline juggling and such but there is light at the end of the tunnel. (Stay tuned).

In the meantime, on top of a book deadline, I have been writing a bit about the city through the lens of a few books.

A few months I did a group essay/review of Gary Krist’s “Mirage Factory” and  Shawn Levy’s history of the Chateau Marmot,  “The Castle on Sunset” with a little side chat with Janet Fitch to round it out.

Both books take a deep look at the city’s history while also examining boosterism and grand promises that L.A. didn’t always keep.

Krist’s book looks at  the origin stories of some of these myths,  Levy’s  the extension of them, and helps us understand why, to this day, we are still untangling truth from fable.

You can click here to read the piece up at LA Times books.


What it means…

“I have described New Orleans as a city of feeling …” writes Sarah M. Broom in The Yellow House 


If you’ve been following this blog for sometime you know that my ancestral roots are dug deep in Louisiana. New Orleans is a pin on my map,  but the New Orleans I grew up spending time in most every summer of my youth had little to do with the place that lived in most people’s imagination. As Broom points out, people often have a visceral reaction when you merely utter the words New Orleans. Sometimes it isn’t even an actual emotion they name; it may just be a sound.

This is why Broom’s book so hit home. On so many levels.

In The Yellow House, she explores her hometown — New Orleans East — “across the bridge” from the one that’s  minutes-but-worlds away from the New Orleans of the of gas lights and music and all-night reverie.  Of the French Quarter she asks: “How had one-square mile come to stand for the entire city?”

“The East” lies at best on the edges of  imagination, but Broom somehow knew at a young age, that she needed to secret away details about the her home — The Yellow House — the life that filled it up, and the ground upon which it precariously sat.

“I was still writing everything down as I had learned to do in high school. In the Yellow House, especially rote detail as if by doing, I was making things real, findable, fighting disappearance. I could collect evidence.”

It’s another August and it’s about the time of year that my family would be readying the suitcases for that trip east, to visit my grandfather and the rest of the family who remained rooted somehow in that uncertain ground.  It seems fitting that Broom’s book would arrive this week in keeping with tradition. It took me away, back there. I’m still walking around listening and looking chasing my own ghosts.

You can read my review of Broom’s far-reaching exploration of erasure and belonging here  at Arts and Books.


My Advanced Reader’s Copy: So many deep insights, indelible quotes

The Curious Tale of “Linda Taylor”

FOR THE LOS ANGELES TIMES, I reviewed Josh Levin’s deep-dive into the real-life figure behind the moniker “Welfare Queen.”  The book goes all kinds of places one wouldn’t expect.


From my piece:

In its early chapters, “The Queen” is as much about Taylor’s duplicity as it is the detective’s need to break out of his own workaday tedium and make his mark in a deeply segregated and racially charged Chicago. It also illustrates the concerted efforts of a network of journalists, cops and politicians who sought to make a quick-sketch of Linda Taylor, a figure who could be held accountable for the city’s, state’s and nation’s raft of troubles in a climate of inflation and recession.”


You can read the rest here.