By Brian Dunlap
2020 has been one shit show of a year. Especially for Los Ángeles. Kobe died in January. The pandemic hit Los Ángeles County harder than anywhere else in California. The election. However, with businesses shut down and public gatherings banned, the city’s literary community quickly adapted and created community and continued to amplify voices virtually. At the same time writers continued to publish powerful literature.
Los Ángeles writers wrote a lot this year about their personal humanity, what shapes and makes them who they are as individuals, what is most important to them, in a year where many people couldn’t connect. Trauma—sexual, gendered, generational and racial—are what shaped poets Bridgette Bianca, Ingrid M. Calderon-Collins and Anatalia Vallez and their poetry collections, among other writers.
Other writers such as Natashia Deón, Kate Maruyama and Jenise Miller, among others, published pieces about important family members they lost tragically. And as always, Los Ángeles writers brought their own stories from seemingly every community in L.Á.: Iranian American, Chicanx, White, Chinese American, Korean American, Lesbian, Venezuelan American, Salvadorian American, Black, Panamanian American, among others, to show the breadth and scope of the varied lives that live in L.Á. and Southern California. In America.
These and many other writers have published new works this year, from books to shorter pieces such as essays, journalism, book reviews, short stories and individual poems in publications including:
Brian Dunlap (L.A. Parent, Lit Pub, PacificREVIEW), Nikolai Garcia (Westwinds, Dryland), Kate Maruyama (Entropy), Don Kingfisher Campbell (Subterranean Blue Poetry, Silver Birch Press), Viva Padilla (The Acentos Review, Two poems in anthology As of Late, Dryland), Angelina Sáenz (The Acentos Review), Chiwan Choi (GEN), Nancy Lynee Woo (Long Beach Post, Tupelo Quarterly), Xochitl—Julisa Bermejo (PANK, Dryland), Cynthia Guardado (Poetry), Brendan Constantine (Poetry Northwest), Jose Hernandez Diaz (Poetry Northwest, Diode, The Rumpus, The Boiler, Lost Balloon [“Context”-Pushcart nominated poem], The American Poetry Review, Grist, Poetry), Mike Sonksen (Pleiades, L.A. Taco, KCET.org), Lisbeth Coiman (The Coachella Review), Rich Ferguson (The Artifa[ctuals]), John Brantingham (Shark Reef Magazine), Jenise Miller (Dryland), Ruth Noland (Boom California), Donna Spruijt-Metz (Cortland Review, Spillway), Tisha Marie Reichle-Aguilera (PANK), Cynthia Alessandra Briano (Redshift 5), Alexandria Umlas (Mom Egg Review), David Ulin (L.A. Times, Alta Journal, Zyzzyva), Susan Straight (Alta Journal, Air/Light, Daily Bulletin, O The Oprah Magazine, L.A. Times), Vikie Vértiz (Air/Light), Carribean Fragoza (Air/Light), Victoria Chang (Air/Light), Bridgette Bianca (Art/Light), Wendy C. Ortiz (Air/Light, Zyzzyva), Natashia Deón (Air/Light), Lilliam Rivera (Air/Light), Lynn Thompson (Air/Light, Spillway), Carolina C. Blanchard (Dryland), Luivette Resto (Dryland, University of Arizona Poetry Center), Amy Uyematsu (Spillway), Peter J. Harris (University of Arizona Poetry Center), Luis J. Rodriguez (University of Arizona Poetry Center), Kevin Ridgeway (Dryland), Lituo Huang (Dryland), Iliana Cuellar (Dryland), Jessica Ceballos y Campbell (Dryland), Roberto Alfonso Díaz (Dryland), Suzanne Lummis (Spillway), Jerry Garcia (Spillway), Alexis Rhone Fancher (Spillway), Siel Ju (Zyzzyva), Victoria Chang (Zyzzyva), Nina Revoyr (Zyzzyva), David Hernandez (Zyzzyva), Doug Manuel (Zyzzyva, Konch Magazine, Spalding MFA Blog), Joe Donnelly (Zyzzyva), Michelle Latiolais (Zyzzyva), Sara Borjas (Alta Journal), Steph Cha (Alta Journal), Megan Dorame (Altadena Literary Review), GT Foster (Altadena Literary Review), S. Pearl Sharp (Altadena Literary Review), and Daniel A. Olivas (Roanoke Review).
