Early in Cassandra Lane’s keen-edged, forthright memoir, We Are Bridges, she encounters an unexpected spiritual chasm: the gap between the person she has been, and the person she needs to become.
Thirty-five and freshly linked with a promising new partner, she learns that she is pregnant. Instead of unmitigated enthusiasm, she feels curiously outside of herself. Motherhood is a reality for which she hasn’t prepared. It is, in fact, a role she vowed she’d never undertake. “I was witness to my mother’s failed romances and the hardships of child rearing,” she reveals, “I wanted to be free of all the chains and stains of motherhood.”
This new ambivalence, consequently, unsettles her. Her decision to not bear a child had been nothing less than a pact. Hadn’t she been clear? With everyone? Not least of all herself.
Looking squarely into that deep breach, she realizes, might offer some necessary answers. Her fear of bearing a Black child into a world of antipathy was plenty enough. Yet, bringing that same child into the unaddressed legacy of family trauma was another daunting contract altogether. “The more folks bury a thing,” she reflects, “the more they sweep it under a rug, the bigger it becomes, the filthier it becomes—the more it demands to be raised.”
In order to step forward, she would have to circle back.
Lane grew up in her small-town Louisiana home with hand-me-down heartache circling around the household like ghosts: “Haints” that bumped in the night, spirits that seeped into the crevices and kept watch. For years, without questioning it, Lane found herself falling in-line with the family trait—stepping over and around the heaviness of its unspoken presence. And while she was not convinced of the power of the restless “disembodied,” she was coming to realize: “I do know the past is a ghost.”
The collective family disarray was formidable: Romantic relationships that slid out of grasp or off the rails; women and men boxing with free-floating pain stemming from systemic racism and attendant racial violence; and, most particularly, the quagmire of self-doubt or shame that the women in her family found themselves lost in.
Lane discerned a wisp of herself floating there, too. While she’d imagined many scenarios for her life—journalist, teacher, and culture worker—the list of evolving roles formed the semblance of moving forward, yet in certain respects, emotionally, she was running in place.
To break that cycle, to edge closer to new territory, a new self, she knew, her journey would have to begin with an ending: The lynching of her great-grandfather, Burt Bridges, and the breach left at the center of her great-grandmother Mary’s heart. This meant walking into a century-old, raw wound, and confronting the possibility that the journey may not offer up answers, but even more painful questions. Even still, the endeavor would allow her, perhaps, to offer her expectant child something more than she had—a framework and language to investigate the whys and hows.
Who was Burt Bridges? Not the tragedy, but the person. How does he hover over the family? Lane knows a name and the outline of his story; who he was, as flesh and blood, exists only in fragments of passed-around family stories. What is clear is that he was all plans, pride and dreams. Taken together, this made him a highly visible target to the small-town white powers-that be. His desire was to flee the Jim Crow South, and try his luck with California, a destination that seemed big enough to foster his dreams. He doesn’t make it, but more than a century later, Lane, his great-granddaughter, does.
Lane’s narrative is fragmented; intentionally, so. We Are Bridges reads very much in the manner that generational stories are shared and received—in pieces, in tangents, in digressions. There are stories — or shards of them—that don’t come to you until they are intended, when you become of an age where it is appropriate to not just hear the story, but also fully apprehend it. You grow into it.
Time here is not linear. The narrative slides, jumps, circles back on itself; in a vivid, experiential way, it is a commentary about how hurt tails us, leaps a generation, lies dormant and suddenly springs to life when we least expect—or want—it to.
While the “Bridges” of the title speaks specifically to lineage, the symbolic “bridges,” in Lane’s account are two-fold: It is a tricky span she must navigate in order to cross into new life territory; as well, it is a new generation and its hope—to move from pain to healing.
Lane, with an expert seamstress’ finesse, weaves trauma and its legacy into the story’s backdrop. It is its own character, hanging back, weighting the atmosphere, as fulsome as Louisiana humidity.
Trauma lays in wait; it touches everything. From the outset, Lane reveals that there isn’t much physical documentation or family testimony left: Instead she confronts absence: a dearth of letters or intimate journals to discover or guide her; a paucity of legal documents to ground her, or point her forward. These were people that kept their secrets close.
As a rule, the journalist’s way is to get as close to the truth as one possibly can, to look for a primary source–the person who bore witness. Consequently, Lane’s way of writing herself back into the moment is to “listen to the hurt,” the few family anecdotes—and the melancholy that shadowed them over generations. Then she could imagine its effect, and name it.
At the narrative’s outset, Lane classifies the book as a “hybrid”: It’s memoir, yes, but it’s also a journey into the speculative, tunneling back into a series of what ifs and if onlys. In so doing, she creates lush scenes and dancing, intimate dialogue, that pull the reader effectively into both the terror and the tenderness, and give her forebears’ ghosts flesh and form. As well, it hands them back their dreams and aspirations, but also sharply reanimates the hurt—making it palpable and present.
The fluid structure allows Lane the necessary breadth to animate and theorize, to move the fragments around, and in certain respects, to haunt the past. She is skillful at examining cause and effect, intimating how past and present bend and interact. In bridging the present to the past, her language is at turns lapidary and crisp: Of the disintegration of one her mother’s hopeful romantic liaisons she writes: “The courtship ended just outside our house, where the plums were still light green the way I like them: tart and hard and begging for salt, an astringent against the teeth…”
For all of the lyric language and her adroit ability to call up lost worlds, Lane does not dodge unpleasantness: She refuses to prettify or idealize; she does not sidestep the uncomfortable. Instead she lets the light in—illumination that is both astringent and purifying. She holds key subjects’ feet to the fire: the father who doesn’t appear to know how to love, the newspaper editors who undervalued her abilities, the graduate school classmate who advises her to hold-back, to censor her pain on the page, and not least of all herself, for her own blind spots and transgressions.
Late in the book, Grandma Mary reflects: “Why are we [women] always the ones weeping and toting all the pain.” This question moves Mary, in another one of Lane’s invented scenes, to pull back and consider, for all the damage, pain and desolation that cycles back on itself: “What is the purpose of black life?”
What Lane’s book eloquently illuminates is that we all too often overlook the quiet victories along the path to survival. Not perfection, but endurance. The sturdy branches, reaching out. There’s not just damage, not just “a generational trail of broken people,” Lane finds, but a specific type of fortitude and hopefulness that was buried back there as well. That too must be alive. This act of looking back? This act of reclamation? It is as much for her, as it is for her newborn.
At this life’s crossroad, what are the necessary tools and gifts that she might pass down to her child? Lane won’t allow an easy answer; she is more tough-minded than that. She’s come to know, you have to be ready for the truth. As it comes—shards, rough edges and all.
“The world is not all bad Mary,” Lane ascribes these words to her great-grandfather Burt, who is making his case for the dream of California, its possibilities. But, perhaps, on reconsideration Burt’s words are not necessarily imagined, but received, over the bridge of time: “The world is full of beauty and potential. Full of life and second chances.” Messages for the journey. A spirit’s nudge. Those sturdy bloodlines connect sons to grand daughters, to the next generation of great-grands and beyond. But even more—they offer a passage to brand new ways of seeing; to renewed opportunities, to not so much make things right, but, first and foremost, to make yourself free.
Lynell George is an award-winning Los Angeles based journalist and essayist. A former staff writer for both the Los Angeles Times and L.A. Weekly, she is the author of three books of nonfiction: No Crystal Stair African Americans in the City of Angels (Verso/Doubleday); After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame, a collection of her essays and photographs (Angel City Press) and “A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler” published by Angel City Press in 2020.
The Pasadena-born science fiction author Octavia Butler is considered among the most prescient writers of the last several generations. Her superbly crafted stories deconstruct race, gender, politics, religion, and sexuality while travelling back and forth across space and time. Recent Los Angeles Poet Laureate Robin Coste Lewis describes Butler as being “on the frontier of human imagination.”
Though Butler passed in 2006, her work has never been more popular. Butler’s Parable of the Sower reached number one on both The New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller lists in the fall of 2020, 27 years after original publication. In 2019, the Los Angeles Central Library named a do-it-yourself studio space in the library, the Octavia Lab. Adding further momentum to Butler’s lasting significance is a new book A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler by the award-winning author Lynell George that showcases Butler’s inner world.
George demystifies the legendary science fiction author by using archival material from the Huntington to meticulously uncover how Butler constructed herself through a regimented autodidactic recipe of reading, writing and ritual. A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky is creative non-fiction as inspiration without solipsism.
Make the Impossible Possible
Years before Butler won the MacArthur “Genius” Award in 1995 and had published any of her eleven celebrated novels like Kindred, Wild Seed and Parable of the Sower, she was a humble soul growing up in Pasadena stealing time to write in the middle of the night or making a small paycheck stretch for weeks at a time. Butler made, as George writes “the impossible possible” and expanded space and time through her discipline and concentration. The fact that she wrote science fiction is further proof of her intention to create new worlds.
George reveals how Butler’s “most ambitious and remarkable creation was the shapeshifting narrative of her own life–the one she honed and sharpened, draft after draft after draft. It was a work of art that was not complete until she made the impossible possible; the unseen, seen. Who is Octavia E. Butler, ‘That tall girl who was always writing?”
George spent four years, starting in 2016, in the Octavia E. Butler Papers at the Huntington Library, Art, and Botanical Gardens Museum diligently sifting through almost 400 boxes of Butler’s personal items including notebooks, to-do lists, recipes, scraps of paper, letters, bus passes, library cards, hand-me-down diaries, receipts and all sorts of other ephemera. George came to call her weekly forays into the archive, “Fridays with Octavia.” George committed to “let the archive lead her.” George’s instinct to let the archive lead her proved fruitful as she found some of Butler’s most insightful thoughts on scratch pads or even on the back of an envelope. It was this marginalia where George found the portal to Butler’s inner world. It was this personal voice that would prove the most fidelity to Butler’s intent. George also found hundreds of newspaper clippings Butler kept on topics like global warming, cancer, vampires and social unrest. These saved articles showed how much research Butler did to write her prophetic stories.
These notes, George demonstrates in her book, add up to the math of Butler’s life, especially in lists connected to time and money. From the time she was a teenager, Butler crafted her life, filling dozens of notebooks with to-do lists, budgeting and contracts with herself, complete with extra specific wishes serving as willful manifestations. George’s book artfully includes images of artifacts from the Butler archive like a library card, an old calendar, a few pages from Butler’s journal, bus passes, covers of her notebooks and ticket stubs. Butler’s candid handwriting on an old notebook testifies to just how miraculous her journey was.
In our contemporary 21st Century era when New Age commentators on Instagram talk about “the law of attraction,” and “creating your own reality,” George’s portrait of Butler shows us someone who did just that years before these ideas permeated popular culture. “If you read these pages in succession, day after day,” George writes, “they are nothing short of a prayer.”
“Art may be the finest form of prayer,” writes Julia Cameron in her book, Walking In This World. Cameron’s made a long career out of writing books on world building like her perennial bestseller The Artist’s Way. Many of the journaling strategies Cameron offers corroborate with practices Butler was doing instinctually years before Cameron’s book was published. One more Cameron quote connects to Butler: “We make art not merely to make our way in the world but also to make something of ourselves, and often the something that we make is a person with an inviolable sense of inner dignity.”
Butler meticulously constructed her life and vigilantly protected her time and energy to preserve her dignity and achieve her destiny against all odds. Though Butler did not have the specific instructions presented by Cameron, George discovered in the archive that Butler read self-help books by Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, J. Lowell Henderson and Claude Bristol among others. The writings by these men advised her. “Her advisors, she acknowledged,” George writes, “may not be on the same page socio-politically, may even be dead, but she’d intuited that something essential could be gained from submitting to their worldview, even if she was never meant to be the target audience.” The clues Butler gained from these books taught her how “to keep her own counsel” and write her own affirmations. “These affirmations,” George declares, “are her safety net. They are her therapy she has neither the time, money nor constitution to undertake.” Butler discovered these books in the Pasadena Central Library as a teenager and by the time she started submitting her writing for publication in her early twenties, she had created her own practice to keep herself going. She conquered her fear and self-doubt by using these affirmations and following her strict discipline of research and writing.
Interspersed throughout George’s text are various quotes from Butler that show how she kept herself inspired. Consider this: “We don’t have to wait for anything at all. What we have to do is start.” Butler jump-started her journey in the dark without a map to follow. She grew up in Northwest Pasadena, an omnivorous reader and lifelong hermit who purposely never drove a car. Nonetheless she crisscrossed Los Angeles on public transit and took long walks to find her way in the world. George reveals all of this and shows how Butler’s worldbuilding and writing processes were methodical. She charted her life with such precision that she would often write on the calendar how many pages she wrote each day.
A Lifeline for Writers
The celebrated Angeleno novelist and USC professor Dana Johnson calls George’s book on Butler, “a lifeline for writers.” In conversation with George for a virtual event hosted by Vroman’s Books, Johnson tells her that, “[she] shows us an Octavia Butler we have not seen before.”
George saw Butler speak a handful of times over a three-decade period. The first time George ever saw Butler was when George was in her late teens and she attended the reading with her mother, an English teacher and voracious reader. George’s mom was a fan of Butler and they attended a few of her readings together. George cannot remember if it was at EsoWon Books or the long gone Midnight Special in Santa Monica but she does know that attending these readings impressed themselves upon her as her own journey as a writer was beginning.
Years later George saw Butler in Seattle in 2004 for “Black to the Future: A Black Science Fiction Festival.” George travelled to the Pacific Northwest to cover this event for the Los Angeles Times and she even briefly spoke to Butler that day. George’s Times essay, “Black Writers Crossing the Final Frontier,” published on June 22, 2004 described the event and explained that when Butler began writing science fiction in the early 1970s she was often one of the only Black writers doing it, let alone a woman in a male-dominated genre. They made an agreement to speak again but as fate would have it Butler passed two years later in 2006.
Another important point George told Dana Johnson the night of the Vroman’s reading was that this book is a product of serendipity. In 2016 Julia Meltzer, the Executive Director of Clockshop invited George to participate in their year-long program celebrating Butler. This is how it all started. Meltzer recently told me via email: “When we first dreamed up Radio Imagination –a year-long program celebrating Octavia E. Butler where artists and writers were invited to work with her archives at the Huntington Library—I knew that writer Lynell George had to be a part of it.”
