“Don’t Take Away the Flavor”: Exploring the Here and Now of L.A. with Lynell George




SHE SMILES and invites me into her office. Wearing light blue jeans and a white shirt, she has her hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. She reminds me of me.

It was the late ’80s, and Lynell George was then a staff writer at LA Weekly. As an intern, I saw in her the hope for what I could someday become, and during our chat that day she gave me the assurance I needed that my perspective mattered in journalism.

For more than 30 years, hers has been an integral voice for Los Angeles — from the Weekly to the Los Angeles Times, and some countless others, including the Los Angeles Review of Books — unfurling the stories of L.A. spaces, neighborhoods, and its people living in plain sight, though too often hidden in starrier narratives rendered about the Southland. In After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame, Lynell uses both essays and photography to capture a city in transition; with sights fading under the tide of progress, Lynell reminds us of what remains, and what’s worth holding on to.

The following Q-and-A is edited from two conversations Lynell and I had over separate lunches after the launch of After/Image this spring.

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JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: In an interview on our LARB blog, Luis Rodriguez mentioned you among “the most important and creative thinkers” who are not being heard as much as they should. You’ve been at this a long time and have worked at some leading publications. Do you ever feel like you’re an underrecognized voice?

LYNELL GEORGE: That’s a hard question to answer. My focus has always been about trying to get communities who are under the radar out there and their stories heard, and that has been a struggle sometimes when trying to sell stories to editors because it may not be the sexy story — and it’s certainly not a Hollywood story — about L.A. But it’s a meaningful story about the people who may live in this neighborhood, or they may have been community organizing, and sometimes, because of the subject matter, it’s a thing where you definitely find yourself fighting for play. But I guess I’ve never looked at the writing in that way — about trying to figure out ways to write about things that really matter to me and the communities that I’m covering and trying to get them placed in high-profile ways, and that has definitely been a challenge.

So, when you were thinking about where to publish After/Image, did that factor into your decision to go with Angel City Press?

I really wanted to place this book in the hands of someone who understood Los Angeles. That was really important to me. Seeing the struggle of getting Los Angeles right on the page in publications that are not from here has been something that really concerned me, and I didn’t want to have to write something really carefully and then worry about it being misconstrued or have to go out and find the kind of story that fit someone else’s estimation of what an L.A. story was. You know, “Where’s the story about the actor?” — some assumption about L.A. I knew I wasn’t going to have to go through that if I went with a publisher that was rooted in Southern California. So, I talked to different people about their experiences, and Bill Deverell, I talked to him about Angel City, and that’s when I decided to pursue that.

The book reveals so many stories on the theme of belonging, and I was having a conversation with a man I’d met recently who is Iranian, and he said he came to L.A. about 43 years ago. When I asked him, “What made you want to stay?” He said, “Because everyone who comes here feels like they belong here.” Although you’re a native, do you still feel the city holds that sense of belonging?

Someone brought that up recently, but in a different context, that if you’re newly arrived it all feels new and that you do belong, and I think for those of us who have been here longer or all our lives, we’re kind of looking for the place where you’re like, “Wait, I thought that was mine?” [Laughs.] “Don’t you touch that!” I do think we’ve got all these narratives going on at the same time about belonging and place, and when I travel I think about that too, when I’m in a new place and try to vibe with what it’s like … and I feel like that more and more in L.A., even in the places that are familiar to me because sometimes I’m like, “That didn’t feel like it used to feel.”

But it’s this thing I keep saying about L.A., especially for people who just come here and that’s that — and I guess I now have to apply it to myself — is that L.A. feels like it’s open and friendly and like, “Come on in!” and you kind of go in and you’re like, “No, it’s not that way!” [Laughs.] And it takes time if you’ve moved out here from someplace, and everybody’s got this six-month plan, but it really takes two years or so to kind of find your rhythm and now the city’s changing over, so you feel like you’ve got to keep moving through it. For new people, or people who are coming, they can find their place. For us, it’s like they took a blanket and went like this [Her hands fold].

Okay, so, I’m going to back to the beginning of when you and I met — I’d just transferred to Loyola Marymount University, having decided to pursue a career in journalism, and I ended up interning at the Weekly. And I think one of the most amazing things to me about it was that you were there.

[Laughs.]

And I say that because you were only the second black woman journalist I’d ever actually met …

Oh, wow!

… and it really meant so much to me that you invited me into your office, and it made me feel like I could survive in this kind of space. How did you end up making writing your life’s work, and why were you interested in helping someone like me keep going?

