A Boom Conversation at the Edge of the World
Editorial Introduction: Something I heard in Kim Shuck’s poems and read in Lynell George’s writings indicated both California women not only understood and shared a passion for our place, but could also deliver a deeper understanding for the rest of us through discussion of what it means to be a committed Californian. While their modes of expression are different—Shuck a poet and beadworker, George an essayist and photographer, and their roots are in different parts of the state, with ancestral ties from outside of it—their experiences as women of color and their unique expressions are similarly compelling. I became convinced they had to meet.
Shuck, San Francisco’s seventh poet laureate, is also an educator, mentored by some of the great women artists and activists of the twentieth century, from sculptor, educator, and Japanese internment survivor Ruth Asawa, to poet and Native American cultural affairs educator, Carol Lee Sanchez. With a heritage that is part Oklahoma Cherokee and part Polish, Shuck has followed in the footsteps of artist/activists, while tutoring children in the arts and math, teaching poetry and Native studies at the collegiate level, and generally pitching in where needed in her community, whether supporting independent bookstores and public libraries or eradicating everyday racism in our town square. A many times published and awarded poet, her most recent project to create fifty-five poems in fifty-five days was inspired by the reactivated thirty-year effort to remove the colonialist/settler statue, Early Days, from San Francisco’s Civic Center. The takedown of the bronze occurred in September and the poems and dialogue surrounding it caught the attention of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, which with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture continues concerted efforts to remove racist statues and logos from the public sphere. Shuck’s new poetry book, Exile Hearts, publishes in December with the American Indian/Indigenous press, That Painted Horse, while her reading series and appearances as poet laureate continue unabated, within and outside the Bay Area.
George is beloved in the Southland from her years as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly. Her family came West from New Orleans, a journey she chronicled in her first book, No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels (Verso), and she has spent her share of time reporting from there as well in San Francisco’s North Beach, her homes away from home. George’s latest, After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame, for LA-based Angel City Press, combines her photography with her writings about the changing cityscape and the people who contribute to making LA the de facto capital of the West Coast. The stories combine the best of what people bring with them, the already considerable gifts of our native, majestic desert-mountain-seascape, and George’s own experiences as a close observer. Earlier this year, she won a Grammy Award for her liner notes about Otis Redding’s historic performances, Live At The Whisky A Go Go: The Complete Recordings; she also spent a chunk of time with the Huntington Library-housed archives of original Afro-Futurist, science fiction writer Octavia Butler. George can be found giving talks at cultural institutions from Loyola Marymount and the University of California to Union Station, or about town, writing and photographing her LA, the place she knows and loves best.
While their modes of expression are different—Shuck a poet and beadworker, George an essayist and photographer, and their roots are in different parts of the state, with ancestral ties from outside of it—their experiences as women of color and their unique expressions are similarly compelling.
And so they met, at the fifty-year-old literary landmark, Beyond Baroque, in Venice, where I organized a reading with the expressed purpose of joining the pair to read from Your Golden Sun Still Shines, the San Francisco story anthology I edited, and to discuss matters of north versus south, and specifically the changes we’ve lived through as women still committed to California dreaming and doing. While that conversation between California cultural herstorians, poets and artists, journalists and photographers (accompanied by songwriter Peter Case) was indeed lively, it was our talk prior to the public one, where Boom editor Jason Sexton and Shuck’s partner Doug Salin were also present, where we got down to parsing the rougher business of our state, from its wild nature and riotous flora to the problems of racial and economic inequality that have been with us since the origins of statehood. We join that conservation as Shuck and George recollect their experiences growing up as students in California classrooms.
Lynell George: When we moved from our home in the Crenshaw District to Culver City, immediately I was put in a low reading group without testing. I confronted the teacher and said, “You know I actually already read these books.” and I could see that she was not paying attention to me and it wasn’t just that it wasn’t sinking in. Not that she wasn’t absorbing it; she just didn’t believe it.