“I felt certain that learning about Octavia’s life through what she left behind,” Meltzer states, “would resonate with Lynell and that she would bring her intrepid, dogged and steady journalistic eye to the project. Very early on in Lynell’s research process I sensed that a book was soon to be born. I’m thrilled that my hunches were correct. How lucky we all are to be able to learn more about how Octavia E. Butler deliberately and carefully made herself into a science fiction writer.”
Clockshop’s 2018 book, Radio Imagination includes writing from George, Tisa Bryant, Robin Coste Lewis, Fred Moten and artwork by Laylah Ali, Malik Gaines, Lauren Halsey and Alexandro Segarde. George’s piece was a “posthumous interview” for which she immersed herself countless hours in the archive. As George communed with Butler’s archive, she felt as if she could hear her voice and the channeling for the piece began.
Forecasting the Future
Though readers marvel at Butler’s seeming ability to predict the future, journalist and former editor of LA Weekly Judith Lewis Mernit recalls soliciting Butler for an essay on the “future of reading”. Instead, Butler wrote about how she still wrote on her typewriter because she liked to be methodical and deliberate with her process. However, it was her careful attention to her craft that allowed her to turn a keen eye on the present and imagine the future.
According to Mernit and Lynell George, Butler also observed the world around her by reading hundreds of articles on climate change and taking daily walks around Pasadena. Butler always paid close attention to the plants and trees in her neighborhood, noting the different species and details, such as, whether a tree was producing as many fruit as in the previous year. Like a scientist, she carefully cataloged her observations in her notebooks in detailed lists.
George’s book includes lists that Butler created from her walks and bus rides around the city. In these trips, Butler observed the city up close. The lists she wrote often read like poems. Here is one of Butler’s poem-like lists exactly as it appears in George’s book:
Brown and deep green hills of early summer
The grass is dry for the most part.
Blond with a little green grass
And many deep green trees.
Alvarado + Sunset—N. on Alv.
Small El rancho mkt—not chain
Way into hills
W. on Sunset—through cut hills
Both sides—houses cluttered on hills
Much wood frame
@ Sunset to sea—enclaves + open
As George’s narrative reminds us again and again, Butler’s careful attention to the world around her empowered her with the x-ray vision to write about the environmental conditions of the future. She was watching her immediate surroundings so closely that she could read the writing on the wall about rising temperatures or social unrest before everyone else.
A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky spotlights Butler with the same verisimilitude that Butler herself used to show us the future of our world. George writes that she found the book’s title while reading a passage in the archive: “Science fiction allowed her to reach for something beyond what she could visualize. Reading through a draft of a speech Octavia was puzzling out, I was struck by a particular answer. Science fiction is a handful of earth, and a handful of sky and everything around and between.”
Lynell and Octavia
George shares several commonalities with Butler beginning with the fact that she lives in Pasadena just minutes from where Butler grew up. Moreover, both Lynell George and Octavia Butler write the type of impeccable prose that only comes from countless drafts and years of practice.
Indeed, George has practiced her own diligent writing regimen with the same dedication as Butler, having written thousands of essays over the last 30 plus years for publications like Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Essence, LA Weekly, Alta Journal, the Smithsonian, and others. George’s countless articles have mapped Los Angeles and crisscrossed California with the same veracity as Butler’s fiction. And finally, they both were very close to their mothers and were gifted typewriter’s by them when they were little girls. George’s dedication in the book reads, “To my mother, who bought me my first typewriter.”
A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky accomplishes many missions simultaneously. Whether the reader wants to learn more about what made Octavia Butler so influential or if they want to learn how to be as influential as Octavia Butler, Lynell George provides a roadmap that reveals Octavia Butler’s secret recipe for expanding space and time.
Mike Sonksen is a 3rd-generation Angeleno. Poet, professor, journalist, historian and tour-guide, his book Letters to My City was published by Writ Large Press. His poetry’s been featured on Public Radio Stations KCRW, KPCC & KPFK. He teaches at Woodbury University.
With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.
–After the Dome Fire, August 2020
It’s a hot, late September Day, and I’m driving alone into the East Mojave Preserve from the south, following Kelso Road off of Interstate 40.
I’m on my way to view the impacts of the recent, devastating 43,000-acre Dome Fire, which ripped through the Cima Dome area, formerly home to one of the world’s healthiest and most stunning Joshua tree woodlands.
I’m not intimidated by these vastly remote spaces of the Mojave Desert. In fact, I feel quite at home. Every mile I drive, past granite outcrops, ragged rock peaks, the massive Kelso Sand Dunes brings me closer to the heart of memory and home.
This is where I worked on many wildfires during the late 1980s, based at the Bureau of Land Management California Desert District Apple Valley Fire Station a 2-hour drive to the south. I worked one season on Engine Crew 6365, and a second season as a Helicopter 554 helitack/hotshot crew member.
As the miles melt into one another on this lonely, two-lane road, I’m embraced with memories that are both reassuring and unsettling as I remember firefighting moments and memories from time spent and shared with family and friends in the subsequent years.
This is where I fell in love with my daughter’s father, who I met and worked with on the engine crew, another fire crew member. This is where we battled several vehicle fires, and stopped the spread of any adjacent brush fires, using water hoses from our fire engine and the occasional shovel and chainsaw.
This is where I flew many times during the summer of 1987 on Helicopter 554, dropped off with six other crew members, high up in the Granite Mountains to control a lightning-torched blaze in a pinyon pine forest and spent a surprisingly cold night to make sure the fire was completely out.
Every desert fire, past and present, especially ones I worked on and even now, feels deeply personal to me. As I watched media coverage of the Dome Fire play out online, I reacted as I usually do during every major desert fire event over the years. I was frustrated and felt displaced to not be there in person, doing something to help with fire suppression operations – shovel work cutting fireline, perhaps, or helping with helicopter operations at the makeshift helicopter operations base.
The East Mojave Preserve – a large part of my firefighter turf for two fire seasons – in particular, feels like home to me. My memories and lingering physical presence are seared into the landscape itself. With every new fire, I have felt a familiar rush of adrenaline, a huge responsibility to be there, participating in the teamwork and makeshift firefighter community to help mitigate the damage from the burn. Many of my former desert wildland firefighter friends tell me they feel the same way.
There’s the ruts of the Old Mojave Road heading west towards a harsh area known as the Devil’s Playground, route for many 19th century pioneers heading west to the Promised Land of California citrus and sunshine, layered over a centuries old trail established and used by indigenous people traveling across the Mojave from one rare and precious water source to the next: places such as Marl and ZZYZX Springs, often up to thirty miles apart. My daughter – now a young adult raising a family of her own in Minneapolis – and I explored out here in my Jeep years ago to search for and photograph 30 different species of desert wildflowers for her high school biology class project.
I drive past the Kelso Depot, an historic train station that’s been recently refurbished to its early 20th century glory, and head north towards Cima Road. Slowly, to the west, I begin to see the massive bulge of Cima Dome, a part of the area out here known as the Cinder Cones National Natural Landmark. The remains of eroding granite that formed under the earth’s surface millions of years ago, it rises 1,500 feet (460 m) above the volcanic plain and covers 70 square miles.
It is the color of charcoal today. The size of the Dome Fire slowly reveals itself, and the searing impacts of its black wrath are obvious. Teutonia Peak, once covered with part of one of the world’s most expansive Joshua tree forests, has taken on the tones and look of a cinder cone.
As I slow the car down and pull into the small dirt parking area at the trailhead to Teutonia Peak, I look up: a red-tail hawk circles above, riding on a fit of ash-strewn wind that is spinning into a dark dust devil.
I put the car into park, turn off the ignition. Complete silence. I’m in a desert graveyard, and the most obvious dead appear to be the ghosts of charred Joshua trees.
My mind goes into a sort of firefighter mode as I begin to walk through the ashy remains, grateful I wore my oldest hiking boots, which area already getting charred. I imagine how this fire played out, what it would have been like to have worked on the Dome Fire.
I was, and still am, often asked why I, as a woman, would “do that kind of work.” And to me, it’s always been simple: it is work that I felt incredibly at home with, at one with a working family, and a job that allowed me to express my love and need to nurture and care for the land that I deeply loved. By tending to wildfire, and its immediate and enduring impacts on the land.
First and foremost is a feeling of performing a job that is layered in domestic terminology and structure. The firefighting community is as tightly knit and mutually interdependent as a family unit. Crew members, whose lives depended on the vigilance and support of one another, and who typically
Even many of the terms in the firefighter’s lexicon are domestic: there’s the endless chore known as “mopping up,” which involves spending many slow and tedious hours walking through areas that have burned and stirring and cooling layers of hot ash. There are the times we’d spend “babysitting a fire,” usually at night, when many fires tended to slow down, or “laid itself down,” where fire crews would spread themselves 10 or 20 feet apart along a fireline at the edge of the burn to prevent spot fires from starting up in the green vegetation. And, the activities that include “putting a fire to bed:” wrapping up a wildfire event with a fire under control and operations winding down. There are also the “widow makers,” trees that have partially burned or whose roots are smoldering that occasionally fall down without warning as crews work below, sometimes lethally.
Even though I wasn’t a mother yet then, I operated in a mama bear mode, ready to protect life and limb of my beloved desert and western wildlands, as well as human lives and homes, without hesitation.
We were firmly guided by critical principles, such as the 10 Basic Firefighter Rules, that are imprinted into my brain to this day and often serve as a guiding survival template in day to day living and have informed my work as a parent and educator in many ways.
For example: Be alert, keep calm, think clearly, act decisively. Know your escape route at all times. Give clear instructions and ensure they are understood. Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first.
I’ll never forget the scorching summer day working on a desert fire when a crew member, a friend to this day, turned and yelled, “Rattlesnake!” just as I was about to step on a huge Mojave Green.
I learned, through vivid and immediate experience, that sometimes, fires are mostly out of firefighters’ control. That things don’t always turn out the way we would have expected them to. And that we have to learn to live with that. We can’t save everything. And firefighters sometimes get injured. Some even die.
As I and walk along the edge of the ragged, hastily-cut fireline at the edge of the burn zone, I search for what firefighters may have left behind: boot prints in the ashes, not erased by away by rain; fragments of charred fire hose; perhaps a broken boot lace or someone’s crumpled bandana. I can almost hear the whine of Helicopter 554’s rotors and feel the wash of wind and sting of dirt kicking up in my face as I guide it to land for another water bucket refill, a gritty taste in my mouth.
The jagged caw-caw of a raven perched atop a black bristle of burnt Joshua tree pulls me out of my reverie. I look to the sky, which is slowly turning into a hazy brown as smoke from multiple other wildfire events across California and the Western U.S. works its way across the Mojave Desert.
As I survey the hulking charred ruins of the Joshua tree forests stretching beyond me farther than I can see, I can’t help but wonder, like a fretful parent soothing their little one’s feverish brow while trying to work out how their child has gotten seriously ill, what happened out here? Why and how did this desert fire get so big? Why was did it take four days for helicopter support?
It’s a tragedy that the Dome Fire grew to the size that it did. It’s inexplicable to me that H554 didn’t get out here as an initial attack crew and get this fire under control immediately. I know it was possible, had resources been available on August 12 when a lightning strike started this blaze. Then again, there were so many things out of anyone’s control that day. Fire resources were already stretched thin as multiple major fires played out across California, an unfortunate situation worsened by the sharp reduction of available inmate firefighter crews due to the coronavirus pandemic.
I’m reminded, as I look for signs of life, and recovery, and don’t see any yet, that many expectations in my personal life haven’t turned out the way I thought they would.
It wasn’t long after my time working on fires out here that my daughter’s father began his lifelong stints in prison – first working for Susanville fire camp, and later, as his crimes became more serious, time in maximum prison. I haven’t communicated with him in years.
My boyfriend, ten years ago, dying by suicide not long after we took our beauty-love drive through here and added to the stories. My friend I collected soil samples with and bonded over our appreciation for the nuances of how to get unstuck from deep sand, died several years ago in a terrible highway accident.
And so it is that I stand alone out here, embraced in a collective grief that is not mine alone. I also share it with many friends and desert lovers who also express their dismay at the Joshua tree loss on social media.
It’s awkward that the trees are still here, they still stand, and many will soon tumble to the ground, their limbs strewn across a suddenly emptied land space like human bones, and the recovery in this arid land will evolve slowly, as slow as the movements of a desert tortoise, as all ecologies in the desert do. And fire regimes – long-term burn and recovery impacts and adaptations/regrowth in Mojave Desert ecologies are still not entirely known.
But standing in loss is not enough. What will I tell my grandchildren when I bring them here?
Wildfire, one of the four basic elements, even at its most terrible, works its magic in the desert in ways we do not understand. I have enough knowledge from experience to know that fire on the land is both a blessing and a bane, and I’m nourished by my growing understanding, layered atop my firefighting work and my ongoing research for my humanities project, Fire on the Mojave: Stories from the Deserts and Mountains of Inland Southern California, that beauty and restoration will come.
So many desert stories, mine, and those who passed through here before me, those I worked alongside on fire crews. Today, I’m bound to honor these stories, and keep their visages alive, just as the Joshua trees have not simply disappeared – they have been transformed, even if it’s not what I want to see.
I refuse to resign myself to the circulating, apocalyptic idea that climate change has destroyed this place forever. That at the whim of a lightning strike and a resulting massive fire fueled by climate change alone, this cherished and well-tended place, turned into an eternal place of death.
I’ll bring my little grandchildren here next spring, and as with other Mojave Desert wildfire remains, we’ll look for places on this altered landscape that may have been obscured before the fire. Perhaps we’ll find sleeping circles, or petroglyphs on the rocks at one of the area’s springs, now revealed after the underbrush around them has been burned away. We may even discern, and follow, the faint traces of forgotten trails, where so many of our ancestors have walked before us.
And if we come at the right time, we’ll surely see wildflowers carpeting the burn zone, with or without adequate winter rain, purple, yellow, white and orange, as a direct result of the fire – as occurred in the site of the nearby 2005 Hackberry Fire – as well as the resprouting of other native shrubs. We may even see the tiniest of resprouts of some of the Joshua trees, needling their way towards the sun, one slow and sure inch at a time.
