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Lynell George
Paris Cotz & Marius Sosnowski
August 7, 2021
Photograph by Noé Montes

California may have been barrelling toward the all-clear in late May when this interview was conducted, but traffic in Los Angeles is still traffic in Los Angeles. So with Paris in Berkeley, Marius in Los Angeles, and Lynell in Pasadena, an old-fashioned video call took place where the trio covered an array of topics including the responsibilities inherent in conducting a posthumous interview, writing about Los Angeles and the memory of place, and Lynell’s L.A. reading list. This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Lynell George is an award-winning Los Angeles-based journalist and essayist. As a staff writer for both the Los Angeles Times and L.A. Weekly, she focused on social issues and human behavior as well as visual arts, music, and literature. She is the author of No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels (1992) and After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame, (2018) a collection of her essays and photographs. Her latest book, A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler, (2020), is a 2021 Hugo Award finalist in the Best Related Work category.

DM: Let’s start with your latest. What drew you most to Octavia Butler, as a subject for a book?

LG: It was really not my intention to do a book when I entered the archive to work on Butler. It was to work on a commissioned piece for Clockshop, which is an arts nonprofit here in Los Angeles, in Frogtown. I was approached by the executive director Julia Meltzer and she wanted to know if I would be up for creating something that she framed as a posthumous interview and I thought that would be interesting. I didn’t know what that would look like, or feel like, but I was open to taking a trip through the archive of course, because, you know, who wouldn’t be? And once I got in there I was just amazed. I mean the size of it, the sort of objects that Butler saved really spoke to me. So after I was finished with that piece I realized there was more that I wanted to do. And I think it was based on this very familiar struggle that she was having as a Black woman trying to become a writer in Southern California. You don’t see that story very often, her road was so unusual. She did so much on her own, and that’s what drew me, how she was able to construct this extremely grand yet unusual life with very humble objects, that’s what stuck with me, and that’s what made me decide to want to write about it.

Unlike the traditional biography, or collected journals, or letters, this one was very much about letting her speak through her journals and interpreting just a little bit. What was it like deciding to create this living catalog?

I really did let the archive lead me. First, when I started I was thinking it would be a book specifically about writing, you know, the struggle of that. But I kept bumping into these objects and the things that she would reach for during the day. After spending about a couple of years in the archive, I really started to look at, where did she spend most of her time? And I really meant, you know, physically, in her writing life. 

There were certain kinds of journals she used to work out her emotional issues—her frustrations, her shyness, her slowness, as she called it, but that was her process.Then her calendars, and then other notebooks, and once I started to look at those things and the things that she reached for I thought: Okay, what are the most essential things? What are the things that she’s looking at every day? She’s looking at her bills every day to try to make sure, Do I have enough to make sure everything keeps running? Then the calendar she used in so many different ways. She was looking at deadlines, and so many writers are always looking at our deadlines, so part of you is here in the present, but also you’re planning for the future. But she also used it to track her progress. So you’ll find page numbers, you know, how many pages she wrote on a particular day. So I started to be able to get a real sense of her world through these objects like library cards, because the library was both her office and her palace. And so I thought, how do I tell her story through these objects, these particular objects, because I knew I would be limited in number per the Estate’s permissions. Once I narrowed things down it became really clear that I could tell an arc of her writing life through these particular objects, and that was the key.

She’s trying to push off boundaries because she needs room. But at the same time she’s not walking away from her Blackness.

Well, it was very moving. And when you specifically bring up the bills and the living in the future, it really makes everything so much more poignant and so much more intimate. One of the most powerful things we took from the book was that she seemed to want desperately to reach people on a level beyond color… to be nothing more or less than a good storyteller. There is that powerful line, “Being a dancing bear may get me through the door, but for me, only being a fine storyteller will stave off the hook.” Where do you think her desire stands in relation to this moment in time?

