Meena Nanji: Kenya As Paradise; London As Post-Punk; Los Angeles As Definitely Weird
Each week, Jeremy Rosenberg (@LosJeremy) asks: "How did you -- or your family before you -- wind up living in Los Angeles.
Today we hear from Meena Nanji, video artist / filmmaker and social activist.
"My family is of Indian heritage. My parents were born in Kenya as was I. When I was about nine, we moved to England.
"Kenya was paradise. It took me a long time to get over the fact that I wasn't living there anymore. But finally at some point, I think in my mid-20s, I realized that it wasn't only the place that I was missing, but it was the place at that time.
"I was there in the `60s -- Kenya was newly independent and there was a lot of optimism and hope. It was the 'Age of Aquarius' around the world, i.e 'peace, love and harmony' -- or at least that was the aspiration. This was true in Kenya as well, and even though I was really young, I absorbed it.
"My father's name was Sultan. My mother is Zarina. I have two older siblings -- my brother Anil and my sister Ameeta.
"We had an amazing life. The countryside was absolutely beautiful. The education and schools were really good. When I got to England, I felt like the English had no idea about anything, because they were way behind where I was -- at the grand old age of nine.
"Obviously in retrospect, I realize now that we were really privileged in certain ways. While I was there, the country was newly independent; the English and the whites were basically still hierarchically on top. The Indians were in the middle. And Africans were still way at the bottom -- this has changed some since then.
"What that taught me was: Indians would still be treated in a very racist way by the whites. And then Indians in turn would treat the Africans pretty badly as well. But we were all people, with the same desires, aspirations, why should the color of one's skin make such a difference? My parents taught me from a really early age that the color of one's skin should be of no more significance than the color of one's eyes. That stuck with me.
"My background in Kenya made me from an early age very aware of social justice issues. Some of my uncles from my mother's side worked in the independence movement in different capacities. They were all kind of lefty intellectuals. They gave that consciousness to us kids as we were growing up.
"When my family moved to England, I was pretty surprised at the level of racism I found there. I wasn't expecting it. When I was eleven or twelve, there used to be these anti-racism campaigns, like Rock Against Racism, and I joined them. My brother was involved with Indians in the labor movement in Britain so he influenced me a lot too.
"All of this gave me the background for what I am now. I am involved in social justice issue documentaries or filmmaking or video making and most of my work -- not all of it -- has that aspect to it.
"My father was a businessman and he was really driven by work, basically. He just loved to create things.
"When he got to England, he thought the English were really lazy. So he was looking to move somewhere else. He took a trip to America -- to Los Angeles -- and he saw that people worked on Sundays. He fell in love with the place and in 1980 he moved most of the family here -- my brother stayed in London.
"I was seventeen. It was a hard age to move. But in a way, I was the luckiest in the family. My sister had just graduated from art school. I was about to do my A-Levels in England. In a way it was a relief to move so I could dodge doing these very difficult exams. But in another way, I was sad about leaving England -- I had grown to really love it.
"It was the sort of post-punk period. Reagan had just been elected in the U.S and it was highly disturbing to me that we were moving to a country that had just elected Ronald Reagan as President! Mind you, in England we had Margaret Thatcher, who wasn't any better.
"I probably also wasn't keen on coming to Los Angeles because of the image of America in England -- people either love it or hate it. I didn't hate it, but I was sort of like, 'Oh my God, it's America. It's big and brawny.' And I liked the kind of 'skinny wimp' image of England.
"The way that people in England were really miserable kind of fit with my temperament at the time. The impression of L.A. from afar was that it's always sunny here and people are happy all that time. I was, like, that sounds awful! That was in keeping with my punk credentials.
"It was Christmas Day when we arrived in L.A. My parents had arranged a lunch with their real estate agents. My sister and I, we were like, 'Real estate agents! How could we have lunch with them on Christmas?'
"But they turned out to be absolutely fabulous, and their son -- who remains a really good friend today -- is this amazing screenwriter and director. He was a few years older than us and he kind of took us under his wing. He brought us to a Christmas party that was at the Captain of the Love Boat's house. This was our first day in Los Angeles.
"My other initial impressions of L.A. were that it was definitely weird here. The whole driving thing was very strange. Maybe even worse was that people were still listening even in 1980 and 1981 to Led Zeppelin or REO Speedwagon and that kind of leftover `70s rock. I couldn't believe it.
"And everybody had normal hair -- nobody dyed their hair. London had been such a different energy and outlook -- L.A. really was a culture clash for me.
"In England, it was a given that you are miserable, that's just how it is. Here, the goal was to be happy and cheerful and nice to people. Even if you had to fake it, which I felt most people did. If you liked somebody, dating-wise, in England, the way you would know that they liked you back was if they didn't talk to you the whole night. I tried that tactic here and it did not work.
"I went to Santa Monica College. I couldn't get straight into UCLA because I hadn't done American History or American English. I met some great people there, and am still in touch with some of them.
"My parents had more trouble fitting in. America was so different from England for them. We didn't grow up either in a kind of religious community or in a particularly Indian community. When they were seeking out points where they could enter the community here, they would take me to the mosque -- or try to take me to the mosque. I completely rebelled against that.
"I used to play the saxophone. I put an ad in the LA Weekly advertising myself as an amazing saxophone player. I got many calls and joined possibly the worst band in the entire history of music.
"There used to be a club called Peanuts on Santa Monica Boulevard. It was a really crappy club. Nobody cool played there. We got a booking there. But after two songs we were very unceremoniously told to leave.
"But through being in that band and playing in these terrible places I met other musicians. I met Hillel Slovak, now he's gone, unfortunately; he was a founder of the Chili Peppers. He was in a band at that time called What Is This with Flea and the drummer Jack [Irons] and Allan Johannes as well. They became my really good friends. And so I met a ton of people through sort of just putting myself out there. The same happened when I interned at the Weekly, which was in its infancy.
"In the early `80s, L.A. was just inching into the 20th Century. Over the years, L.A. has matured. The arts and architecture and film scene has gotten hugely interesting, a blossoming really. Of course, film is still Hollywood-dominated here, but there is so much independent/alternative film/video and alternative venues to see film. I love that. Also, the whole food culture has become really pretty wonderful -- with organic and locally grown food and the choices we have which in many other places you don't.
"I still talk about leaving L.A. -- and I've been here thirty years now. I travel a lot, usually to either India or Europe, so maybe that is like leaving many times anew.
"In the end, there is something that keeps me here. My family, for one. But also, it's the very seductive lifestyle. The weather truly is fantastic. I hate to be so mundane talking like that, but I think growing up in Kenya, where it was very similar, I think having sun and lots of light is important to me.
"Los Angeles also offers an incredibly high standard of living compared to other places. I think I've been seduced -- I need my creature comforts these days."
-- Meena Nanji
(as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)
Do you or someone you know have a great Los Angeles Arrival Story to share? If so, then contact Jeremy Rosenberg via: arrivalstory AT gmail DOT com. Also contact or follow Rosenberg on Twitter @LosJeremy
Top Photo: Meena Nanji and her sister, at the Kenya Safari Club in Nairobi. Photo courtesy Meena Nanji