And I’ll bring a stack of makeshift fire tools – small, foldable shovels – and teach the kids how to cut a small fireline, how to stir the ashes and make sure the hot coals are completely out, and how to work as a team. We will learn how to tend the land by fighting fire, even it’s a make believe one for them, and how to care for our desert land, together, as a family. Together, we will build relationships with wildfire and the long-established fire ecologies here in the Mojave Desert, where fires will always, inevitably burn, as part of the natural processes of lightning and flame and transformation spelled out upon the land.
Ruth Nolan grew up in California’s Mojave Desert and worked as a wildland firefighter for the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service during the 1980s. Her California-desert based writing has been published in LA Fiction: Southland Writing by Southland Writers (Red Hen Press;) Women Studies Quarterly; Rattling Wall; Desert Oracle; Sierra Club Desert Report; the Desert Sun/USA Today; News from Native California; New California Writing/Heyday; KCET Artbound L.A. and KCET Tending Nature. Her fiction has been nominated for a PEN Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and received an honorable mention award in Sequestrum’s editor reprint contest. She is curator of the ongoing humanities project Fire on the Mojave: Stories from the Deserts and Mountains of Inland Southern California. Ruth is coeditor of Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California (Scarlet Tanager), which placed as a finalist in the 2018 Eric Hoffer Independent Book Awards, and editor of the critically-acclaimed No Place for a Puritan: the Literature of California’s Deserts (Heyday.)She is also the author of the poetry book Ruby Mountain (Finishing Line.) She is the recipient of grants from the California Arts Council; Bread Loaf Writers Conference; Phi Kappa Phi and the California Writers Residency/1888 Center program. Ruth isProfessor of English and creative writing at College of the Desert.
Luis J. Rodriguez is an L.A. cultural icon. A major figure in Chicanx literature, the former poet laureate of Los Angeles is perhaps best known for his 1993 book, Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A., which was one of the first autobiographical insider accounts of gang life in Los Angeles. Banned in cities throughout the state, it became required reading in L.A. Unified School District.
Earlier this Spring, Luis sat down with Boom’s Editor-at-Large, theologian Jason S. Sexton, in Sexton’s class at UCLA called Sociology of Crime. The wide-ranging conversation explored themes in the book and in contemporary California life related to crime, gangs, drugs, politics, and his own experience of life in Los Angeles and beyond.
Boom: This class at UCLA is called Sociology of Crime, and we’ve been exploring how “the victim” is a primary model of elevated American identity, but you’ve also got to have the reverse… a perpetrator, a criminal, somebody who’s committed the crime, created the victim… both of those swirling around. We like these hard binaries. Historians often describe crime in two ways: as ordinary crimes… and extraordinary crimes, with extraordinary crimes being those big crimes that really reshape the criminal justice system in radical ways. I want to talk about an extraordinary crime not on the books, but it’s in your “I Love LA” poem. I want to talk about “Water,” and perhaps L.A.’s original sin: water theft and water rights. I wonder if you could talk about that crime.
Luis: The way capitalism is, there are legal ways of making money, which is not that different than illegal ways. They make laws first that allow certain things to happen, but then end up doing stuff like stealing, committing theft, even murdering people. But if it’s legal, it’s ok, it’s in the bounds of whatever society says. The shadow of that is that people do this by illegal means as well. You can kill people in this country if you are legally supposed to. If you’re not, and you don’t have that given legal power to kill somebody then you’ll likely end up in prison. This is why police were given the power of life and death over certain communities. They literally had that. And now people are waking up to it with Black Lives Matter. But it used to be where police could kill people and nobody could complain, nobody could do nothing. I lost four friends, unarmed, to police violence. There was no recourse. Police had the power to do that.
Boom: And we have a history, of course, of federally sanctioned slaughtering of Native Indians.
Luis: The dominance and genocide starts off with Native peoples. Whites in power took their land, and it got legalized. You could do homesteading and you could do all kinds of things. Then they start legalizing removals and all this stuff. They also legalized slavery. The way things were done, you could legally do anything to another human being with slavery. They were constitutionally declared less than human. Then when they [slaves] escaped, you had the Fugitive Slave Act, which got the whole country involved in capturing escaped slaves. In other words, this country legalized these terrible things. It’s “okay.” But it’s not okay if it’s not a part of the legal thing. So to me, crimes in the shadow are reflective of what I would call crimes by a social system. If they allow certain people to do certain things, like steal people’s lands, steal their minerals, steal their labor, steal their water, then the shadow side is reflective of something that is allowed. When you got power, you can do this; when you don’t have power, this is what you do—commit crimes as a way to survive. I’m not justifying any of it, I think human beings shouldn’t do none of that. But the point is, that’s what we end up doing.
Boom: You identify as a Native person. Do you see Los Angeles ever making amends for that original sin, original crime?
Luis: I don’t see it happening. I was really pleased that not that long ago we changed Columbus Day in L.A. and made it Indigenous People’s Day. We were one of the first cities to do this. I just found out Chicago just did that the other day. It’s recognizing that there was a terrible theft. And you can’t honor the man that helped open that door. You can’t.
Boom: William Mulholland.
Luis: He’s one of those guys. He played a big role in the water theft. One of the things about the Owens Valley is that it used to be mostly Native peoples and it was beautiful and green. The Native peoples had a way of thinking: you only take what you need, you always give back what you take, and you never take more than you need. So, it kept green. Developers came in and said, “These people are wasting the land.” So they got rid of the first peoples. They started taking over the water. Since then the Owens Valley became horrible, dry. It’s lost most of its greenery.
Boom: They’re still taking it from the ground. So now I want to sort of push back on this a little bit because in your L.A. poem … in the last line, that it’s a city “lined with those majestic palm trees,” which take a lot of water, [bear] no fruit, they’re not indigenous, they’re imports, they provide no shade … and you feed into the myth.
Luis: Well, I feed into it because it is a myth. I feed into it because what people think about L.A. is kind of like the transplant of the palm trees, the transplant of people. The only ones who can’t say they’re transplanted are the indigenous people who have been pushed out and are made strangers in their own land. But what happened is that we become like palm trees. … I am feeding into the myth, but the myth is that this is … not really L.A. but that’s how we’ve become. There’s a layer of L.A. that’s all made up…that people have created on top of it. But one of the things I also want to point out and contrast to this is that palm trees are very sturdy. They do take up a lot of water. Every once in a while, winds can knock them down, but hardly. The winds, rains, everything coming through here; most palm trees stay up. There’s also something there I see [in] the people of L.A. There’s resilience in the people; I think there’s something deep in everyone that comes here, and that’s what I love about L.A. Even if you come from other parts in the world, you start getting a certain depth, a creative depth, in L.A. I find fascinating.
Boom: As we’re talking about L.A., you mention in another line in that poem that this is “still a one industry town.” I wonder if we could talk about and it was mentioned recently in some of the academy award winners’ [speeches], mentioning not only the whiteness of the academy, but also the neglect, and I think the Tarantino movie, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Brad Pitt highlights that with a lot of the stunt workers—the workers, I wonder if we could talk about the workers in that industry.
Luis: Well one of my sons, the one who went to prison, works for a Hollywood company that does sets. He’s a driver, and they bring stuff into wherever they’re filming. They’ve hired felons, and they’re doing good work; these men are working hard. And my son loves it. Somehow, he’s part of the Hollywood world. Now, he’s one of these workers that helps Hollywood get going; but nobody knows them. They’re not in front of the camera, not even behind the camera. They’re just the ones who get all the peripheral stuff needed for films to be made. So Hollywood to me is what makes L.A. the one industry town…; [but] let’s not forget this area is also the largest manufacturing center in the country. We have more manufacturing than Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh. And like those cities, we lost a lot of [good] industry in the ’80s. … In a sense people had jobs, made good money, and all this was pulled from other them. I was there when Goodyear, GM, Ford, Bethlehem… all the tire, auto, and steel plants went down, … when it all vanished. I used to work in some of these places. I worked as a welder, pipe-fitter, mechanic, in construction, and those industries were closing down, leaving. No jobs. We had one of the largest garment industries in the world, and it’s almost all gone, except for hole-in-the wall shops here and there. We were part of the rust belt and we weren’t in the rust belt. This is why by ’92 when the uprising happened, you could see how people lost their jobs, lost the ability to survive, and in turn how police got more money and became more oppressive. You can see the foundation for such an uprising because that’s the perfect storm that had developed.
Boom: Could we talk about your new book, From Our Land to Our Land, and how law, crime, and justice can better be conceived in thisland.
Luis: Here’s what happened: slavery’s gone, but people are still treated badly. A lot of other things are gone, but things aren’t right. Native peoples have reservations but those are not the most beautiful places. A lot of injustice is still going on. They start building up the border, [which…] was a made-up thing.
Boom: We had a strong immigration bill in ’96 in this country, ten years after Reagan gave everyone amnesty.
Luis: What happened is they militarized the border, and an unfortunate aspect is you got Mexican tribal people and U.S. tribal people who have long ties, deep connections, family connections, that are adversely affected by this border. My mother’s family is from the Tarahumara tribe of Chihuahua, Mexico. They are known as some of the fastest runners in the world. They do marathons, and they do it with their tire-tread sandals. They don’t do it with Nike’s. The only ones they don’t beat are the Kenyans. The Tarahumaras have six canyons in southern Chihuahua. One of them is deeper than the Grand Canyon. I’ve been there, walked among them. Many live in caves. There were about 80,000 [people] living in caves when I visited. One of the few cave dweller [communities] in the world. They are Native peoples, don’t speak Spanish, they’re not Catholic, they’re Native. That tribe is related to the Pueblos, the Hopi, the Paiute, the California tribes. There’s a Uto-Azteca linguistic thing they’re all tied to. But the border comes and guess what? My mother who is Tarahumara has me born in El, Paso, [and] we live in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. She went across the international bridge, and it’s all part of the Chihuahuan desert. El Paso, parts of New Mexico, and Chihuahua, have this link to the Chihuahua desert. Those people have been there for at least 10,000 years. But now with the border, we don’t belong anymore. Now we’re aliens, strangers, “illegals.” When I was born, we went from our land to our land. 10,000 years to me means more than the last 150 years, even though my mother and my dad and my whole family were treated like foreigners.
I have an issue with this country making us immigrants. We’re not immigrants, we’re migrants, like people all around the world. And I’m not against any other migrant from around the world, I’m just saying you gotta understand our ties to Native peoples and Native lands—that it is as deep as anyone’s. If you work with Native Americans, so many of them recognize that. There are pow wows that include Mexicans from Central Mexico. There’s Native American nations that now adopt Mexicans as members of their tribes. The Navajo have a Mexican clan. In other words, some indigenous people in the US are recognizing that Mexicans are not Spanish or Europeans. They are from this land. Even if we’re mixed in with Spanish, African, Asian, and other Europeans. Everybody’s mixed up in some fashion. Native Americans have some of the most mixed people. I’ve worked with some wonderful, amazing blue-eyed Indians. I worked with some amazing African-mixed Indian people. They’re still Native. So Mexicans have that. Then of course Mexico has the largest number of actual tribal people in the whole continent. The numbers are greater than any other country. Per capita, Guatemala and Peru might have more indigenous people, but Mexico has the largest number of them.
Boom: This is fascinating, and especially significant for a key theme in this class about how crime is conceived culturally, especially when you have an imposition of laws that are meant to reflect the culture, but the question is “which culture?” When people talk about criminal justice reform, how does that even happen in relationship to who have been perceived as criminals?
Luis: The whole book is really a vision for a new country. I really want to imagine a new America. I have to. I can’t just accept everything that America’s become to this day. Now people have said, “Well why don’t you go to another country?” I’ve heard this a lot of times. I don’t have to go anywhere else—this is my land. This is my country, and I have a lot to say about it. I’m not going to go anyplace else to do that. I’m going to do it here. Because I have these indigenous ties… I’m not going anywhere, I’m staying here. Yes, I have ties to Mexico, and I’m very concerned with what happens in Mexico, but I’m really concerned with what happens in the United States. So I feel there has to be a new imagination. And the imagination has to be more encompassing. Prison is one of the worst things we’ve ever created as a country. It does not work. It does not do what it’s supposed to do; … [it] actually does the opposite. Since they started building more prisons, more crime has been the result. The gangs in L.A. in the ’60s and ’70s expanded because of prisons. There were fifteen prisons with 15,000 prisoners in the early ‘70s. Since that time, California built up to 34 prisons with upwards of [appx.] 175,000 incarcerated men and women. California gangs are spread out to other parts of the world. You got L.A. gangs all over Central America, in Mexico, and other countries. Prisons made it worse for everybody, [not] any better.
You don’t punish crime away. It doesn’t work to punish people, especially when they’re adults—kids, even worse—it doesn’t work that way. If you commit a crime, if you’re troubled, if you need a lot of help, you should have a lot of resources at your disposal. You should be given tools, knowledge, connections, whatever you need to get through it. That’s not the way it presently works, and I know because I’ve been active in this area for decades. For forty years I’ve been going to prisons—teaching, reading poetry, doing healing circles. One thing you should know about the California prison system, it’s filled with almost eighty percent people of color, and we’re not near that [number] in the state’s total population. The largest single group [in prison] is Chicano, about forty percent, which is closer to the state’s population. African Americans are the most disproportionate because they’re about thirty to thirty-five percent in prison, when their population numbers are like sixteen percent. Whites and Asians… are far less than their [statewide] populations. So something wrong is going on here. That’s what people have to look at, what is going on, and why does the prison system reflect that?
I teach at the only California state prison in Los Angeles County, in Lancaster, every Monday. I go into two high-security yards. One of them is general population. Before I got there thirteen years ago, there were riots, there were lockdowns, [and] all these terrible things. We started doing programming. I was one of the first people to come into the general population yard to do programming at Lancaster. This was in 2016. Now there’s a lot of programming. The violence has gone down. The drug use has gone down. It’s not perfect. Every once in a while, things happen, so I’m not saying that everything is great. They’re doing much better; they really are better. Even the guards have recognized it. Before, [the guards] were my biggest problem. They would say, “why do you come here, why do you bother?” Now they’re friendly to me: “I’m glad you’re here.” They help me out. It’s changed, and that to me is what’s important. Can we find, can we imagine a way to deal with human beings [that] does [not] mean locking them up, putting them away, throwing away the key, and just making them worse than when they came in?