I went home to talk to my mother about it and she had just come home she was taking her shoes and her hose off and was listening to me talk and all of a sudden, she’s getting dressed again, and we were heading down to the school to talk to the principal and the teacher. Because my mother was an English teacher, she was able to tell them, “You give her this test, this test, and this test.” But what if she wasn’t able to do that? What if she didn’t know? And so the teacher had to correct it and then, of course, was angry with me for the rest of the year because she was embarrassed in such a public way. That was early on. I was eleven, ten, something like that.
Kim Shuck: I went to public school and then to high school at a private school because dad was working in Silicon Valley at that time and suddenly he was making money. Both my parents had been working class and they went, “Oh it’s gonna be good for her if we put her in this private school….” And essentially, I had a lot of trouble, but after the one time my father got called in from work—you did not call Indian men in from work—it was not well received and dad was so angry. He drives up from Mountain View back to San Francisco and he doesn’t understand how frightening people find him—a six foot plus, dark-skinned man with jet black hair—looks like if a darker-skinned Elvis had never gotten fat and had been career military, and he walks like that. His lips are disappeared and he is talking to the guy in the office about this thing. And after that I really had no problem with anyone because nobody wanted my father coming back to school.
They almost expelled me for doing a creative writing project that they didn’t like. They threatened me with expulsion and then I said, “Well let’s just call my parents.” I didn’t want to be yelled at by these people anymore. And everybody in the office kind of went hmm… and did the math and thought, “That means that big man will come back: Let’s not have him back.” When I got named laureate of San Francisco, they called up and asked, “What do you remember about going to our school?” I remember the poetry teacher telling me my work would never go anywhere because it was too self-referential.
They almost expelled me for doing a creative writing project that they didn’t like.
George: What lit the fire in me as a reporter was, I wanted to tell the stories of the neighborhoods that I knew really well, but didn’t see their stories told with richness and in their voices. There was a negative feeling about the Los Angeles Times when I started there in the ’90s: People felt it didn’t tell the story of their community. So, here I was an African American reporter, and do you trust what I can do with your story? Then over time, people got to know my byline and my reputation, but I had to earn it and I knew I had to earn it. I didn’t walk in expecting, like, some of the other reporters often said, “Your quotes are going to be in the L.A. Times.” I was like, “Please, contribute to the story. I want to hear your side.” That was the important part and I was able to create lifelong relationships with people all over the city because of that. It didn’t so much happen with The Weekly, like if I was going to do interviews in South L.A. or East L.A. Back then, they didn’t distribute the papers in those communities, so a lot of people didn’t know what that was: “And what is that paper?” “Who are you with?” But, by talking to them, connecting with them, finding whatever the common ground was, they trusted me to take back that story.
Shuck: You get them to tell you stories. You have to earn their trust. The poem about the mother and child or the parent and child cycle poem that I do, there is a line in there:
The boy showed me the mark of the scorpion on his leg
and I showed him the mark of the spider on mine
That happened. I work with brand new immigrant kids from Mexico and this student had walked across the border by himself…. It’s a long story. It’s not mine to tell, but boy, is it a good story and as he was telling me that story, he pulls his pant leg up and he goes, “That’s a scar from the scorpion sting.” So I showed him where on my leg, there is a spot where there is just skin over a hole because I got bit by a fiddleback spider. I said, “That’s a spider bite.” He went, “Wow. That’s cool.” And suddenly I had all of this street cred. You find the common ground, you know? Tell me where it hurts. Maybe I can help, maybe I can’t, but I will witness for you.
George: Once I sat in a classroom at San Francisco State, and had to turn in a story for the class. I was writing about L.A. When the discussion opened up, the first question was “Can she do this?” And I’m like… “Can she do this? Why are they asking about me? I’m sitting right here.” And instead of the professor trying to shift the conversation, she starts saying, “Well, I don’t know. I’m not sure. If she sent this story into XYZ magazine….” And finally I said, “I’m not sure what you are talking about.” And it was clear that they didn’t understand what race the characters were in my piece. The characters were multiracial because it was a story about Los Angeles in a multiracial environment, but they were looking for something that identified the character as African American. Nobody would really come out and say that right away.
