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Reburning L.A. - The literature of 1992: This Angelic Land

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  • Reburning L.A. - The literature of 1992: This Angelic Land

    Los Angeles Review of Books

    D.J. Waldie on This Angelic Land
    Reburning L.A. - The Literature of 1992

    This Angelic Land
    By: Aris Janigian
    pp: 234

    April 29, 2012

    IT'S 20 YEARS SINCE LOS ANGELES LAST BURNED, far worse than in 1965 (the
    Watts Riot) and more destructively than in 1943 (the Zoot Suit Riots) or
    in 1871 (the Chinese Massacre). L.A. may burn again, even if as many
    believe, the igniting brutality of the LAPD has been dampened. Still,
    the disparity of prospects for ill-educated youth and the city's working
    poor is greater today than it was in either 1992 or 1965. L.A.'s
    permanent social fractures generate enough tinder, and self-immolation
    becomes us. It's one of our hateful characteristics, along with a sick
    fascination with apocalypses and self-inflicted amnesia.

    Most of us don't care to remember. But in Watts (even after 47 years),
    you can still see places - like faint smudges - where businesses had
    been burned out or failed soon after the fires. And in neighborhoods
    south of downtown, 20 years after the Rodney King verdicts, lot-size
    gaps still hole the streetscape. They hardly get a second glance. In
    north Long Beach, where news helicopters rarely hovered in 1992, the
    city put up low, three-rail white fences around the emptied lots,
    looking like corrals for ponies. Our places remember better than Anglo
    L.A. ever will.

    For one thing, places don't get bored. In our distracted recollection of
    the events that followed the acquittal of four police officers who
    clubbed Rodney King into compliance with the LAPD's formal modes of
    submission, our L.A. is located unhelpfully between the representations
    in commission reports and the intensely personal, sudden, and fleeting
    sensations of those who stood in and around the flames. As spectacle -
    even as a moral spectacle in the monologues of Anna Deavere Smith's
    Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 - the events of 20 years ago are nothing
    but moments. What the words riot, civil disturbance, rebellion, or
    uprising should have meant to us we have displaced, partly by the
    lingering trauma and partly by forgetfulness. Memory for L.A. is an
    empty can to be kicked down the road as we wait again for whatever.

    Tomorrow has always been this city's unreachable destination. As one
    civic booster early in the 20th century put it, Los Angeles has
    "everything in the future." True enough in 1992 and today as well:
    everything tomorrow and nothing today, where we actually live, and
    little of substance from the past, either. For Angelenos, the death of
    Kendrec McDade, the random shootings of black residents in Tulsa,
    Oklahoma, and the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida (reminiscent of
    the shooting of young Latasha Harlins by a Korean shopkeeper in 1991)
    are insufficient as reminders or as sparks. But not for every Angeleno.

    In 2002, Jervey Tervalon (in his introduction to Geography of Rage:
    Remembering the Los Angeles Riots of 1992) could write that the common
    bonfire had made survivors in common:

    We lived through it, were scared and furious, considered bailing
    on Los Angeles, and feared that this explosion of rage was just
    the precursor of more unrest. ... We struggled with the fragmented
    opinions of hows and whys; the city was too colored, too poor, too
    vicious, too divided to pull itself back from the abyss of the
    largest civil disturbance in the history of the United States. But
    L.A. resurrected itself. We got along well enough for the economy
    to blossom once again, and those that fled to greener or whiter
    climes were replaced with browner or blacker or yellower faces,
    and the city didn't miss a beat. It was still too large, too
    dangerous, too expensive, too smoggy, but we weren't going

    By 2007, black Angelenos no longer wanted perseverance in the ashes of
    Peter Ueberroth's failed Rebuild L.A. (Ueberroth, former president of
    the organizing committee of the Los Angeles summer Olympics, sought to
    transform the economics of poverty in South Central Los Angeles. He
    failed to attract the corporate investment he needed. Rebuild L.A.
    lasted until its charter expired in 1997.) That year, Tervalon wrote in
    the L.A. Weekly that "Latinos have replaced African-Americans in these
    neighborhoods and schools, and I wish them luck. I hope that Los Angeles
    is kinder to them than to the black folks I knew in the Los Angeles I
    loved." In 2012, with the ruins of wholesale foreclosure all round, not
    even the sprawl of not-quite-middle-class African Americans to the
    farther valleys and high desert provides enough relief from their
    anxiety. In a recent poll by Loyola Marymount University's Leavey Center
    for the Study of Los Angeles, substantially more African Americans than
    white Anglos were certain that little or no progress has been made to
    resolve racial and ethnic conflicts.

    Ask Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries and you'll learn that any
    kindness found in L.A. today is the result of faith or habit. Any luck
    belongs to those who already have it.