Other writers were nominated or won awards, such as: John Brantingham, won the Crossroads Contest in fiction, for his flash fiction story “Little Dancer, Aged 14;” Shonda Buchanan won a 2020 Net Generation Indie Book Award for her book Black Indian; Sara Borjas won an American Book Award for her poetry collection Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff; OBIT by Victoria Chang was long listed for the 2020 National Book Awards in poetry; Jose Hernandez Diaz’s poem “Context” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize as well as pieces from Tony Sandoval (“I Didn’t Ask to be Mexican”), Megan Dorame (“the abalone are dying”), Teri Hicks (“Democracy, Democracy”), S. Pearl Sharp (“Six”) and GT Foster (“Pray Thee to Anacreon in Heaven”) that were published in the Altadena Literary Review.
The following is a list of all the L.Á. writers I know who published a book this year or announced a book is forthcoming. If there are any writers I forgot to include in this article, I apologize.
Published and Forthcoming in 2020-2021
Let the Buzzards Eat Me Whole (Another New Calligraphy) by Ingrid M. Calderon-Collins
Let the Buzzards Eat Me Whole is Ingrid M. Calderon-Collins’ poet memoir about being born and raised amidst the war in El Salvador in the early 80’s before she immigrated to the United State with her family when she was in elementary school. A refugee of the Salvadorian civil war. It’s about the trauma she experienced growing up Mormon, about the sexual abuse she experienced. She remembers her family’s escape, the first meal she ate after arriving in America: McDonalds. She gets deported, then returns to the States. And Let the Buzzards Eat Me Whole is about a whole lot more.
be/trouble (Writ Large/The Accomplices) by bridgette bianca
The story goes that L.A. poet Bridgette Bianca walked into a bar, read some poems and poet and publisher of L.A. based Writ Large Press, Chiwan Choi, asked her on the spot if he could publish her manuscript. At the time she only had a handful of poems. She said yes and the rest is history. In be/trouble, bianca’spoems force the reader to bluntly confront America’s difficult and painful racists history and legacy from the point of view of a strong black woman.
Read Me Los Angeles: Exploring L.A.’s Book Culture (Prospect Parks Books) by Katie Orphan
Read Me Los Angeles is a celebration of all things bookish in L.A. past and present, including interviews with current L.A. writers; day drips in search of favorite fictional characters, from Marlowe to Weetzie Bat; author quotes galore; curated lists of the must read L.A. books…and insight into the city’s book festivals, bookstores, publishers, literacy nonprofits, libraries, and more. Orphan lives in Los Ángeles, where she always finds new places to explore.
Erotic (NYQ Books) by Alexis Rhone Fancher
Alexis Rhone Fancher announced her new poetry collection, Erotic: New & Selected, will be published in 2021. The collectionuses sex in her writing to explore power, to “write for women who are like her.” As the Amazon description says “The collections tears the plain brown wrapper off erotica. She refuses to play safe, strips away pretense, intent on exposing the fragility, angst and longing lurking just below the sexual surface.”
My Ministry (Self Published) by Ingrid M. Calderon-Collins
A new collection of poems, written last spring, when Calderon-Collins was going through withdrawal from quitting smoking.
The Perishing (Counterpoint) by Natashia Deón
Natashia Deón announced her second novel, The Perishing, will be released in 2021.Part speculative fiction, part realism, the novel is set in Los Ángeles. It’s about a young black woman who suddenly finds herself in 1930s Los Ángeles, and through flashes forwards and back in time comes to believe she may be immortal, only to find a love, and a city, worth dying for.
From Our Land To Our Land (Seven Stories Press) by Luis J. Rodriguez
Essays on race, culture, and identity, Native Americans, the Latinx community, and more from the prolific writer, activist, bookseller, and LA’s poet laureate.