From being in the archive I think the, “I want to be looked at as a storyteller, a fine storyteller, a strong storyteller,” is rooted in this dismissal of her as a Black person, period. And that was always on her mind and she always talked about what it was like to not see herself in the world, in the world of movies, in the world of TV, in the world of fiction and to not feel empowered. I write about women, and I write about power and Black women, because I had none. And so I think, absolutely she would be dead center of this if she were around because she was looking for a community to go back to. She wanted to feel understood, and she was constantly fighting to be respected. She knew how she was being minimized or diminished in certain ways and that was a huge fight for her, and it did have to do with color. So, in a way, it is “See me as I am, as a whole person, regardless of race.” But the race part was important. Her work is centered around Black people, and much of it is, you know, “Stop putting me in a box” and this thinking, “We’ll see you in Black History Month.” That’s the dancing bear part. But in a lot of interviews, she’s trying to reframe people by saying, “I’m a writer, and my characters happen to be Black.” But that’s a larger discussion. She’s trying to push off boundaries because she needs room. But at the same time she’s not walking away from her Blackness.

Photograph by Lynell George

Reading A Handful of Earth, a lot of it is Octavia walking around her neighborhood. In After/Image you talk a lot about walking around Los Angeles. How do you use walking and observing around the city as a form of place-keeping?

For me it was a way of seeing the city. It is a way, not was—Covid makes it feel like it was. But it slows the city down, you can actually see it. We’re so often in our cars and, for me as a reporter, I’m “covering the whole city,” so I’m seeing things in a blur, and not really seeing what’s happening on the ground and who is where and what is changing. If you get out of your car and you’re walking through the neighborhoods, you see them more vividly and you can see the changes, in a stop motion kind of way, and interact with people. There are certain places in LA where people are only on foot or taking buses and don’t rely on cars. And some of it is a class issue too. And so to me it’s essential because if you want to really see the layers of Los Angeles, you have to get out of your car, you just have to.

For Octavia, who never drove, she always relied on the bus, even for her writing. I think it’s in “Speech Sounds,” there’s a fight on the bus and it starts with that and that’s straight out of her journals. There’s some really rich writing about who’s on the bus and what happens on the bus and the chaos of the bus, and she’s listening to conversations. That stuff seeps in. There’s so much isolation in LA because you’re in your car driving from one cube to the next cube to the third cube. Being on the bus, being around people all day long, she got ideas this way for all kinds of things—essays and op-eds and ideas for her books.

Walking was her inspiration as well. It was walking around and looking at the nature around her, and how nature changed, and climate, and what was growing and what was not growing and what got cut down. She was looking at change in a different way and looking at the community in a different way. I see that show up in the backdrop of Parable of the Sower, in Kindred, which is set in Altadena, Pasadena, in Mind of my Mind. She was a person who drew maps and because she was on foot—she never drove—her maps look different from the maps of people who are in their cars. You’ve got the trees and the bushes and, you know, the details.

In your book After/Image, how does the concept of hauntology figure in the city—specifically LA? Who and what are the ghosts here? And how can we conjure the past they represent?

I think the thing that I’m seeing in a lot of cities is there’s so little respect for the past. It might be changing now because of something they just did here in the mayor’s office. Christopher Hawthorne, who used to be the [LA Times] architecture critic, is now working for the city and this committee called Past Due. One of the things [the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office Civic Memory Working Group] has been wrestling with is, how do you honor the past, and how do you honor those stories? We can talk about gentrification, which is such a triggering word—people either turn off and they don’t want to hear it, “Oh, city’s change all the time…” but this is different because it feels much more aggressive and it washes away the things, the history. And then the people on top have a lack of curiosity about what they are standing on, and the layers that are beneath it. I think in order to conjure those ghosts, you have to summon them. And you have to ask questions about what is there, and why it’s there, and why this place looks the way it does, and what we honor. I don’t think we often leave enough space for that to happen, because people are just intent on turning these places that are historic into something that’s just comfortable for them. “It’s my blank slate and I’m just going to build what I want to on it, and it doesn’t really matter about whoever’s around me.”

I think in order to conjure those ghosts, you have to summon them. And you have to ask questions about what is there, and why it’s there, and why this place looks the way it does, and what we honor.

To correct that, some cities do something like a plaque. How do you feel about the plaques or these kinds of monuments to local history?