This is a different conversation than one that happened in the memoir class; this was a fiction class. Either way, I was screwed. I’m writing true life and I’m writing fiction and whatever I do or say, as in, “I’m reflecting the environment around me,” would prompt, “Can she do that?” I said, “Men write women. White men write all kinds of….”
Shuck: Anybody they feel like.
George: Anybody. So why can’t I? And then the instructor said, “Well, I’m sure, if they saw….” I think she said something about a picture, a photograph of you. “What difference does it make?” And she couldn’t answer. But, it stopped everything cold and at that point, yeah, I kind of shut down. Why would I share my work with this group?
Shuck: Right. Well the thing is you grow out of them and that’s kind of the fun part. You keep going. So when we went into the hearings for the removal of the Early Days statue, I started in the mode, “Okay. I’m listening. What do you have to say?” And it was so unreasonable. They kept speaking as if we weren’t there. It’s complicated for me. I can fact-find in plain sight, if I don’t have a relative with me. The first guess people make isn’t, “That’s a Native woman.” But finally, that behavior is like an icepick over and over at very shallow depths increasing over time. People call this microaggression, but it’s not. One of my good friends broke a tooth clenching her jaw over something like that. I mean, these are not micro at all. Finally I just went “Ahhhh” and I went off. And the stuff came out and I feel like if you read all fifty-five of the poems back-to-back, you’d see me de-comp-ing over time. The things I don’t deal with right away get really complicated on the page, so it makes for crap poetry—passionate—and I call them rants when I write like that. I mean, at my best, I’m not calling people idiots and racists.
George: Right. Sometimes it’s necessary.
Shuck: Sometimes it’s just so true that you have to. Somebody’s got to say it. In the hearings this guy was saying, “I know art because my family has funded a lot of art museums.” I got up and said, “I know art because I am an artist and I have two degrees in art and I teach it, and on the days when I am not teaching it, I am making it.” My family built the buildings, those museums…. We didn’t own them, but I do feel a certain ownership of them. And if this was just a conversation about art, we could sit down over a coffee or a brandy and have it as a really polite conversation, but that’s not what we’re talking about. We are talking about privilege and that’s going be more painful. People get their scabs torn off in this conversation: “There will be blood.” I kind of ranted at them for a few minutes and then I did that sort of Columbo thing and went, “You do know that you’re on the wrong side of this argument, right? You do know that eventually this statue is coming down and that history will look ill upon the fact that you have made it take longer? You get that right?”
George: It’s funny, when I moved to San Francisco and I would meet people and they would ask me where I was from and very often someone would say some version of, “Oh. How lucky for you to have left L.A. You made a good choice being up here. Because L.A. is such a pit.” And I’m like, “No. It really isn’t. And you should come and spend time down here and I would take you on a tour. I really would.” I would take you on a tour that would blow your mind because it would burst through every misconception and preconceived notion you have. And I actually did do that with a couple of friends and they’ve gone back and told people, “It’s not what you think.”
The idea that all of the sudden sitting in traffic or I’m at the market, trying to get to my car, I look up and I see the mountains and there’s snow on them: And you can actually see them, which in the seventies, you could not always see the mountains. In the eighties, you could not always see the mountains. You can see them now. And there is something for me still, about sitting in my house with all of the windows open and hearing all my neighbors playing their music….
Shuck: And the slight breeze changes, and it’s a whole different setting.
Shuck: I feel like what I see that still happens here that sort of has stopped happening in San Francisco is that you can see people kind of hanging out with one another outside. When I was a kid in San Francisco on our block we had installed these sorts of bulkhead things that acted as benches and at night, on warm nights, we’d go hang out and like there’d be fifty adults and a whole bunch of kids riding bikes and skating up and down the sidewalk and we occupied that space and occupied it as our own. And as time has gone on, there is less and less and less of that. I love it when I come down here and I see, it’s after dark and we’re driving through wherever, and there’s this group of folks outside, sitting there talking and that is a useful thing to remember and something to try to resurrect a bit.
