Lynell George, Journalist and Essayist

Lynell George

Lynell George is an LA-based, journalist, and essayist. Currently an arts and culture columnist for KCET’s Artbound, she has had a long career in Los Angeles journalism as staff writer for both the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly–focusing on social issues, human behavior, and identity politics as well as visual arts, music, and literature. She has taught journalism at Loyola Marymount University and is also a Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities Fellow and an USC Annenberg / Getty Arts Journalism Fellow (2013). Her work has appeared in various essay collections, including The Black Body, Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, and the recently released LAtitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas, and in news outlets including The Smithsonian, The Washington Post, Essence, The Root, Ms., and many more. She is also the author of No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels (Verso/Doubleday), a collection of features and essays drawn from her reporting.

Rochelle Newman interviewed Lynell George on July 24, 2015 in Los Angeles.

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When Lynell George suggests we meet at Los Angeles restaurant Post & Beam, I flash on a story she shared during her workshop, The Art of The Reported Essay. The workshop was held at my Antioch University MFA residency this past June.

“Be open to the serendipity of your reporting,” she’d said, reflecting on how an interview she’d once scheduled with a musician almost ended before it began. George had flown to New Orleans expecting to conduct the interview at the musician’s home studio. With less than seventy-two hours on the ground, time was of the essence. “I get there and there’s a text: ‘Welcome to New Orleans. I’ll meet you at this café at 11 a.m’. And I’m like — Whaat?!! I flew all this way to meet at a café? But I didn’t push it,” George explained. “I went and, as it turns out, it was the place he lived when he first got to New Orleans.”

The café was exactly where she needed to be. Where it all began.

I know Post & Beam isn’t just any restaurant. Almost a year to the date of our lunch, KCET’s hyperlocal website, Departures, published George’s essay, “A Seat at the Table: Post & Beam in Crenshaw Builds Community One Course at a Time.” Meeting here places us in the community where George spent much of her childhood, where it all began.

In her essay, George calls Post & Beam “a space [that] serves as a touchstone for Angelenos who have grown up in one of these contiguous neighborhoods,” (referring to the Crenshaw-Leimert-Baldwin Hills hub), “and may want to travel back, to not just a physical place, but to a time.”

When we sit down at the restaurant, I ask Lynell to do a little time travelling and think back to her earliest memories of wanting to be a writer. How had her community influenced her?

It did. I think I didn’t realize it until I got a little older . . . I was always a reader, and I think part of the need to write came from wanting to write stories about what I saw.

As she speaks, George looks out toward the surrounding streets. It’s almost noon on a Friday in late July. We are sitting on the restaurant patio, enclosed by thick shrubs and sleek wood walls. With its herb garden and homey furnishings, the space feels more like the private backyard of a family friend than outdoor seating adjacent to a major “inner-city” shopping mall. Although our view is blocked, George draws pictures with words, and soon it’s as if there is a window looking out onto the neighborhood.

She points to the medical building across the street where her pediatrician, Dr. Littlejohn, once had his office. She remembers family trips to a nearby shopping center, which, she says, is now a ghost town. There were visits to nearby Leimert Park, a historic African American arts and cultural enclave. Her godmother lived there, as did some of her mother’s closest friends.

The library I grew up going to is on West Boulevard, not too far from here. This was an area we circled, and we were a part of a lot. Just like this restaurant, where I run into people from different parts of my life.

George’s focus moves inside. It’s early so we have the patio to ourselves. As she scans the space, I get the sense that many of the tables hold memories.

When I was starting out as a kid, [my writing] really had to do with sketching a place and time and mood that corresponded to what I was experiencing. Then, definitely, as a journalist that’s what I wanted to write about . . . I realized that these stories were not the stories you were seeing on television, in the news, or in the newspaper. There would be some features that dealt with African Americans in Los Angeles, but a lot of the stuff was sports page or the news section and it was always crime or some sort of pathology . . . I thought this is ridiculous. There shouldn’t be two stories a year about these communities and two stories that—I’m not saying they have to be positive or as they say in the newsroom “brights”—[But] they should at least add flesh and form to our sense of community and those statistics that we read.

