March is Woman's History Month. I saw someone comment in a recent tweet that every month for them is Black History Month, and I follow the same idea in regards to Black History, Woman's History, LGBT History, Chicano History, Asian Pacific Islander History, etc. Nonetheless, considering the oppression and violent hierarchy that has existed in Western Culture for the last 500 years towards women and people of color, these official months of recognition are important cultural touchstones that show us how far we have come and how much further we need to go. This week in L.A. Letters I celebrate two towering women literary figures: journalist Joan Didion and the poet Ursula Rucker.
Being raised by my single mother schoolteacher, I've always known strong women and appreciated them. Over the last year in this column I have written about many brilliant women authors, including Wanda Coleman, Suzanne Lummis, Ada Louise Huxtable, Jane Jacobs, Sonia Sanchez, Esther McCoy, Lynell George, Amy Uyematsu, Traci Kato-Kiriyama, Mariah Young, Laura Pulido, Lauri Ramey, Evie Shockley, Cathy Park Hong, Laurel Ann Bogan, Eloise Klein Healey, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, Jesse Bliss and many others. For one reason or another I have yet to write about one of my biggest influences of all: journalist Joan Didion. Two of her books in particular are masterpieces and especially relevant in Los Angeles lore: "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" from 1968 and "The White Album" from 1979. Though they were published 11 years apart they are companion volumes and read together they offer the quintessential snapshot of 1960s America.
Didion's electric firsthand accounts on Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, the Black Panthers, Haight-Ashbury, the Manson Family, and overall California counterculture made the work automatically iconic, but it's the humanity and style of Didion's prose that has endeared her work to generations of readers. When I first read "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" in my undergrad days, I was struck by the cover of the book before I even opened it.
Besides her report from free love San Francisco, she passes through other sides of California, like Sacramento, the Mojave Desert and San Bernardino. In passages like "On Keeping A Notebook," she reveals her writing process and lets her reader into her head. Didion's ability to be vulnerable is one of her signature tactics: "Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant re-arrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss."
Didion's career began more as a novelist. Her 1965 novel "Play It As It Lays" was also about Southern California. In "the White Album," Didion talks about living in Hollywood on Franklin Avenue. She also talks about what she calls "Invisible Los Angeles," especially in a short passage about the Palms District on the city's Westside. She writes, "Palms, California, is a part of Los Angeles through which many people drive on their way from 20th Century-Fox to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer... It is an area largely unnoticed by those who drive through it, an invisible prairie of stucco bungalows and two-story 'units.'"
Due to inflation and rising rents, Palms is no longer as invisible as it once was, but Didion's description of the stucco dingbats and invisible prairie of two-story units remains accurate. In chapters like "Los Angeles Notebook" and "Notes from A Native Daughter," she merges the personal essay with a detailed report on the changing current of contemporary American culture.
Didion recognized the anxiety and chaos of the Cold War and the Vietnam-era and described it clearer than just about anybody. Her minimal yet pithy prose shares Hemingway's less-is-more approach, but adds a thoughtful woman narrator behind the wheel. It's no surprise Didion has been a role model to many young writers dating back to these early books. Her candor combined with effective communication skills seems to empower young scribes and give them hope to pursue their own writing dream. She was one of the first journalists I'd ever read that could be so honest about her-self while still writing masterfully on the world around her. On the strength of these two books alone, Didion remains among the greatest all time chroniclers of California. I've returned to her for inspiration again and again.
Ursula Rucker is a Philadelphia-based poet and spoken word artist first heard internationally in the 1990s on records by The Roots and King Britt. Emerging from the same scene as those two as well as Jill Scott, Lizz Fields and a whole slew of other Philly soul legends, Rucker's recorded poems bridge nu-jazz, hip hop and electronic music. Her solo debut was "Supa Sista," and in addition to all of her work with the Roots, she's appeared on albums with King Britt, 4Hero, and Josh Wink among others. She is a poetic warrior and one of the most iconic voices in spoken word over the last 20 years. Her conscious stance gives her work an extra edge. In her poem "What??" she calls out rappers and lyricists she disagrees with:
from all irresponsible
crap musicmakers and movefakers
your bad examples could kill my children's future
but we're here to supply the sutures needed
to close the bleeding hole...in the soul of black music
Don't misuse it or abuse it...use it
to send positive not negative messages
bless the kids with dope, but, heartfelt lyrics
they need to hear it
You can still be hard
and keep regard
for your sisters
Rucker's sheer musicality in her voice mixed with her emotional content makes her recorded work hard to ignore. A fierce defender of women's rights, some of her poems cover uncomfortable material about abusive relationships and sexual abuse like her piece "The Return to Innocence Lost."
"Philadelphia Child" is her poem about her lifelong home. Lamenting the inequality of Philly and telling the background story behind Independence Hall, the following lines show how she deconstructs her city:
taught lessons in the voice
of the founding forefathers
but those same four
still ain't found their fathers
at the mercy of the public school system
at the mercy of the existence
of human allegiance and government finance
dance with the element of chance
Her Philadelphia poem identifies the problematic issues of her city and advocates for its less fortunate citizens. "We are here. We are, we live, we matter." Celebrated Black Arts poet Sonia Sanchez is currently the Poet Laureate of Philadelphia; Rucker's impressive body of work over the last two decades combined with her status as lifelong Philly native put her on the short list of Sanchez's successors.
I saw Ursula Rucker live in 2003 at the Temple Bar and her live performance matched the recordings. Accompanied by an electric guitarist with a wah-wah pedal, her powerful melodic voice and compelling register took ahold of the room and wouldn't let go. Saul Williams did a long set as well and it was a powerful night of word-music on West Wilshire. A 30-minute documentary film about Rucker was produced in 2008, and she continues to tour and make new work. I have always appreciated her deep pathos and lyrical dexterity. I hope she comes to L.A. again soon.
Next week in L.A. Letters I will cover more up-and-coming women authors. This first week of Women's History Month, I started with Joan Didion and Ursula Rucker because they have made indelible impressions worldwide and in the landscape of L.A. Letters.
Top: Photo by Incase. used under a Creative Commons license.
- More on L.A. Letters
- Building Community Through Poetry
- To Live and Die in L.A.: Lionel Rolfe & Literary Los Angeles
- Donald Byrd and Revolutionary Words
- Renegade Poetics: Innovative Poetry by African Americans
- Seasons of L.A. Letters