Keep going. [She smiles.] For as long as I can remember, I always loved stories and reading. My mother used to read to us all the time. My mother, who you know, was an English teacher, and there were always books around, and she read to us because that was important. I fell in love with this idea of interacting with stories. I don’t know how old I was when I started writing my own stories, little stories, but even as I was going through school, I was always interested in English, that was my strength. But journalism wasn’t something I was thinking, “Oh, yeah, I’m going to go for that.”

I ended up at the Weekly, also as an intern first, after being in graduate school — I was in creative writing — and I was really itchy to get started working. I applied for both the Reader and the Weekly, and then nobody called. Then I went to graduate school, and while I was in San Francisco, I got a phone call from the news editor at the Weekly. My mom, who answered the call, said, “Well, she’s in San Francisco.” [Laughs.] “She’ll be back in the summer.” And that’s what I did. I came back, and fell in love with it, and I decided I wanted to stay and see what happens with this. So, I’m still unofficially on a leave of absence from my MFA. [Laughs.]

But the thing about helping is that I did realize part of my ambivalence about moving forward in the beginning — about really doggedly pursuing it — was that there wasn’t anybody to nurture me or point me in that direction. No black women. And one of the things that I did when I started at the Weekly was I made contact with Wanda Coleman, who had been contributing to the paper, and she was so generous with her time, and we’d talk and have Indian food, and I was so appreciative of that — and I do remember thinking: This is really important. To have someone you can actually feel comfortable talking to about some of the things you were encountering as well as talk about story and talking about story ideas and shaping stories, and it was really significant. That’s why it was important for me for you to have somebody to talk to in that way.

And I thank you for that. But I was also enamored with the work you were doing at the Weekly; telling these beautiful stories about Los Angeles in a way that reveals something new about the places where I lived and was raised — like in your stories about the Uprising, and those stories you featured in No Crystal Stair … and that was around the time you went to the Times, right?

I was still at the Weekly when the book came out, and it’s one of the things that led me to the Times. I found out that they had been looking at my work for a while, but the features editor at the time reached out. She had read the book and had been following my work at the Weekly and wanted to do that kind of reporting that hadn’t been happening in the Times in a regular way. Of course, the paper was a target (in the aftermath of the Uprising) as being part of the problem, so it was a way of making a commitment to doing a different kind of feature writing that was really about place and people and communities.

I had to make a decision to leave the Weekly. I really did wrestle with it. I liked the freedom that the Weekly had given me, especially after Judith [Lewis] and I had just started working together. She edited my essay about the Uprisings, and we were all working under duress. And I thought, “This woman gets it.” She was asking the right questions and pushing for more things and shaping things without getting in the way. And I thought, “I have this great editor,” and I wanted to pursue that and write another book and then I thought, “No, you need to go to the Times and see what you can do there.” And I was there 15 years.

Online, you use the moniker “wandering foot,” which seems naturally fitting for you in the work that you do — at least it seems so obvious now. When did that become a characterization for you?

[Laughs.] It’s funny. As I’d say to my students, “The great thing about being a reporter is that it allows you to go places you wouldn’t ordinarily go into and ask questions, especially, that you might be too shy to ask,” or it would seem like, “Well that’s a little nerdy…” [Laughs.] That’s been the beauty of being a reporter for me. It nudges you from one place to the next place. Every story’s different, every story takes you into a different world and a different language and with different people, and it takes a while to get your bearings. In the beginning, I liked it because it kept my world open; it just kept getting bigger and bigger, and it fed my curiosity.

I was reading — and I can’t remember when I first read this book — it was Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans and the Mardou Fox character — which was the focus of his imagination in the books — and at one point he gets very upset with her and calls her “wandering foot” because she is, like, everywhere and with everyone and constantly moving around, and one of the things about this character that I liked, too, was that there were women in his books — and I have to figure out a neat way of saying this — that didn’t have agency and they were kind of backdrops, and here’s this women who, when you meet her, is standing with these guys talking about poetry and philosophy. She’s them. She’s got this brain and is curious, and she’s emotion. And I thought, “Ah yes, wandering foot.” It feels like this idea where I want to have those conversations. I want to move around. I don’t want to be pinned down.

You’ve been wandering for a while, so it’s kind of funny when you noted in the acknowledgments for After/Image that Louise Steinman [director of the ALOUD series] knew you were “working on a project” even before you did …

It’s so funny because I wasn’t thinking about a book at all. What happened initially was I was posting images to Facebook, and so was poet Marisela Norte, and then we were having a conversation over Facebook. Louise backchanneled and said, “What are you working on?” And I said, “We’re just talking.” We just kinda realized that we were doing something very similar. Mari had already done a collection of poetry called Peeping Tom Tom Girl, and she was gravitating toward my wandering footness … [Laughs.] I have to come up with a more eloquent way of saying that.

