On Sept. 20, I had the pleasure of interviewing Native American writer Tommy Orange on the stage for ALOUD, a lecture series at the Los Angeles Public Library, and I hope that the audience in attendance benefited from our exchange. Our banter was friendly, and there were a few chuckles during the evening so I know that we were, at the very least, entertaining. The book-signing line was lengthy and the brief interactions we had with the book buyers were generous and appreciative. After the last book was signed, Tommy and I embraced and said our goodbyes, promising to remain in touch. But despite how smoothly the entire evening went, something was not quite right. Perhaps it was the guns.
I felt an odd sensation as soon as Tommy and I met up with representatives from the library for a meal at Café Pinot. Since the restaurant is adjacent to the site, the staff was familiar with our hosts and asked us, the special guests, about our books. Library Foundation President Ken Brecher was particularly charming, but he spoke incessantly about the library’s programming and its important components, a kind of sales pitch that came across as an anxious tic rather than pre-event small talk.
When Mr. Brecher asked if we had any questions, Tommy seized on the opportunity to address “the elephant in the room.” He asked about Louise Steinman and Maureen Moore, the curators of ALOUD. What was all this about?
“This” was the unexpected departure of Steinman and Moore, whose positions had been recently eliminated. The ALOUD series, which had been a mainstay of L.A.’s literary life, has been running for 25 years. Without Steinman, its founder, does that mean it now faces an uncertain future? I first met Steinman and Moore during an event at the Broad this spring. I was ecstatic to be part of a stellar lineup of authors in conversation with the paintings of Jasper Johns. So when they invited me back, I accepted without hesitation. I was particularly looking forward to visiting the “Visualizing Language” exhibit at the library because the muralists were from Oaxaca, a Mexican state I visit twice a year.
I first heard about the departures over social media, but everything I read offered no acceptable explanation. On Sept. 9, I received word of a petition, which eventually surpassed 800 signatures, mine included. On Sept. 13, I was told via email that the petition had been delivered “to the Chair of the Board of the Library Foundation, to the Mayor and his staff.” There was no talk of a boycott or any other action by those of us who were already scheduled to appear in the series. I had asked Steinman directly if the event was going to be affected by this and she referred me to the current directors who assured me everything was going to proceed as planned.
Mr. Brecher’s response to Tommy’s question was a diplomatic press release, offering little substance, but since there was a mention of litigation, we accepted it at face value and understood that not much more could be shared. On our way to the library, Tommy and I expressed reservations about having shown up at all, but we were there now. “Might as well go through with it,” I said.
Over dinner, Mr. Brecher did reveal that the previous event had been disrupted, but that it was directed at him, not at the program that followed. He warned us that there might be another such protest that night. As we waited in the greenroom, we signed releases, and when Tommy asked if the event was streaming live we were surprised to be told that it would be audio only. I found out later that the livestream had been canceled, and I texted Tommy to say that I suspected this was a deliberate decision, to keep any footage off the internet that might embarrass the organization. I found a snippet of the previous event, and it showed two masked protesters standing next to the stage holding up signs as Mr. Brecher spoke. A few voices in the crowd demanded answers. A woman handed out fliers. All protesters were summarily escorted out by security.
Tommy and I entered the stage to fulfill the expectations of the program, but not before I mentioned Louise Steinman and Maureen Moore by name. I felt it was the correct thing to do since we had agreed to come at their invitation and the entire evening was taking place thanks to their vision as curators of ALOUD. The shoutout was met with applause. At the Q&A, I was told the format had been changed, that audience members would be invited to write their question down. I later reflected on the rationale behind it (to control an outburst?) but the Q&A proceeded as usual because the audience had been caught off guard with the request. One of the people I called on was Maureen Moore. She identified herself and asked a simple question. I wasn’t sure why she had come at all and it saddened me to see her pushed out to the periphery.
But what unsettled me the most (apart from the fact that there were way too many empty seats for a “sold out” event) was the presence of armed security patrolling the room. It seemed so out of sync in a place that purported to foster freedom of expression and conversation. I noted to Tommy that I turned away from the audience to avoid looking at the guns. I found it ironic that a shooting played a key role in Tommy Orange’s novel “There There” and that weapons were no longer a plot point but a reality, so I withheld my question to Tommy about that topic.
It struck me then how unfortunate that whatever conflict was taking place between the library and its recently terminated employees had afflicted the safe space of a literary event. I drafted a note to Mr. Brecher, to let him know that an armed presence didn’t mean the same to people of color as it does to white people, and that I was not made comfortable that evening, I did not feel safe. As the child and grandchild of union members who were no strangers to labor strikes, I had seen firsthand what guns were enlisted to do: to silence, to intimidate. I did not send the note as planned because I sobbed in my hotel room later that night, triggered by the imagery, angry that I had not been warned about the presence of armed guards. I didn’t want another diplomatic response or bland apology. I wanted answers I knew I would never get.
All this to say, something is still not right. And it’s clear that a wound is festering not healing. And it is such a shame to see this incredible community space be marred by behind-the-scene politics and a dearth of information. Whatever clarity of communication that should be taking place with the public is not happening. Even the series name, ALOUD, appears to be drenched in irony. It should be retitled HUSHED to better reflect its silencing of dissent and the lack of transparency.