A collection of powerful pieces on race, culture, identity and belonging and what these all mean and should mean (but often fail to) in the volatile climate of our nation. Rodriguez has a distinctly inspiring passion and wisdom in his approach as he writes about current political and cultural unrest, about his own compelling background, and about his vision for America’s future. Ultimately, the book carries the message that we must come together if we are to move forward. He reminds us in the first essay, The End of Belonging, “I’m writing as a Native person. I’m writing as a poet. I’m writing as a revolutionary working class organizer and thinker who has traversed life journeys from which incredible experiences, missteps, plights, and victories have marked the way…. I belong anywhere.” The pieces in From Our Land To Our Land capture that same, fantastic energy and wisdom and will spark conversation and inspiration.
Behind the Red Curtain (Los Nietos Press) by Hồng-Mỹ Basrai
Behind the Red Curtain begins in 1975 as South Vietnam falls to the Communist North Vietnamese. In the voice of a young teenager, the author unfolds the story of her family in a world turned upside down with the political re-making if the country. Hồng-Mỹ writes about the gradual disappearance of all aspects of her former life and the impact it had on all those around her. The family’s struggle to survive, their several attempts to escape and the imprisonment that they experienced is laid bare…the connection to the universal themes of dislocation and the will to struggle for survival are never lost. She is a member of the Writers Club of Whittier.
Obit (Coper Canyon) by Victoria Chang
After her mother died, poet Victoria Chang refused to write elegies. Rather, she distilled her grief during a feverish two weeks by writing scores of poetic obituaries for all she lost in the world. These poems reinvent the form of newspaper obituary to both name what has died and the cultural impact of the death on the living.
Love, Love (Sterling Children’s Books) by Victoria Chang
The second book Victoria Chang published in 2020, Love, Love, is about Frances Chin, a 10-year old Chinese-American girl, lives in the suburbs of Detroit with her immigrant parents and older sister, Clara. At school Frances copes with bullies and the loneliness that comes with not quite fitting in. At home, she feels a different kind of aloneness. Her parents are preoccupied with work and worry about Clara, whose hair is inexplicably falling out. But, with the help of her friend Annie, Frances is determined to play Nancy Drew and solve the mystery of Clara’s condition. She also faces the everyday challenges and unexpected thrills of being a tween, especially when she receives encouragement from a tennis coach. Love, Love is written in free verse.
This Little Boy (World Stage Press) by Brandon Allen
Brandon takes you on a journey from victim to victor through the eyes of a boy growing up in a harsh world. If you, or someone you know, needs to be inspired to fight the lies that culture tells us about Black boys, Brandon Allen is the one to inspire you.
Boy (Silver Star Laboratory) by Donny Jackson
The Amazon description of “boy, the debut poetry collection by Donny Jackson” says “veteran poet, clinical psychologist, and Emmy Award-winning documentary television producer—is an awakening on an ocean floor of othering, be it color or gender or place, and rise from personae, to unflinching eyewitness, to a devastatingly personal emergence in a cultural tsunami, the swimmer gasping for air.”
The Poetry of Strangers: What I Learned Traveling America With a Typewriter (Harper Collins) by Brian Sonia-Wallace
Before he became an award-winning writer and poet, Brian Sonia-Wallace set up a typewriter on the street with a sign that said “Poetry Store” and discovered something surprising: all over America, people want poems. An amateur busker at first, Brian asked countless strangers, “What do you need a poem about?” To his surprise, passersby opened up to share their deepest yearnings, loves, and heartbreaks. Hundreds of them. Then thousands. Around the nation, Brian’s poetry crusade drew countless converts from all walks of life.
In The Poetry of Strangers, Brian tells the story of his cross-country journey in a series of heartfelt and insightful essays. From Minnesota to Tennessee, California to North Dakota, Brian discovered that people aren’t so afraid of poetry when it’s telling their stories. In “dying” towns flourish vibrant artistic spirits and fascinating American characters who often pass under the radar, from the Mall of America’s mall walkers to retirees on Amtrak to self-proclaimed witches in Salem.
Mowing Leaves of Grass (FlowerSong Books) by Matt Sedillo
Released in the final weeks of 2019/beginning of 2020, Moving Leaves of Grass is a poetry collection full of history, struggle, tragedy, anger, joy, despair, possibility and faith in the struggles of working class people to overcome the forces of capitalism and racism.
Cutthroat: Puro Chicanx Writers of the 21st Century Anthology
Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts dedicated their 2020 issue to Chicanx voices. This anthology issue spans all topics of Chicanx culture, from the rasquache to the refined. The issue features L.A. poets and writers Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, Myriam Gurba, liz gonzalez, Wendy C. Ortiz, Irene Monica Sanchez, Matt Sedillo and Renya Grande.
