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Nonfiction

The City and the Writer: In Los Angeles with André Naffis-Sahely

André Naffis-Sahely talks with Nathalie Handal about the hidden histories and iconic writers of Los Angeles.
Portrait of writer and translator André Naffis-Sahely
Photo copyright © Nina Subin

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

 

Can you describe the mood of Los Angeles as you feel/see it?

Old Westerns will tell you about the violence of life in hard-as-nails boomtowns like Tombstone, Arizona, but Los Angeles was the toughest of them all, and still is. It’s sun-kissed, industrial, god-fearing, gas-guzzling, all of it built on a harrowing history of lynch mobs and expropriation, all of which gets a bit lost amid the pastel bungalows and palm-lined boulevards. It’s the thirstiest city in the world, whether we’re talking about water (at one point it was home to the world’s longest aqueduct) or blood. Los Angeles has redefined the notion of the working poor, given that many houseless Angelenos have to juggle making it to work on time with having all their possessions bulldozed away at a moment’s notice by the police. Warren Zevon got it right: “Well, they say this place is evil / That ain’t why I stay / ’Cause I found something / That will never be nothing / And I found it in LA.”

 

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Having two policemen laugh and smirk while shining a spotlight on my wife, who was yelling at them for routinely stopping black people at a checkpoint set up right in front of our apartment complex, a checkpoint put in place specifically to harass black residents leaving their neighborhood to enter “white” LA. Redlining never went out of fashion and is still very heavily enforced in this city. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise.

 

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Its awe-inspiring biodiversity. Often thought of as America’s plastic dream factory, Los Angeles is actually home to thousands of unique species of fauna and flora. Rivers, valleys, mountains, and deserts are all within easy reach, and one can drive from the edge of the Pacific to the oak and pine woodlands of the Angeles National Forest in under an hour. It’s a truth obfuscated by the harsh realities of making a living in the city, meaning even native residents are usually blind to it. You cannot love what you cannot see.

 

What writer(s) from here should we read?

It might be a good idea to begin with Louis Adamic (1898–1951), who made his home in what was then the fishing village of San Pedro, now LA’s port. Adamic wrote about class violence and the immigrant experience in the US, but he also penned some of the best essays ever put to paper about LA, including “Los Angeles! There She Blows!” and “The Truth About Los Angeles.” “Los Angeles has small use for poor people,” he wrote in 1930, an idea later picked up by John Fante (1909–83), whose stories about life in Depression-era downtown LA are sadly just as relevant now as they’ve ever been. For my money, the most exciting contemporary poet from LA is Christopher Soto, whose debut collection, Diaries of a Terrorist, will be published by Copper Canyon Press in May.

 

Is there a place here you return to often?

Whenever I have a spare moment, I often go for a walk in the Lewis MacAdams Riverfront Park on the Glendale Narrows, separating northeast LA from the central neighborhoods of Silver Lake and Los Feliz. The park is named after the poet and environmental activist Lewis MacAdams (1944–2020), who wrote beautifully of the little-loved Los Angeles River—which he said smelled of “diesel fuel, carburetor dust, fear, loss, emptiness, and the future.” Read his book-length poem The River, if you can find it, since it’s now out of print.

 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Yes! The Los Angeles Central Library, an island of Art Deco beauty in the midst of Downtown’s “revitalized” heart, now studded with ugly steel and glass monstrosities. I’ve never forgotten Ray Bradbury’s deep love for that institution (he now has a square named after him just in front of the library) and how he’d dine exclusively on saltines and tomato soup in order to spend as much time as possible amid its crowded shelves.

 

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Los Angeles could very well be defined as a patchwork of hidden cities within a larger urban landscape, and I hungrily visited them all. However, San Gabriel stands out for me, for a variety of reasons. While technically situated in a valley northeast of LA, it’s home to one of the oldest Spanish missions and is the beating heart of California colonialism, as well as the site of their genocide of the indigenous Tongva people, whose lands were stolen and paved over.

 

Where does passion live here?

Inside your car as your hands grip the wheel and the freeway beckons. Los Angeles is the home of the drive-in (cinemas, restaurants, churches, liquor stores, etc.). Here’s what Wanda Coleman (1946–2013), LA’s greatest late-twentieth-century poet, had to say about that: “and i’m flying as the speedometer / needle presses urgently against the edge. ah—the power. i / am looking for the answer. and i move forward . . .” I spent the entirety of my twenties living in the UK, where they say that “poets don’t drive.” Well, they do here in LA, and they write great poems about it, too!