Boom: But you also … actually took some of this vision in a political direction. Running for governor, you got a lot of votes; you would have been the first Mexican governor that we’ve ever had.
Luis: Probably not since the 1800s.
Boom: And certainly before we became an American state in 1850. I wonder if we could talk about politics, and politics not just related to California and this vision. I Iove what you’re describing and Kevin Starr would often talk similarly, and he would triangulate that he lived in San Francisco, but worked in Sacramento as State Librarian, and then taught at USC. In his books he would sign, “Kevin Starr—San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles.” People would ask him “well where do you live?” And he would say, “I live in a city called California.” It was a beautiful vision. And some of that, I think you pick up as well with different ways that we can better make life here, that’s more meaningful, related to work, related to education, resources. We’re not all at the same place socioeconomically. So how can we be more just?
Luis: I do not believe that Republicans or Democrats have much imagination. I find them to be stuck, both parties. I think all political parties in this country, and probably around the world, are in crisis. And I think all religions as well, which is not a bad thing necessarily because the essence of all of them begins to rise up while everything else falls to the side. … Everything’s in crisis for a reason. My campaign was called, “Imagine a New California.” I couldn’t do a Democratic or Republican thing. I had to imagine a whole new way to go. I’m not saying there are not good things in either party, but I have to imagine a new way that can take the best of all of them and create a new path. With no money. Governor Brown had twenty million dollars at the primary and there were fifteen candidates running at the time. I didn’t have [much] money, but I went up and down the state a dozen times, talked to a lot of people. I ended up getting fifth out of fifteen people in the primary elections, and first among all the Independents and third-party people. I also beat Governor Brown in border precincts and was second to him in San Francisco. He wasn’t the worst governor in the world, but he was, again, not very imaginative, I felt. But I’ll tell you one thing that happened, I got like 70,000 votes. You’re not going to win nothing in California with 70,000 votes, but that’s something considering that 70,000 people thought I was worth voting for. And maybe it was my name, who knows how they do it. The thing that got to me was that Brown actually picked up some of my issues after the primaries. He starts talking about poverty when he never used to. He started to talk about prison reform in a different way. And he was doing something he wasn’t doing before: he was commuting a lot of guys that had been in prison, some life without parole, but were doing very good because of programming. People were amazed that he was taking on these issues differently than he had before. I think, again maybe not, I think it had to do with what I was doing, with what I was saying.
Boom: And you do vote, you’re still involved?
Luis: I’m still involved. I still vote.
Boom: I wonder if we could take it back to talk about some laws recently passed related to criminal justice reform, which never addressed the issue of violent crime. It’s like, “you could have a commuted sentence if you didn’t do a violent crime.” But that relates to something of a preconceived understanding of, at least at some point, how a checks and balance might be provided with violent crime.
Luis: I think this looking at crime differently really started in Chicago, and then came over to New York and other cities eventually, when Jane Addams expressed the idea that you can’t just put these people away. She was putting forward, creating settlement houses primarily for the communities of white immigrants that were getting into a lot of trouble. These white immigrants—Irish, German, Italians, Eastern Europeans—were getting into a lot of trouble in their neighborhoods. They were poor, but were able to rise up because there were always Black people they can say were lower than them. The Irish were treated very badly, but they were never treated as badly as Black people. Some of them joined with the anti-Black stuff, some didn’t, but the point being: the reformers wanted to say, “Can we help these people?” The industrial world was creating crime. So they figured, “Okay these aren’t really criminals in the sense that they are just bad people; they’re bad people because the jobs aren’t there.” They gotta eat. So settlement houses, and the idea that maybe we don’t have to imprison these people as much as give them a leg up.
It was evident when there were white immigrants suffering, they were prepared to help. Now, in the twentieth century when crime involved more people of color, all of a sudden those ideas went out the door. “Let’s just put them away. They ain’t no good. They’re never going to get it. You got to put them away for a long long time.” This started to get really bad in the last 40 years, especially in the ’90s. Even Democrats fell into this. When kids were being tried as adults, they were given 135 years, they were just fourteen to sixteen years old, given a lot of years because they were already going back to the whole idea that you can’t change anything. And they weren’t justifying it by looking at the economy, they were just saying, “something’s wrong with these people, put them away.” So they were creating monsters, as I say in my book. They were monsters of our own making. We created these monsters, and now we don’t know what to do except say, “they’re monsters.”
I go to the prison now … there are guys serving their whole lives in prison who would never commit a crime again. I do thirteen-to-fifteen-week classes, so every thirteen to fifteen weeks I have a new group of guys. In the B yard, which is the general population yard, there’s about thirty guys—tattooed-faced, all buff, even though there’s no weights to work out with. They’d scare the heck out of anybody. But I do this regularly, I work with them, and some of them, over a course of time, you find out they are quite decent and complex human beings. Many of these guys are murderers, most of them have life without possibility of parole sentences. Some have been doing thirty to forty years already, some former gang members but I am working with them now, and I find a lot of decency, a lot of people that want to make some changes. Some of them are never getting out and they still want to make deep changes.
Jason S. Sexton is Visiting Research Scholar at UCLA’s California Center for Sustainable Communities, editor of Theology and California: Theological Refractions on California’s Culture (Routledge) and Editor-at Large of Boom California.
Luis J. Rodriguez is the former poet laureate of Los Angeles, and his most recent book is called, From Our Land to Our Land: Essays, Journeys, and Imaginings from a Native Xicanx Writer, published by Seven Stories Press
It has been 13 years since I first traveled to El Salvador. My father, Ramon, left his homeland of El Salvador for the U.S. in the late 1970s. Ramon was always in and out of my life. The last time I saw my father was in 2004. By the time I took this trip, I had completely lost contact with him. This trip to El Salvador was my way to connect with Ramon’s home country without having a relationship with him. It was my way of searching for an opaque past.
While in El Salvador, I learned the significance of “memoria histórica” (historical memory). To know history, is to know oneself. As Italian socialist, Antonio Gramsci, once said: “The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.” My yearning to trace my history would not bring me closer to Ramon, but it would help me understand him and myself. It permanently informed my political consciousness and commitments, and the love I have for El Salvador.
In Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas (Harper Collins, 2020), scholar, activist, and journalist Roberto Lovato takes us through his own journey of re-membering the infinite traces of his life as a child of Salvadoran migrants in the Mission District of San Francisco. By navigating through history, borders, silences and half-truths, Lovato excavates his family’s past, his participation in the Salvadoran revolutionary process, and the “gangs-as-cause-of-every-problem-thesis” in El Salvador. While mainstream media, law enforcement, and U.S. presidents point toward gangs such as MS13 as the culprit of Central America’s social problems, Lovato complicates this claim. Unforgetting is an urgent demand to sit with the beauty and messiness in our lives, our traumas, and the historical moments that shape our present and possibly our futures.
This morning, my neighbor was gardening. His tool of choice? The machete he brought back from visiting his family in El Salvador. As I heard him hacking away at the branches of a tree, I was reminded of the first words in Lovato’s memoir: “The machete of memory can cut swiftly or slowly.” The machete, a cultural reference to El Salvador for many of us, is the tool of choice Lovato uses to conjure the memories that have shaped him, his family and all Salvadorans. With this machete, Lovato cuts and slices through over 80 years of Salvadoran history. Rather than a simple, linear narrative beginning in the past and ending in the present, Lovato travels through distinct instances of his father’s life, his own life, and the historical events that connect towns and cities in El Salvador to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Karnes County, Texas. The machete of memory, Lovato reminds us, is versatile. It can summon pain, love, and nostalgia. The memories shared by Lovato in his memoir invite us to feel a collage of emotions while grounding us in their material conditions.
“My story is apocalyptic in the original sense of the term in Greek: apokaluptō…to uncover, lay open what has been veiled or covered up.” Like a finely made braid, Lovato interlaces his family’s history with the history of El Salvador. Through the Matanza of 1932, the migrations of Salvadorans to Mexico and to the U.S., the revolutionary struggles of the 1980s, the criminalization of youth, and the caging of Salvadoran refugees during the Obama and Trump administrations, Lovato and his family are always present. Rather than bystanders, Lovato shows how he, his grandmother, his father, his mother, his aunts, and cousins, were all active agents in the making of El Salvador and the Mission District of San Francisco. Through memoria histórica, Lovato shares his journey of uncovering his father’s intimate connection to the 1932 massacre of over 30,000 indigenous people and communists. The moment his father shares his testimonio is one of the most powerful images in the memoir: “At that moment, my eight-eight-year-old father became the nine-year-old boy who’d witnessed one of the worst massacres in the history of the Americas.”
If you have followed Lovato’s journalism and activism throughout the years, you know he does not shy away from showing us his rage. “Rage is my vocation,” he states. By way of Cuban musician Silvio Rodríguez’s lyrics in “Días y Flores,” we learn the origins of Lovato’s rage and how it shifted from his family, El Salvador, and himself to U.S. empire. Through Lovato’s intimate and comradely relationship with a Salvadoran revolutionary named G, we are taken through scenes of U.S. imperialism in El Salvador, its support of death squads, and the revolutionary struggles for Salvadoran dignity during the 1980s civil war. Revolution is a major theme in Lovato’s memoir. Although the word revolution might be outdated for some, Lovato reminds us its ideals and necessity live on.
Instead of reifying gang violence in El Salvador, Lovato urges us to think deeply and try to understand what turns kids into violent, even murderous gang members while also holding space for the child victims of this violence, what he calls a “double helix of death,” that condemns many in El Salvador. In many scenes of the memoir, Lovato forces us to reckon with a whirlwind of emotions that does not explain away the violence, but rather helps us understand it. Through his own investigations, Lovato argues the violence we often hear about through the corporate media “is no small part, an expression of forgotten American violence.” He reminds us that the most destructive agents in El Salvador are not the youth gangs, but the gangsters in suits who are “protected by even more violent gangsters in military uniforms.”
According to Central American Studies scholar Ester E. Hernández, “the process of transmitting cultural memory brings to light the history of diaspora.” Through her use of the concept “working memory,” Hernández shows how U.S.-based Central Americans use film, murals, and performances to revisit complex and contradictory narratives of war, migration, and resistance. Adding to this working memory and history of the Salvadoran diaspora, Lovato’s Unforgetting contributes to U.S.-based Central American cultural production, activism, and the growing field of Central American Studies. It is part and parcel of a growing tradition of U.S.-based Central Americans writing their own radical histories of U.S. empire. This memoir is an ideal text for undergraduate courses and people interested in Salvadoran history.
Unforgetting is an invitation, or more like a demand, to remember the violence of settler colonialism, anti-communism, and imperialist interventions in El Salvador. Simultaneously, it is a refusal to forget the love, hope, agency, and struggles of Salvadorans and Central Americans. It is a timely memoir that should be studied on your own or with a study group. As we continue to hear, see, and organize against the caging, raiding, and deporting of our people, let us remember Lovato’s call to action. We must never forget the roots causes of the trauma, forced displacement, and criminalization. We must never forget the dignity of our people. Salvadorans have a rich history. Lovato urges others to read, listen, and learn from them.
 Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 2nd ed. Edited by Quintin Hoare and Geoffret Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1999, 324.
 Lovato, Roberto. Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas. New York: Harper Collins, 2020, xvii
 Hernández, Ester E. “Remembering Through Cultural Interventions: Mapping Central Americans in L.A. Public Space,” in U.S. Central Americans: Reconstructing Memories, Struggles, and Communities of Resistance. Edited by Karina O. Alvarado, Alicia Ivonne Estrada, and Ester E. Hernández. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2017, 144.
Is it talking dirty if you’re just listening? What you see in the picture is me. Passenger Front seat. Cinder block wall behind me. I mailed it to my Romanian pen pal, me making a sexy face in my friend’s Falcon. To my right is the dustless dashboard. In the backseat is my older friend Junior. Give me a sexy look, he says. He’s taking a picture for my pen pal but it’s really for him. It’s also for me. For my other friend who’s driving. My sexy hair looks like this: a ponytail on top of my head, wavy brown cascading over to the side of my face. In my denim jacket and white button up, the other thing that sizzles is my plaid flannel skirt, one my mother made. Her hands lined my hem. The driver rolls carefully down my alley. Me, trying out my sexy look and he’s looking too. We enjoy it, watching me try. And I enjoy trying. I shelf my looks for the receiver—on the phone later, I will charm him. He was a junior. I, a freshman, listen to his dream where I was giving him head under a restaurant table, but the table cloth covered me and no one could see. I will play along in the dark under a blanket when everyone’s asleep because he doesn’t scare me. He’s got skater hair, crooked teeth, and likes the Golden Girls as much as me. He drives a Caprice Classic—a mid 80s machine the color of sour wine. Oh yeah? I tell him. And then what did I do? Is it dirty if it was safe? We could turn it on—we could turn it off. He taught me how to drive that thing. Down the Commerce streets—gray warehouses and no workers inside them at night. Entire fields of pavement for us to play on. Another night, I took a fruit roll up and wrapped it around his finger, my first blowjob. His hands were clean thank god. He was older but not older-scary just old enough to make it fun. There are infinite degrees of being sexy when you’re 15. The mint-satin-dress kind. The kind where all you had to do was put your head in the lap of a boy who loved you so much he could cry (and did). The kind that drives you to the drive-in and tests the limits of your high-waisted cotton panties. The kind where you’re just trying to get to school and you know you’re being followed. But that’s not sexy, that’s surviving. That’s an open secret. Junior knew my secrets: that I really loved _______ and that my friends were sometimes shitty, but sometimes, also: my lovers.
Vickie Vértiz was born and raised in Bell Gardens, a city in southeast Los Angeles County. Her writing is featured in the New York Times magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, Huizache, Nepantla, the Los Angeles Review of Books, KCET Departures, and the anthologies: Open the Door (from McSweeney’s and the Poetry Foundation), and The Coiled Serpent (from Tia Chucha Press), among many others. Vértiz’s first full collection of poetry, Palm Frond with Its Throat Cut, published in the Camino del Sol Series by The University of Arizona Press won a 2018 PEN America literary prize.
