Besides drinking coca tea, eating llama meat, and dancing fitted out with a cap that had a penis sticking out of my head? I was collaborating with a wonderful nonprofit in Cochabamba, Educar es fiesta, that believes training in the arts prepares young people for life. They work with kids in difficult circumstances and families in crisis. For a lot of these kids, like many of the young people I’ve worked with in Los Angeles, school is a site of frustration, failure, and disrespect, so we did our writing workshops with kids sprawled out on the floor of a circus tent.
What’s that about coca?
You’re not asking about the penis? Coca leaves in tea every morning and mixed with chamomile and anise at night. And I offered leaves to Pachamama, the divine Mother Earth, during a ritual.
Is that legal?
In Bolivia, absolutely. Coca is not cocaine. It’s ridiculous that the non-narcotic products–teas, candies, beverages, flour for baking cakes are all illegal in the US. Really it’s as though a dry county in Texas banned potatoes because you can process them to make vodka.
So you’re in favor of legalization?
I repeat: the coca leaf before it’s processed is not a narcotic.
As for legalization of cocaine and other drugs, I don’t believe it would make a difference for the people suffering from cartel violence in Latin America. Once organized crime exists, take away one source of income–like alcohol after Prohibition–and the organization just diversifies. That’s already happened in Colombia. The drug cartels in collusion with corrupt oligarchs and politicians kill people and have driven millions of subsistence farmers off their land in order to establish palm oil plantations. They produce biofuels. They’ve gone green. In Mexico, they’ve diversified into human trafficking and who knows what else.
But a sane drug policy would make a huge difference in the US. Right now, white suburban kids smoke dope and probably don’t even realize it’s against the law, it’s fun, it’s just part of growing up, while young people of color are being arrested and convicted for the same acts. Whether it’s Juvie or adult prison, whether they’re locked up first for drugs or –if you can believe this, for being “tardy” at the schoolroom door–it means a truncated education, brutal experiences behind bars, and a criminal record that will keep them from voting or getting hired. Read Michelle Alexander–The New Jim Crow–on how the war on drugs was intentionally designed as a war on black folks.
Do you have to inject politics into everything?
Back in NYC, I watched the young black men on my block–like the young men in Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, and I saw as they grew up they were known and respected in the immediate neighborhood but I also saw what they encountered when they had to step out into what Tim King (founder of the Urban Prep Academies in Chicago) refers to as the wider–whiter–world.
A lot of your characters, though, are criminals.
Well, I’ve learned a lot from the criminal world. In person, and also from reading. Like Iceberg Slim–the pseudonym of Robert Beck. He started to write what we now call “urban fiction” after a stretch in prison. I’ve never been pimped, but Iceberg Slim explained how a pimp controls his stable psychologically. I recognized the dynamic, the ways men in my life had tried to control me and I was like thank you! thank you! Iceberg Slim! Now that I could see it, that was never going to happen again.
And you said “in person”?
When I lived in New York, the underworld was very much aboveground. You knew the numbers joints and the after-hours joints in the neighborhood. The Mafia was–probably still is–so woven into the fabric of life, most of the time you take it for granted. It’s so visible, it’s invisible. If you own a restaurant, there are payoffs. You hire a Mafia garbage hauler. That’s a legitimate business but no one dares compete because the Mob will use illegitimate means–you can imagine what they are–to retain the monopoly. The law finally put a stop to the Mafia plundering union pension funds. Now we just let the banks do it.
If you’re going to get political on me again, I might as well ask this: You present yourself as someone committed to nonviolence. So why a crime novel like Nobody Wakes Up Pretty? Why the killing and violence in your LA-based stories in California Transit?
That’s something I often ask myself. Oh, I guess that’s exactly what I’m doing now–asking myself.
I grew up with James Bond and the Man from U.N.C.L.E. Being a spy, killing the bad guys–those were my fantasies to the point where I brought toy guns to junior high. In today’s climate of zero-tolerance, I’d probably have a criminal record. But I was allowed to outgrow that stuff. Though as an adult I did freelance for a short-lived magazine called Violent World, edited by a former CIA agent. And there were times I’d sit out on my window ledge in New York and imagine picking off people–pop pop pop–as they walked by. I don’t know why–I would never actually do it–or why it felt so satisfying. I’m still trying to figure that out.
