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L.A. TIMES ARTICLE - CALENDAR SECTION - JULY 6, 2004

"NEW READ ON L.A."

NOVELISTS NOW VIEW THE SPRAWLING CITY WITH AN INSIDER'S EYE

by Anne-Marie O'Connor

The Los Angeles literary landscape once emerged through the eyes of Raymond Chandler's private investigator, Philip Marlowe, who moved uneasily through a gritty South-Central, or in the quiet menace of Joan Didion, who found equally lethal noir tensions in the anxieties and alienation of a rootless upper-middle-class.

Didion's Santa Ana winds still sweep through contemporary Los Angeles novels, but today, South-Central is anything but a shadowy backdrop. A growing community of new writers is redefining the regional fictional landscape, writing their stories out of Crenshaw, Little Saigon, Echo Park and places like "Irangeles," which can be found anywhere from Beverly Hills to Huntington Park.

Their characters emerge more from the urban Darwinism of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" than from the pampered anomie of Bret Easton Ellis' "Less Than Zero." Hollywood still flows through the stories with the literary inevitability of Mark Twain's Mississippi River, but it is less often a setting than a symbol, of the perennial California dream of reinvention. "You could say you were anyone. Who would know?" one urban scavenger says to another in Marisa Silver's 2002 "Babe in Paradise."

As Los Angeles writer Carolyn See sorts through the new fiction for an upcoming anthology, she says: "I get very excited about it. I think we really are experiencing, not a renaissance -- because we're not being reborn -- but a naissance. The literature is being born every day."

Like Walter Mosley, who reinvented the classic noir mystery genre with his black investigator, Easy Rawlins, the new novelists create their fictional worlds from insider perspectives, See said. Chandler "never graced South-Central with actual human beings," See said -- and even John Steinbeck's most respectful portrayals of Latinos were written as an outsider. But many of today's new Southern California writers are African American, Latino, Asian or foreign-born. A number are women.

Their work is increasingly being read -- in new literary journals and anthologies, at independent bookstores, galleries, book clubs and literary salons that are proliferating in private homes. Author readings, even poetry readings, are muscling their way into the city's cinema-centric popular culture, and helping to absorb literary newcomers into the milieu.

"There are all these different threads weaving together," said Chris Abani, a Nigerian novelist who moved to Los Angeles in 2000. "You're reading each other's work. You go to their readings. You have conversations. That filters into how you think about your own work, and how you position yourself."

Yet "it's a much looser network than you would have in New York," Abani said, repeating a mantra of local writers. "You don't have that cutthroat competitiveness. You don't have the overbearing sense of the school or the kind of artistic fascism. You're much more free."

The vast urban spread of Southern California offers entire worlds of unexplored terrain, new novelist Nina Revoyr said. Revoyr is the author of "Southland," the story of a young Japanese American law student who, like Mosley's Easy Rawlins, is forced into the role of an investigator by circumstance, in her case the sudden death of her father. The story is set in the Crenshaw district. When Revoyr began her research, she was fascinated by the area's history of racial coexistence: of African American neighbors who watched over the houses of Japanese Americans sent off to internment camps.

"What you hear about in ethnic neighborhoods in Los Angeles is always strife," Revoyr said. "You don't hear about cooperation and community. It's a great place to be a writer because it's all happening here. If you're interested in race, the environment, social class, we're in the center of all of those burning issues."

Novelist Samantha Dunn thinks Los Angeles' more open-ended society makes it a good place for writers to take stylistic risks. Dunn, author of "Failing Paris," is editing "Women on the Edge," an anthology of female writers who she believes benefit from L.A.'s nonpuritanical culture. "These are women who have a daring view," she said of the writers she has selected. "Inside, something really wild is going on. It manifests itself in language."

Dunn is including Mary Rakow, author of the award-winning "Memory Room," Anita Santiago and Lisa Teasley. There is Julianne Ortale's surrealist tale of a 60-year-old woman who begins to lactate and the edgy sexuality of Rachel Resnick in a story set in Marrakech.

To Glenn David Gold, one advantage of Southern California for writers is the diffuse urban geography, which means that people form communities by choice, not serendipity, granting space to the growing number of writers -- both new and established -- who have made the region their home.

"If you're a writer, there is always an urge to not belong, to be a fish out of water," said Gold, who is married to Alice Sebold, author of the best-selling "The Lovely Bones." "And L.A. gives you an opportunity to not belong and still belong, which is the best possible opportunity."