“One difference between the West and the South, I came to realize in the 1970s, was this: in the South they remained convinced that they had bloodied their land with history. In California we did not believe that history could bloody the land, or even touch it,” Joan Didion wrote in her 2003 memoir, Where I Was From. In it, Didion spends a great deal of time re-evaluating her earlier work. After all, Didion documented the era that reshaped and initiated California’s transformation from its golden, hermetically sealed mid-century “idyllic” years as a symbol of the “American Dream” into the global, more complex, racially diverse, quasi-nation state that it is today representative of globalization.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the new collection from the Library of America: Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s. Comprised of her first five works, Run, River, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Play It As It Lays, and The White Album, the volume, a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, offers a window into a transformative period in American and Californian life, documented by Didion. Over the course of her five books, the two formats, the real and the imagined, intertwine to produce a distinctly Didion-esque narrative of the era: detached, intrigued, and clear-eyed. Author, literary critic, and editor of the new volume, David L. Ulin spoke with Boom by phone about the famed California writer, her disbelief in ideologies, and how he thinks about Didion’s work then, in the context of today.
This interview has been edited for length and content.
Ryan Reft: In a volume like this, what do you think an 18-year-old reader might take from it, as opposed to someone older such as a 32 year old? What do you think each might take from it, in terms of Joan Didion’s writing, and California and so on?
David L. Ulin: I think that’s a really good question and I don’t know the answer to it. I was drawn to her at 18 because I was a particular kind of 18-year-old, in a sense that I spent a lot of time in my own head. When I started reading her, my first thought was one of connection because I thought “this is someone who spends as much time in her own head as I do or maybe more.” I was really drawn by the interiority of it and the self exposure, even in material that wasn’t necessarily inherently autobiographical. Like “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” where she basically is tipping her hand about a whole sensibility instead of attitudes and social postures, but it’s woven into the body of the text. So there was that. Also at 18, I was already kind of self-identifying as a writer. So, although I don’t want to say that I was thinking about it as programmatically as I would later come to think of it, I was definitely on some level thinking about sentences and paragraphs and structure and sentences. I do remember opening the book Slouching towards Bethlehem having never read her and “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” is the first essay in the book, and what I do remember is quickly within a few pages thinking, “Wow, I’ve never read somebody write sentences like this.” I mean, I was really intrigued by the language. So that was the first impulse. I think for an 18-year-old reader with those same kind of sensibilities or that same kind of wiring, I could see them coming to her work in all sorts of ways. It’s interesting because I don’t necessarily think of this collection as the gateway for that kind of reader. Only because it’s an expensive, hardcover with five books in it. I have to imagine most 18-year-olds are getting their books online or the cheapest possible used copy. I think in terms of California, it’s interesting because a lot of what she says about California is still relevant. A distinction that we see in terms of reading her work now is that the California she’s describing leaves out large parts of the California we live in. She’s not intentionally leaving them out, she’s focusing on other areas. So I think that for someone reading her now, to get a handle on California or Southern California in particular, she would be missing a lot. Her racial politics or racial vision, deals with a vision of black and white. In the ‘50s and the ‘60s, that was the frame and mechanism for how we wrote and thought of America. But even then it was a narrow way of looking at California, and certainly now it’s an extremely limited lens on California. She’d have to be supplemented now in terms of really digging into what the persuasion of the state is.
Reft: You make a very good point about the much broader, non-binary, multi-racial nature of California as the way we think about the state today. I wanted to ask you about race because you know some people, as I’ve read her, and others such as Lorraine Berry, she mentioned that in her review of Didion’s had South and West, she had said that “Didion contently treats people of color as objects of observation, they are objects of discussion, but never once do they get to offer Didion their views of the states they live in.” I think this is broadly true but also I do think Didion was sympathetic. You’ve already said you’d supplement it but what would you supplement her work with?
Ulin: Yes, I’ve read that piece that you’re citing, and I don’t disagree with it, I think it’s complicated. I think that the whole issue of Didion and –I don’t mean to package these two things together though I do think they overlap –say, race and class, is complicated because Didion is writing out of a particular demographic position. And that demographic position is certainly a position of privilege, but a nuanced kind of privilege. She’s writing out of class privilege in a sense that her family came over on the Oregon Trail, so she is a kind of a first California family, she’s writing out of that similar position of those old roots because of having been raised in Sacramento and the state politics component, you know playing in the governor’s mansion when she was a kid and that sort of stuff, but also the kind of nostalgia of what that California means. It’s a very Anglo vision of California. The so-called “First Californians” in this construct are not so much the Chumash or the Tongva, they are the Anglo settlers who came from Iowa and Missouri or whatever, and who came before the railroads were built and pioneered it over to California. So that’s a very particular sensibility. I think that’s a valid sensibility in terms of thinking about California but again as we are talking about in terms of the non-binary discussion of race, it is now finally commonly acknowledged and accepted as it should be as simply one of the theories of overlapping perspectives or visions of California as opposed to the only one or even the central one. There are dozens and dozens of others. This is a long way of saying that I think she is sympathetic. I think in large measure the sense of distance is not so much a political or social posture for her as it is a psychological or personal posture for her. I think that Didion’s was always at a distance. Didion famously said style is substance. She very interested in the surfaces of things because she wants to see what they signify, but also because she is always approaching others from the surface. She keeps a distance and is either not trying or not able to be intimate with them in a different way. Another thing that really fascinates me about her is the kind of collapsing distinction between the personal and the social. She always has the posture of an outsider, as someone who is looking at other people as objects, as someone operating from the outside in.
Reft: I actually find that her detachment attracted me to her writing.
Ulin: Me too. I think that is something I psychologically share with her, and I think it’s one of the reasons when I read her as a teenager, I felt myself moving through the world. I don’t think I’d ever come across that kind of detached sensibility.
Reft: In Where I Was From, she’s spent a great deal of time talking about the ’60s or ’70s when California came out of this hermetically sealed existence and started becoming celebrated as a symbol of what America’s promise was, whether one believes in that or not. I think that that’s an interesting dynamic, particularly in the fact that she’s still in California when you get the rise of Ronald Reagan and the New Right, which you could argue is not so outward-looking.
Ulin: She was highly critical of Reagan, (and particularly of Nancy Reagan) and justifiably so, but I also think she understood him. Reagan is interesting, because he’s not a product of the ’60s. But as a political figure, he’s as much a product of the ’60s as Mario Savio. In some ways without Mario Savio we don’t get Ronald Reagan. Now that’s a broad generalization. Without the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in 1964 and 1965 maybe there’s not a kind of Silent Majority backlash. There’s so much interesting overlap in terms of the kind of pendulum of history, and I think Didion is aware of that. I don’t think Didion is particularly surprised by Reagan, but Reagan really comes out of that Old California, that pioneer California or that insular California trying to reach out and grab its territory. I think that tension is embodied in a lot of Didion’s writing about the ’60s because you know she started off the ’60s as a conservative, she voted for Goldwater in 64. One of my favorite pieces of information about her is that in 62 she flew back from New York to vote against Nixon in the Republican Gubernatorial Primary because he was not sufficiently conservative. She is in her own way very socially conservative. The entire essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” which is a masterpiece, is built in part around the notion that traditional social narratives have eroded and that nothing has replaced them. These little things we take for granted like “how do we set a place at a table,” we think are not that important, but she’s arguing that in fact they are extremely important as pieces of social fabric or the social narrative. That’s a very socially conservative point of view. At the same time, because of what she is going through and living through, her head is sort of exploding with ideas and possibilities and I think that there’s a real tension in Didion between a kind of innate social conservatism on the one hand and the wildness of what she’s observing and also, in some way, living through in Southern California. The uncertainty if it, the breakdown of narratives. For her, narrative is both a necessity and also something that she grows not to trust. And I think that that’s really, really important and it grows out of the overlap of all of these elements and influences.
Reft: Eric Avila wrote an essay about how she had anticipated a rising conservative critique of cultural decline in the US. But it’s weird because when I read her, I never felt that it was ideological.
Ulin: She starts out ideologically when she’s like 28 or 30 in 1962 and 1964. I don’t think that the ideology crosses into the work, but she is ideologically conservative. Then she kind of loses a sense of faith in ideology. It’s one of the narratives that collapses for her because the ideologies are inconsistent, and situations are too complicated. She is very good because she is a dread junkie in her way, which is also something I share with her. She’s really good at focusing on how the narratives collapse and desert us and leave us bereft, and that isn’t an ideological issue, really because the narratives on both sides are doing that, or at least that’s Didion’s position. It’s a position I also share with her. So all narratives are up for grabs and you end up with everyone being kneecapped by the collapse of whatever their chosen narrative is.
Reft:In a 2017 interview with you, she made a comment about narratives being atomized even in her novel, Play It As It Lays, as almost imagistic. It seems like that kind atomized essay form speaks to the current moment. In your 2019 interview with the Library of America, you say, “Didion is drawn to disruption, social, cultural, and personal.” What I find particularly noteworthy about that description is how it fits the current rhetoric of disruption that came out of Silicon Valley and the tech industry. The larger point being that the comment that she made in 2017 about the atomization of narratives, and your comment, speak to the way we encounter narratives today. I wonder if this collection, even though it is from the ’60s and ’70s, actually speaks in its physical form to how we think about these things today. Does that make sense?
Ulin: Yeah, it does, and I don’t know if I can speak to how the collection addresses it for contemporary readers, only because I think that’s for each contemporary reader to figure out. First of all, I agree with her that narratives become atomized, I mean if you watch the latest Democratic Presidential Debate, you got an atomized series of versions of what essentially is a shared narrative. Right? And so we can’t even agree on how we are going to agree at this point, or what our common ground is. And I’m not only talking in terms of political narrative. I think there are a lot of reasons for this, some of them have to do with politics and ideology, and some of them have to do with education. Some of them have to do simply with cultural overload, the breakdown of authority. I actually think that that’s not a terrible thing, you know, the breakdown of traditional gatekeepers, and of that kind of structure by which stories went out into the world. I think that it does come back to technology in some way because technology is disruptive, and social media in particular is disruptive. It can be disruptive in really useful ways, and one of those useful ways is by giving everyone an unfiltered platform by which they can speak without being curated by somebody else. So I think that we live in that kind of universe already. When I talk to students, they’re gathering information, as we all are, but they’re gathering information from all sorts of overlapping sources that don’t on the face have anything to do with each other. Students understand that they’re different sources, but they’re not necessarily concerned about those distinctions. So you’ll have a social media post, a novel, something from a film or streaming video, conversations they might have had, a photo of someone’s food –they all kind of overlap. We are all collaging it now as we go along. I don’t want to make a claim for her prescience but again I do think this has to do with Didion’s sensibility and her emotional and psychological framework. I think Didion identifies this really early. In a lot of ways it all grows out of the Haight Ashbury essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem because that essay is the first of what we can call a concrete example of one of her atomized narratives. That’s an essay written entirely of fragments. None of the fragments are very long. They do add up in the sense that they move chronologically through a period of time, so we have a sense of time progressing and we run into some of the same characters over and over again. But there’s no real movement. Those characters aren’t doing anything different. There’s no change or progression in their behavior or their attitudes. At the same time, there are these anonymous or secondary characters who are interchangeable and drop in and out. Like the kids she buys the burgers and Cokes for –the sort of “clueless young” is what we can call them in the concept of the essay. So that essay, the only way to tell that story, which is essentially a story of stasis and chaos, is for her to create a structural form, a fragmentation that allows her to mirror in the structure of the writing the fragmentation that she’s trying to describe. As a critic, I trace a direct line from that essay to Play It As It Lays which is essentially the atomized narrative writ large, it’s an atomized novel. It’s a 200 page novel with over 100 chapters, and some of those chapters are a sentence long, and there’s something really, really interesting about that as a formal move. And then she moves from that into the essay “The White Album,” which is also an atomized, fragmented narrative. There’s “Los Angeles Notebook’ which also operates that way. She’s playing around really early with this idea of using fragmentary structures to reflect or illuminate the fragmentation of personal and collective narrative that she’s observing in the culture around her. At one point 10 or 12 years ago I wrote an essay saying that in some way, her description of 1968 was highly relevant to 2008, because if you wanted to break down an atomized or fragmented narrative approach you have Barack Obama’s narrative on one hand, and Sarah Palin’s narrative on the other, and they both were American narratives, but they were utterly divergent with no point of intersection. Didion was aware of this 40 years before. So I think that that’s a really interesting and important part of these writings in particular, because these are the books that she is staking out that territory content-wise, but even more importantly where she’s developing narrative and structural strategy to illuminate and illustrate through the movement of the language on the page.
Reft: Despite my saying that, I also think that when you read through the collection from Run, River and the rest all the way through, it almost reads like a big sprawling conversation. It starts with the story of this august California family, and its failure to adapt to postwar realities in the States, and then in the essays she discusses California’s larger history in this way. In The White Album, in her essay on motorcycle films in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, then in Play It As It Lays, in which the main character Maria Wyeth is trying to get a role in such a film, and in the “Bureaucrats” in The White Album. You could even look at A Book of Common Prayer, where Marin is basically a symbol of a kind of student unrest. Do you think that her fictional work and her nonfiction writing intertwine? And when they do, what do you think that does for the narrative? Does it muddy it, or do you think that it brings it into clearer focus? Or does it do something completely different all together?
Ulin: I think that the relationship between her fiction and nonfiction is really interesting. To be totally honest, for years, decades, I completely gave her fiction short drift. I wasn’t particularly interested in it. After I first read Slouching, I went and read The White Album and then I basically went and got all the nonfiction that was available and read it. As new nonfiction books would come out I would buy them, in hardcover and read them instantly. But the fiction… I think the only novel for a long time I had read was Play It As It Lays. I have to say I think it’s a really interesting novel, though I also think it has a bunch of problems. I wasn’t that interested in Hollywood at that point. I was still living on the East Coast. So it didn’t resonate with me and I really thought the fiction was somehow secondary. That changed prior to my getting involved in this project. But the work on the project has been interesting in kind of exactly the way you are asking about, because one of the things that the work of the project required at the beginning was the kind of end to end rereading of the entire body of work. Over the years, I had ultimately come to read all of the novels, and I think a couple of them are quite good. I think Democracy is a really spectacularly good novel. And I’m a big fan of Run, River. I really think it’s a really good novel and particularly for a first novel. I’ve always kind of liked A Book of Common Prayer for a variety of reasons. But I do think that in the context of the whole career, the fiction seems a lot more essential to me than it did when I was thinking simply book-to-book. And partly for the reasons you are talking about, it makes sense because as a writer and as a human, she’s not addressing certain concerns in fiction and certain concerns in non-fiction. She’s writing out of whatever it is she’s wrestling with. And she’s wrestling consistently over a period of years. So I think that it’s absolutely the case that the novels are in conversation with the essays; that they’re learning things from each other about style and structure; that they are learning things from each other about content and angle of attack. I think we really see it in Where I Was From, where she doubles back and basically takes apart Run, River. In Where I Was From, she uses her reevaluation of Run, River to make a larger reevaluation of California mythology and narratives, you know, narratives she bought into, that she’s now no longer buying into. It’s really an interesting pair of bookends, if the career had ended with Where I was From. It would have been a kind of perfectly arched structure in a certain sense with a conversation taking place between a book of fiction and a book of nonfiction. I don’t think she is mapping it out that way, but you know as a writer, she is clearly aware on a cellular level, if nothing else, of how these books are informing each other. But one of the great pleasures of doing this project and there have been many, is that it has allowed me to think about and contextualize her fiction as an essential part of her body of work. And that is something that as a reader of her, I’ve had to grow into that perception.