Part of my being a journalist is that I often feel like I’m chasing ghosts, like  something is just getting ready to drop away. I can’t remember which culture has this  saying—and I’m sure each culture has a version of this—“having an elder die is like having a library burn down.”

As a long-time staff writer for both the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly, Lynell George has covered social issues, human behavior, identity politics, as well as visual arts, music, literature, and LA cultural and place-based stories.

During our lunch, I learn that George’s mother came to Los Angeles from New Orleans on a music scholarship but wound up studying journalism instead.

Now this is not why I went into journalism. I didn’t even know that part of the story until much later. But I did know that she wrote for the Los Angeles Tribune—that was a black paper—she learned how to use a Speed Graphic . . .

Her mother went on to spend over thirty years teaching English composition and literature to junior and senior high school students in Los Angeles.

In an essay for the Los Angeles Times entitled “Memoir: ‘Listening’ to Mom Through her Books,” George writes:

As a very young child, I imagined bliss as a house built of books, furniture made of softcover titles with wallpaper you could read, and vivid color plates standing in for framed artwork. This I know must have come from growing up in a household where books reigned. We lived with them, not the other way around. Not only did they crowd ceiling-whisking shelves, but they also grew in stacks like tall tropical trees, separated into groves by genres.

This living library was curated by my mother, who built her life on and around books. That affection was passed to me by both osmosis and example: the excitement of entering its world, the suspension of inhabiting and trusting the story.

I ask about favorite childhood books.

I loved Harriet the Spy. That book was really significant to me, and that had nothing to do with journalism. It was much more about being an engaged observer. Curious at a young age. I think it was that obsessive note-taking that gives you something to do and a place to put those observations.

What about the scarcity of characters of color in children’s literature? Was she conscious there was rarely anyone like her in the books she was reading growing up?

Yes, and my mother did work hard to try to find those books for us . . . We had this huge library of all kinds of books like African folk tales and African-American folk tales and poetry. And reading aloud became part of our growing up so I think I didn’t feel the lack as dramatically because she tried so hard to fill in the blanks with other things. There was pride . . . I [could] see a tradition of storytelling. I might not be able to find Harriet the Spy written from a black girl’s point of view but I [could] look at all this storytelling—this whole thing about griots and having people in the communities who held stories—how important that was . . . I know it filled in the blanks . . . I felt that our stories were important and other people needed to know—which is what I think pushed the journalism thing—Yeah, we came from something.

As if on cue, George’s fleur de lis silver earrings catch my eye. The iconic symbol of New Orleans, they remind me that two LAs play a prominent role in George’s life: Los Angeles and Louisiana. I shift the conversation from her Crenshaw roots to her Creole roots, focusing on something I read in her book, No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels. In the closing essay, a quote from artist Mark Broyard states: “In order for culture to exist, there have to be artifacts.” I’m curious if George sees a connection between writing and artifact.

Part of my being a journalist is that I often feel like I’m chasing ghosts, like something is just getting ready to drop away. I can’t remember which culture has this saying—and I’m sure each culture has a version of this—“having an elder die is like having a library burn down.” That’s what it’s like when you lose someone who has that piece of a story. I’m acutely aware of that when I go to a place like New Orleans where my family is from. Even when I hear a voice that’s like my grandfather’s—which I miss, I miss that accent and it hits me hard—I want to hear what this person has to say. I want to hear it in his voice. So if I can write in a way that . . . is like a container for that story—it’s not going to be that person exactly sitting across from you telling it—but if I can [write] it as close as possible to that, so that you feel like you have that experience [of] hearing that person move and speak. That’s why I tend to tape rather than just take notes, because I want the rhythm of those voices. And I always know if I’ve got it if I feel like, ‘OK. I just got a little chill down my spine.’ I think I got it right.

Having your story not just formally told in-between pages but told in the voice that you would tell it to me, that’s the artifact. That’s the thing that we can pass on when people go.

Most recently, George has been exploring performance art. Love, Los Angeles: A Conversation in Words and Images is a multi-media piece created by George and poet Marisela Norte. Working individually and in collaboration, the two writers brought their distinct voices together against a backdrop of photographs, music, and audio design, capturing the city’s idiosyncratic sights, sounds, and stories.