Characters I really like or even identify with occasionally do some really bad things.
Later on, here in Los Angeles, I went through some changes. Nonviolence had long been an ideal for me but I wasn’t convinced it worked.
October 2000, I met Anthony Lee. I was producing a theatre festival here. He was directing one of the plays. And he was gorgeous. Tall, broad shouldered, very big. Black. His whole demeanor seemed aimed at putting people at ease, proclaiming I’m friendly, I’m not dangerous and that made me sad. As I shook his hand, my first thought was “This is a man who’s been harassed by the police.” A week later, he was shot and killed–by mistake–by a police officer.
So I was in the crowd that gathered at the police station after his death. And I was crying and I was angry but one of his friends said we were not going to shout. We were not going to express rage. Anthony wouldn’t want that. We were going to stand quietly in vigil with candles and mourn Anthony but also express our concern for the police officer who was certainly overcome with regret for his fatal mistake. And that’s what we did. There were police watching us and I’m sure they were surprised. And while I felt this approach was one of the hardest things I’d ever done, it felt right. I thought we’ve been chanting No justice, no peace for decades now and where has it got us? Maybe this sort of quiet, peaceful compassion will have more of a positive impact.
Was Anthony Lee’s death the inspiration for your story “Naked Chinese People” in the California Transit collection?
No. I wrote it long before I ever met Anthony Lee. It’s hardly prescient to create a scenario in which a black man is killed by the police.
Nobody Wakes Up Pretty deals with African Americans more than other people of color. But obviously, watch out if you’re Latino, or Asian in some neighborhoods, or Middle Eastern. Last year I was visiting a friend in prison–a young Chinese-Vietnamese man who should never have been sent there–and briefly met another prisoner. This man had confronted the guy who beat up his sister and he threatened him, you know, you’ll be sorry if you ever go near her again. So he gets arrested and the charge is “making a terrorist threat.” Incidentally, he’s Muslim. So he gets sent to prison as a fucking terrorist and there he is with his Koran being beaten up by the guards.
Actually, I’m trying hard not to use “fucking” as an adjective. When Bush and Cheney started taking the US to the dark side, I felt I couldn’t control my rage. I started going to the workshops on nonviolent action led by Rev. James Lawson. He’s a towering figure. He taught nonviolent theory and strategy to the men and women of the civil rights movement in the South and he’s still teaching. And listening to him I realized that while my actions were nonviolent, my language wasn’t. I couldn’t talk about Bush and Cheney without using very hot and vicious words. Maybe they deserved it, but I started trying to control my language. And the weird thing was, as I changed my speech, my rage dissipated. I still had anger against injustice, but not rage. And I started to see how much the rage grew out of the sense of powerlessness. When I took control of my words, it gave me just enough power so I could keep fighting but without the rage.
You’ve lived in Los Angeles for almost 16 years. So why set Nobody Wakes Up Pretty in New York?
I was born in Manhattan and spent more of my life there than anywhere else. I loved the city and for a time, my Upper West Side neighborhood was its own small town. We all knew each other, looked out for each other. The block was truly integrated–racially, culturally, socioeconomically. But then people of modest means, including me, were forced out. So I came West, but all this stuff was in my head and eventually emerged as Nobody Wakes Up Pretty.
Is there organized crime in Los Angeles?
There must be. But most of the criminal activity I see is disorganized.
My first week in Southern California, I decided to ride the subway just because that’s what New Yorkers do. I emerged to the street right in the middle of a shootout between police and jewel thieves. Nothing like that ever happened to me in New York–though I rode for several months as a civilian observer in the back of NYPD patrol cars on the west side and in Harlem. Where, incidentally, some (not all) of the police officers were really good people, committed to the communities they served.