Reft: I can’t end this interview without asking a question about gender. Famously, in her essay from “The Women’s Movement,” from The White Album, she wrote, “I’ve also often wondered about gender. And then, at the exact dispirited moment when there seemed no one at all willing to play the proletariat, along came the women’s movement, and the invention of women as a ‘class’ … To read even desultorily in this literature was to recognize instantly a certain dolorous phantasm, an imagined Every Woman with whom the authors seemed to identify all too entirely. This ubiquitous construct was everyone’s victim but her own.’” Now that sounds like a dismissal of feminism. But then when you read this volume, you’ve got women in a constellation of roles and positions. You’ve got Lily Knight in Run, River as an adultress stuck in a complicated marriage. You’ve got Maria Wyeth, who at first may seem like a victim of Hollywood’s toxic culture but by its conclusion is revealed to be much more complicated and perhaps much more problematic than the reader realizes. And then Charlotte Douglass and her daughter Marin are these independent and emotional elusive figures; Marin a literal criminal. So how do you think readers will wrestle with this aspect of her writing in terms of gender, because on the one hand it seems dismissive, and on the other hand when you actually read through it, it’s not at all.
Ulin: I think that’s a key question. I will say “The Women’s Movement” essay is not one of my favorites, it feels to me not fully formed in some way, like that’s an essay I would love to have seen her revisit in some fashion. But I do agree with you, though she’s not dismissing, she’s critiquing the movements. She’s always writing about strong women characters. For me, it’s not necessarily feminism or what feminism entails or means or activates that she is resisting. I don’t even think that’s true. I think that on practical terms, she’s a feminist. A strong working woman who put her career first, always did. She wanted to go to Saigon and report on the war, and no one would send her because she’s a woman. She and Dunne were going to bring Quintana as a baby to Saigon. I think you know the idea of a kind of strong, self-directed woman is not something she feels she has to champion because it’s just who she is. She’s natural. That’s the first part. I do think that’s true. I also think it’s more of her resistance to the idea of a movement, rather than going back to what we were talking about. She’s not a “joiner.” So the idea that to be actualized or activated, she needs to be part of a movement, I think that’s what she’s resisting. And I also think she’s resisting a certain kind of flattening of language and rhetoric that comes out of movement ideology and movement thinking. I think that across the board whatever that movement is, and that’s true not just of progressive or liberal movements, it’s also true for conservative movements. I think she’s rejecting the idea of group think in favor of a kind of individual consciousness. Now the trick about that or the catch is that that is a position of a class privilege. Only a human who is in a position to be able to self-actualize, who has the resources, whether they are financial or professional or whatever, to do what she needs to do can step away. The value of a movement is that it works for everybody. It’s not about the individual, it’s about making everybody rises on the tide. Only someone who has already risen can stand askance from the movement. Didion is not someone who is struggling to get a job, she’s not struggling to get recognition or respect, she’s not someone struggling financially, or any of these things. But by the same token, that is who she is. That is what her experience is, that is her social positioning, and so there’s no way for her not to operate out of that social positioning. It’s her context. And so I think it’s really complicated, particularly around the women’s movement, because she is emblematic of many of the things that the women’s movement stands for, but she’s suspicious of movements in general. She’s privileged enough that she hasn’t had to be part of that collective process. I think there we see a lot of the impulses and contradictions that come together in some way. Again, with Didion, it comes back to personal positioning and and personal sensibility first, and the political or social positioning or sensibility grows out of that.
Ryan Reft is a historian of 20th and 21st-century American history at the Library of Congress. His work has appeared in several journals, including Souls, The Sixties, California History, Planning Perspectives, Southern California Quarterly, and the Journal of Urban History, as well as in the anthology “Barack Obama and African American Empowerment: The Rise of Black America’s New Leadership” and “Asian American Sporting Cultures.” He is the co-editor of East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte. The opinions expressed by Reft are solely his and not those of the Library of Congress. He can be reached on twitter at @ryanreft.
David L. Ulin is Associate Professor of the Practice of English. He is the author or editor of a dozen books, including Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, and Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a California Book Award. The former book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times, he has written for The Atlantic Monthly, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Paris Review, and The New York Times. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Black Mountain Institute, and the Lannan Foundation. Most recently, he edited the Library of America’s Didion: The 1960s and 70s, the first in a three volume edition of the author’s collected works.
Sybil Brand Women’s Jail sits empty, used occasionally for filming they say, at the end of City Terrace Drive. The gate is locked, as a young white couple walks a dog on the median under the trees, beneath the jail’s high brick wall. Last year, a house on this block sold for $650,000. The new owner parks a Mercedes behind a black steel gate. I walk uphill to my 94-year-old mom’s house, going uphill with angels on my shoulders, fierce Japanese nio temple guardians —my brother Paul on one side, my dad on the other (they both died within a few years of each other, still not talking to each other). They’re with me on a smoggy afternoon. Almost there, a car brakes alongside. The driver yells, “Foster! You don’t remember me?” Wraparound black sunglasses, shaved head and full beard gone whiskery gray, slim dude, grabs my hand for a shake, rings on every finger. “Raul Rios! Damn! I’m glad to see you! Still alive!” The last time we talked, after he’d gotten out of jail, was more than thirty years ago. We grew up together, his parents’ house nearby; when he was young he was bearded, bear-like and wild, a man on fire. How did he survive? “I’m sixty-one!” He’s shouting, “I wanna live to retire, at least to about sixty-eight!” I laugh, “What are you doin’?” “I am IBEW, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, working on the power lines.” I say, “I am United Teachers Los Angeles, we’re getting ready for a strike, like in January!” “Shit, I heard some bullshit about you’re a professor at Cal State L.A.” “Yeah, I do that sometimes too. You don’t live there?”I point two doors down. “Nah, that’s my mother’s house, she still lives there. You remember where Sixto lived?” (He died in 1987.) Yeah, sure! “I live right across the street from Sixto’s place.” Sober, so thin he seems almost shrunken, but a tougher, wiser man than the kid we knew. His own man, he roars off into the smoggy afternoon. Raul Rios lives! I told the spirits, pushing through my mother’s gate. Raul Rios lives!
Sesshu Foster has taught composition and literature in East L.A. for 35 years. He is currently collaborating with artist Arturo Romo on the website, www.ELAguide.org, as well as on the novel,, ELADATL, a History of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines, to be published by City Lights Books in 2020. His novel, Atomik Aztex, won a 2006 Believer Magazine Annual Book Prize and his hybrid text, World Ball Notebook won a 2010 American Book Award. His most recent book, City of the Future, won a CLMP Firecracker Award.
Sometimes it’s hard to see the shape of the story you’re being told. As I understood it, the plot points laid out by my then-lover Bill went like this:
The earthquake itself wasn’t scary. It was strong enough to wake him up and send a wheeled chair skittering across his bedroom floor. The windows rattled in their panes. The neighbor’s dog howled. A few seconds later the whole thing was over and Bill went back to sleep.
But by the next day, the story had morphed into something sinister. Something was off, Bill complained over the phone. It hadn’t even been earthquake weather beforehand. Listening from a grey morning in New York, my brain snagged on the claim. Southern Californians swore that a sunny, queasy-still air preceded earthquakes, but the phenomenon wasn’t real. Unsure of what it meant to say a not-real phenomenon hadn’t happened, I steered Bill to another subject. How was work? His nurse’s union was in the middle of an anti-fracking campaign, calling out the public health risks of the Los Angeles metro area’s more than 5,000 oil wells. I had never lived somewhere where oil was drilled, but it was 2015, and climate change demanded that I pay more attention to fossil fuels. And so Bill provided an entry point into a political conversation I was trying to join for myself. I followed the ups and downs of my lover’s work as though they were my own.
The campaign was also key to Bill’s earthquake story, though it took some more clues to figure that out. I bumped into them while browsing LA oil news. In the past year, there had been a lot. First came the articles that wondered whether three earthquakes were connected with the fracking residents swore was happening at Inglewood Oil Field. Though seismologists said no, the plot points read uncertainly enough. The cracked curbs and building foundations in adjacent neighborhoods. The much-hyped new study linking fracking with earthquakes in Oklahoma. The oil company’s claim that they hadn’t “recently” fracked the field, plus the fact that, at the time, they weren’t legally required to disclose jobs. One resident said she wanted answers but didn’t “know who[se] to trust.” I guessed that the oil company-sponsored report, which certified fracking safe at Inglewood and blamed nearby damage to slope instability caused by rainfall, wasn’t especially comforting.
And then there was the 10,000-gallon oil spill in the middle of the night in Atwater near Griffith Park. Videos shot creeping close-ups of the oil as it blanketed the concrete, and reports lingered on an evacuated strip club in a way that suggested something archetypically sullied was going on. Other news stories adopted the same tone as strange happenings unfolded around town. In oil-producing neighborhoods, children suffered chronic nosebleeds, adults were plagued by migraines, and garden plants withered and died. At Redondo, Manhattan, and Hermosa beaches, armies of sticky tar balls washed up on the sand, so many the city closed them down for clean-up. Though an observer might guess tar balls are the result of the more than 100,000-gallon oil spill about 100 miles up the coast in Santa Barbara a couple weeks earlier, a Department of Fish and Wildlife rep urged calm. The public should reserve judgment until tests could trace the oil’s “fingerprints.”
With a bit of research, in other words, the scattered stories began to feel less scattered. Eventually an arc of sorts emerged, a narrative chain linking Bill’s earthquake to “natural slope instability” and bloody noses and oily fingerprints. The narrative sounded paranoid and shadowy, like a noir, and Angelenos seemed to be voicing it without especially meaning to. As I began to connect fossil fuel politics to my everyday life, I felt pulled in, too. What did it mean to tell an LA oil noir? What could a New Yorker, observing from three thousand miles away, bring to the plot? I’d see how it all played out.
“Los Angeles CA — An Oil Well in Every Yard,” unknown date 1900-1909, DPC7775, Detroit Publishing Company Collections, Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois.
For most cultural critics, noir begins with German expressionism, detective potboilers, and the Hollywood film set. But that history, while in some respects correct, downplays the local politics that forced the genre to the fore. At the turn of the 20th century, real estate boosters sold Los Angeles as a sunny paradise, a place where everyone might own a home and some land. Sometimes those profits involved oil; prospectors had struck it in Whittier, Montebello, Richfield, Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, Signal Hill, Santa Fe Springs, Torrance, Dominguez, Inglewood, Seal Beach, and Wilmington. For a time Southern California produced 20% of the world’s supply. Real estate ads teased buyers with the promise of instant liquid wealth. Postcards featured derricks against hopeful, rosy skies. A person didn’t even need to own land to get in on the boom. Every day, free chartered buses drove hundreds of Angelenos to an oil field-cum-investment opportunity. Under a big-top tent, they were treated to music and hot dogs and invited to become fabulously rich.
It wasn’t long before the mood began to turn. Oil flowed between property lines, so a legal precedent called “the rule of capture” gave rights to whomever sucked it up first. Prospectors and producers rushed up derricks everywhere, crowding streets, homes, and beaches without thought to the people living nearby. If drill jobs loosed a gusher that slopped crude, shale, and sand on Signal Hill houses, that was the collateral damage of a cutthroat business. Same went for the river of burning oil that blazed for six hours down a Long Beach thoroughfare, the explosion that set 2.25 million barrels aflame and smoked out the sun in Brea, and commonplace accidents that sent oil rushing into the ocean, slicking city harbors with a four-inch layer of crude.
If this devastation didn’t sour people, the corruption did. Many residents had invested in flat-out fraudulent stock. The most infamous scam was run by C. C. Julian, who leveraged new print and radio media to offer “Gold Bonds” to “Mr. Thoroughbreds” smart enough to smell a deal. When the company collapsed, robbing 40,000 LA residents of $150 million, the subsequent investigation uncovered a knot of scandals and touched off a spree of cover-ups and revenge. Scores of prominent bankers and businesspeople had profited, and a grand jury indicted fifty-five of them, but, after bribes to DAs and jurors ruined the first trial, the rest of the charges were dropped. For months, LA residents woke to a daily stream of shady Julian news. A former exec lived a lavish European life while on the run from police. A man lost his left eye in a melee at a company shareholder meeting. And a banker at the center of the pools was shot dead during the fifth trial mounted to hold him accountable for his crimes. The banker, a once-beloved philanthropist, had $63,000 in his pocket at the time of his death.
Enter the noir novel, which deployed what urbanist Mike Davis calls a “transformational grammar” to comment on the state of the Southern California dream. Sunny days became earthquake weather. Single-family homes became claustrophobic prisons. City patriarchs became a criminal overclass, crooked and poisonous and prone to fits of violence. A century later, it’s easy to read the genre as fantasy instead of a stab at realism in a particular time and place. It is easy to forget that every noir is an LA noir, and every LA noir is touched by the seep of oil.
