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Mapping New Mythology in L.A. Letters

Myth making has always been a big part of the California dream. Countering the barrage of major studies and big budget productions selling fabricated and packaged California culture, there are many purveyors representing the face of Los Angeles not seen on screen. This week LA Letters features those repurposing myth and making their own literature, music and maps like Jervey Tervalon, J Michael Walker, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Jesse Bliss and Austin Peralta.

Jervey Tervalon is a very busy man making multiple literary projects happen in Los Angeles. Among his several authored books is the award-winning "Understand This." Published in 1994, the book tells the story of a sullen high school teen from South L.A. not involved with gangs but surrounded by the chaos. One of the first apparent qualities about "Understand This" is that Tervalon knows the area and writes about it from an informed point of view.

Tervalon's time at Dorsey High in the mid-1970s was the beginning of his lifelong neighborhood explorations around L.A. After finishing his undergraduate work and teaching credential, Tervalon taught for five years at Locke High School in Watts during the heyday of the late 1980s gang wars. His compassionate prose accurately evokes the terror constantly being experienced in the young teen's life. He explains, "It was based on a student of mine at the inner city school I taught at. He had a nervous breakdown after witnessing his cousin murdered. I was trying to write my own 'As I Laying Dying' and 'War and Peace.'"

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The book was his thesis in the MFA program at UC Irvine. "It changed everything for me. I won a New Voices award in 1994 from Quality Paperbook Club, and was nominated for a Discover New Writers award for Barnes and Noble." The book is still in print with the University of California Press. Following the book's success, Tervalon taught at USC, Cal State L.A., and UC Santa Barbara among others.

A few years ago Tervalon started Literature For Life, an online salon for writers, artists, and educators focused on igniting young minds. California literature, the visual arts, and Los Angeles history are featured prominently. He says, "I started 'Lit For Life' because when I taught high school I hated that textbooks cost so much and didn't seem to reflect the lives of my students in the world that we live on, here in L.A."

With contributions from great L.A. writers like Erin Aubry Kaplan, Jonathan Gold, Susan Straight, Sophia Kercher and Roz Helfand, the content ranges from articles, poems, paintings and lesson plans. "Many of my writer friends are also teachers and I know that writers support schools," Tervalon says. "I felt in my heart that writers would support a resource for teachers that was a beautiful online magazine with amazing art illustrating the stories."

The art direction is led by J Michael Walker, a Los Angeles painter and writer. After having over 100 art exhibits over the last 25 years and winning several awards, Heyday Books published Walker's book "All the Saints in the City of Angels: Seeking the Soul of L.A. on its Streets" in 2008. Walker's artistic vision is the perfect complement to Tervalon's editorial direction.

Walker is particularly skilled at map-making. One of his large hand-drawn colorful maps, made for an exhibit at the Hammer Museum in conjunction with Libros Schmibros, was purchased by UCLA. Walker and Tervalon often travel the city together. Tervalon says, "My hope is that 'Lit For Life' will continue to expand and more writers will want their work included in this online literary magazine that reflects the diversity of Los Angeles and the greater region." Tervalon also features a section called "Emerging Voices." He has partnerships with several educators and is always looking for young, hungry writers.

Another major project of Tervalon's is the LitFest in Pasadena. "We started LitFest Pasadena because the L.A. Times Book Festival seemed to be getting bigger and bigger," he said. "I'm the literary director, Larry Wilson is the director, and Tom Coston is the our Field general. The next step is to create a center for the Literary Arts in Pasadena where kids can see Dickens and Shakespeare as actors inhabit them, also with workshops and lectures. Almost like a school without grades."

'A Lyrical Map of the Concept of Los Angeles' by J Michael Walker

L.A. Laker legend Kareem Abdul Jabber has recently been immortalized with a 16-foot bronze statue on the north side of Staples Center. His statue features him doing his signature skyhook shot; it's the sixth iconic statue lined along Chick Hearn Court next to L.A. Live, joining Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Chick Hearn, Wayne Gretzky and Oscar dela Hoya.

Like so many, I am a lifelong Laker fan. In 1984 when Kareem broke the NBA all-time scoring record my stepfather and I went to the Fabulous Forum for the game. In 2009 I met Kareem when he came to the school I was teaching at (View Park Prep) to speak with the students. His message drew inspiration from his 2007 book, "On the Shoulders of Giants." The subtitle "My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance" captures one of the book's central tenets; born in NYC right after the second world war, Kareem grew up in the middle of the Harlem landscape he so vividly describes. Gil Scott-Heron was one of his childhood friends.

The book begins with him stating that if he hadn't been a professional basketball player, he would have become a history teacher. He writes, "To me, history is a living road map that allows us to see where others have been, what mistake they've made, and how we can avoid those mistakes ourselves. Even better, we also see what others have done well and can embrace their triumphs." Kareem creates his own map of Harlem in the book. His treatment of the Harlem Renaissance is a lucid blend of memoir, literature, cultural history and musicology over 250 pages long. He's written seven other books as well. His intellectual curiosity continues to drive him to write more. The 16-foot bronze statue just west of Figueroa is well-earned.

Jesse Bliss is an actress, writer, director and producer who has been teaching Theater and Creative Writing to at-risk and incarcerated youth for a decade. "Los Angeles cradles innovation and there is a strong alliance of other female artists here," she says. After growing up in Sacramento, she performed in New York City and the Bay Area before landing in Los Angeles. One of her home bases in L.A. has been the CASA 0101 on East First Street, where she's staged several performances. She's also performed in the Vagina Monologues and is the Founder and Artistic Director of The Roots and Wings Project. In conjunction with Quality Collective and Peter Woods, her play "Tree of Fire" is scheduled to premiere on International Women's Day 2013 DTLA at Inner City Arts Theater.

Dealing with the dysfunction of the prison-industrial complex, "Tree of Fire" "sings and screams for those who have no voice," said playwright Leon Martell in a review. He continues, "it's a modern day 'Trojan Women' that leads us on a mythic journey into the minds and spirits of incarcerated women.... style and content are boldly woven together to give us an intimate encounter with the heart of the imprisoned."

On a final solemn note, many condolences to the family and friends of the prodigiously talented pianist Austin Peralta. Son of the famed Dogtown skater Stacy Peralta, the 22-year old musician died on November 21, 2012. His bright light was seen by many as a new voice for West Coast Jazz in the 21st Century. His musicianship was so advanced that he played the Tokyo Jazz Festival at 16 years old in 2006.

In 2010 Brainfeeder Records released his album "Endless Planets." Collaborating with the label's owner Flying Lotus, Peralta was recently seen touring in Europe. The night before he died he played at the Blue Whale in Little Tokyo. His newest music occupied the liminal space between jazz, electronica and the undefinable. Carlos Nino's "Space Ways" radio show on KPFK and Garth Trinidad's KCRW show both played tribute shows this week. Songs like "Ode to Love" show the ethos of his work. One of Peralta's last tweets affirms this, "none of that shit matters... it's all about creativity and love."

Thank you Austin Peralta for your music, the message and reminding us about what really matters, because it can be easy to forget that the firmament is made up on endless planets.

Here's to Jervey Tervalon, J Michael Walker, Kareem, Jesse Bliss and Austin Peralta blazing trails and mapping new mythology for California in the 21st Century. Each alchemists shining bright in the world of LA Letters.


Top: Detail from "A Lyrical Map of the Concept of Los Angeles" by J Michael Walker

About the Author

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