I have a complex feeling about those. I mean acknowledging is one thing. But I think it’s this business about statues and plaques but is that enough? I think it has to be something that’s part of a living space where the person who’s moving through it is prompted to ask questions and it’s part of an interpretive space. It’s not this passive plaque that’s up there, it should be more, you hear the voices or you see the faces. 

There was this really beautiful description in a magazine article I was reading—I can’t remember the source—but what sticks with me is the description. It was about The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the description of the grounds. There is a path that’s shaped like a clock that is supposed to represent the time the memorial covers, from the transatlantic slave trade through the present. It is a memorial to the victims of lynchings. The detail that remains with me is that as you enter, you read the names and dates and they are eye level in the beginning. But by the end, your perspective shifts, because you’re walking on an incline, and the monuments are now “hanging” above you. A powerful re-interpretation. It was profound… So that’s what we’re headed toward: a more active way of being able to understand what that history means and what it feels like.

In “Between Here and There,” you write about the loss of [local restaurant] Cha Cha Cha and other important cultural gathering places. In the section on gentrification, “Here comes the neighborhood” (which feels like it really should be the text on the subject), you quote Peter Moskowitz, “We are being taught to consume a city, not experience it like a community.” What stands between today and a future where we can begin to really invest in our communities again, where idiosyncratic establishments full of color and character—integral parts of vibrant communities—can survive this “short-term everything” “take-take-take” onslaught?

You know I wish I knew. I really had, I won’t say high hopes, but after Covid I thought maybe there would be some kind of reckoning—we had so much loss in this last year and change—that we would come out of this with a different mindset, with gratitude and curiosity back. I watched my neighborhood, I walked my neighborhood a lot, during our lockdown it was full of beautiful gestures of people clearing their fruit trees and putting boxes of fruit and avocados out on the street for people to take, and bags for them to carry them, and toys, free toys, free clothes, free food banks and I thought, “Oh maybe this is going to open the heart more and we will be a close knit community after this is over.” Or we may revert back to where it was, like we just hit pause. And now we have all these places that are open, and all these businesses that have remained closed. What’s going to go into those businesses and how do we help people get started again? Because a place like Cha Cha Cha, that’s organic. They got in when it was low rent and they were able to stay for all those decades because it was family owned and family run. And you know, all the people that lived there even once and moved away, they came back because it was a touchstone.

It would take a huge commitment to really re-invest in our cities again. I don’t know if it’s tax breaks or some kind of incentive to pull people in and let them work to try to build something. When something is artificial, you don’t go back to that, that’s not something that becomes part of you. As you were talking about, this whole tech sector, when they’re in a place they’re not really in a place anyway because they’re conducting business elsewhere. But that’s the thing, I feel like there needs to be some sort of support, where the people who actually grew up in the soil and have this memory of place are trying to preserve what neighborhood really means. Otherwise it’s just generic. But when it’s not sustainable and it gets bulldozed over and then written over and we do something again, we get a bland box.

Yes, exactly. What do you think contributes most to the flattening of cities? What does it look like, smell like, sound like, and on the other side, is there anything that can be done to negate this flattening?

This woman I met many years ago, she worked at UCLA and she used to do these tours for new students coming into Los Angeles and she would take them out to places that were beyond the guidebook. And she came to one of my readings for After/Image, and we got into this discussion during the Q&A session. When I lived in Echo Park, I used to hop in my car and go to Venice, and Venice used to feel extremely different from Echo Park, or Inglewood, or Downtown, or Westchester, or East LA. And what’s happening now, you could blindfold someone and take them out and… there’s these condo complexes that are going up around the river and these are condo complexes that could be in Venice, in Hollywood, in Culver City. The city is starting to look the same no matter where you are. Before you would know where you were, the houses looked different, the gardens looked different, the businesses on the street looked different—just the way things are painted—hand-painted signage versus blade signs, and old bulb light or neon, that’s changing. You can be anywhere and it could be the same place, and that’s depressing.