Birthday Girl (Not A Cult) by Sheila J. Sadr
Published by local press Not A Cult, Birthday Girl by Iranian American Long Beach native and spoke word poet Sheila J. Sadr, explores body, family, and sexuality. Birthday Girl was the selection for Not a Cult’s 2018 poetry submission competition.
The Most Spectacular Mistake (Flower Song Press) by Anatalia Vallez
the most spectacular mistake is a love story to herself, her roots, and the sacred ritual of chanting the past to heal into the past to hea into the present. It is a testament of the connection between the core of the body, the heart and spirit. Vallez undoes the entaglements of life and the ancestors she carries in her palms while weaving together traditional offerings through words.
N/A (Finishing Line Press) by Lisbeth Coimen
Next year Finishing Line Press will publish Coimen’s bilingual poetry collection about Venezuela.
The Fire Eaters (Texas Review Press) by Jose Hernandez Diaz
Surreal, playful, and always poignant, the prose poems in Jose Hernandez Diaz’s masterful debut chapbook introduce us to a mime, a skeleton, and the man in the Pink Floyd t-shirt, all of whom explore their inner selves in Hernandez Diaz’s startling and spare style. With nods to Russell Edson and the surrealists, Hernandez Diaz explores the ordinary and the not-so-ordinary occurrences of life, set against the backdrop of the moon, and the poet’s native Los Angeles.
Through the Soil in My Skin (World Stage Press) by Poet Astrid
This is not how love is made. This is how it is found. In plain sight. In the reflection. In the parts, you were taught to ignore. From her first love to her biological father, Through the Soil in My Skin unearths the truth and trauma that stems from relationships. Astrid embarks on an exploration of love through her past to a discovery of self in her present, recalling the men of her life and the lessons learned.
Family Solstice (Omnium Gatherum) by Kate Muruyama
Kate Muruyama announced that her novel, Family Solstice, will be released on January 30, 2021. It’s about how the the Massey family loves their house. It’s been in the family for generations, and the land on which it sits has been with them even longer. In the summer everyone comes through to visit and the house is alive with family friends, barbecues and lobster boils. But come fall, the mood shifts as all of the kids start training for their turn in the basement.
Shea, the youngest Massey is training extra hard. She’s thirteen and that means this is her year to battle on Solstice. Her older siblings won’t tell her exactly what’s in the basement, you don’t know until you’re fighting it. She’s excited finally to be in the know.
Maruyama explores the dangers of tradition, inheritance, and the sins of the father in this horror novella.
Altadena Literary Review edited by Teresa Mei Chuc & Hazel Clayton Harrison
The voices in the Altadena Literary Review 2020 are diverse like the flora and fauna of Tovaangar, the ancestral land of the Tongva people, which includes Los Angeles. In this collection are the poetry and prose of the people we see every day who experience houselessness to the youth to your neighbor. The voices of poets/writers in this book write, in addition to English, in the Tongva language, Nahuatl language, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Chinese. The writers explore the song of life, death, suffering, hope and joy reminding us how connected we are to each other and life on this planet and the universe.
The Blvd (DSTLArts) by Jenise Miller
From the mamas who cook and watch over the community to the braiders and the Trinas, The Blvd celebrates a neighborhood and its people, who face hardship with grit, gratitude, and grace. It offers a distinct narrative of Compton’s past that maps the joy and pride held by those who call this place home. The Blvd is the first poetry collection by Jenise Miller and the first collection developed and published through the DSTL Arts-Poet/Artist-in-Residence Program.
When the Pain Starts: Poetry as Sequential Art (Moon Tide Press) by Alan Passman
Alan Passman’s When the Pain Starts is a poetry anthology crafted into a graphic novel, wherein the Southern California poet collaborates with comic book artists from all over the world to bring the imagery of his words into another dimension. The book tackles relatable topics—questions about morality, battles with one’s physical and mental health, and all things existential.
