Louise Steinman: Talking about L.A.

Louise Steinman, author of THE SOUVENIR: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War, at her Los Angeles, Ca. home. Steinman is also the cultural programs director with the Library Foundation of Los Angeles.
(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

This is the sixth in an occasional series of conversations with Southern California activists and intellectuals. The series and videotaped interviews with the subjects are collected at

When authors come to town, Louise Steinman takes them to the emblematic locales of Los Angeles that reveal its evolving soul: to the milling weekday crowds along Broadway; to the chaparral slopes of Griffith Park, now blackened with soot; to the warehouses and factories that line the city’s maligned, concrete-lined waterway.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Steinman grew up in Century City. She grew up in Culver City.

“No one believes that we have a river,” she marvels one afternoon in her happily cluttered office at the Richard J. Riordan Central Library, where she runs a popular and growing lecture series that places her astride the city’s many intellectual currents. But once they see it, she adds, they appreciate the cultural ribbon that it provides Los Angeles.

“They see the unusual spaces, the backs of the buildings there, the men in the shade eating lunch.”

Steinman grew up in Culver City when it was a middle-class community that served the aerospace industry. She left for school and travels, expanding her theatrical and artistic vocabulary, only to find herself drawn back. When she got home, she had to rediscover what seemed like a new region, one rich in immigrant culture and enlivened by its embrace of art and literature. For Steinman, then, Los Angeles is home but also character and presence -- a backdrop for her engaging memoir, a landscape for her work examining and expanding the city’s intellectual life.

Today, she lives in Silver Lake with her husband, a sculptor, in a home that radiates quiet thoughtfulness. There are open dictionaries and Oriental rugs, abstract artworks and paneled walls. There’s the cobbler that Steinman likes to bake for her husband. From the steep yard in back is a Los Angeles lake view, that of the neighborhood reservoir.

In two conversations, one at her home and the other at her office, Steinman wistfully described the Los Angeles where she grew up, as well as the one she now helps to fashion through her writing and her role with the Aloud series, sponsored by the city’s Library Foundation and devoted to stimulating civic dialogue, particularly around literature.

Her role with the series gives Steinman unusual reach and insight into what binds Los Angeles together, into the issues that draw crowds and spark debate. In recent months, Aloud has featured a performance by a theater troupe of homeless people that brought in activists and LAPD leaders as well as a number of skid row residents; Michael Ondaatje, whose latest novel unfolds largely against a backdrop of California; and religious scholar and author Jack Miles to discuss Islam. To mark the 10th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, it gathered a racially diverse group to discuss how far the city had come -- and, Steinman says, “to listen to each other, to really practice listening.”

The events can vary from the conventional -- the straight lecture on the topic of the moment -- to the esoteric. But for Steinman, they have in common a kind of civic blessing. They take place at the Central Library, whose beauty and consequence bestow a grace on events there.

“Standing on that stage,” she says, “gives a real sense that you’ve been taken in by your city.” That was poignantly evident during Aloud’s recent event for the homeless troupe, she recalls. The audience that evening included a number of people then living on the street, but their sense of being apart from the city seemed to melt as they spent the evening in the theater, embraced by the city, not rejected by it.

Her point is not to convert: “There’s not an agenda to push here. We’re trying to stimulate ideas, to challenge.”

And as Aloud has aged, its audience has deepened along with it. Some guests come over and over, others just for a single event, but time has taught those who come not just about the subjects at hand but about the act of talking. “People practice civic discourse. They practice disagreeing. The audience has gotten better at asking questions and better at listening to the answers. ... People say it is like their secular church,” Steinman says.

With 75 to 80 events a year, it also connects Los Angeles to other places and topics. “It gives the city a sense that it’s part of this ongoing conversation that is going on all over the world,” Steinman says. “Whether it’s Abu Ghraib or conflict in Ireland or developments in science, it reminds us that we’re not just about Hollywood and fashion.”

Indeed, among the ideas that Steinman most forcefully challenges -- explicitly as well as implicitly -- is the notion that Los Angeles is a shallow city, one consumed by its celebrity class. “There’s an insipid discourse,” she notes, but “in fact, it’s immensely rich here. There’s a great appetite for ideas and conversation.”

Aloud is evidence. It draws large crowds on diverse topics -- native Guatemalans who come to hear poetry in an ancient Mayan language; forceful critics of the war in Iraq who come to vent their anger at the Bush administration; pensive writers and would-be writers who come to lay eyes on those they emulate.

Steinman did not always see Los Angeles as intellectually stimulating. She grew up here, after all, and a child’s city can seem to shrink in teenage years. When she was old enough to leave, she did. “I couldn’t wait to,” she says.

Steinman was 18 when she went away, leaving behind a city of ferment, but one buried, at least for her, beneath its surface indifference. There was a bustling press and an active antiwar movement, but to her it was bland and white, Westside and Culver City, middle class and narrow. She fled for Portland, Ore., which by contrast was far outside the car culture and mainstream currents of L.A. -- a funkier, looser town that felt to her more experimental, less concrete.

Steinman explored dance and Buddhism, and still retains those dual graces -- she moves languidly but deliberately. She appears conscious of herself without a hint of self-absorption, mindful of how she holds her head but light too, quick to smile and laugh, happy to agree with a guest, interested in cheerful conversation.

She returned to Los Angeles in her 30s and discovered a city that seemed reborn, crackling with new artistic energy. She also arrived in time to spend the last two years of her parents’ lives with them, as they died, one after the other, in 1990. Cleaning out their Culver City home, she came upon an old foot locker that contained her parents’ correspondence during World War II as well as a Japanese flag her father had kept as a souvenir. From those discoveries came her memoir, “The Souvenir,” which re-creates her parents’ love affair, her father’s war experience and her long attempt to understand the man who raised her. It is a tender document, gracefully written.

Steinman’s return to Los Angeles placed her in the midst of what ranks as potentially its second great literary moment, the first having been defined in the noir years, when Faulkner and Fitzgerald wrote for the movies, when Chandler dabbled here as well; when all three binged and wrote and refined their signature contributions to American letters. Today, the city’s literary culture is, like the city itself, less concentrated, but it is engagingly diverse and, for Steinman, captivating as well as welcoming.

“I do find a kind of generosity in the literary community,” she says. “There are people who are exploring all aspects of the city.”

She dashes off names and titles with fluency. Susan Straight. Carolyn See, T.C. Boyle, John Rechy. Poets and fiction writers but also authors of nonfiction such as Jenny Price and Gregory Rodriguez. She appreciates “The Tortilla Curtain” and “The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez,” and many others, past and present. Writers and books that give definition to a turbulent, vibrant, ethnically diverse, increasingly mestizo culture, one happily defying definition as new immigrants re-conceive it practically daily, one that is serious about its art but whimsical as well.

“There are people who are really looking at our city creatively,” she says. “There is a richness of the cultures here. It’s around us. It’s become and is becoming a much more interesting city all the time.

“That,” she adds, “is the L.A. I inhabit.”

Jim Newton is the editorial page editor of The Times. He has spoken at the Aloud series.