To me, the beauty of LA is that it looks different in different places, so you can take a mini-vacation in your own town and be someplace and it stimulates you and it recharges you and resets you. And that’s starting to go away. I think the way to stop it is to have developers who are more mindful. How do we keep these communities looking like individual communities? Rather than just doing these cookie cutter developments that make you feel like you’re just moving from sameness to sameness to sameness. Character means everything. That’s what people remember, that’s what becomes part of your cultural memory. I know everyone keeps saying, “We want affordable housing!” Well just because we want affordable housing doesn’t mean it has to be a box and it has to be ugly.

In the piece, “For Now,” there’s a memorable line, “Context … in the ‘70s, was everything.” Then in another section just a little later, “…while we marked our turf with language, in clothing, through slang, we moved in and out of circles, taking pieces with us, making something new.” To us it’s striking that you’ve been able to experience so many parts of Los Angeles throughout your life… to be on a first-name basis with so many different types of people in different neighborhoods. Covering a beat is definitely your role as a reporter, but what about your experience growing up and growing older in Los Angeles, beginning in the 1970s? How much of that decade shaped you and your sensibilities as a writer?

Interesting question because I hadn’t thought about it in terms of the decade. But yeah, I think there was something about it. There was a sense of hopefulness, because it was post-Civil Rights. I think about music, and what was in the air musically, too. I look at bands like Sly and the Family Stone, for example, and think about what were they singing about, but also what did they look like? Here was this band that was multiracial, they spoke more than one language, Portuguese, Spanish, English, probably even more, and there was something like this curiosity about “Who am I?” interacting with “What can I learn?” There was an openness that was, I won’t say easy, because it was tense you know? Crossing into people’s homes and, also into territories that were really sometimes fraught. It wasn’t simple, but if you could get close, if you were curious, if you were open… those people, those stories, those languages were a prism through which you could view the world.

You also had access all over LA. LA was cheaper to live in too. So there’s moving around and being able to be in different places, gas was cheap. I’d bum rides with my friends who had cars (I didn’t drive until I was in college) and we could be in the car all day, even with the gas crisis. We could go and sit someplace all day, or walk. The money part wasn’t an issue, not that class didn’t matter, of course it’s there, but you could be different places and spend time and it just seemed, again I won’t say easier, but there didn’t seem to be these hard walls to climb, and people were open. I think that definitely did shape me, this being adjacent so much.

It wasn’t simple, but if you could get close, if you were curious, if you were open… those people, those stories, those languages were a prism through which you could view the world.

It sounds like it really sharpened your senses as a reporter.

Yeah, absolutely.

How have you used your methods and strategies as a reporter for, say, A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky, and also how does journalism feed into your knowledge of the city of Los Angeles?

Let’s see, I’ll deal with Butler first. For that book, because she wasn’t here, and because I was trying to conduct this interview with a spirit, you know, in bits and pieces, I had to really think, this person isn’t talking to me, she’s talking to herself, and I’m going to transcribe this. Because she’s asking herself questions and she’s answering them and then she’s going back and building on those answers as she gets older, or as she changes her mind or, as she loses interest, or she gets angry about something. And so, what I had was a lot of noise in my head and I thought, well, how would you handle this if you were transcribing a tape of somebody talking like this? And there is a point where she’s even telling me I want this off the record. I had to make decisions for that book that were different. Like how do I respect her privacy, even though she left all of this material here? Does it mean she wants all of it published? When you look at somebody who’s writing in their journal about the worst day they’ve had in their life, that’s a moment, and that page is the page, that day is the day they got rid of it. Then they’ve moved on to something else. So, is that page indicative of who she is? Or is the journey around it and what happens afterwards more indicative? I had to make decisions about what that bad day told me, and what that bad day will tell the rest of us.

As for journalism shaping everything else, you know when I first started out I would tell people that journalism allows me to ask questions that I wouldn’t ordinarily, and get into places and get to be closer to people that I wouldn’t ordinarily be able to. Certainly the asking questions part. I am always grateful for the time people give me, and the access, because they don’t have to. Sometimes I’m shocked at how open people are about their lives. I try to be a good listener and I try to be respectful and I think that all of that goes for everything I do, you know, even if I’m working on an essay that’s not going to be in a newspaper or a magazine. I need to do the reporting and still follow these tenets of journalism about, what is the truth, and getting as close to the truth as I can, because everybody’s version of something that happens, some major occurrence, is going to be different.