In the early days of my investigation, I often felt obtuse: too clumsy to be the detective at the helm of a noir. I was nothing like Philip Marlowe, the protagonist of eight of LA writer Raymond Chandler’s novels. Marlowe has a quick wit and a sharp tongue and drinks to forget the sleaze he’s seen. Chandler developed his own suspicion at Dabney Oil, where he worked for 13 years, first as a junior accountant and then, after catching his boss embezzling, as the department head. Eventually he rose to vice-president. The work fascinated him; it let him study all manner of bad behavior. He learned to spot the abuses of the people passing through his company, and became obsessed with anticipating cheating in other areas of his life. But he never forgot the industry that jaded him first. When Dabney finally fired him for alcoholism, he started working on The Big Sleep, a drama that swirls around the corrupt Sternwood family, who’d made a fortune in oil.
Noir conveys much of its narrators’ wariness through setting and atmospherics. Interior spaces are shabby and cramped, or nauseatingly opulent, or suffused with their inhabitants’ truculent neuroses. Outdoor spaces are ominous no matter the weather. Even the LA sun is a sign of trouble. Early noir writers portrayed it as oppressive, suggested that a fundamental violence simmered beneath. Chandler paid special attention to climate. Earthquake weather and the Santa Ana winds haunted his characters’ days and served as symbol of a city in physical, psychic, and moral decline. In The Big Sleep, oil infrastructure does some of this work. Derricks show up in key scenes at the beginning and end of the book. Chandler describes them as stained and falling apart. They stand near tepid pools of dirty water. They dribble out last dregs of oil or stand stilled amidst a litter of rusted drums. Eventually Marlowe discovers that one of the Sternwoods killed a man and buried him in the family oil fields. The site summed up an entire fallen city. “Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you,” Marlowe says in the book’s final lines. “You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now.”
For disillusioned Angelenos, identifying the nastiness became a favorite narrative stance. After Hollywood popularized noir in the 1930s and 1940s, the genre resurfaced regularly as a way of shooting down buoyant city myths. In the 1960s, Joan Didion processed the Manson murders with an anxious noir slant. In the 1970s, Roman Polanski used the form to explore corrupt water politics. In the 1980s, Bret Easton Ellis brought noir to bear on malls and materialism. The literary theorist Lauren Berlant says genre provides “an expectation of the experience of watching something unfold, whether that thing is in life or in art.” Certainly this was a good way of describing what I saw noir doing in LA. What struck me was the subtlety with which the dynamic surfaced. Bill blipped about earthquake weather, a sidewalk looked buckled, a nose dripped a bit of blood. The story shaded into paranoia, but from one angle, for just a second. Blink and you could miss it.
On one trip to Los Angeles, I almost did. Time had passed and life had changed since my first oil noir. I’d moved from New York to Tucson, and Bill had cut me loose. Still, my friends Andrew and Paige lived in town, too, so I visited and the three of us went tooling around in Andrew’s car, a light-lemon vintage Mercedes with crisp leather seats. The car was a sort that can only exist in Southern California, and I felt the same about our morning. We’d spent it drinking coffee and eating panaderia pastries and watching scrub jays swoop into his winter garden, a space filled with persimmon trees, succulents, and trailing flowered vines. As Andrew put Stevie Wonder in the tape deck and eased onto the freeway, I threw my arm out the window and said what I thought we all had to be thinking: God, the weather was nice.
Hmm, said Andrew, unconvinced. He didn’t know. Sometimes all the sunny weather struck him as oppressive.
Early LA was also terrible for labor. Besides open land and oil, boosters touted a cowed workforce as a signature Southern Californian perk. One of the most powerful, Colonel Harrison Grey Otis, used his business connections to lockout and blacklist union members with the help of local police. Otis considered himself at war with the labor movement and waged it on the ideological front, too, filling the L.A. Times, which he owned, with open-shop vitriol. Across Los Angeles, Otis helped set the tone. The city’s workers, branded “rowdies,” “ruffians,” and “pinheads,” were treated like dirt.
LA oil workers got no special relief. They labored at a hazardous job. Men were burned to death by steam lines and fires. Others fell from the tops of derricks, or fainted from fumes and drowned in oil tanks covered by a thin layer of tarpaper. At least one had his arms pulled off when they got caught in a machine. During World War I, California oil workers had won concessions, including better wages, a switch from 12- to 8-hour days, and union negotiating rights. But by the early ‘20s, oil companies hit back, forcing union members to sign yellow-dog contracts or be fired. 8,000 oil workers in Central California went on strike, but the effort failed. Wages dropped drastically across the state, and industry workers didn’t regain a toehold until well into the ‘30s.
Blocked in economic channels, labor leaders poured energy into political organizing. In places like Long Beach, Huntington Beach, and Torrance, union organizers threw events, founded broadsheets, and turned out voters in the push to regulate oil. They also formed coalitions with residents and conservationists, at times gathering under the umbrella of newly formed property owners’ associations. In a Los Angeles disenchanted with oil, the language of property and property values became a major way residents fought back. When one oil company proposed new wells near downtown LA, the Wilshire Community Council called it “inimical to the esthetic development of the city as a home-owners’ haven.” In a noir-ish oil landscape, real estate was becoming central to the complaint.
Center for Land Use Interpretation, THUMS islands (Island Grissom) at sunset, 2010.
Andrew’s genre slip was apt, because we weren’t only cruising. Earlier that morning, I’d convinced him and Paige to join my investigation, to ride along on a two-building tour. We took the car down the I-10, headed north on La Cienega, and arrived on busy Pico Boulevard to our first site.
The meters in front of the building were all open, so we parked at random and got out for a look. Ivy climbed the windowless stone walls. The door was industrial-looking and locked. From the center of the otherwise low structure rose Cardiff Tower, trimmed elegantly in white. The architects who built it in the late ‘60s hoped people would think it was a synagogue serving the neighborhood’s Orthodox Jews. In this they were somewhat successful. It was hard to imagine that the building hid forty oil wells, at least until we walked around to the side street and read the gold placard warning about carcinogens. And stopped long enough to notice the mechanical humming coming from inside. And caught a whiff of the faint but acrid smell. Paige scrunched her nose and tongued the roof of her mouth in disgust. “Ugh,” she said, “You can taste it.”
A mile and a half down Pico, the Packard Drill Site pretended to be an office building. Inside, a moveable derrick tracked around on a mechanical grid between fifty-one wells. Apparently, it lacked a roof. Before leaving home, Andrew and Paige and I had pulled up satellite photos and gaped into a weird shadowed hole. Once onsite we did as at Cardiff: We circled, stopped, listened, sniffed. Landscaped palms and jade plants described neat swaths in the front and along the sides. The glass-doored entrance revealed a dusty, shuttered public lobby display. In back houses abutted it a cozy 125 feet away.
Some thought Cardiff and Packard a sign of progress. The buildings were examples of an odd class of camouflage architecture that evolved in the mid-twentieth century as LA residents pushed back against oil drilling. Perhaps the strangest of these structures were the Astronaut Islands in Long Beach. Also known as THUMS — for Texaco, Humble, Union Oil, Mobil, and Shell, the oil companies originally partnered there — the Astronauts were made of hundreds of tons of quarried rock and several million cubic yards of dredged harbor mud and sand to serve as offshore drilling sites. After the derricks and pipes and tanks went up, the THUMS planning team brought on Joseph Linesch, who’d helped design Disneyland, to hide the purpose of the place. He opted for palms, decorative towers, a waterfall, and a series of sculpted concrete walls to ring the island. At night, spotlights bathed the walls in brilliant neon hues.
The Astronauts were closed to the public. I knew because I’d trawled the internet trying to figure out how to visit. As a back-up, I packed a pair of binoculars, and, after dropping Paige and Andrew back at home, took them out with my rented car as dusk fell. By the time I reached the Long Beach shoreline, it was dark and had begun to rain. I found a parking lot on the harbor and pointed the binoculars out my windshield at the islands, which glowed a foggy pink and orange. Under the clouded night sky, they reflected a phrase I encountered over and over in my research. In contrast to the spectacular violence of the early 20th century, LA oil production was now hidden in plain sight.
Los Angeles is a famously fragmented place; as one oft-quoted quip has it, it is “seventy-two suburbs in search of a city.” Early oil development played a central role in making this so. Many neighborhoods and suburbs grew up around drilling or refining sites or as residential communities for workers. Oil revenues allowed some of them to incorporate separately from Los Angeles, while cheap oil gave them further independence in the form of power plants, paved roads, and fuel for cars. I felt it while trying to tour more after THUMS. I started the morning in Beverly Hills, site of a derrick hidden under a shell decorated with children’s art; then watched rusted pumpjacks bob along the fences of the Inglewood Oil Field; then stopped to see rigs looming over houses in West Adams and University Park. In between I took wrong turns, stopped for directions, and inched painfully along in a rush hour that never seemed to end. By the time I was casing the perimeters of the giant refineries in Wilmington, I had passed through five independently incorporated towns, traveled thirty-five miles, and driven away a significant portion of the day.
Homeowners associations helped fragment Los Angeles, too. If early groups helped restrict oil production, many were also obsessed with another agenda: locking Black and Asian residents out of their blocks and streets. Over the course of the ‘20s, homeowner activists helped establish 95% of housing stock within LA city limits as white-only. Mike Davis calls this period the “white-supremacist genealogy” of what would become “[t]he most significant ‘social movement’ in Southern California…[:] affluent homeowners, organized by notional community designations or tract names, engaged in defense of home values and neighborhood exclusivity.” By the middle of the 20th century, that movement had gained incorporation laws and zoning rules to pursue a whole host of demands. At times the new tools were wielded to racist, classist, anti-busing and anti-renter and English-only kinds of ends. At other moments they were used to stand down corporate developers and win environmental regulations. As their political power grew, homeowners expanded their attention to a scattershot list of small-scale NIMBY concerns. They fought against mini malls, diamond highway lanes, a fancy bistro, the shaving of a hill, and, in a campaign that galvanized a thousand activists and left a local councilman branded a “Dog Nazi,” dog owners who let their pets shit in a park.
The jumbled protests shared a tone. It saw threat everywhere and betrayed an often-inflated, noir-ish sense of risk. By the ‘80s, local politicians learned to bow to the homeowners, or at least fake it lest they get kicked out of office, and middle- and upper-class concerns came to dominate LA politics just as state- and federal-level neoliberal policies were hitting working-class communities of color hardest. The results were predictable. Helped along by homeowner noirs, neighborhood-based inequities grew and compounded in risk and resources.
The pattern was obvious in the metro landscape I’d been investigating. Though a full third of LA-area residents lived within a mile of a drilling site, more protections were won, and safety standards more strictly enforced, in affluent and majority-white neighborhoods than in working-class neighborhoods of color. The faux buildings at Cardiff and Packard — elaborate compared to the beige walls that hid oil operations elsewhere— were one example of the accommodations wealthy residents had won. Others included limited drilling hours, restrictions on trucking, lower-polluting electric drills, weekly emissions tests, 24-7 noise monitoring, and dedicated community liaisons.
Contrast that with University Park in South LA, whose residents are mostly working-class and of color; in 2010, when the AllenCo oil site began emitting dense, obvious fumes, it took them years to get heard. Sometimes the air smelled like petroleum, other times like fruity chemicals. People got nosebleeds, migraines, and stomachaches. Then Monic Uriarte was out taking photos for a photography class with her daughter Nalleli and found the gate to the beige-walled compound ajar. Uriarte hadn’t known anything about what was behind the walls; now a worker showed them around, touring past oil pipes and oil tanks and signs for toxic gas. The worker gave Nalleli a baby food jar filled with water and a heavy, sinking layer of crude. Oil and water don’t mix, he said: She should take it to school to show the other kids the site was safe.
And so the University Park investigation had begun. Uriarte talked to neighbors, and they talked to more, and soon they’d hooked up with Esperanza Community Housing and launched a campaign. Residents flooded the regional air quality complaint line with messages while Esperanza researched AllenCo and interviewed people about their symptoms. Together they dropped banners, held protests and press conferences, and, because AllenCo leased their land from the Catholic archdiocese, sent a video starring Nalleli to the Pope. They dug up record of hundreds of environmental violations and learned that AllenCo had upped production 400% around the time the fumes showed up. Still it took three years before an L.A. Times exposé and a visit by then-Senator Barbara Boxer forced the city to act. They shut the site down, but the damage was done. A set of more long-terms threats had been seeded. Though their nosebleeds and stomachaches were gone, University Park residents had a heightened risk of cancer, reproductive anomalies, and other illnesses. Chemical exposure had left Uriarte, for one, without a sense a smell.
Many critics have called out the history of the noir protagonist, how most have been middle-class and white. That fact is not abstract. It trails consequences for everyday space and behavior; it is tangled in the inequalities of mundane, material LA. An oil executive, speaking to West Adams activist Richard Parks about their local drilling site, illustrated the reality with terrible, careless ease. West Adams residents are also predominantly working-class and of color, and when the activist relayed his neighbors’ complaints, including a day where the site rained a mist of oil on the entire surrounding block, the oil exec shrugged. “Look, this isn’t exactly Laguna Niguel,” he said, meaning a well-off beach community. In the landscape of the Los Angeles oil noir, West Adams didn’t register in the plot.
Like the University Park activists, I didn’t stay clumsy. In time, I became my own Marlowe, ready with a meticulous mental map of policies, perps, and case studies. But my competence only mattered so much. However good one gets at reading noir, the story is always fragmented, its through line hard to grasp. Information in a Marlowe novel is imparted, in the words of cultural theorist Frederic Jameson, like “glimpses through a window” and “noises from the back of a store.” This quality was heightened by the secretive realities of oil production. Industry reps stonewalled and gaslit. In Beverly Hills, where a camouflaged derrick pumps oil next to Beverly Hills High School, Venoco loosed a sharky legal team on a thousand-some graduates who’d developed rare cancers, discrediting their class-action lawsuit. In Porter Ranch, which sits beside an oil field and giant gas storage facilities, SoCal Gas downplayed the size of a massive gas leak and said science hadn’t “definitively” found gas dangerous. In Wilmington, whose toxic concentration of oil refineries have led to abysmal health outcomes for residents, Warren E&P gave out gas gift cards as a paltry gesture of remuneration.
