L.A.'s unsung prophet

Times Staff Writer

A popular proverb in Spanish says, “You cannot be a prophet in your own land.” And that’s how quintessential Los Angeles writer Kate Braverman feels today, as she asks aloud why she isn’t more famous in her hometown.

After all, her 1979 fever dream of a novel, “Lithium for Medea,” hailed as a classic L.A. crack-up novel about a junkie living on a Venice canal, was written, Braverman says, while she was a cocaine addict. Her less well-received “Palm Latitudes,” she believes “is unknown for the masterpiece that it is.” Her short stories have won awards, run in numerous anthologies. So why is she better known in her new home of four years, San Francisco, she asks, than in her own city of fellow fallen angels?

“I’m not just another writer. I don’t think people understand my relationship with this city, and they don’t understand what I’ve achieved,” Braverman declares, as she sits in Guelaguetza, the Oaxacan mole mecca, near her childhood haunts in Mar Vista.

She’s dressed in a black flamenco-style skirt, with black-stiletto-heeled boots, and a long black coat with flame-red trim -- a style the San Francisco Chronicle described as “Morticia Addams gone gypsy.” Her eyelids and earrings are dusted with gold.


“There is not another woman writer in Southern California who sits between Bellow and Conrad next to Hemingway and Kafka. I have the most literary stature, certainly, of any woman in Southern California,” Braverman says -- a view that might not be held by fans of such writers as Joan Didion, Carolyn See or Alice Sebold.

“What is the disconnect that has occurred between me and Los Angeles throughout my career?” she asked, as she prepared to unveil her latest book, “Frantic Transmissions to and From Los Angeles,” which details the geographical dislocation that she said pushed her away.

Her new book, which just won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, traces how the geography of Los Angeles slowly but surely pulls people apart. She describes a city in which freeways qualify as public space, and fail to knit together a city divided by race and class.

It was the lack of recognition that made her leave Los Angeles 10 years ago, she said and an inhospitable geography that explains “why Los Angeles doesn’t have a literary scene like New York and San Francisco.” There, she said, “everything is within a plausible distance. There you can say, ‘I’ll go to your reading.’ ”


In the years since Braverman has been away, a literary scene has coalesced in Los Angeles. Writers who blossomed in Braverman’s workshop are now well known in Los Angeles literary circles. Some of her former students, notably Janet Fitch, author of “White Oleander,” have become nationally known authors. Many Los Angeles writers freely volunteer their debt to her.

“Of course they admire me,” she responds. “They wouldn’t exist without me.”

“I am in the canon. Those other people will never be in the canon.”


Home again

This week, Braverman will also offer a small taste of the writer’s workshop that helped bring out so many local voices. In addition to her readings -- at Book Soup tonight and at Dutton’s in Brentwood Thursday night -- Braverman will host a free all-day workshop on Saturday at UCLA, open to the public by reservation. The class will provide new writers with a brief taste of the kind of mentoring Braverman was known for in the past. On Saturday night, Braverman will be feted at a literary salon in her honor, at a private home near Hancock Park.

Braverman says she believes she is misunderstood partly because she has engaged in the kind of excesses that, in her view, are permissible “tools of creativity” in the hands of only male writers.

She says she sometimes wrote “Lithium for Medea” during the drug rush after injecting cocaine, taking care to do so in her kitchen, so the blood could be easily wiped off the linoleum, instead of in the living room, where it might stain the rug. From 1971 until 1985, she said, “I was a total cocaine addict.” She relapsed in the early 1990s, smoking heroin, for “several grotesque years,” she said.


Such drug use, she says, gets female writers written off. But when male writers such as William Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson used drugs to fuel their creativity, “people lionize them as geniuses,” she said.

Braverman says she has been diagnosed as manic-depressive three times, when she was 14, in 1985, and then after extensive therapy and yoga, about a year ago. She said she tried medication briefly but abandoned it when it strangled her writing.

“I made a conscious decision that I would prefer to live with the often debilitating effects of my mental problem and be a functional writer,” she said.

Braverman can be short on biographical detail, but she does allow that she was born in Philadelphia, and moved with her family when she was 8 in 1958 to Los Angeles, where her mother owned a public relations and advertising firm. She went to UC Berkeley in the 1960s, and was an antiwar and feminist activist.

In 1971, Braverman brought her diverse impulses back to Los Angeles, co-founding the Venice Poetry Workshop and the Women’s Building, and becoming a Los Angeles author who would be known for her versatility at a time when the city’s literary voice was still raw and undefined.

After publishing in such journals as the Paris Review, she wrote “Lithium for Medea,” a poetry book and novels, along with such short stories as “Tall Tales From the Mekong Delta,” which won the O. Henry Award in 1992.

The transcendental prose of her new book is a familiar voice to those who have read the essays, poetry and fiction that demonstrate her broad range.

In 2004, Braverman won the Raymond Carver Editor’s Choice Award and the Christopher Isherwood Foundation Fellowship.


Her poetry-infused prose has pushed literary boundaries, and so have her subjects: single mothers, rural trailer park residents, people living in emotional and economic exile from the affluent mainstream.

But it’s not as if she hasn’t won critical praise. The Rolling Stone said “Lithium for Medea” had “the power and intensity you don’t see outside of rock and roll.” Joan Didion said it was “jumpy, kinetic, and finally very powerful.”

In 1995, Braverman left Los Angeles, moving to rural New York with her daughter Gabrielle and scientist husband of 15 years, Alan Goldstein, who taught at Alfred University in upstate New York.

“What has made my life in Los Angeles untenable, and made me have to leave Los Angeles, is that I am treated as a non-person in this city. L.A. can still claim me as the splendid mutation that crawled out from the stucco slums of Sepulveda,” she says.

But she’s not holding her breath.

“It isn’t just that L.A. doesn’t understand your literary stature,” she says. “Your own hometown isn’t supporting you.”

She continues, as the sunset deepens into twilight in the strip mall parking lot outside. “I’m the best-kept secret in L.A.”


Braverman’s visit home

Kate Braverman will sign copies of “Frantic Transmissions to and From Los Angeles” at 7 tonight at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (310) 659-3110.

Braverman will discuss her book Saturday at a class in UCLA’s Bunche Hall, Room 1209 B, from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. People can register by phoning (310) 825-9971.