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Heroines of L.A. Letters

Last March in honor of Women's History Month, I wrote a series of articles saluting iconic women in literary Los Angeles and historic women writers from the last century. Over the last two years of columns I have covered many important L.A. women writers, like Wanda Coleman, Joan Didion, Eloise Klein Healy, Esther McCoy, Marisela Norte, Gloria Alvarez, Suzanne Lummis, and Harryette Mullen, among many others. Nonetheless, in a big city filled with overflowing creative energy, there are more writers than one can ever read or cover. For the next few weeks this column will be presenting a series of profiles covering significant women writers from Los Angeles. This week L.A. Letters highlights a new play celebrating Latina voices, along with five iconic L.A. women writers.

"Chicanas, Cholas y Chisme," is a performance of dynamic micro-narratives, opening on March 7 at Casa 0101 Theater in Boyle Heights. The production is written, directed, and produced by an all-star team of women. Presented as a series of short scenes and vignettes, the writers promise, "you'll laugh, you'll cry and you'll want to gossip." Josefina Lopez and the Casa 0101 Theater have been celebrating Women's History Month every month for years now by consistently offering edgy, well-written material from a Chicana perspective. A team of 14 writers, including Andrea Gutierrez and Lopez, created the content for the series of one-acts. Six directors are working with eight actors for their three-week run. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday shows will continue until March 23. This production is one of the reasons why Casa 0101 and East First Street in Boyle Heights remain one of the epicenters of the arts in Los Angeles.


Octavia Butler

The first heroic woman writer to be covered in this week's column is Octavia Butler. Though the Pasadena-born Butler passed in 2006, her shadow looms everywhere and her legacy grows with each year. A pioneering African-American woman author, and a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant in 1995, Butler's science fiction work is considered one of the progenitors of the Afrofuturism genre. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz praised Butler a few years ago for her "nine perfect novels," two of the best known being "Kindred" and "Parable of the Sower." Mike Davis called Butler one of "the city's best writers" in "Ecology of Fear." Butler attended both Pasadena City College and Cal State L.A. Though she moved to Seattle in 1999, there's no question Butler will always rank among the greatest scribes who were born in Southern California.


Lynell George

Elegant prose stylist Lynell George worked for many years as a features writer for the L.A. Times and in her early days she freelanced for the L.A. Weekly, San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Utne Reader, and New Left Review. Most recently she has done pieces for the journal BOOM, as well as several articles for KCET's Artbound, including the recent documentary on photographing L.A. from the Central Library. George has also worked as a Professor at Loyola Marymount where she taught a series of journalism classes that employed Los Angeles writers and neighborhoods as the basis for the curriculum. George has been covering the city from her early 20s, and won award with the National Association of Black Journalists for "Outstanding Coverage of the Black Condition." One of my favorite pieces of George's writing is the essay, "Who's Your People?: L.A. to L.A. -- The Creolization of Los Angeles," which describes her family's journey to California form Louisiana. The piece is the final chapter in her book, "No Crystal Stair," in which she also traces the Creole diaspora of Los Angeles to the rush for aerospace and defense industry jobs during the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War era. Most recently George served on a panel at the Writing from California series held a few weeks ago at the Central Library, and is at work on her next book.


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Carolyn See

The celebrated novelist and professor Carolyn See was one of Lynell George's professors at LMU and, like Octavia Butler, she was called one of "the city's best writers" by Mike Davis. See also attended Cal State L.A. back when it first moved to the current campus during the late 1950s. She eventually earned her Ph. D at UCLA, before going on to write almost a dozen books and edit several others. Among her seven novels, the best known is probably "Golden Days." Her 1995 memoir "Dreaming" meditates on her family history and reevaluates the struggles of the American Dream.

I met her at UCLA during my undergrad period, and though I never took any of her classes I would speak with her sometimes at readings or author events on campus. The first time I spoke with See was around 1995 in the UCLA Kerckhoff Coffeehouse after a reading. We spoke about Carey McWilliams, and she gave me her take on his work. I was struck by both her knowledge and kindness. One of my favorite books of See is not connected to Los Angeles. In "Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers" she distills a lifetime of wisdom as a writer into a great short book of writing inspiration. See recently celebrated her 80th birthday and her storied career makes her one of the matriarchs of L.A. Letters.


Lisa See

Lisa See is Carolyn See's daughter and has had a writing career with just as much success as her mother. See was born in Paris while her mother was living in Europe for a short stint. Her Chinese great-grandfather has been an important figure in her writing. He was the primary subject in her 1995 runaway best-seller, "On Gold Mountain." See's great-grandfather, Fong See, came to Los Angeles from China around the turn of the 20th Century and eventually became a wealthy businessman and an important figure in L.A.'s early Chinatown. See's memoir details his journey to America and the roller coaster ride he landed in upon arrival. Los Angeles serves as the metaphorical "Gold Mountain" in the book. See's most recent novel, "Shanghai Girls," also deals with some of the similar themes, but set in the 1950s. See wrote for the Publishers Weekly for many years and like her mother has won several awards for her writing.


Amy Uyematsu

Amy Uyematsu is the author of three books of poetry and awaiting the publication of her fourth in the coming year. The Pasadena High graduate and native Angeleno's first two books were with Storyline Press, while the last one was with Copper Canyon Press. Her ability to craft potent poetry from family memories and daily occurrences oozes effortlessly in her works. In the poem "San Kwo Low" she reminisces "about those Sunday dinners, / the quick drive from Montebello to J-Town." The poem cherishes the connection of three generations of family, and also laments for the countless family meals of days past. The piece also pays tribute to her immigrant grandparents. She captures the longing of nostalgia:


We held every important Morita event there
But now I can barely recall what it looked like.


Uyematsu is a pioneer in multiple ways. In 1971 during her UCLA studies, she co-edited "Roots: An Asian American Reader," the first document of its kind. Years later in 1992, with poems like "You Come from St. Louis" and "Mail Order," Uyematsu satirized xenophobia and ignorance of Asian culture, with a similar spirit that is now being broadcast in projects like the recent "Not your Asian Sidekick" hashtag on Twitter. Uyematsu's witty lines are punchy and poetic, while combining humor, elegance and cold truth: "You belong to the flatlands, those corn and wheat plains/ where you never learned to swim." Her most recent book, "Stone Bow Prayer," contains a poem titled "I'm Old Enough to Know Better," that echoes similar themes. Her candid verse will be read for years to come.


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In last year's column I noted that Sharon Sekhon from the Studio of Southern California History completed an epic poem and major research project in 2007 that charts over 200 iconic women in Los Angeles history. Sekhon wrote a footnote to her list of women that says, "If you feel I have missed someone, please write your own poem and spread the love." I could not agree more. Despite the fact that the writers above have won awards, there will never be enough monetary remuneration or acclaim for all the selfless work they really do. Projects like Sekhon's that recognize historic women are beyond important. Moreover, if any of the writers presented here seem interesting, support their work and if you feel that I have missed anyone, write your own column. There can never be enough credit for these towering women. Salute to the progressive theater at Casa 0101 in Boyle Heights and to Octavia Butler, Lynell George, Carolyn See, Lisa See and Amy Uyematsu for being timeless queens of L.A. Letters.

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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