Porter Ranch Protest, photo by Elijah Hurwitz. Courtesy of Hurwitz
Changing production techniques muddied the informational waters, too. Los Angeles’ oil fields are old and over-pumped. To stay profitable, companies fracked and acidized, shooting sand and chemicals into wells to force the dregs out. A quarter of wells used some enhanced technique, and the government agencies tasked with overseeing them showed neither the will nor the ability to keep up. Residents had little help if they wanted to know what was going on. In West Adams in 2015, a church group called Redeemer Community Partnership filmed volunteer Niki Wong staked out beside the beige wall of the local oil site. “It’s like 6:35am,” Wong said to the camera quietly, crouching, as birds chirped the morning awake. “We got a tip that they’re going to be doing an acidizing maintenance job.” Two to four tankers, each filled with five thousand gallons of chemicals, would soon be driving through the neighborhood. By law Freeport McMoRan, the site owners, had to give neighbors just a day’s notice for the job, but Wong had kept tabs and organized a group to rapid-respond. When the tankers rolled towards the site, they planned to mass up into a blockade. In the video, Wong pointed above her head to a surveillance camera she’d been ducking, then looked down to catch a text on her phone. “Oh, shoot,” she frowned. Freeport had cancelled the job.
There were still other layers of obfuscation at work. When a site stopped serving oil companies, they could simply sell their land and whatever responsibility it might entail. At Inglewood Oil Field, site of the earthquake rumors that made Bill paranoid, owners PXP Oil funded their study showing fracking to be safe and soon after, perhaps tired of answering to resident concerns, sold their holdings to Freeport McMoRan. For their part, Freeport McMoRan held the fields for a stint before palming them off to Sentinel Peak Resources, which had been buying up sites around LA.
Allenco Oil site. Photo by Sarah Craig. Courtesy of Craig
And that was just the fate of active wells. Responsibility could be an even murkier question for the metro area’s thousands of abandoned wells. Near downtown, the Edward Roybal Learning Center, a high school, was built on top of nineteen old wells and surrounded by hundreds more. Many were capped before the ‘50s, when government agencies first created rules for doing so, and workers stopped them with anything they could find: garbage, rocks, telephone poles. School construction took two decades, and even costly remediation didn’t fix the site’s problems. Around the school grounds, imitation lampposts vented the methane that kept belching from the wells. But some days fumes still filled campus, and some days students and teachers still got headache-y and sick.
These were the sorts of rabbit holes one fell into when sleuthing around the oil industry. Eventually, even dedicated detectives were likely to get lost. It had happened to me, but the real story lay with longtime LA residents. “We never know what is going on,” Lillian Marenco, who’d lived in West Adams for thirty years, explained through a megaphone to a gathered crowd. Though Wong’s stakeout hadn’t worked, the protest went on as planned. A few dozen people marched and carried signs and sang a call-and-response song. Staaand together — Against neighborhood drilling! Staaand together — Against neighborhood drilling! Then they gathered for a press conference. “If they just come to get the money and leave us with all the nuisance,” Marenco asked her neighbors and the press, “Then what is the benefit of my community? I wonder.”
Back home in Tucson, I kept poking around online. The 2015-2016 Porter Ranch gas leak was especially easy to learn about; for the four months from the moment the leak was discovered to when it was plugged, the story had gotten tons of coverage. Many stories cited a video taken looking down into the foothills where the leak had been found. Taken by the activist group Earthworks, the video deploys a straightforward transformational grammar. At first it’s a regular LA day: just sun, hills, cars. Five seconds later, the camera switches into infrared view and you are watching a thick cloud of — something billowing over the exact same spot. The film toggles between the two frames in chunky cuts. Sunny day. Thick cloud. Sunny day. Thick cloud. Even without context — knowledge of the size of the leak and the methane and benzene and other toxic compounds billowing everywhere — the image is unnerving. With context, it is a precise and succinct depiction of the mystery of living next door to the oil industry. How that cloud might be invisibly menacing you. The video struck me as an ingenuous oil noir.
But, whatever its strengths, the genre hadn’t yet lived up to its more radical political promise. This was true of the noir of books and films as well as the noir that filtered into oil activist storytelling. Historically speaking, its stars had been too white and middle-class, its sense of injury too stuck on property and other individually minded dreams, its understanding of power too piecemeal and vague. Historically speaking, it had fashioned a politics from eerie atmospherics and an impoverished sense of what geographer Edward Soja called spatial justice. In my online wanderings I found a GIS map that captured it well. The map uses black dots to represent active oil wells in the LA metro area, to unsettling result. As I scrolled around, zooming in and out, the city looked riddled with bullet holes. Some well-off neighborhoods were shot up, in danger, making a lie of the kind of activism that treats oil production like a quality-of-life annoyance. On a map shaped by that activism, these endangered neighborhoods sat beside poorer neighborhoods that were under full-on siege, buried under and erased by wells.
That tension echoed in Porter Ranch, which became a flashpoint for local environmental justice advocates tracking disparities in oil industry protections. The neighborhood’s affluent residents garnered local and national attention and secured concessions other neighborhoods hadn’t gotten, including relocation to hotels on SoCal’s dime. At times their public testimonies reflected the homeowner-activist playbook and its class-bound complaints. People fretted about property values. They lamented disrupted Christmas plans and the expense of nannies hired when parents got migraines. In the face of a giant, dangerous leak, some residents dramatized the real injustice of their situation as that of lost middle-class normalcy.
Still, there seemed no reason noir couldn’t be more politically astute. Chester Himes used it to express the nightmarishness of being a Black longshoreman in the 1945 novel If He Hollers Let Him Go. The sometimes-Communist writers of early noir films smuggled in the occasional systemic critique. And I was sure that other examples lurked in literary and filmic back catalogues. But it seemed less important to unearth those than to hear the new noir insights brought forth by those battling LA oil today. They could be found everywhere, including in Porter Ranch, where neighborhood activists in noir-ish gas masks carried signs that amended an early slogan, Shut It Down, to the more spatially capacious Shut It ALL Down. A protester named Matt Pakucko pushed the thesis further, called out the lopsided attention trained on his neighborhood: “There’s other communities with probably worse problems than us, for decades longer …. Do they get relocated? No. Because it’s a poor neighborhood.”
Further insight came from STAND-LA, a coalition formed to agitate for citywide drilling standards. Esperanza Community Housing was a member and brought its experience in University Park, which it read through the lens of economic and health justice. In an interview about the campaign, Esperanza director Nancy Halpern Ibrahim complicated the point. Though they’d suspected the company was fracking, they didn’t know the technical specifics and were sure it would take forever to find out. And so, though the specter of fracking drove oil rumors across the city, they took AllenCo’s deception as baseline, didn’t fixate on the injustice of being lied to, and kept health at the center of a simpler message on traditional drilling. To these new noir suggestions — transforming stories about property into stories about collectivity, treating corporate dishonesty not as shocking betrayal but as systemic truism — the West Adams video added one more. After Niki Wong’s stakeout dramatized Freeport McMoRan’s secrecy, it noted that most of the information that had been discovered came from resident photos and reports. Here was an edit to one of noir’s most beloved premises: There was no such thing as a solo detective; there were only many.
Another update peeked out during a 2015 strike at the Tesoro Refinery in Wilmington. A worker named Melissa Bailey told a journalist that she’d just worked twelve to fourteen hours nineteen days in a row. For another article, colleagues explained how they survived such grueling schedules: with coffee, energy drinks, and sugary snacks. That plus fatigue left them dazed and drunk and led to injuries, which workers often hid so as not to miss out on safety bonuses. The practice was called, viscerally, “bloody pockets,” conjuring a sinister work atmosphere while offering a reminder that fields and refineries and storage plants didn’t just have neighbors. They were also populated with workers.
A final noir revision surfaced in Culver City, a small town incorporated in the middle of Los Angeles. Culver City sits beside the Inglewood Oil Field and is part of a Community Standard District, a special zoning designation whose drilling regulations were celebrated as the region’s most stringent. The 2008 planning text that brought the district into being opens with a legalistic preamble that defines fifty-eight words whose meanings Inglewood owners might dispute. The words include “drilling,” “fluid,” “derrick,” “well,” “gas,” and “oil.” The anticipation of a doublespeak so fundamental begged a conclusion that in the end took ten years to gel. In 2018, Culver City launched a study to figure out they could legally shut their portion of the oil field down. The town’s vice-mayor cited a long history of damage at the field, then said it sat atop a fault that was due a big earthquake any day. In the unequal landscape oil had made of the Los Angeles metro region, Culver City had been a privileged squeaky wheel. But if a more radical approach to land use could surge up around it, the logic of their gambit would be powerful. Zoning isn’t enough to limit harm to residents’ health, that logic says. The drilling would have to stop.
“We are invested not only in talking about what we don’t want but also in making the case for a meaningful, just transition,” Nancy Halpern Ibrahim told me over the phone. I’d called to hear a about Esperanza and STAND-LA’s work moving forward, and, though I felt silly relating the flimsy anecdote that had propelled me to her work in University Park, Ibrahim wasn’t fazed. After an hour of her own rambling — “I don’t speak in sound bites,” she said, appealingly not sorry — we’d reached what seemed the conversation’s upshot. She and coalition colleagues had convinced the mayor’s office to form a Climate Emergency Mobilization Department, which opened in 2019; given its oil history, they thought, Los Angeles had nationally relevant ideas on how to transition away from oil. What would become of the department remained to be seen, but we’d scaled out to an essential question: not just how Los Angeles could overcome its spatial injustices, but what that fight had to do with those elsewhere.
I wondered about that, too. For the moment, my encounter with Inglewood and West Adams and Porter Ranch seemed to be wrapping up, and the task seemed to be to turn towards the rest of the maps I shared with others. I thought of my dad’s family in Texas, where the oil stories to be reckoned with had less to do with noir than the lure of the rich oilman as hero and villain. In North Dakota’s Bakken Shale, where some friends had been spending time, the myths of the Western frontier lived on. And though it was less obvious which genres bound fossil fuel politics in New York and Tucson, I knew I didn’t have to dig alone. As in LA, my two homes were surely peopled by activists who might help teach me the plot.
Author’s note: Thanks go to Morgan Adamson, Aaron Bady, Stefano Bloch, Bill Gallagher, Raquel Gutiérrez, Nancy Halpern Ibrahim, Andrew Knighton, Ava Kofman, Ruth Nervig, Paige Sweet, and workshop participants in UA’s creative nonfiction program.
 James Sadd and Bhavna Shamasunder. “Oil extraction in Los Angeles: Health, Land Use and Environmental Justice Consequences” Drilling Down: The Community Consequences of Expanded Oil Development in Los Angeles. (Los Angeles, Liberty Hill Foundation, 2015.)
 Zahira Torres and Laura Nelson. “Baldwin Hills-area quakes not linked to oil operations, experts say,” LA Times. 3 May 2015. See also Carlos Granda, “Baldwin Hills resident concerned fracking may be causing earthquakes,” ABC7 News. 4 May 2015; “3.5 earthquake rattles Los Angeles,” LA Times. 12 April 2015.
 “Raw Footage: 10-K Gallon Oil Spill in Atwater Village,” NBC Southern California, 15 May 2014; Ashley Soley-Cerro, 10,000-Gallon Crude Oil Spill Prompts Evacuation of L.A. Strip Club,“ KTLA 5, 15 May 2014; Jason Wells. “10,000-gallon crude oil spill in Atwater Village looked ‘like a lake,’” LA Times. 15 May 2014.Village
 Carly Dryden. “South Bay beaches remain closed as officials investigate source of apparent oil spill,” The Daily Breeze, 28 May 2015. See also Kelly Goff and Gadi Schwartz. “Beaches Closed Due to Mysterious Petroleum Globs,” NBC Southern California, 27 May 2015; Veronica Rocha. “Tar balls in South Bay: Beaches closed until further notice,” LA Times, 29 May 2015.
 Mike Davis. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. (New York: Verso, 1990), 36-7.
 Nancy Quam-Wickham. “An ‘Oleaginous Civilization’: Oil in Southern California,” Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 97, No. 3, p 285; “Fred Viehe. “Black Gold Suburbs: The Influence of the Extractive Industry on the Suburbanization of Los Angeles, 1890-1930.” Journal of Urban History, Vol. 8 No. 1 (November 1981), p 6.
 Jules Tygiel. The Great Los Angeles Swindle: Oils, Stocks, and Scandal during the Roaring 20s. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 37-9.
 Nancy Quam-Wickham. “‘Cities Sacrificed on the Altar of Oil’: Popular Opposition to Oil Development in 1920s Los Angeles.” Environmental History, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Apr. 1998), 192.
 Tom Hiney. Raymond Chandler: A Biography. (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997), 58; Jules Tygiel, The Great Los Angeles Swindle, 40.
 Jules Tygiel. The Great Los Angeles Swindle, 213-257.
 Nancy Halpern Ibrahim. Personal interview, 11 October 2019; Barbara Osborn, “When Regulators Fail,” Drilling Down: The Community Consequences of Expanded Oil Development in Los Angeles. (Los Angeles, Liberty Hill Foundation, 2015.)
 Barbara Osborn, “‘How are these Chemicals being used?’” Drilling Down, 18.
 Kaitlin Parker. “Concerns arise as Inglewood Oil Field plans for increased activity,” Intersections South LA, 4 January 2012; Susan Taylor, “Freeport-McMoRan Sells Inglewood Oil Field to Sentinel Peak,” Culver City Crossroads via Reuters. 14 October 2014.
Miranda Trimmier is from Milwaukee, lives in Tucson, and writes about land-use politics. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona and has published with Places Journal, The New Inquiry, Terrain, and other outlets.
Don’t talk about commissary on commissary day,
or the Liege of Hot Water will snatch that privilege
due to dues you have not yet paid with the makeshift bridge
of comfort afforded by municipal strangers scrubbing trays
in Waterworld, or emptying pod bins in the trash barracks,
buffing sparkle paste into the loam of county corridors trill
with linoleum hinges of time-served, suspended sentences or recognizance
released into the streets like a dirty, old tryant of schillings.
When you write your man, don’t write another dime’s name.
Watch out if your bunky tends to hide, she could be cooking Pruno
or assaulting another female in there when you at class, on your dayroom-game.
Read your book with one eye on the rec room, read the space
like a text, like a cipher armed with ominous nuance, like scratch-ticket loot
spent on roses, graduation bears, gas-station sunglasses, lipstick-tazers.
Yago Cura is an Argentine-American librarian, poet, pedagogue, and freelance simultaneous interpreter. He has been a public librarian for Los Angeles Public Library since 2015, and is currently the President of the Los Angeles chapter of REFORMA. He edits the online literary magazine, Hinchas de Poesia.