I think about when I’ve had to cover things like, the 1992 unrest, or what happened around OJ Simpson and how that really sort of split LA in terms of guilty or not guilty, and does it matter? How is he going to be treated? You know that story was much more complex, and so it meant there’s not two sides, there are going to be many sides. And I’m going to present as much as I can. I’m going to make this messy and variegated but I’m going to give you, the reader, enough information.

Oh yes, OJ Simpson was groundbreaking in a number of ways, and such a truly LA story. How would you compare the atmospheres in Los Angeles leading up to 1992 and throughout the pandemic of 2020-2021? (Of course police brutality dominates the contemporary narrative, but I’m also thinking of other key elements like funding for community outreach organizations, merchant-consumer relationships, and urban pressure points—all of which you report on in the pages of No Crystal Stair.)

With George Floyd last year, [again] you felt this build up. Also this, “Something’s gonna give.” People were saying the same things then and I think a lot of the community organizers in particular, people I would use the word tireless for, they’re tired. They want to be addressing other things and fixing other things and we keep circling around the same issues. So that was something that absolutely came up in my reporting. Especially around displacement, and jobs, and underemployment and job security and food security, people not being able to put food on their tables or shop for what they needed in their own neighborhoods. That’s the same.

When you look at somebody who’s writing in their journal about the worst day they’ve had in their life, that’s a moment, and that page is the page, that day is the day they got rid of it. Then they’ve moved on to something else. So, is that page indicative of who she is? Or is the journey around it and what happens afterwards more indicative?

Right. When you speak of underemployment, and while we’re dealing with these broader systemic issues, could you talk a bit about what specific sectors disappeared over the last three decades that haven’t been replaced?

When people came out in the 1940s and ‘50s and ‘60s, they were coming out for aerospace jobs. They were coming out for jobs that taught them skills that they could learn, that made good money doing it and had benefits. And they were able to raise a family. That’s the big thing that I think we were not able to replicate, weren’t able to fill in. And without that, without a place for people to start so they could support their families and send their kids to school, count on being able to get health care, and qualify for mortgages and that sort of thing. That’s a big gap.

Essentially, Los Angeles, to a certain extent, never recovered from the loss of heavy industry. And then soft industries became almost a segregated kind of thing by nature, or some things fell out of favor, like shipbuilding in San Francisco.

Right, exactly. You know there’s so many different classes of jobs. I’ve been doing work on a piece dealing a little bit with the Pullman porters, and the Black middle class, how that generation came in to do these jobs and were able to access information, had models, because they were around—white businessmen in particular—so they eavesdropped, had access to the way they worked, and learned on the job, and were able to set things up for their own families and ask the right questions and put themselves in places where very often their children were the ones to be able to have the next step up, go to college, go to graduate school, have white collar jobs. They were the ones that became the foundation for this next generation.

…I want the reader to be walking with me in my footsteps, next to me, not necessarily behind me, but next to me.

Hope, certainly resilience, is a constant throughout your work: rebuilding in the face of uncertainty, the hope of possibility and community. Something you wrote about the artist Michael Massenburg in your piece for The LMU Experience seems attributable to you: “Expert at reading possibility in a mere gesture and reacting in the moment.”

Ever since I started writing I’ve always wanted to take people where I was going, or else writing was a way for me to go back and relive a moment or record a moment. So, I’ve always been really interested in what kind of images I can create in people’s heads, so that they can see precisely what I’m seeing here, precisely what I’m hearing, feeling, what I’m touching, you know, really bringing in the senses. I think I’ve always known since I was a kid, that change occurs, cities change, they evolve, they’re living things. But my city happens to change faster than others and I knew I needed to record it if I wanted to have that feeling and move through that feeling, and have others share it. And I spend a lot of time reading, reading certain poets and reading really vivid fiction, and that takes me somewhere in the past, the future, into a moment, you know, and rhythms. That’s why I think poetry is important, there’s something about rhythm in language that pulls you into a mood. That takes time and practice. But I want the reader to be walking with me in my footsteps, next to me, not necessarily behind me, but next to me.