 

What is the title of one of your works about Los Angeles and what inspired it exactly?

My second collection of poems, High Desert (June 2022), is an ode to the American Southwest and the city of Los Angeles, especially its hinterlands in the western Mojave Desert, where one can still see the perfectly preserved ruins of the twentieth-century American empire. It’s the chronicle of my travels through the region’s hidden histories via its ghost towns, abandoned mining camps, and communes. Home to Hollywood, LA always gets to be anything (Colombia, Korea, Mars) except itself, and my aim was to allow the city to speak its own truths—including via a series of found poems titled “A People’s History of the West,” where the famous and the forgotten join forces to remind us of the tumultuous legacy of this part of the world.

 

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Los Angeles does an outside exist?”

Urbanites are often unable to conceive of life beyond their city, which means they’re missing out on most of the world. Although it can often seem like our megalopolises are expanding at such a rate that they’ll soon swallow up the entire Earth, most of our planet is in fact still rural, or even uninhabited. The city has historically been a place of refuge, a sanctuary, but also a nexus of exploitation, and the latter element is sadly likely to define the nature of cities in the coming centuries. We’re already witnessing the creation of fortress city-states with impenetrable checkpoints, leaving hordes of people to fight over scraps in the polluted, desertified wastelands. In the case of Los Angeles, witness the bedroom communities of Palmdale and Lancaster to the north of the city, where LA’s poor have fled in search of lower rent and employment opportunities, only to end up, increasingly, in the state’s prison system.


André Naffis-Sahely’s
second collection, High Desert, is published by Bloodaxe Books (June 2022). He is also the author of The Promised Land: Poems from Itinerant Life (Penguin UK, 2017) and the editor of The Heart of a Stranger: An Anthology of Exile Literature (Pushkin Press, 2020). He has translated over twenty titles of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, including works by Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, Alessandro Spina, Abdellatif Laâbi, Ribka Sibhatu, and Tahar Ben Jelloun. His poems have been widely anthologized and translated into Arabic, Greek, Romanian, and Spanish. He is a lecturer at the University of California, Davis, in the US and the editor of Poetry London in the UK.


© 2022 André Naffis-Sahely. All rights reserved.

English

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

 

Can you describe the mood of Los Angeles as you feel/see it?

Old Westerns will tell you about the violence of life in hard-as-nails boomtowns like Tombstone, Arizona, but Los Angeles was the toughest of them all, and still is. It’s sun-kissed, industrial, god-fearing, gas-guzzling, all of it built on a harrowing history of lynch mobs and expropriation, all of which gets a bit lost amid the pastel bungalows and palm-lined boulevards. It’s the thirstiest city in the world, whether we’re talking about water (at one point it was home to the world’s longest aqueduct) or blood. Los Angeles has redefined the notion of the working poor, given that many houseless Angelenos have to juggle making it to work on time with having all their possessions bulldozed away at a moment’s notice by the police. Warren Zevon got it right: “Well, they say this place is evil / That ain’t why I stay / ’Cause I found something / That will never be nothing / And I found it in LA.”

 

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Having two policemen laugh and smirk while shining a spotlight on my wife, who was yelling at them for routinely stopping black people at a checkpoint set up right in front of our apartment complex, a checkpoint put in place specifically to harass black residents leaving their neighborhood to enter “white” LA. Redlining never went out of fashion and is still very heavily enforced in this city. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise.

 

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Its awe-inspiring biodiversity. Often thought of as America’s plastic dream factory, Los Angeles is actually home to thousands of unique species of fauna and flora. Rivers, valleys, mountains, and deserts are all within easy reach, and one can drive from the edge of the Pacific to the oak and pine woodlands of the Angeles National Forest in under an hour. It’s a truth obfuscated by the harsh realities of making a living in the city, meaning even native residents are usually blind to it. You cannot love what you cannot see.

 

What writer(s) from here should we read?

It might be a good idea to begin with Louis Adamic (1898–1951), who made his home in what was then the fishing village of San Pedro, now LA’s port. Adamic wrote about class violence and the immigrant experience in the US, but he also penned some of the best essays ever put to paper about LA, including “Los Angeles! There She Blows!” and “The Truth About Los Angeles.” “Los Angeles has small use for poor people,” he wrote in 1930, an idea later picked up by John Fante (1909–83), whose stories about life in Depression-era downtown LA are sadly just as relevant now as they’ve ever been. For my money, the most exciting contemporary poet from LA is Christopher Soto, whose debut collection, Diaries of a Terrorist, will be published by Copper Canyon Press in May.