I had never done anything like that before. It was a kick, but it was really different . . . I loved having the conversation with Mark McNeill, the DJ, because I said part of what I want is not just music but the environment. I want people to walk in the room and feel like they are in LA. So we were thinking about things like the sprinklers. I said it would be great to have the air brakes from the bus. It would be great so the people feel like they’re home. Because different parts of the city sound different too. They look different. They sound different. They move differently. I wanted to convey that as well.

George is also working on a new book—an exploration of chance and creativity.

It’s still shape shifting. I don’t want to write a book that’s loud and obvious and quirky, I want to write about these shifts that happen in people’s lives and in their world—this quiet nuance.

We talk about what it’s like to write for both page and stage, and about how the proliferation of media formats has changed the way she pitches. At this point in her career, it often comes down to evaluating who is going to give her the room to tell a story the way she feels like it needs to be told. As for having a writing ritual—

I’m not one of those people that gets up at five and writes and then goes on a walk or vice versa. I pretty much do write every day. Like literally every day. It might be assignment writing, it might be blogging, it might be emails which tend to be more like letters. There are these two editors I write to. We write almost every day to one another about what’s going on, what we’re working on, what we’re trying to puzzle out, what’s going on in the news. I think that kind of replaces my newsroom conversation, like the water cooler chat or ‘let’s go down and get a coffee.’ I realized how necessary that was in my life. I’ve worked in a newsroom since I was in my twenties, so it was weird not to. In a way, that has replaced it. And social media has too, but then I have to be very good about pulling a plug and being focused . . . What I’d like to get better at [is] trying to figure out more time to do more creative—and it’s strange to say more creative writing—because I really don’t partition it . . . I guess I should say more writing for myself that is solely for me. If it’s puzzling around and trying to develop an idea, or not even, just playing. Time to play with the page rather than thinking about a deadline.

I hear the word deadline, and I think procrastination. I hesitate to ask if she procrastinates. I’m hoping she does.

I think if I had continued on a fiction route nothing would have ever been finished: ‘Oh it’s almost finished. It’s close.’ But journalism just forces you to finish. It’s a draft and then you make it better . . . Sometimes I spend months on a story, and in that time I will have collected way too many notebooks and on top of that there’s a bunch of stuff to transcribe. And I get overwhelmed. [So]then I’ll think: ‘I really don’t feel like starting on that right now . . .’ That’s usually the trigger—wanting to do a good job but realizing that starting is scary. But then I learned this from an editor: ‘Put it all away. Think about what you would say to a friend about what you just experienced. You wouldn’t be looking in your notebook and trying to find an exact quote, you would tell me what happened.’ And it’s true.

When I met George at Antioch in June, the Rachel Dolezal story had just hit the news. We spoke about it briefly. At the time, I was interested in George’s point of view on the legitimacy or lunacy of the NAACP president who claimed to be black in spite of overwhelming evidence that she was a white woman raised by white parents. Now, I was interested in George’s take on creative nonfiction. Dolezal aside, how black and white should a writer be when they position their work as CNF?

I think the journalist in me is, like, fact is fact and fiction is fiction. But then we have this thing called memory and so even when I am interviewing people, I am acutely aware that memory fails and that people remember things in different ways. We used to say in class when I was teaching Beginning Interview Journalism: it’s this truth as far as we know it, as close to the truth as we can get. As reporters, that’s what I’m trying to get when I’m talking to people. But then when I think about the nonfiction writers I love the most, and I think about memoir in particular, some of the most beautiful books I’ve read are people who have just said ‘I know that this is not something that should be looked at as record and total truth. This is the truth, this is the best I can remember it, and I am going to use some techniques of fiction in order to weave this together.’ Like Leonard Michaels, he wrote what he called a fictional memoir. I just think as long as the reader knows going in what it is then I don’t feel like I’ve been deceived. And if you can’t do it that way, then just call it fiction.

