Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

'Everyone in L.A. is an immigrant': The Los Angeles of noir novelist Denise Hamilton

The skyline as seen from East Los Angeles, November 2009
The skyline as seen from East Los Angeles, November 2009
Photo by Keith Skelton/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A post last week featured an excerpt from the latest novel by Denise Hamilton, a Los Angeles mystery writer who since her acclaimed first novel a decade ago has used the city's immigrant enclaves as the backdrop for her twisting noir plots.

Her characters, good guys and bad, are also drawn from unsung L.A. neighborhoods that Hamilton covered in her reporter days, when she worked for the Los Angeles Times. Issues of race, class and immigration are woven into the stories, which unfold in places like the San Gabriel Valley and Pico-Union.

Los Angeles is different things to different people. But in film and literature, the western side of town - more affluent, less foreign - often wins out as defining the city's identity. For Hamilton, whose new novel Damage Control was published last month by Scribner Books, L.A. is an altogether different place. What prompts her to portray it as she does? Read on.

M-A: Since the beginning, when your first lead character Eve Diamond was investigating prostitution rings in the San Gabriel Valley in The Jasmine Trade, the Los Angeles that you have set your novels in is distinctly multiethnic. You’ve made a point of painting the city in this light. Why?

Hamilton:  I'm an L.A. native who grew up in the San Fernando Valley. My mom was a White Russian immigrant from France, and I married a man from East L.A. whose parents came from Mexico, Nuevo Leon and the Yucatan Peninsula. My mother-in-law speaks a dialect of Mayan as well as Spanish. My mother spoke French and Russian and we spoke French at home, while my husband grew up speaking Spanish. Now, I speak Spanish to my in-laws. So multicultural and multilingual is my default mode. It feels 'right.'

Also, I've always lived east of La Brea (except for a short stint in West L.A.), so diverse neighborhoods are what's normal for me. Then at work, I was a reporter for the L.A. Times in Glendale, which is heavily Armenian, and in the San Gabriel Valley, which is heavily Asian and Latino. So again, those are the stories I told.

That was the prism through which I saw LA., as a very diverse, vibrant, scrappy and linguistically rich place. It's Pacific Rim and Latino and white. It's immigrant and hard-working. It's often blue-collar and bohemian and funky. When I go to Santa Monica, I feel like an Eastern European peasant. Everyone is so blond and tanned and tall and perfect.

The reality is that everyone in L.A. is an immigrant, give or take a few generations. In the 1850s, this place was a dusty Spanish pueblo with scattered Indian tribes. The city was founded by a ragtag group of Spanish, blacks, mestizo and mulattos. The Anglos who came here intermarried with the Californios, the descendants of the land-grant Spaniards who had settled here. In the 1870s and 1920s, people poured in from all over America due to very successful civic boosterism.

Nowadays, people come from all over the world. So we have Little Saigon, Thai Town, Little Yerevan, the nation's first suburban Chinatown in Monterey Park, historic FilipinoTown. And everybody mixes it up together. It's a rich palette to write from.

M-A: You might say that Los Angeles is different cities to different people. What is it to you?

Hamilton: L.A. is the ultimate femme fatale to me, beckoning and seducing me with her natural beauty, her whimsical architecture, her glamorous Hollywood history, her checkered but fascinating past, her promises of wealth and glory. And as with all femme fatales, she is unattainable, and she will betray you, almost on a daily basis, with dreadful traffic jams and smog and ugly strip malls and horrific murders and crooked politicians. And just when you throw your hands up and say that's it, I'm done, I'm moving away, I'm going somewhere they'll appreciate me, like N.Y. or Paris or Moscow, L.A. lures you back with a magnificent sunset, or a perfect wave, or an achingly beautiful piece of public mural art, or a spontaneous conversation with some random soul you meet in a bar or on the street or at a party, which illuminates just why you love this city and it remains your muse, your unattainable love, and so you come back.

That's the template for me, with L.A. playing its seductive self in a big fat film noir. But film noirs were pretty much black and white compositions - really, they were mainly white. The cops were all white. The rich people were white. The private eyes and most of the bad guys were white.

African Americans, Latinos and Asians mostly existed to lend local color. Phillip Marlowe goes to a blues club on Central Avenue to investigate a lead, so we see the white PI enter the mainly black club, get the clue and leave, for example. And that's all we'll ever learn about L.A.'s thriving African American community. It took Walter Mosley's novels, many decades later, to give the black PI his due in the LA crime fiction world.

As for other minorities in In classic film noir and crime fiction, Latinos and Asians were portrayed mainly as maids, prostitutes or butlers. Household help. Think of the Japanese gardener in Chinatown. Or even the cynical comment at the end about the movie Chinatown. Or using Chinatown as a metaphor for a shady, unfathomable unknowable place.

What I love today about L.A. is the way its diversity and polyglot cultures have re-defined and enhanced almost everything about the city. As a reporter, I saw it on a daily basis. As a novelist, I chose to write about it because I think its what makes L.A. more noir, surreal and enchanting than ever. So what I write is the classic crime template, but the good guys are just as likely to be Asian-American as white. The love interest might be Mexican-American.

