In 'Wonder Valley,' There's More Than One Los Angeles

Nov 10, 2017
Originally published on November 10, 2017 7:17 am

Ivy Pochoda begins her new novel almost like she's trying to break up the ho-hum of an everyday morning: In the middle of downtown traffic, there's a man jogging, without a care, through Los Angeles' crazy maze of freeways. And, oh yeah, he's totally naked. "He's just completely antithetical to everything that I imagine a morning commuter is up against," Pochoda says. "He's free, he's bucking the rules, and he's moving."

Pochoda's novel is called Wonder Valley, and it follows several different characters who all connect back to that mystery man on the freeway.

Much of the action takes place in downtown L.A. That's where one of the characters, a kid named Ren, is desperately trying to find his mom, who's in a part of the city known as Skid Row. "It's both a pretty grim environment," Pochoda says, "but also one that has a sense of community that I think is not apparent to the naked eye when you're walking around down there."


Interview Highlights

On her own relationship to Skid Row

Skid Row is between downtown, which is gentrifying very quickly, and the arts district, and it's sort of this, you know, border that you have to cross if you're going between the two neighborhoods ... I was commuting through Skid Row on a regular basis.

On the possible tension of intruding on the homeless community

I'm not exactly sure I felt a tension. I felt sort of aware that I was intruding. But I eventually started teaching creative writing in Skid Row, which is how I got a lot more involved in the community, and I became aware that, you know, it's not just this random assortment of tents and, you know, people living on the street haphazardly. There is a structure there. So, I guess the idea of coming up and saying hello and interacting is — it's a little strange because that's like going to someone's house and saying, you know, "How are you doing?"

People have, you know, beds in their tents and, you know, cooking equipment, so it is definitely someone's private property.

On what she's learned from her students

Well, what I learned is really that, you know, there's so many different types of homelessness, and I think that, you know, people assume one thing, that there's sort of this level of desperation and helplessness, whereas, lots of people that I've come into contact with who are in the workshop are, you know, you wouldn't necessarily assume that they're homeless. They're college students, or they have jobs or formerly employed, and I think that we put a pretty conventional face on homelessness when we think about it, but I've learned that you can't take anything for granted.

There's a woman in my workshop who described the plot of Ulysses to me, and at first I thought she must be kidding, and then I realized she read it and she loved it and she told me that sometimes she dreams that she's been to Ireland but can't remember why, and it's because she has read Ulysses.

On one of her characters saying "that your story is the only thing that belongs to you proper"

Well that's actually something I overheard in my workshop, and what I think she's saying is that no matter how little you have — and a lot of these people have nothing, they have, you know, whatever fits in a backpack or shopping cart or a tent — no matter what you have, you'll always have your story. That is your sense of identity and that's what keeps you true to yourself, and as long as you can remember your story and stick by your story, and then in my workshop write your story, you can retain a sense of dignity, a sense of purpose, a sense of being and belonging.

And people will try to steal that story from you. There is always a narrative being written into Skid Row, but members of the community have to hold onto their stories or else they're going to lose their sense of identity, and the last possible thing that could belong to them properly.

This story was produced for radio by Danny Hajek and edited by Shannon Rhoades, and adapted for the Web by Sydnee Monday and Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I am hosting this morning from Washington, D.C. But I got to say I'm dreaming a little bit about Los Angeles. I've really loved exploring that city since I started hosting from NPR West. And recently, I talked to the author of a really vivid new book that is set in LA. Ivy Pochoda begins her novel almost like she's trying to break up the ho-hum of an everyday morning.

IVY POCHODA: (Reading) Seven a.m., and traffic is already jammed through downtown - ground to a standstill as cars attempt to cross five lanes, moving in increments so small their progress is nearly invisible. But he is flowing freely, reverse commuting through the stalled vehicles.

GREENE: Now, the he she mentioned there is a man jogging without a care through LA's maze of freeways. And, oh, yeah, he's totally naked. Now, this does kind of interrupt the commuters' usual routines.

POCHODA: (Reading) They left home early, hoping to avoid the bumper to bumper - the inevitable slowdown of their mornings. They've mastered their mathematical calculations - the distance times rate times time of their trip to work - yet they are stuck. In the city of drivers, he is a rebuke.

GREENE: Why a rebuke? Why is this naked guy running against traffic in the morning in LA a rebuke?

POCHODA: Well, he stands for everything that the drivers are up against. They're stuck in their cars. They're dressed in their work clothes. They are ground to a standstill. They have no choice but to proceed forward. And he's just completely antithetical to everything that I imagine a morning commuter is up against in the morning.

GREENE: He's free.

POCHODA: He's free.

GREENE: He's totally free.

POCHODA: He's free. He's bucking the rules. And he's moving. And that's really why I think he's a rebuke more than anything.

