Inside L.A.'s Indie Lit Scene
Neelanjana Banerjee guides a young writer at the L.A. Times Festival of Books.
Photo by Nanette Gonzales
"Congratulations, you've just published your first book!" declares Neelanjana Banerjee, snapping an iPhone photo as 10-year-old Amilia Estrada grins and holds up several typewritten pages bound by a hand-drawn cardstock cover.
It's a warm Saturday afternoon in late March at the second annual Grand Park Book Fest - a gathering of indie publishers and literary organizations spreading out across the park's tiered lawns and hot pink benches.
Banerjee, 35, managing editor of Kaya Press, is working with Judeth Oden Choi of Writ Large Press to coordinate a steady stream of visitors to the presses' shared booth, called "Publish!" Adults and kids alike are invited to write for three minutes at a lineup of manual typewriters, then return at a designated "book launch" time to collate their work with others' contributions, design a cover and leave the table a published writer.
This radically communal, performative take on bookish events reflects L.A.'s literary zeitgeist, the promise of which compelled Kaya Press to leave its home in New York and take root here instead. In 2011, the small press accepted a five-year contract to be housed within USC's American Studies and Ethnicity program, where it's already proving to be a powerful force in bringing together L.A.'s writers and indie publishers.
"Whereas New York is vertically oriented, Los Angeles is horizontally oriented. That spatial reorientation gives you a different sense of what's possible," says Sunyoung Lee, 42, who founded Kaya Press in 1994 as a platform for the Asian and Pacific Islander diasporas. Lee sees the geography of L.A., as well as its demographics, as the perfect metaphor for what's possible in the literary scene - collaborative publishing and events that bring together voices from diverse ethnicities, classes and neighborhoods across the city.
"One of the books we're proudest of is Lament in the Night, by Nagahara Shoson, which we published last fall," Lee says. Shoson was part of a group of intellectuals in 1920s Little Tokyo who worked as day laborers, gathering at night to debate Tolstoy and write novels. The book, originally written in Japanese, was a forgotten part of L.A.'s history; it went untranslated for 90 years.
But publishing unique works is only one piece of the process of pumping L.A. with literature - the other is bringing writing to the public.
Judeth and Chiwan Choi, founders of Writ Large Press, have been creating pop-up literary events around the city since 2007. After they were joined by Peter Woods last year, Writ Large organized the Grand Park Book Fest (along with Grand Park staff), where the popular "Publish!" project drew a big crowd. Judeth Choi says they want people to feel ownership over literature, but they also want to poke fun at themselves as literary gatekeepers.
As Chiwan Choi explained at an L.A. indie lit panel in Seattle in February, "The great thing about Los Angeles is that we have no reputation to carry out, literature-wise, so we get to make up our own rules and expectations."
Because L.A.'s dominant industry is film and television production, indie publishers feel less competition with their mainstream counterparts than they do in New York. And that leaves less pressure to adhere to a traditional publishing paradigm.
Banerjee, who joined Kaya Press in 2012, never expected L.A. to be such a hot town for indie lit. "When I moved here, I thought I'd have more time to write because I wouldn't be involved in any kind of literary community," she says.
In San Francisco, where she'd lived for 10 years, Banerjee could walk out her door and come across a bookstore, reading, or book party most days of the week. While finding events in Los Angeles is never as simple as just stumbling upon them, there's almost always something going on.
Last spring, Les Figues Press curated a two-day marathon book makeover - 10 writers and artists reimagining and physically republishing a single book. This summer, in a new phase of the "Publish!" project, Writ Large will host a series of pop-up readings in metered parking spaces, where participants will pay the meter to hear a poem. Tia Chucha, a literary arts community hub in the east San Fernando Valley since 1991, will host its ninth annual "Celebrating Words" festival next month.
And then there's the true grassroots. A student group at East L.A. College, the Collective Revolutionary Association for Students in Solidarity, or CRASS, is coming out with the second edition of its Dadaist zine, themed "What Is American Culture?" CRASS members showed up at the Grand Park Book Fest to connect with other young writers and publishers.
Big-name author events also crop up regularly. The Los Angeles Public Library hosts the ALOUD reading series, which has featured conversations with Lorrie Moore, Margaret Atwood and Joan Didion. Youth literacy organization 826LA put on a recent Literary Death Match with B.J. Novak. Rookie Magazine's Tavi Gevinson read to a standing-room-only crowd at Skylight Books last fall.
Then there's the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which Banerjee describes as "a crazy county fair" - meaning it's designed to appeal to the masses, not just those who consider a poetry reading an ideal evening out. The festival, held last weekend at USC, attracted more than 100,000 people with readings and panel discussions on multiple stages, featuring cooking, young-adult literature and fantasy, as well as music and fine art exhibitions.
While admission to the Festival of Books was free to the public, exhibitor booths cost anywhere from $805 to $4,950. That price puts pressure on a publisher to make up the investment in book sales, rather than focus on engaging with the public.
Kaya found a way around that. The publisher used its USC funding to purchase a large booth and invited several other indie presses to share it. Their space, in its third year at the event, is the Smokin' Hot Indie Lit Lounge. Co-curated by Write Large, it had the same vibe they've brought to the Grand Park Book Fest.
Kaya Press' latest book
At this year's festival, Kaya used its lounge - designed by USC set design students and complete with windows, couches, bookshelves, lamps and houseplants - to break the publishing process into four essential parts: writing, editing, production and promotion. In addition to publishing anthologies, book-binding demos, writing workshops and even games of Scrabble and Boggle were on offer. Banerjee invited prominent writers and editors to stop by and hang out with visitors. Ruth Ozeki, whose latest book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, chatted with a small group as though she were at an intimate dinner party.
The Smokin' Hot Indie Lit Lounge is all about making both writing and publishing feel accessible, Banerjee says. "Maybe someone will walk away from our booth and think, 'I can do that, too,' especially since it's so doable in today's world."
On April 23, just as staffers are catching their breath from the L.A. Times festival, Kaya will host its biggest event, a promotion of its latest title, Amarnath Ravva's poetic memoir, American Canyon. The book's experimental nature called for a nontraditional book party, so Banerjee is planning a show featuring prominent South Asian poets and diverse musicians: a Bengali rapper, a queer Muslim poet, a Sufi rock guitarist and a 10-string double violinist.
No matter the event, the aim is consistent: to do whatever it takes to bring literature to the people - not just as a consumer product but as a participatory process. Their goal, according to Sunyoung Lee, is a modest one: "To turn L.A. into the literary capital of the world."
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