When I was a kid in San Francisco on our block we had installed these sorts of bulkhead things that acted as benches and at night, on warm nights, we’d go hang out and like there’d be fifty adults and a whole bunch of kids riding bikes and skating up and down the sidewalk and we occupied that space and occupied it as our own.
George: That’s a good point. I moved up there without a car because I didn’t need a car. It was exciting to learn a city on foot, learn a bus system and be in the BART system or on MUNI and learn how to read a map and get myself around places. That stayed with me as I traveled other places, but when we finally were able to get a rail here, and I’m on it a lot—I know it’s because of San Francisco.
I’m watching this younger generation of Angelenos: It used to be this rite of passage for us to get a set of keys so we could drive everywhere and be independent. I’m noticing there are kids so much younger who know the city in ways that my generation will never know because they went out and they pushed into different neighborhoods. They have friends, they have places they meet, and they’re independent at a younger age and they think about the city’s grid in a different way than we did. It’s very exciting to watch that, and I see it through my San Francisco eyes.
Shuck: Yeah. I don’t know about here, but in San Francisco, everything’s gentrification grey.
George: Yes. Here it’s starting to be that way.
Shuck: With entitlement orange trim.
George: Yes! Yes! Yes! You get the chartreuse doors too.
Shuck: Yes! I just saw my first one of those on Valencia. And Guerrero had one, as well. I just want to say, there are all these eviction arsons in San Francisco. Houses with small apartments that have a lot of long-term residents. So this one place down in the Mission actually bolted charred boards, which I know is a traditional Japanese aesthetic thing, but it’s so tone deaf: It was built on the site of a house that had burnt down.
George: Oh my god. Oh no.
Shuck: I loved that the first graffiti that went up was “Are you fucking kidding me?” It wasn’t even a tag. It was just exasperated.
George: Do better. Just do better. It pains me to look and see it because part of the richness for me of being here has always felt like the world comes here. And if we are open enough to have conversations, we get closer and closer and closer. And that was the thing, like I could dip into a Haitian community here, a Brazilian community, Salvadorean community. I had friends from so many places—Cuba, Costa Rica—and that also is, I think, one of the things that turned me into a journalist. The big ache in my heart is from that flattening of place and things looking the same, getting the same kind of food, the same buildings and missing the colors people use to paint them, and the flowers that they plant in their yard. I like that riot of color and the difference.
It depends on where you are in the city, but there are certain things that are going away.
The big ache in my heart is from that flattening of place and things looking the same, getting the same kind of food, the same buildings and missing the colors people use to paint them, and the flowers that they plant in their yard.
Shuck: I have a lot of lines about this because it really irritates me and, as I said, [snaps fingers] “Fast switch sarcasm.” Understand this: If we have a good earthquake, half of those guys are going back where they came from. Wherever that is.
George: Oh yeah. That’s very true. That happened here too.
Shuck: The people who have moved here by volition. Because the acquisitional people who moved in for a paycheck are not committed. There are other kinds of neighbors who move in and make themselves part of a neighborhood and participate in things, and that’s a big difference. It’s a cycle. It was kind of getting better through our generation and it’s getting worse now, but nature will resolve this.
When the building at 22nd and Mission burned down, one of my students lost his father.
It’s been so interesting to watch the pushback. The city got involved, so they haven’t yet rebuilt the forty-story, you know, ice cube tray for techy rats.
George: The ice cube tray. That’s so excellent. I had not heard that before, but that’s so right.
Shuck: But if you notice, the buckeye butterflies are back. There was a night cloak there the other night, as well. We have very few night cloak butterflies in San Francisco and they used to be all over the place. And the buckeyes we haven’t really seen in any numbers for a long time, but the minute you bring their food back, shockingly they come back and start eating it.