Your wandering feet?

Yes, my wandering feet. Louise initially thought I was working on something, and I said, “No.” And she said, “Well, you should be. Do you want to be?” And so Marisela and I did that evening at ALOUD in 2015, and we put together something, and it was an original piece, and it got me thinking more about story, words, and images, and, “Oh, wait! They can work together … They boost each other.” Because there are some things that I didn’t necessarily want to write about, but I wanted to hold on to or the commentary just was this image. So I started to think more about that.

And I started getting assignments that were both, “Can you do a piece about improvised Los Angeles,” and I think it was the seeds that became this book because it was about how place keeps changing, and I think it was the first time I actually wrote the sentence, “It’s gotten so bad that I don’t even look at certain corners.” I want to believe that, the old Carnation building for example, I still want to believe it’s still there as the Carnation building, and I think that’s when I realized with all the little essays I’d been doing and things I had been working on, maybe there is something bigger here, especially when other things I was reading that were meant to be the official word about Los Angeles, and I thought, “No, they got it wrong again. That’s not my L.A. It’s not the L.A. my friends experience.” What I wanted to do was to write about here and now and what’s real and these people and this language and this rhythm and the expanse of it … and it’s going to be images and it’s going to be words.

I know you said that the words and pictures stand alone, but, when you were putting the book together, were there stories that then evoked certain pictures you chose, or vice versa?

I never wrote a piece and thought, “Oh, now I’m going to go out and take a picture of that.” And it’s interesting because I hadn’t expressed that. A lot happened the other way around, where I would see something and I’d have to go around the corner, stop the car, get out, photograph it because I feared that it would be gone the next time I came around, so I got really used to things being really ephemeral and a moment, and I started carrying a camera because of that. But then writing always wins with me. That’s the thing. The photography was making it easier for me, especially with limited time when I was teaching. I had no time to write. But I knew I needed a creative outlet, and I knew it would slow me down. Having a camera would make me look at the city in a different way than just driving through it because it required that I be out walking through it.

The wonderful thing about the photos is that they really gave me a chance to look at these places and remember my own stories connected to these images.

Yes. I’m so glad you said that because I really wanted that. And I even talked about it with Amy Inouye, who did the design on this book — Oh my god, she’s a total brilliant goddess! — and she didn’t have much time to read everything, but when she gave it back I was like, “Oh my gosh, I couldn’t have directed her any better.” The collages that she put together and the connections that she made. She read it and then thought, “Huh, that makes me feel this…” She chose, for example, with the one that opens the chapter, “Here Goes the Neighborhood,” where you see the taiko drummer and then you see the big banner about the arts district: “Stop Art Evictions,” and then Nancy Uyemura’s tiny — you kind of see her back there by the taiko drummer — she’s the one that’s looking at me. It’s a great image because he’s looking at the reader. Then, at the top, she ran as a border just a detail from one of the signs from Chinatown, so she’s placing us downtown and all the changes that are happening downtown. So it’s brilliant. I couldn’t have done it the way she did it.

You acknowledge in the book that it may not be a love letter to Los Angeles, nor a Dear John. As you’re talking about the book now at signings and events, do you now see it as being one or the other?

[Laughs.] I love this, because it’s perfect! I still have ambivalence. And then [at a signing] Aaron Paley asked me, “Is there anything you’re optimistic about about Los Angeles?” [Laughs.] He really put me on the spot. And I sat there and I really had to think and I said, “People.” I know it’s going to sound really weird because somebody can cut me off in traffic and I go, “Aggg…” and then the next minute somebody can do something really kind or open their door and open up this whole new world, and that stuff still happens here — even in the course of doing this book, I made two contacts with people who I think will become friends now, and I didn’t know them before. But with both of them, we were having this conversation about our melancholy with this place that we absolutely love, but really trying to find our place in it.

These are people, one is 10 years younger, the other is 20 years younger, so it isn’t a function of age, it is really about what part of the city you are a champion for, and in the communities that are harder hit in terms of gentrification or where people are pushed out, because it’s not just the buildings that are going, it’s the people and their histories and their stories; that’s always what has attracted me to neighborhoods. Wherever I choose to live, even here, I wanted to live in a place that felt like it was rich in story, and even ending up in the San Gabriel Valley — it’s rich, it’s old, and people have stories for you. But that’s the aspect of L.A. that I don’t want to go away, and I worry that with all the change which, again, neighborhoods are not museums. Change, I know, is a constant. But I’m like, don’t take away the flavor.

Speaking of … in “Arteries of Memory,” you talk about your early days on 61st Street and how it wasn’t referred to then as South L.A. or South Central L.A., but rather “around Crenshaw.” Do you recall when the shift happened — either socially or politically?