From transparency we move to authenticity and accountability. How does she feel about a white writer’s ability to develop black characters? Or about the responsibility of any writer who decides to write what has been termed “other”?

When you’re observing a culture or a tradition there are things you think you know because you’ve been around them enough, and there are things that you may not get. That’s when you check with people. Like giving your book or story to someone who you really trust, who will call you on your crap . . . I think if you are writing about the other, and an other that you have no experience with, you better really, really be able to understand the levels of experience. There’s a potential to be arrogant. You have to be a really great storyteller, like Susan Straight. I think she’s a good example of somebody who has had lived experience. But also she’s a storyteller, and she lets people tell her: “call me on it if it’s wrong.”

George is no stranger to navigating issues of culture and craft. In her essay, “My End of the Bargain,” from No Crystal Stair, she reflects on her own experiences as a young MFA student:

In writing classes, I was dissected and tossed about in discussion like an absent third party, informed that my fiction wasn’t ‘like Toni or Alice’s;’ that it didn’t address tenements or sharecropping, nor did I shed any light on the ‘suffering implicit in the black experience.’ There were ‘problems’ with my autobiographical pieces, according to one workshop member: ‘Your being black might add some drama to this . . . Did ‘blackness’ add no texture at all to your young life? . . . Do you never suffer a moment’s torment that you weren’t born with soft, golden hair and blue eyes? Didn’t the little white boys prefer little white girlfriends?’

Is this what people truly believed I wished for? What we—black people—felt would ‘get us over?’ Would set us free? If ‘blackness’ failed to fit these narrow parameters, I found they had no use for it. No use for me. I found it more than frustrating or insulting. I found it lamentable.

What I really want to ask is: can it be fixed?

It starts with not making assumptions . . . One of my professors, actually a teacher in high school, she had us write numbers on our papers rather than our names because she was worried that students would make assumptions about who should be writing about what and that it would free the discussion . . . Classrooms are mixed but you may have only one of whatever—one Chinese student or one Native American student or one black student or three or whatever, a gay student. And very often a teacher will put that student on the spot in the classroom and say, ‘Well, what do you think, so-and-so.’ And that kid might be making themselves really small in the chair because they don’t want to be the person that has to explain everything . . . Yes, you can learn from the student, absolutely, that person who comes from that experience, but let them be ready to talk about it and explain it the way they want to. And deal with the work as the work itself. Like if I did something confusing with the characters, maybe they slipped in and out of ethnicity or there are some structural issues, but let’s deal with what’s on the page . . .

The waiter appears reminding us that our meal comes with dessert. We order coffee, and I toss out the classic “if-stranded-on-a-desert-island” question. Which books would she bring?

Oh wow. That’s hard—

You can see George’s mind working. Images spring to life as she takes stock of her most prized possessions.

I have one bookcase that is for the books that I revisit or want to. Or I just like looking at their spines because there’s a lovely memory attached to it. James Baldwin—and I’m trying to think which one it would be—the easy answer would be Price of the Ticket—which is all of his non-fiction in one volume. Could I bring my Kindle? If I couldn’t do the collection I would say Notes of a Native Son. Yeah — This is a hard question for me.

As we wrap up, it becomes clear that we are both heading to the San Gabriel Valley. Lynell lives there now, as does my MFA mentor with whom I have scheduled a late afternoon meeting. Had I put two and two together, I could have saved Lynell the trek. It took her over an hour to get to Post & Beam. With Friday afternoon traffic, it could be a two-hour ride back.

I start to apologize but she takes it all in stride. The location wasn’t out of the way. It was home—it’s where we needed to be. Reflecting on Post & Beam’s success, George once wrote,“If you want to build and foster something meaningful—you have to understand it from the ground up.” It’s a philosophy that is as relevant to a restaurateur as it is to a writer, especially one that roams the city chasing ghosts.

Rochelle NewmanRochelle Newman is an MFA candidate at Antioch University. An award-winning playwright, stand-up comic, and multicultural marketing specialist, she credits her Lower East Side roots with her sense of humor and social justice. Her writing has appeared in such trade and literary publications as Ad Age, NAILED Magazine, Role Reboot, and Lunch Ticket.