GREENE: Ivy Pochoda has called her new book "Wonder Valley." And she follows several different characters who all connect back to that mystery man out on the freeway. Much of the action takes place in downtown LA. And that's where one of the characters, a boy named Ren, is desperately trying to find his mom, Laila. She's in a part of the city known as Skid Row.

POCHODA: She's living in a homeless encampment that is pretty gritty. She lives in a tent. And she's surrounded by people who have been homeless for a great deal of time. It's both a pretty grim environment but also one that has a sense of community that, I think, is not apparent to the naked eye when you're walking around down there.

GREENE: You so nailed that. I mean, this is a part of downtown LA that feels like a different world that almost is hard for us passing by to access, in a way. And you bring it to life, I mean, with such humanity.

POCHODA: I used to live on the far side of Skid Row in the arts district and...

GREENE: So you knew this spot well?

POCHODA: Right. So Skid Row is between downtown, which is gentrifying very quickly, and the arts district. And it's sort of this, you know, border that you have to cross if you're going between the two neighborhoods. So I would ride my bike. And I was commuting through Skid Row on a regular basis.

GREENE: Did you feel that tension of, you know - I don't know. Like, there's - I feel like a lot of people feel a discomfort and a question of, you know, here's someone who is homeless living in a tent. Am I supposed to come up and say hi and say how your day is, or is this a world that you shouldn't really disturb?

POCHODA: I don't - I'm not exactly sure I felt a tension. I felt sort of aware that I was intruding, but I eventually started teaching creative writing in Skid Row, which is how I got a lot more involved in the community. And I became aware that, you know, there - it's not just this - a random assortment of tents and, you know, people living on the street haphazardly. There is a structure there. So I guess the idea of coming up and saying hello and interacting is - it's a little strange 'cause that's like going to someone's house and saying, you know, how are you doing (laughter)? You know what I mean?

GREENE: Banging on the door of a stranger - yeah, you wouldn't necessarily do that.

POCHODA: Yeah. People have, you know, beds in their tents and, you know, cooking equipment. So it is definitely someone's private property. So...

GREENE: So you were teaching writing to people who were living in Skid Row and homeless.

POCHODA: I still do.

GREENE: What have you learned from them?

POCHODA: Well, what I learned is really that, you know, there are so many different types of homelessness. And I think that, you know, people assume one thing - that there's sort of this level of desperation and helplessness - whereas, you know, lots of people that I've come into contact with who are in the workshop are - you know, you wouldn't necessarily assume that they're homeless. They're college students, or they have jobs - or formerly employed. And I think that we put a pretty conventional face on homelessness when we think about it. But I've learned that, you know, you can't take anything for granted. There's a woman in my workshop who described the plot of "Ulysses" to me. And at first I thought she must be kidding. And then I realized she read it, and she loved it. And she told me that sometimes she dreams that she's been to Ireland but can't remember why. And it's because she's read "Ulysses."

GREENE: Wow, that's great.

POCHODA: Yeah.

GREENE: I think one of the things you draw out so skillfully is that there is more than one LA. I mean, this is a city and a huge area that is so, so diverse.

POCHODA: Yeah. I'm a newcomer to LA, I mean, relatively. When I started this book, I'd only been here for four years. And, you know, I don't live in the traditional part of LA where you - what you read about or watch in the movies. And I think this book is a reflection of me trying to figure out my way through Los Angeles. I lived in Echo Park in a strange part of the neighborhood which had all these rundown cabins and people who were kind of camping on the hillsides and, you know, living in houses that are probably not legal. So my LA experience was a little bit different. And I think the book sort of reflects that.

GREENE: I mean, there's one quote in the book that really stuck with me. It comes from Laila, you know, who's living on Skid Row. Her son discovers her there. She tells her son, if you stick around here long enough, you'll learn quick that your story is the only thing that belongs to you proper. What do you think she's saying there?

POCHODA: Well, that's actually something I overheard in my workshop. And what I think she's saying is that no matter how little you have - and a lot of these people have nothing. They have, you know, whatever fits in a backpack or a shopping cart or a tent. No matter what you have, you'll always have your story. And that is your sense of identity. And that's what keeps you true to yourself. And as long as you can remember your story and stick by your story - and then in my workshop, write your story - you can retain a sense of dignity, a sense of purpose, a sense of being and belonging. And people will try to steal that story from you. There's always a narrative being written into Skid Row, but members of the community have to hold onto their stories, or else they're going to lose their sense of identity and the last possible thing that could belong to them properly.

(SOUNDBITE OF IL:LO'S "NEUKOLLN")

GREENE: Ivy, thank you.

POCHODA: Thanks so much, David.

GREENE: Ivy Pochoda's new novel is called "Wonder Valley." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.