L.A.'s diversity really reinvigorates the genre. You've got hundreds of languages, hundreds of cultures, families from opposite ends of the earth living cheek by jowl, and when you mix things up like that, interesting things happen. I think today's L.A., whether you call it a fruit salad or a melting pot, is a harbinger of the future. L.A. is an Asian city, it's a Latino city, its where the tectonic plates of culture overlap. So that means cultural earthquakes, but also great innovation.

M-A: You were a reporter before you were a novelist. How did you become interested in covering immigrant communities, and how did the people you met influence you?

Hamilton: When I came back from a fellowship to Eastern Europe, where I'd reported on the demise of Communism and collapse of the Berlin Wall, my editors, in their infinite wisdom, stuck me in the San Gabriel Valley to be a suburban reporter.

I'd done a lot of foreign reporting and perhaps I'd envisioned they'd recognize my abilities and send me to Rio or Tokyo or Rome. But that was not to be. Instead, I drove around the San Gabriel Valley and thought, if they're not going to send me to Hong Kong, then I'll pretend that Hong Kong has come to me. And I delved into writing about the Chinese immigrant community because it fascinated me, and I knew nothing about, it but wanted to immerse myself in it.

The people I met influenced me in so many ways! First I guess I saw kindred spirits, because my mom had been an immigrant struggling with language and financial issues too. Secondly, they trusted me enough to open their hearts  me and tell me the stories of their lives, which made for fascinating reading when I wrote about them for the L.A. Times. Thirdly, they provided the raw material and inspiration for several of my novels. I've found that if you're sincere and truly interested, people are flattered and happy to open up to you. It's a lovely thing.

M-A: Your reporter character, Eve, sometimes faced obstacles in her work because she was an outsider. Did you encounter the same?

Hamilton: I was a multiple outsider, first because my mother was an immigrant, and I never quite fit into the suburban L.A. mold of the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s and 80s. My friends would call me at home and when my mom would answer, they'd ask me, "Oh, was that the maid?"

Secondly, reporters are always outsiders. We have to be in order to tell the story objectively. We are the all-watching camera eye. Thirdly, as a white reporter covering communities where I didn't always get the subtleties of social interactions or understand the language, yes! I was an outsider. I often wished I spoke some dialects of Chinese. It would have come in very handy and allowed me to get better access to people.

This was especially true when I accompanied the police on a brothel raid and we found underage Asian girls being kept prisoner in a string of suburban houses in the San Gabriel Valley. One girl had written a poem that we found crumpled up and thrown into a trashcan. I asked a Chinese reporter to translate it for me and wrote down the words, and I'll never forget them, they were so sad. I put a version of that poem into my first novel, The Jasmine Trade.

M-A: Your characters have been involved in bicultural relationships and other sticky personal terrain that comes with a place like Los Angeles. How has your own bicultural family influenced your work?

Hamilton: I often see the world through the eyes of my husband and my in-laws. It's amazing how many anti-Mexican slurs my husband and I will hear, out in public or at social gatherings, by people who don't realize he's Latino. So that gives me insight into what it must be like for many Latinos on a daily basis.

I've set two novels, Sugar Skull and Savage Garden, within the Latino communities of Los Angeles. Being a part of that culture through marriage has given me keen insights into that world. As to bicultural romantic relationships, which I also feature in my novels, I think that is almost a given today in Los Angeles.

I remember visiting San Marino High School and Mark Keppel High School in Alhambra to report on stories. The parents in those communities might be immigrants who hold themselves apart, but the kids were all dating each other. We're becoming more mezclado with each generation, and hopefully that will lead to greater empathy and acceptance of different cultures here.

M-A: Lastly, going by where your characters eat, you seem to have eaten your way around the best immigrant-run restaurants in L.A. (Pico-Union's venerated El Colmao has a cameo in the latest novel.) How has the ethnic food of Los Angeles become such a big part of your fiction?

Hamilton: Ah. Well I love to eat. I'm adventurous in my tastes and I have spent much of my life on a very tight budget, so the small, mom and pop hole-in-the-wall eateries are the way to go, and we are blessed in this city to have the best examples of almost every worldwide cuisine.

I guess in addition to being a glutton, I also like writing about food and sharing the little eateries I've discovered. When I was a reporter in the San Gabriel Valley, each time someone had a birthday it was an excuse to try a new Chinese or Vietnamese place. I still miss Tung Lai Shun in the giant San Gabriel Village Square Shopping Mall. It was awesome Chinese Muslim cuisine, no booze or pork, and more bread than rice. Their scallion-and sesame-studded bread wheel is the stuff of dreams. And I'm partial to Armenian and Lebanese - mezze and savory breads - so I was always on the lookout for those near where I lived in the Silverlake/Echo Park area.

Full disclosure: I worked with Hamilton briefly in the mid-1990s in the Times’ South L.A. bureau, and it's been interesting to see neighborhoods we reported on there work their way into her fiction. Among these is Pico-Union, which I covered, and where I still eat at El Colmao.