    Even as black L.A. began a problematic diaspora out of post-riot
    neighborhoods to the Inland Empire, the irony of "we weren't going
    anywhere" played out in the vernacular culture that followed the fires.
    Ice Cube's The Predator (1992), a rap cycle of fury and contempt, was
    directed at the distant, indifferent shore where privileged Angelenos
    live, even if the privileged were thought to include Korean grocers. "We
    Had to Tear This Motherfucka Up" was Ice Cube's explanation, a theme of
    tragic necessity remixed by other rap and hip-hop artists. "The Day the
    Niggaz Took Over" from Dr. Dre's The Chronic (1992), with sampled news
    reports and riot sound bites, rescripted the burning of L.A. as racial
    solidarity of a sort, although that wasn't true either, as anyone who
    watched the looting on television could see. Ice-T in "Disorder" (1993)
    sang "Injustice drives you crazy/It drive L.A. insane/In this
    generation/hatred is the name" with the chorus repeating "War! LA '92!"
    The target of black rage was already generic, however real were the
    reasons, and the politics-by-other-means grotesquely limited. "Gangsta
    rap" might sing of Glocks and a stoic acceptance of fate - 2Pac
    rapping "I see death around the corner" - but the misogyny, nihilism,
    and self-absorption of gangsta poets hustled the memory of "tearing up"
    L.A. into mere soliloquy.

    Fiction and memoir, too, mostly failed to deliver a usable 1992. Los
    Angeles Times book critic David Ulin, writing a 20th anniversary
    retrospective of the riots and the literature it produced (Los Angeles
    Times, 22, April 2012), found only fragments, cacophony, and the city's
    habitual desertion of history. Ulin praised two books as brave
    approaches to the "story we have never quite known how to tell":
    Tervalon's Geography of Rage (a collection long out of print) and Lynell
    George's No Crystal Stair, with its fine portraits of the suffering
    compounded with George's memoir of her own confusion and estrangement as
    the events of 1992 unfolded:

    For hours I've been transfixed, watching childhood landmarks
    swallowed up in the surprisingly liquid aspects of billowing smoke
    and flames - stores, streets, memories, futures. I'm watching my
    old neighborhood blister, turn to embers, rendered entirely
    foreign. I hear the fear in the voices of my relatives and friends
    who've been trying to track the course of the flames, guess the
    trajectory of anger.

    Ulin also noted Richard Rayner's motor tour of the burning city in his
    essay "Los Angeles" (included in Ulin's 2001 anthology Another City:
    Writing from Los Angeles). The rioting had begun as a matter of black
    rage, it seemed to Rayner, but then it had morphed into "property
    redistribution" by the poor of all colors. It had ended as a public
    entertainment in which at least 58 people were killed.

    Ulin (as well as Libros Schmibros proprietor/librarian David Kipen,
    commenting recently on KPCC) could recollect only a few post-riot
    novels, and in the them, the fires are primarily a lurid backdrop:
    Michael Connelly's Echo Park and Concrete Blond, Héctor Tobar's The
    Tattooed Soldier, Gary Phillips' Violent Spring, Paula Woods' Inner City
    Blues, and Bebe Moore Campbell's Brothers and Sisters. Paul Beatty's
    White Boy Shuffle is a satire of male blackness and gangsta posturing.
    What Korean American novelists said of their community's desolation -
    2,100 businesses ruined, five Korean merchants killed - I do not know.

    "Not knowing" in media-saturated L.A. is our only universally shared
    condition. We have a literature about Los Angeles in which a city we
    partly recognize is sometimes monstrously, sometimes beautifully
    re-imagined, but we have no literature yet of Los Angeles, not even a
    shared grid of the stories from which such a literature might arise. And
    so, we must begin.

    A particularly poignant and relevant starting place for assembling this
    necessary grid of stories is Aris Janigian's unexpected novel This
    Angelic Land (which takes its title from a line in William Blake's
    America - A Prophecy). Unexpected, because Janigian's previous novels -
    Bloodvine and Riverbig - have dealt with the Central Valley and
    conflicts within the valley's Armenian community. (Novels that I've
    enjoyed, and said so in a book jacket blurb for Riverbig. Janigian is a
    friend of a friend, which is how I came to be acquainted with his early
    career as a writer. I also share a publisher with Janigian - Berkeley's
    wonderful Heyday Books. His latest novel is published by a new,
    nonprofit imprint, West of West Books, founded by Janigian and Mark
    Arax.) And unexpected, as well, because This Angelic Land reframes the
    fires of 1992 not as an uprising against oppressive white institutions
    or through the doomed romanticism of gangsta gunmen or in the form of a
    metaphor for the tattered loyalties of the black bourgeoisie but as a
    historically conditioned collision of dispossessed tribes on a patch of
    contested ground. For contested ground is what Los Angeles has been
    since its capture by the U.S. Army in 1847.