Here in LA I know a really great sheriff’s deputy. And I know gang members and I’ve met with victims. I know young people who’ve been in Juvie or who’ve been sent to adult prison. A lot of kids, they’re just trying to stay out of the crossfire. Some of them get swept up by the system anyway. Kids who should never have been arrested or convicted. It’s one miscarriage of justice after another.
There are some excellent public defenders, but the office is so underfunded, they can only take a percentage of eligible cases. You can get free representation from a panel attorney, but they often have no experience and get paid something like $350 regardless of the complexity of the case. Then you’ve got the shysters who prey on families of defendants. If you’re black or brown, they come at you with high-pressure sales tactics. People take out mortgages, everyone in the family goes for broke to come up with $50,000 to retain a private attorney who never meets or interviews the accused and may even fail to show up in court.
Sounds like a sequel coming on.
I’m in the middle of some other projects right now, but you’re right. I do want to write about this.
I hope you’re not going to make gang members look like angels.
I’m not denying that some young men and women have done some very very bad things but kids get longer, harsher sentences than adults do for the same crimes. And it’s adults who manufacture the weapons and profit from their sale. Many of my fellow Angelenos–these kids–live in a war zone with more PTSD than people suffer in Baghdad. Kim McGill of the Youth Justice Coalition believes they should be considered child soldiers and rehabilitated instead of incarcerated. They need some serious help.
Education, decent employment and a way to heal from the trauma that keeps the violence going.
A year ago I met a talented Mexican actor whose day job was teaching in a private school in Reynosa, in the middle of the bloodshed. And it was an expensive private school so some of the students were children of cartel bosses, and he said these kids were traumatized. They had no friends. No one could visit them at home. They lived very constricted lives and they’d come to school, their bodies all stiff, their eyes dead. He never talked to them about their lives. You couldn’t. But he felt his role was to try to break through and humanize them, help them find their humanity and the humanity of others before they grew up to be like their fathers.
Is there hope for them?
Maybe they’ll grow up to be like a grad student I worked with some years ago who was born into a Mafia family but left that life behind. Which doesn’t mean he grew up to be a conventional solid citizen. He wants to do his study conference at a bar and it’s eleven in the morning and orders us each a beer and then he asks, “So what kind of shot you want with that beer?” He tells me he hasn’t read much of what’s considered real literature but, he says, he did try to read Hemingway. And? “The guy strikes me as a real closet case.” Smart? Yes. And this guy was maybe the most ethical person I’ve ever met. He said the morals inculcated in his family were at such odds with the law-abiding world, that he always stopped to think about any decision and any action to be sure he was doing the right thing rather than what his home training had taught him.
Are you placing all the responsibility on the individual rather than on society?
Individuals need to be strong to withstand this society.
How many millions are we spending on homeland security and how many personal freedoms are we giving up supposedly to stop a terrorist act that may never happen. At the same time there’s a murder a day in Detroit. Another unarmed suspect was just gunned down by law enforcement here in LA County. Five women are killed every day in the US by a partner or former partner and the killer often murders other family members or co-workers and we still refuse to regulate assault weapons.
Poverty and injustice are acts of violence–invisible forms that hold people down. Trickle-down economics is a load of crap, but I do believe in trickle-down violence. When a country’s wealthy elite sets the example that money is worth more than human life, what do you expect?
Wait a minute. Who’s asking the questions?
That’s actually a very good question.
Diane Lefer is a playwright, author, and activist whose recent books, in addition to Nobody Wakes up Pretty, include The Blessing Next to the Wound: A Story of Art, Activism, and Transformation, co-authored with Colombian exile Hector Aristizábal and recommended by Amnesty International as a book to read during Banned Books Week; and the short-story collection, California Transit, awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize. Her works for the stage have been produced in LA, NYC, Chicago and points in-between and include Nightwind, also in collaboration with Aristizábal, which has been performed all over the US and the world including for human rights organizations in Afghanistan and Colombia. Diane has led arts-and-games-based writing workshops to boost literacy skills and promote social justice in the US and, in Spanish, in South America. She is a frequent contributor to CounterPunch, LA Progressive, New Clear Vision, ¡Presente!, and Truthout.