Accolades: A Woman Who Submits Anthology (Jamii Publishing) Edited by Tisha Marie Reichle-Aguilera and Rachael Warecki
Accolades is a celebration of submissions, acceptances, and publications by members of the literary organization Women Who Submit (WWS). WWS seeks to empower women and nonbinary writers by creating physical and virtual spaces for sharing information, supporting, and encouraging literary submissions and publication process. WWS members across the country gather for monthly submission parties in public venues and private homes to share resources, submit, and support each other with claps and cheers.
Calabama (World Stage Press) by Yaa Asantewaa Faraji
Through a series of poems, short stories, and uniquely positioned quotes, Calabama encourages its reader to examine social norms delivered in the mainstream, while reevaluating the definitions readily overlooked in the English language. In a satirical critique of the American standard, Calabama creates a doorway into better understanding oneself and better empathizing with the cultural assimilation process, better known as the Middle Class.
Grandmothers with Voices (World Stage Press) by Sabreen Adeeba
Grandmothers with Voices reveals the struggles of grandmothers on the front lines of social warfare. Inspired by true-life stories, Grandmothers with Voices was written with passionate truth and spiritual elements, in hopes of placing the tragic ills of society under a microscope.
A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia Butler (Angel City Press) by Lynell George
A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler offers a blueprint for a creative life from the perspective of award-winning science-fiction writer and “MacArthur Genius” Octavia E. Butler. It is a collection of ideas about how to look, listen, breathe―how to be in the world. This book is about the creative process, but not on the page; its canvas is much larger. Author Lynell George not only engages the world that shaped Octavia E. Butler, she also explores the very specific processes through which Butler shaped herself―her unique process of self-making. It’s about creating a life with what little you have―hand-me-down books, repurposed diaries, journals, stealing time to write in the middle of the night, making a small check stretch―bit by bit by bit. Highly visual and packed with photographs of Butler’s ephemera, A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky draws the reader into Butler’s world.
Becoming Los Angeles: Myth, Memory, and a Sense of Place (Angel City Press) by D.J. Waldie
Becoming Los Angeles, a new collection by the author of the acclaimed memoir Holy Land, blends history, memory, and critical analysis to illuminate how Angelenos have seen themselves and their city. Waldie’s particular concern is commonplace Los Angeles, whose rhythms of daily life are set against the gaudy backdrop of historical myth and Hollywood illusion. It’s through sacred ordinariness that Waldie experiences the city’s seasons. In his exploration of sprawling Los Angeles, he considers how the city’s image was constructed and how it fostered willful amnesia about the city’s conflicted past. He encounters the immigrants and exiles, the dreamers and con artists, the celebrated and forgotten who became Los Angeles. He measures the place of nature in the city and the different ways that nature has been defined. He maps on the contours of Los Angeles what embracing―or rejecting―an Angeleno identity has come to mean.
Grocery List Poems (Not A Cult) by Rhiannon McGavin
Not A Cult announced L.A. poet Rhiannon McGavin new poetry collection Grocery List Poems will be released next year. The books description reads, “If the word stanza means ‘room,’ then this book is an orchard. Former Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, Rhiannon McGavin crafts poems with scraps of the everyday, from dream diaries to postcards. She integrates the facts of daily life into lyric verse, switching out traditional forms easily as trying on new sweaters. Led by emotions ‘real as the mosaic air between screen and projector,’ McGavin explores what it means to become your own calendar.”
Zigzags (Not A Cult) by Kamala Puligandla
When Aneesha returns to Chicago for the summer, all she wants to do is write and carouse with friends. Maybe rekindle things with her old flame, Whitney, who has a serious new job and relationship. Aneesha weaves through dance parties, dive bars, and all-night Mexican joints on her bike, but keeping old friends is complicated in this charming debut novel from Kamala Puligandla.
Keeping Tahoe Blue and Other Provocations (What Books) by Andrew Tonkovich
From a re-imagined Southern California childhood to adult confrontations with power both real and allegorical, these personally and politically engaged stories place their protagonists in everyday circumstances gone surreally rich in possibility, humor and potential resistance. The provocations of everyday political and familial life arrive as fact-fables about fathers and sons, citizenship, faith, addiction, and a nearly mythic insistence on imagination, with opportunities to embrace insight, reconciliation or painful truth.