    (N)iggaz start to loot and police start to shoot
    Lock it down at seven o'clock, then again it's like Beirut
    Me don't show no love cuz it's us against them
    - Dr. Dre, "The Day the Niggaz Took Over"

    Beirut/Los Angeles; Los Angeles/Beirut: Janigian patrols the lethal
    boundary that barely separates gunmen in both cities, carrying with him
    the burden of the Armenian genocide and all the lesser genocides that
    preceded and followed 1915 in a bloody trail to L.A., where the exiles
    halted, unprepared to release their memories into prose. The most
    hopeful of the exiles - including Janigian's memoirist/quasi-narrator
    Adam Derderian - sought reinvention in L.A., the global capital of
    third and fourth chances. After all, Adam informs his older brother (who
    is the storyteller outside Adam's story), "The power to invent required
    the power to ignore and forget." But invention on L.A.'s terms comes
    with a price.

    Ignorance makes our sunshine perpetual, our paydays always on the come.
    And forgetting slides another round into the receiver of the Glock,
    slides a sometime porn actress into a booth in the bar Adam has
    mysteriously ceased to own, turns the news commentary he hears into
    drivel, and turns Angelenos like Adam and the Derderians into targets.

    The Derderian family - including an aunt widowed by a sectarian
    reprisal - had fled Beirut for the ghetto-as-souk of L.A.'s Little
    Armenia when Adam was a boy. There, by the precise calculations of the
    schoolyard "brown bag test," he was too swarthy to be merely white, the
    black kids said, and too white to be anything but. In 1992, in crossing
    the grid of the city with a Kurdish friend to reassure his parents -
    sure that the first evening of burning was Beirut all over again -
    Adam passes from white to colored and back again, from businessman to
    looter to son, from Anglo to Armenian, and from a witness to the
    intolerable present moment to an inheritor of the equally intolerable
    past. In each gap through the city's net, these serial Adams measure a
    part of the common longing that barely holds the tribes of L.A.
    together. That longing can be lethal (Adam is the survivor of a suicide
    attempt), and when longing is answered by nothing more than palm trees
    and climate, it's incendiary. Before Adam arrives at his terminus as a
    riot statistic in the hills above fiery Los Angeles, he has questioned
    the immunity he sought as an Angeleno, the premises of his city, its
    faithlessness and his weak faith, and his reasons for - somehow -
    remaining here. He's sat with neighbors arming themselves, his parents
    armed with worry, hipsters and bohos armored with L.A.'s mixture of
    cynicism and innocence, and with the wise man Adam names the Wizard,
    vastly aloof.

    This Angelic Land does not answer the disputed claims of a particular
    history although the sufferings of history signify something. Rather,
    this is a novel of grace . . . and grace in several dimensions,
    including palm trees and climate and all they imply about the sweetness
    of the ruined paradise that is our Los Angeles. There's the grace of
    belief, a communal faith that hovers at the novel's edges. There's the
    grace - rarely consoling - of family. There's the bitter grace of
    memory and the redeeming grace of comrades and the easily misplaced
    grace of self-awareness. There's the grace of America, too, but it's
    hard to discern through the smoke of 1992. And there's the grace - or
    the luck - of survival, although that hardly leaves anyone in the
    novel at peace. Each was the survivor of something in getting here, a
    survivor of this place in staying, and now the random survivor of 1992's
    tormented carnival of fire and fun. Survivors have their guilt and their
    illusionary justifications for surviving, but they have survival in
    common. And if that's not enough on which to build a home for exiles,
    it's something, nonetheless.

    Janigian refuses to dissolve L.A. into any combination of its clichés
    or to accept hallucination as an explanation or to leave out what he has
    the capacity to include (sometimes to the detriment of the narrative).
    He has a nice way of sorting the easy graces from the ones that might
    break your heart, that might prepare you for the grace to make you whole
    again. Being whole could be true of our L.A. too, but Janigian is too
    smart - too burned by memory - to deliver wholeness as a conclusion.
    No one gets L.A. right except, Janigian suggests, those who stand
    slightly detached from it, who are half exiles and homeless still, but
    who have the capacity for stories. Perhaps he's right, and that is a
    place from which to start negotiation of the terms of our engagement on
    this contested ground.

    In "Parker Center," an essay in Tervalon's Geography of Rage, Lisa
    Alvarez describes a serious young man on the first night of the riots,
    carefully pouring gasoline around the base of a palm tree not far from
    the LAPD headquarters. Alvarez sees the young man wedge some newspaper
    as kindling into the cut fronds that cover part of the trunk. Alvarez,
    while realizing her foolish pathos, pleads with the young man to spare
    the tree, so harmless, so L.A. He informs her that the tree is fake, as
    all of L.A. is fake. And when the young man makes the palm another evil
    candle for that first night of rioting, he's justified. He tells
    Alvarez, "If it was real, it wouldn't burn. What's real doesn't burn."

    This Angelic Land makes L.A. more real. It's not the perfect novel of
    1992, but it's a necessary one.