Defining who we are at the LA Times Festival of Books

The LA Times Festival of Books is many things: a book sale, a music show, a reading stage, an arts and craft tent for little readers, and food frenzy (I saw many bags of kettle corn, but couldn’t find the source). To me, what it is above all else is a provocation, a chance to be inspired.

My husband and I attended two panels yesterday: “Fiction: Immigrant Stories” and “Living and Writing in Los Angeles,” a panel moderated by Brighde Mullens, the director of the MPW program at USC. In both, I was struck with the question of identity: how do we define ourselves and how do these definitions impact our life journeys?

“Living and Writing in Los Angeles” explored the writing and inspiration of four panelists who set their stories in historic and present day Los Angeles. From journalistic fare to explosive fiction, these stories proved that LA was as much a character as any of the individuals in the story, and as a backdrop, a landscape, it could tell us even more about who these people were, what they were motivated and challenged by, and who they would become. Panelist Dana Johnson, author of “Elsewhere, California,” said part of her inspiration is born from the following question: “What and who gets deemphasized and marginalized?” The stories she wants to tell are those that she cannot find, the ones that have not yet been shared.

In LA, these are often the stories of the minorities who were pushed to live in neighborhoods where the tour guides refuse to go to, whose stories are not those of fame or hunger for fame or of privilege or glamour. The question of who these individuals are, how they identify themselves—Californian, Angeleno, neither—and the implications of these parameters and definitions are is a rich one that, when answered, reveals a whole aspect about Los Angeles and about its history and people that has been largely and perpetually left unknown by biases and by a collective desire to hear and see a certain story or image of what Los Angeles embodies and who its citizens are.

At “Fiction: Immigrant Stories,” moderator Oscar Villalon probed panelists on the topic of America versus the homeland. Here, the question of identity was even further complicated by the experience of immigrants and the often irreconciliable conflict between the vision of America they dreamed on and that they experienced. At the heart of the conversation was the sliding and slippery definition of what it is to be an “American” versus a “foreigner” or an “immigrant.” Panelist and author Laleh Khadivi suggested that it is about what is the most recent context of normal versus newness and commented that in a post-nationalistic America, our identities might first be defined by what social media we belong to or what brand of shoes we wear instead of what countries we collectively came to America from, the experiences of our parents versus more distant ancestors.

In both dialogues, it was this idea of the push-pull of a majority who feels defined versus the minority that is still anxious and struggling to find its definition that so perplexed and profoundly moved me. In all cases, it seems identity is a massive source of conflict, drama and even comedy—I loved Pauls Toutonghi’s anecdotes about his Egyptian fathers obsession with spaghetti westerns to the point of wanting to wear a gun and holster around Bakersfield. And also a massive question, just like the question of religion or goodness or our very being, that we continue to probe and dissect but are ill-equipped to ever fully answer. It is to a certain extent impossible to define in this new world where we are all more than one place or thing or people or brand, and though the world is more complicated because of it, it also much richer.