Remembering Dismembrance: A Critical Compendium (What Books) by Daniel Takeshi Krause
Quirky, cerebral, exquisitely tortuous, Daniel Takeshi Krause’s first novel, Remembering Dismembrance, takes the form of a compendium of critical responses to a noveltitled, Dismembrance, and advertises itself as a “second synchronic snapshot of discourse in action…claiming its place as not just the leading anthology for its subject matter but, in point of fact, the definitive piece of Dismemorabilia. It is, put simply, the only absolutely indispensable thread for anyone looking to enter this particular labyrinth.” But which labyrinth is that?
These Women (Ecco) by Ivy Pochoda
In her new novel, Ivy Pochoda creates a kaleidoscope of loss, power, and hope featuring five very different women whose lives are steeped in danger and anguish. They’re connected by one man and his deadly obsession, though not all of them know that yet. There’s Dorian, still adrift after her daughter’s murder remains unsolved; Julianna, a young dancer nicknamed Jujubee, who lives hard and fast, resisting anyone trying to slow her down; Essie, a brilliant vice cop who sees a crime pattern emerging where no one else does; Marella, a daring performance artist whose work has long pushed boundaries but now puts her in peril; and Anneke, a quiet woman who has turned a willfully blind eye to those around her for far too long. The careful existence they have built for themselves starts to crumble when two murders rock their neighborhood.
Wicked Enchantment (Black Sparrow Press) By Wanda Coleman
Though she passed in November 2013, the Watts-born poet Wanda Coleman remains more relevant than ever. This new posthumous collection is the first book of hers to appear after she passed. It features 130 of her most poignant poems selected from over 40 years of her work. The author of 20 books of poetry and prose, Coleman has probably written more poems about Los Angeles than just about any other scribe in the city’s history. Terrance Hayes selected the poems in this book, and though some of her best known L.A. poems are not included, the pieces here emit wicked candor, satire, sincerity, and tenderness. Quintessential examples of her work like “I Live for My Car” and “Wanda Why Aren’t You Dead” demonstrate her incredible range. “I will cut you / with my tongue / my nails and the / butcher’s knife,” Coleman writes, and this collection is proof she can do it.
My Name is Romero (FlowerSong Press) By David A. Romero
Gustavo Arellano calls David A. Romero “a vibrant Southern California writer.” For the last 15 years, Romero has pounded the pavement from San Diego to Santa Barbara, shouting poems grappling with history, identity, etymology, and politics. My Name Is Romero is his third full-length collection of poetry the poet and spoken word. In a world mispronouncing his name, or trying to define it for him, Romero digs through his family history, his childhood memories, and stories of working people, to create his own meaning for his family’s name. In the process, Romero challenges his own prejudices as well as those of outsiders, as to what it means to be Mexican-American and Latinx. My Name Is Romero ranges from the political to the personal.
Zen Psychosis (Griffith Moon) By Shana Nys Dambrot
Zen Psychosis is a work of experimental fiction: the attempt to construct a personal memoir culled not from diaries, but dreams. In a way, as the scenes are taken from her own journals, this book is not fiction at all; the dreams are real, their meanings form a story. As a critic of art and an amateur student of Jungian psychoanalysis, Shana Nys Dambrot is often compelled to decode intuitive, inscrutable symbols and assemble meaning from the clues the dream or the artist leaves behind. In this novel—moving across geography from Downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach to Long Island and back again—she applys the technique to her own inner self.
The Black Kids (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers) by Christina Hammonds Reed
Los Angeles, 1992
Ashley Bennett and her friends are living the charmed life. It’s the end of senior year and they’re spending more time at the beach than in the classroom. They can already feel the sunny days and endless possibilities of summer.
Everything changes one afternoon in April, when four LAPD officers are acquitted after beating a black man named Rodney King half to death. Suddenly, Ashley’s not just one of the girls. She’s one of the black kids.
Gathering Grandmother’s Bones (DSTLArts) by Karo Ska
How do we form authentic identities in a world valuing white skin and white features? How do we connect to our ancestors and reclaim our severed cultures? How do we heal from toxic and racist relationships?
The poems in this powerful collection grapple with these questions by examining rejection, loneliness, empowerment and acceptance. It’s a poetic journey exploring an absent father, an emotionally distant mother, and the complicated currents of intra-family racism.