 

Is there a place here you return to often?

Whenever I have a spare moment, I often go for a walk in the Lewis MacAdams Riverfront Park on the Glendale Narrows, separating northeast LA from the central neighborhoods of Silver Lake and Los Feliz. The park is named after the poet and environmental activist Lewis MacAdams (1944–2020), who wrote beautifully of the little-loved Los Angeles River—which he said smelled of “diesel fuel, carburetor dust, fear, loss, emptiness, and the future.” Read his book-length poem The River, if you can find it, since it’s now out of print.

 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Yes! The Los Angeles Central Library, an island of Art Deco beauty in the midst of Downtown’s “revitalized” heart, now studded with ugly steel and glass monstrosities. I’ve never forgotten Ray Bradbury’s deep love for that institution (he now has a square named after him just in front of the library) and how he’d dine exclusively on saltines and tomato soup in order to spend as much time as possible amid its crowded shelves.

 

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Los Angeles could very well be defined as a patchwork of hidden cities within a larger urban landscape, and I hungrily visited them all. However, San Gabriel stands out for me, for a variety of reasons. While technically situated in a valley northeast of LA, it’s home to one of the oldest Spanish missions and is the beating heart of California colonialism, as well as the site of their genocide of the indigenous Tongva people, whose lands were stolen and paved over.

 

Where does passion live here?

Inside your car as your hands grip the wheel and the freeway beckons. Los Angeles is the home of the drive-in (cinemas, restaurants, churches, liquor stores, etc.). Here’s what Wanda Coleman (1946–2013), LA’s greatest late-twentieth-century poet, had to say about that: “and i’m flying as the speedometer / needle presses urgently against the edge. ah—the power. i / am looking for the answer. and i move forward . . .” I spent the entirety of my twenties living in the UK, where they say that “poets don’t drive.” Well, they do here in LA, and they write great poems about it, too!

 

What is the title of one of your works about Los Angeles and what inspired it exactly?

My second collection of poems, High Desert (June 2022), is an ode to the American Southwest and the city of Los Angeles, especially its hinterlands in the western Mojave Desert, where one can still see the perfectly preserved ruins of the twentieth-century American empire. It’s the chronicle of my travels through the region’s hidden histories via its ghost towns, abandoned mining camps, and communes. Home to Hollywood, LA always gets to be anything (Colombia, Korea, Mars) except itself, and my aim was to allow the city to speak its own truths—including via a series of found poems titled “A People’s History of the West,” where the famous and the forgotten join forces to remind us of the tumultuous legacy of this part of the world.

 

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Los Angeles does an outside exist?”

Urbanites are often unable to conceive of life beyond their city, which means they’re missing out on most of the world. Although it can often seem like our megalopolises are expanding at such a rate that they’ll soon swallow up the entire Earth, most of our planet is in fact still rural, or even uninhabited. The city has historically been a place of refuge, a sanctuary, but also a nexus of exploitation, and the latter element is sadly likely to define the nature of cities in the coming centuries. We’re already witnessing the creation of fortress city-states with impenetrable checkpoints, leaving hordes of people to fight over scraps in the polluted, desertified wastelands. In the case of Los Angeles, witness the bedroom communities of Palmdale and Lancaster to the north of the city, where LA’s poor have fled in search of lower rent and employment opportunities, only to end up, increasingly, in the state’s prison system.


André Naffis-Sahely’s
second collection, High Desert, is published by Bloodaxe Books (June 2022). He is also the author of The Promised Land: Poems from Itinerant Life (Penguin UK, 2017) and the editor of The Heart of a Stranger: An Anthology of Exile Literature (Pushkin Press, 2020). He has translated over twenty titles of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, including works by Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, Alessandro Spina, Abdellatif Laâbi, Ribka Sibhatu, and Tahar Ben Jelloun. His poems have been widely anthologized and translated into Arabic, Greek, Romanian, and Spanish. He is a lecturer at the University of California, Davis, in the US and the editor of Poetry London in the UK.


© 2022 André Naffis-Sahely. All rights reserved.

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