My passion for books started at a pretty young age. Through literature, I made friends with people all over the world, and visited places that I always wanted to see (and still do) through pages of novels and plays. Specifically, I’ve always loved literature that showed a glimpse into a different time and culture than the one that I grew up in in Puerto Rico. As I read historical fiction and nonfiction, I realized that history doesn’t just occur in a vacuum. The different waves of social change have effects and remnants in our contemporary reality in one way or another—and literature captures and depicts that. Since moving to Los Angeles for my last semester of college, I’ve been reading a lot about the city as a way to acclimate myself in a new environment and get to know present-day Los Angeles through its past, as it is captured and depicted through literature and art. As part of my journey, I’ve come across a few texts that have helped me understand the city, but most importantly, I’ve found a fantastic Los Angeles literary guide.
There are countless movies and television shows that show Los Angeles’s (scripted) image, but there is something about the way it is described on the page and represented through an author’s gaze, and then imagined by a reader, that provides a multifaceted and intricate process to fully and genuinely understand the city. Especially, reading about different areas in Los Angeles without previously seeing them for myself has prompted me to explore these neighborhoods; if I see it on a screen, I feel less moved to do so. In order to find what to read and how to see the city I needed a comprehensive Los Angeles literary guide that could help.
One text I’ve come across that has definitely influenced my reading and journeying through Los Angeles is Katie Orphan’s Read Me, Los Angeles. Coming to Los Angeles on an internship program through my school, most of the opportunities that I’ve come across have been to enter the entertainment industry; most of my peers are shadowing production company executives, which is great, but not what I was looking for. There is so much emphasis on making it in Hollywood that many overlook not only its literary history, but also the offerings that Los Angeles has. Orphan’s Los Angeles literary guide lists the locations of the best libraries (I got my library card just to have access to more books about Los Angeles), the most intriguing and accessible bookstores, publishers based in Los Angeles, and even the literary events that occur in the city. Orphan provides in-depth information on these literary movements and pioneers, while also providing book recommendations.
Los Angeles’s best tool to reel in artists, writers, entrepreneurs, and people in general to the West Coast has always been literature. Whether it is newspapers, magazines, brochures, novels, or plays (even screenplays!) the written word has persuaded people (myself included) to come here and establish themselves. The earliest novel about Los Angeles, Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson, describes the allure of living in Southern California. The romanticized life of Mexicans and Native Americans in Ramona and other texts, despite the annexation and appropriation of land, appealed to many people and started the myth of Los Angeles as a paradise. It didn’t take long for people to start aggrandizing and selling the myth.
I first read about Los Angeles through Karen Tei Yamashita’s magical, multi-genre novel Tropic of Orange and was captivated at once with the focus on the people of Los Angeles rather than selling the illusion of success through the entertainment industry. Tropic of Orange depicts the city through its most important aspect, which is the sociological and culturally richness that the city provides. There is more to Los Angeles than just Hollywood and Beverly Hills, and I can attest to that by going around the city to see what I’ve read.
I recently read a few classics that describe Los Angeles’s entertainment industry beyond the façade of glamour and fame. In What Makes Sammy Run? and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, struggling writers (I felt identified) try to understand how to get their foot in the door while also combatting the dichotomy of embracing self and negating what doesn’t work in the industry. As a response to the myth that Los Angeles is nothing but a paradise for the arts, a wave of artists, novelists and playwrights developed the noir genre of writing as a way to portray a social critique of not just Los Angeles’s, but the world’s emphasis on production sans entertainment and integrity. This genre portrays the darker and more emotional shortcomings that come with moving to Los Angeles with great expectations in a post-Depression era.
Literature about Los Angeles’s past not only serves as historical documentation, but also helps people inside and outside of the city to understand contemporary politics and even geopolitics. I recently read Anna Deavere Smith’s play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 which is inspired by the true events of the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the interviews that Smith conducted about the events. The play captures the multiethnic, racial and social circumstances that preceded, prompted and followed these events. Not only does she portray on the page the nuanced voices of people’s experiences, Anna Deavere Smith’s work also incorporates the power of words and the weight they have when articulated by people of different backgrounds. Another consequential work of art I’ve been able to appreciate has been Luis Valdez’s play Zoot Suit, about the Zoot Suit Riots in the 1940s in which young pachucos and pachucas sought to reclaim their identity as Mexican Americans were confronted by xenophobia-driven violence and an unfair trial.
These texts (along with others that I have encountered for my literature and sociology courses in college) have prompted me to undergo a practice of re-vision, of realigning my perspective of Los Angeles to the multifaceted, intricate city it actually is. While its entertainment industry is its main economic engine and source of income for the city and its inhabitants, the city’s literature is the backbone of Los Angeles. Literature from and about Los Angeles undoubtedly captures the city’s cultural trajectory to its present-day reality.
Every time I flip through Read Me, Los Angeles, I come across notorious authors’ snippets of written experiences that validate my current experiences in the city. I feel connected to the city through the words and details that are compiled in this Los Angeles literary guide. I never thought I could relate the act of driving in Los Angeles as one of the biggest themes in L.A. literature until I realized how it was like having a conversation with the city; there’s a whole section that covers the theme of driving in L.A. literature that made me take pause on the idea. Orphan’s book definitely has been my map to understanding and appreciating the intricate, dazzling, oxymoronic city that is Los Angeles through my main mode of communication, which is the written word.
I’ve always found reading about a place as a journey of the mind and spirit, and as a human duty to understand where come from and the spaces we are entering. As I keep living and reading in Los Angeles, I hope to uncover more of what makes the city so alluring through its art and literature.