George: Oh, that’s beautiful
Shuck: In San Francisco, Native San Franciscans keep being called unicorns, as though we’re mythological and rare. I’ve been trying to make the point lately at readings to ask, “Who was born and raised here?” And there’s always a lot of us. I’m not going anywhere.
We’re still here and I’m not going, you know? And Doug’s not going. And my kids are there. And their father was also born in San Francisco, by the way, so they’re native San Francisco on both sides. We’re here. We’re around, you know?
I want you to think about what oxalis does. if you put a pot with just dirt in it out on your porch in San Francisco within six months, it will have an oxalis plant or a nasturtium in it. One or the other. Seriously. And oxalis reseeds itself like four different ways. It’s got roots under the ground, it’s got seeds, if you chop it up, the little bits of it will grow a new one. They’re pretty resilient and I feel we’re that way too. So, I just don’t think it can keep happening. This direction is not endless. It’ll pop back, you know? It will, but I think we need to stop talking about ourselves as though we’re all going away.
George: You hear that about L.A. too, that it’s rare. I remember being at some event with a bunch of Brazilians and they were going around the table asking the question and I said, “No I’m a native of Los Angeles,” and a woman kept asking me.
Shuck: No, but where?
George: Yeah, “No, but where?” I said, “No. Los Angeles.” She said, “That’s very rare.” No, it’s not. If you took a poll, there would be more people in this room who are native than you think, and I think there’s this perception because of the way people are grouped.
Shuck: We are five native Californians in one room.
George: In one room. Owning that nativeness and talking about it is so important. That’s why when I did this book, After/Image, I wanted to focus on what was still here and who was still here, and what unifies us. When I’ve been doing the readings, I ask people, “What’s your L.A. story?” Because I want us to share in a group like what matters still about L.A.
Shuck: Otherwise it’s just like being talked around in those classes—the way that they make us disappear in San Francisco or in L.A.
George: Yes. Absolutely.
Shuck: It’s exactly the same thing. We’re right here.
Shifting the World one Opinion at a Time (Kim Shuck)
I have come awake
Homesick in my hometown
Tapped sacred songs onto porch wood
Onto pavement squares
Like a child game
Thrown a place holder
To the next foothold
Tapped sacred songs onto library walls
City hall walls
The thing we bring here today is not predicted by your security
Coal hot memories
And a terrifying patience
Flavor (Lynell George)
If Los Angeles is ever evolving, being an Angeleno must be something that by consequence is too not-fixed, that it is an identity in flux.
What far more interests me is how Los Angeles exists in our own imagination—influenced by that perception—how a sense of place affects and shapes us: TV beams in weekly, scripted scenarios, movies seduce, but so many of us who grew up around narrow narratives of place work against or away from that; we’re not all chasing the round-the-next-bend dream (film industry, real estate, peace of mind), but often we are the fruit of those who came in search of it.
For us, then, the kids who lived in those off-the-radar places on the map—a dead-end street, “below-the-10,” or over the bridge—finding your path, your way, meant finding your terrain, your tribe, and your heart.
We move through a collection of roads that spin us toward some next chapter of understanding. In certain ways, it’s ongoing coalition building: Whom we connect with gifts us another small brick of clarity and compassion—a sense of deeper self-making. And with all this connecting, mixing, and borrowing, if we are lucky, it can produce something as uncanny as indelible.
 Reprinted by permission of Kim Shuck.
 Excerpt from After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame (Los Angeles: Angel City Press, 2018), 144.
Denise Sullivan is a fourth generation San Franciscan who’s lived in Los Angeles and Atlanta. Author of several books of music biography, she’s editor of Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions for independent press Manic D, and co-editor of the 2018 chapbook, The City Is Already Speaking: The Sound of Calle 24. She writes the SF Lives column for The San Francisco Examiner.
Copyright: © 2018 Denise Sullivan. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.