In modern Los Angeles, many communities are strangers to one another, or they have been transformed by waves of migration, giving the metropolis an infinite quality, like Mexico City.

The Janet Fitch's mid-Wilshire childhood home, once a white middle-class neighborhood, is now part of Koreatown -- a manifestation of the perennially shifting geography that made many of the city's literary archetypes increasingly unrecognizable to Fitch. In her novel "White Oleander," the city's transience itself becomes a force, as a rootless society buffets a young girl through a brutally indifferent foster care system.

"It made me really angry to be reading writing about Los Angeles that wasn't the real place," she said. "It was about the film industry and Malibu Colony, the Judith Krantz school of literature."

Many Los Angeles writers are thankful for the 3,000 miles of separation from the literary world of Manhattan -- and an East Coast establishment viewed as more likely to show mavericks the door.

"In the East, it's much harder. You're limited there, as in England, by your accent, and your milieu," said Lisa See, Carolyn's daughter and the author "On Gold Mountain," a memoir of her Chinese American heritage.

"Let's put it this way: I think it's easier for anyone with a different perspective to flourish in California," said Sandra Dijkstra, the West Coast uber-agent known for finding a publisher for Amy Tan's 1989 "Joy Luck Club," a book whose success touched off a fresh wave of receptivity for nonwhite authors. "It's more of a frontier place. That's why people come here to realize their dreams. There's an acceptance."

But today's new pilgrims come more often from south of the border than across the Great Divide, adding a new hybrid quality to universal aspirations and dreams.

"It's colored. It's people of color. That's one of the factors," said Yxta Maya Murray, author of "Locas," about young Latinas in Echo Park.

"It's growing up a Valley girl and being a Mexican. Literature is the great adventure. It's going to help smooth out these rough edges."

A number of Los Angeles-based writers devote much of their writing not to Southern California, but to their countries of origin -- Cristina Garcia's Cuba, Gioconda Belli's Nicaragua. Chris Abani's latest novel, "Graceland" -- a coming of age story about a Nigerian Elvis impersonator -- is set in Nigeria.

Gina Nahai, whose novels "Cry of the Peacock" and "Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith" are anchored in Iran, says such literary cosmopolitanism defies such simple labels as "ethnic" literature.

"What you're really talking about is international fiction," she said.

The new plethora of Southern California writers includes a wave of mystery writers, some of them inspired by Mosley, who set his bestselling "Devil in a Blue Dress" in the 1940s belle epoque of black Los Angeles, when munitions factories lent a new prosperity to black American emigres from the Jim Crow South, and Central Avenue was a bustling boulevard hosting crowded jazz clubs.

Mystery writer Paula Woods drew from her childhood readings of Chester Himes, an African American writer who lived in Los Angeles for a time, for her mysteries about Charlotte Justice, a black detective who in "Stormy Weather" must solve the murder of an early black Hollywood director whose work was all but forgotten except for a bit part in "Tarzan."

"I've had people say, 'You're a female Walter Mosley,' and that's a nice compliment, but I'm offering a different take on the territory," she said. "I suspect we have more black mystery writers in L.A. than anywhere else in the country."

Perhaps that shouldn't be a surprise. Much of the city of Los Angeles is itself a mystery, even to its residents -- a disjointed landscape of multiple heartbeats, carved and recarved by freeways and an endless stream of traffic.

Even the Los Angeles literary new wave is uncharted territory. When Carolyn See wrote her dissertation on the Hollywood novel in 1963, she could find only three Los Angeles writers who were not writing about the movie business. When she published her first novel in 1970, her editor told her Joan Didion was her main competition.

Today, as she sorts through candidates for the anthology, she's coming across scores of new writers: Michael Jaime Becerra, whose new book, "Every Night Is Ladies' Night," is set among Latino immigrants in El Monte, "a beautiful dream world that's never been written about." Or Frank Mundo, a security guard who works the graveyard shift and has self-published his tales of overnight security.

See guesses there may be several hundred serious writers in the region, and she's giving UCLA an endowment for the study of Southern California literature. "This is all happening under the radar of academia," she said. "If there's money for dissertations, they'll break down and notice what's right under their noses.

"Australians have an expression: singing the world into existence," See said. "If you do make a song about it, it's there, and it takes on its own momentum, it's Paris in the '20s."

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