What poets in particular?

Gosh, that’s always a hard question because I always leave somebody out that I really love, but I spent the weekend reading Gwendolyn Brooks, which was very restorative. I love how she writes about people in cities and how they move in it, people on the edges, people on the margins, people’s yearnings, people’s hopes, people’s dreams. Wanda Coleman, one of my favorites. She’s one of the reasons that I think I could envision myself as a writer in LA, even though I didn’t plan to be a poet. There is something about her example of… going to see her at readings where she would show up with her big binders and her stack of books and rustling through her papers and deciding what she’s going to read in the moment. She was reading about an LA that I knew and other LA’s I didn’t know but wanted to know more about. She was in all of these different communities. She was part of that bohemian Venice community. She was part of the Black Power movement in the ‘60s. She brought so much into the conversation, made it vivid to me, and she’s definitely someone I revisit. I really love the work of Philip Levine, because he writes about working people. And also, just beautiful language that puts me in a very particular place and mood. Contemporary poets, Claudia Rankine and writing about race and playing with the page, the way she plays opens the page up.

Yes, Citizen was spectacular.

Yes! And I’ve noticed that people have been sharing online that one poem where she’s listed all the Black people who’ve been killed at the hands of police and people are actually now writing in the names she left blank. It’s almost like this very sacred call and response that’s happening on the page, it’s really poignant. Oh and Kevin Young, I really adore Kevin Young’s writing as well.

Wonderful. Thank you for that list. Expanding it just a little bit for anyone that wants to get an inside look at LA literature, what’s your Los Angeles reading list?

I have to mention Mike Davis. I’m here because of City of Quartz. It was the first book I read about LA that really kind of shattered everything. And this was even before I got to know him. In our bookstores here, there might have been a California section and then there’d be one shelf of LA books, but that changed after Mike Davis. People looked at the city in a different way. It became this object to be explored in various ways and whether you saw the region as he did or not, he made us pay attention to Los Angeles. All of this scholarship grew up around LA that hadn’t existed before, and I was really grateful to him. And then to be able to know him. That was the other thing, the “Oh my gosh, I can be in conversation with this person.” He lived in the same neighborhood and you could go and sit on his living room floor with a bunch of people who were working on things. We were able to keep the conversation going. City of Quartz was so important in a time when I was just beginning as a writer, as a journalist, I should say. I was already writing but writing about place and writing about LA and learning about the politics.

Books I read for mood. One of the books I used to read, maybe not once a year but maybe every couple of years, was Mildred Pierce, because I love the way [James M.] Cain writes about place and class, and how he moves us through Glendale and Pasadena. The other one I would put in that category is Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust. Mainly because it spoke to the part of LA that my mother knew when she moved here. She lived in the Wilshire District (or what is now Korea Town), and the way she would describe the LA she arrived in I found in those books. The flora, and the streets, and the views that were unhindered, and the scent that she smelled and it was a way for me to kind of crawl back into that experience. Even though there weren’t any Black people in it, it was for the backdrop.

And I guess these three writers, and I would have to group them, because I can’t choose, but I remember discovering them when I was in newsrooms. Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, Nina Revoyr’s Southland, and Dana Johnson’s Break Any Woman Down, because they were writing books that were being published about an LA that I recognized with vivid characters of different races and classes, moving through this backspace, with familiar palm trees in the hills and all of that. But they spoke different languages and their slang was different. They dressed differently but this was a place they loved too and finally I felt like I had found my posse. I found my people in these books. It took decades, but here they were in fiction, writing about an LA that was recognizable to me.

Paris Cotz is the Arts & Culture editor at Dispatches Magazine. She is Program Associate for the San Francisco Arts Commission and lives in Berkeley, California.

Marius Sosnowski is the managing editor at Dispatches Magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, California.