It might have been while I was in college. But by the time I was out interviewing people in the late ’80s for the Weekly, “South Central” was a euphemism people were using — the news was using — for black people … I’d have to look it up if I were to be accurate, but definitely late ’80s people were using it, and you could see the way it was used in the press was a euphemism, it was a way to say “the black community” without saying it all the time. And I remember during the Uprisings, I had come home from a day of reporting and I turned on the news and they were doing a remote stand-up right in front of the May Company Wilshire and the reporter said, “Reporting from South Central Los Angeles…” [Laughs.] The May Company Wilshire! And I was like, “Wow, you have no idea where you are.” And it’s misinformation. It’s inaccurate, and you’re just scared or something. But that’s why they ended up changing it, both politically and in the newsroom, too.

The Times made a decision to change, so style was to say “South L.A.,” and that had to be almost 2000. I’ll have to look that up, too. Now that I’m not there, it’s fading. So they changed it, and even if I wanted to use it for a story — and this is the irony of all of this — if I had wanted to use South Central for a story specifically, I would have had to fight with the copy editors to say, “In this instance, we have to use it because this is how this specific person who lives in the neighborhood still refers to it.”

But for my parents and their friends, they have gone through so many name changes. When they refer to “the east side” they mean something very different from East L.A., or now what people are calling “The East Side,” which, to them, is Silver Lake. I’m thinking we’re probably going to end up going through another one, too. And I know you heard about the effort to try to refer to South L.A. as SoLA …

Yes, I did! And no …

No, please! And we know what that is. And that’s why I love this section in the book The Sellout where Paul Beatty talks about when you wake up in the morning and they’ve got one of those blue signs over your neighborhood because they’ve changed the name of your neighborhood! And it is hard to keep track of all of this now.

One of my favorite stories, I was at the [Central] Library waiting in line to go into the auditorium at ALOUD, and I was talking to this couple about traffic — as we all do — and I asked the husband, “Where were you coming from?” and he said, “Culver City.” I said, “Oh, where in Culver City? I grew up in Culver City.” And he said, “Actually, it was View Park.” And I’m like, “Those are two very different things.” He said, “Well, we’re so used to people not knowing where View Park is.” They were a mixed couple — white and Asian American, and I thought, “Wow, this is deep … You should have known by looking at me that I might have known what View Park is, but I guess you really haven’t paid attention to your neighbors.” So it’s interesting.

With the changes that are happening at the Times and at the Weekly, how does that change people’s perceptions of the city they live in? I mean, the community sections at the Times are long since gone …

Yeah, those feature sections are gone, and they try to do some of it in Metro … and I want to be very careful about how I say this because I don’t want to step on what reporters have tried to do, and that’s been the most frustrating thing. We try inside these institutions — and you know — and it’s just so hard to get traction on things. I do wonder about what sort of city, what do we get to know, and people who live here, about who we live around and how it’s changing and how that’s going to affect us if we can’t get it from a newspaper.

And I know people are blogging, but it is so specific; there are people blogging about the [Los Angeles] River and people are blogging about the marine life on the coast, and there’s sports and that sort of thing. And there are people blogging about East L.A. and Boyle Heights — my gosh, there’s a bunch of stuff about Boyle Heights now — but because it’s at this crisis point, this tipping point, and so much can be done, like that whole thing about watchdog reporting, if you don’t have eyes on certain corners people can do all kinds of stuff, so it’s easier to do it when you think, uh, nobody’s watching.

What does it mean to you to be a native of this place?

[Laughs.] That’s a really good question, and nobody’s asked me that. [Pauses.] That’s a hard question. And I asked people versions of that question for the book. And I guess as I think about it, and I thought about this more and more after my parents died. You know, L.A. was their dream. They both chose independently to come here and then they met here. And a lot of it is this idea of a place and not to be cliché about it, it really, for my brother and I, we’re the result of their hope and of possibility and what possibility could mean. And when I think about what L.A. meant to them, especially my mother who left the Jim Crow South and segregation … this idea that you take advantage of the opportunities that you are presented here. That’s what she tried to do when she got here. I think about this idea, and this goes back into being big about the idea of having a career that was fueled my curiosity, and the world kept opening up. L.A. is one of those places that will give you so much if you are curious, have energy, do not get frustrated easily — boy it will bring you back bounty. It has really taught me so much, and how to be in the world, and it’s just kept me on my toes. That’s the L.A. I’m proud of being part of.

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Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is a journalist and author. She is a senior editor for Los Angeles Review of Books and director of the Los Angeles Review of Books/USC Publishing Workshop.


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