Los Angeles Literature: Year in Review So Far

by Brian Dunlap

UntitledIt’s now summer. It’s now July. The first of 2017 is behind us. The first of the year in the Los Angeles literary community is now only memories. Now we begin July with #90x90LA, 90 consecutive days of literary programming through out L.A., brought to the city by Chiwan and Judith Oden Choi and the entire Writ Large Press Family.

So far, it’s been a busy year in Los Angeles Literature and it’s not about to let up.

It wasn’t until March when the L.A. literary community really got busy. It kicked off with the first annual Lambda Litfest Los Angeles celebrating LGBTQIA writers of all races, religions, etc. and their important, but too often ignored stories. Litfest included writers such as poet Chen Chen, Novelist Alex Espinoza, poet Kazam Ali, novelist Nole Alimit, poet Angela Peñaredondo and writer Anna Joy Springer, among many others.

During the week long Lambda Litfest I was fortunate enough to attend three events. Two were held at Avenue 50 Studios in Highland Park. The first event was “We Are Chicanx: A Brown-Queer Revolution” featuring young writers Esperanza Cisneros, Josefina Valdez, Stephanie Hernandez, Alma Rosa Rivera, moderated by Meliza Bañales. This reading epitomized the importance and need for strong community. Chicanx is an emerging concept and revolution, as was explained during the Q and A, about taking back their non-gender conforming culture, being proud about it and who they are and to be inclusive to all non-gender conformers. It was during the Q and A, even in their early to mid twenties, these young writers spoke how their Chicanx identity influences their writing and the Chicanx legacy they want their writing and legacy to leave behind.

I also attended the event “Poetics of Self [RE/De] Constructed: Latanies to My Brown Heavenly Body” a few days later at Avenue 50 Studios featuring Angelea Peñaredondo, Melissa Sipin, Belinda Bellinger, Michelle Lin, Margaret Rhee, Chen Chen, Muriel Leung, Ching-In Chen, Vickie Vertiz, Kazuni Chen and Vanessa Angelica Villarreal. It was good to hear Angelea Peñaredondo read again, a local poet, a part of a reading questioning, challenging and redefining gender norms. However, what was most memorable was emerging poet Chen Chen. He had just released his first poetry collection When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities about, according to Amazon “inherited forms of love and family–the strained relationship between a mother and son, the cost of necessary goodbyes–all from Asian American, immigrant, and queer perspectives. Holding all accountable, this collection fully embraces the loss, grief, and abundant joy that come with charting one’s own path in identity, life, and love.” I found his poems powerful, the voice of the speaker in the poems strong and certain about what he was saying.

To close out at Lamda Litfest LA I went to Skylight Books in Los Feliz for the panel “Indie Voices from Indie Presses” featuring three narrative writers: Alex Espinoza, Wendy Ortiz, and Martin Pousson, moderated by Dan Lopez. This panel was more focused on the publishing process, getting their stories out into the world without compromising their voices, or watering down their ideas to make their narratives more “acceptable” and marketable. It was great to finally hear L.A. writer Wendy C. Ortiz read and speak. I had read her memoir Excavation, a powerful account of her relationship with a charming and deeply flawed private school teacher fifteen years her senior, that doesn’t shy away from fully tackling all the hard aspects of that illicit relationship. It was also great to hear my former mentor and professor Alex Espinoza read from his novel in progress. Marin Pousson is a talented writer that I was introduced to.

Then their was Grand Park Bookfair Saturday March 11th that was smaller  and less diverse than in past years as Writ Large Press had a small imprint on the bookfair than in past years. Grand Park Bookfest, whose original goal was to celebrate the Los Angeles literary community–it’s independent presses from Rare Bird to Prospect Park and it’s writers from poet Iris de Anda to poet Rocío Carlos to mystery writer Gary Phillips. This year’s edition was a disappointment because, for example, the young Get Lit performers where mostly white, and the children’s books being read on the Children’s Stage heavily featured white main and supporting characters. However, on the same stage the Bookfest brought out L.A. poets, promising high school scribes and established figures in the L.A. literary community (Rocío Carlos and traci kato-kiriyama, among a few others) who each read a very L.A. poem. Their poems all expressed their love for Los Angeles and all its contradictions. This is the place they call home.

Then, on April 22-23 came the 22nd Annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at USC, which I wrote about earlier this year on Los Angeles Literature. The Fedtival of Books continues to bring out over 100,000 book lovers from across the Southland to buy books, attend panels, hear authors discuss their work, meet and fall in love with new authors and their work, and maybe to get autographs. The Festival was enjoyable, but nowhere near as good as when it was held for years at UCLA. As I’ve said before “There didn’t seem to be as many booths or panels as in years past,” and “The festival did not reflecting the diversity that the city loves to celebrate.”

The following week, on April 29th, the third Annual YallWest was held at Santa Monica High School, celebrating Young Adult Literature. I attended for the first time, to hear one of my favorite YA authors from my childhood, who is still busy writing, Neal Shusterman, speak on the panel “Alt Facts, Alt Futures: Writing the Post Dystopian” with Marie Lu, Renée Ahdieh, Claudia Gray, Marcus Sedgwick and moderated by Veronica Roth. They cracked jokes, spoke about how the current political climate influences their dystopian writing, and took questions from a thoroughly entertained crowd of YA book lovers.

The festival was a good one, but it is still growing into its full identity on the book fair side, as it is still a relatively young event. Although two sections of booths were set up on campus, both areas were sparse in terms of number of books available and what they offered, comprised mostly of corporate children and teen imprints, like Harlequin Teen and Penguin Teen. And at one booth, I don’t remember which one, they had a game where you spin a wheel to win a prize. Only one booth, Mysterious Galaxy, functioned as a bookstore, selling a wide verity of young adult and children’s books, mostly from authors featured at this years festival, to feed the young attendees passion for literature that YallWest encouraged and deepened.

Then, on May 20-21, the sixth Annual Litfest Pasadena took place in Pasadena’s Playhouse District. This festival was started by Jervy Tervalon to celebrate local authors from around the Southland, from mystery writer Naomi Hirahara, to novelist Natashia Deon, to poets Mike Sonksen and Chiwan Choi, to writer and lawyer Daniel Olivas. This event highlights the diversity of the writers, the Los Angeles literary community, and their stories. Litfest Pasadena has improved each year  I’ve attended, as it’s gotten a stronger foothold in Pasadena and with the powers that be. As the Festival claims, it’s “Southern California’s most diverse and eclectic literary festival which is author driven…”

I was only able to attend Day 2 of Litfest Pasadena and two panels stood out. “Mixed-Race and Interracial Experience to Make Meaning in a Time of Protest” featured Heidi Durrow and Natashia Deon in an in-depth, open and honest conversation about being mixed-race in modern times and of interracial union in antebellum America. “The Impossisblity of L.A.” featured Daniel Olivas, Chiwan Choi, traci kato-kiriyama, and moderator Mike Sonksen, who discussed how they tell their L.A. stories, how L.A. has affected and continues to affect them and the work they do, especially within the literary community.

Now, as #90X90LA gets underway, the second half of 2017 promises to be as busy, if not more so, for the L.A. literary community. Let’s not forget that many of these hardworking writers continued to publish books (Cynthia Guardado, Endeavor, Chiwan Choi The Yellow House, Lynelle George Shifting Tenses: Field Notes From The Southland, Derek D. Brown Articulate Scars and Charmaine Craig Miss Burma, among others) and short pieces in magazines and journals, on and off line, (Don Kingfisher Campbell, Brian Dunlap [me], Mike Sonksen, Alex Espinoza and Susan Straight among others) in the first half of 2017 with no signs of slowing down in their other work. Also not forgotten, L.A. based Tia Chucha  Press published the country’s first comprehensive anthology of Central American writers in “The Wandering Song.”

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