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The Doppelganger

A poet's first novel illuminates the dark side of consumer culture

January 08, 2006|JANET KINOSIAN

Sesshu Foster is best known as a poet--or he was, until the recent publication of his first novel, "Atomik Aztex." Narrated by the warrior Zenzontli, the book is set in, among other places, the Farmer John meatpacking plant in East L.A. It's an alternative universe where the Aztecs won out over European conquistadors long ago. The plot? "Persons attempting to find a plot in this book should read Huck Finn," says the preface. But the 48-year-old Foster, a native Angeleno who teaches English at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School, does have a point, using Vonnegut-ish wordplay to condemn the mindless consumerism he suggests will do us all in. Published by City Lights, "Atomik Aztex" is a Village Voice Top Shelf 2005 book.

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You've lived in L.A. all your life. How has this affected your writing?

All the topics I choose to write about have to do with my life in L.A. in some way. I feel L.A. represents American and Western culture in some of its most pronounced ways, particularly the changing landscape and how it's hooked with amnesia. The visual aspect of New York, if people aren't crashing planes into buildings, stays much the same. Los Angeles relates to the landscape and its people in a different way. If you live here long enough, 10, 20 years later it's a different city: Buildings are knocked down, mini-malls replace big churches or the Staples Center parking lot sits where old apartment buildings stood. Bunker Hill used to be a hill. Los Angeles makes me think about memory and erasure.

You set much of the book in Los Angeles but ignore Hollywood. Why?

The book takes place in dark places that Hollywood doesn't illuminate. It takes place in the shadows of Hollywood. East L.A. has more than 100,000 people, and their lives are represented nowhere in Hollywood or the media. Look at all the lost potential. These lives are deemed unimportant; they aren't examined, explained or reckoned with in any way. Hollywood is full of lights shining on itself. What that means is the surrounding lives are left in darkness.

So that's a metaphor for the book, as well?

Exactly. Sadly, if a group of people don't receive media attention, they feel as if they're not important. If Joaquin Phoenix isn't being you in a film, you're nobody. If I gave my students a Johnny Cash CD when he was alive, they'd go, "Eww, country music? Are you kidding?" But if Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny Cash, it's "Oh, Mr. Foster, have you seen 'Walk the Line'? Isn't Johnny Cash incredible?" It's similar to "Hotel Rwanda" and "The Killing Fields"--all of a sudden these extraordinary historical events become legitimized in the public mind.

Any negative comments so far?

Well, some people--more my family than friends or others--object to some of the language. When I was in Buffalo doing a recent reading, a kid asked me, "Do you have to use such bad language when you write? Isn't what you write good enough? Why do you have to cuss so much?" So there are stylistic axes to grind on both sides, mine and the readers, but I'm interested in these axes just as much as the compliments. Grinding axes has its really fun moments.

Why did you choose to set part of the story in the Farmer John plant?

I didn't make a conscious decision to place it there. I hope they don't feel badly about the things I say in the book. Farmer John might feel, "We work hard to maintain a certain image here. We have happy pigs painted on the outside of our building, with a huge American flag billboard above it. What are you talking about?" But the organic process that is meatpacking is a mess, and the book has fun with mess. It also serves as a metaphor for history. That history is very bloody and consumes its subjects. We're all history's subjects: History precedes us, consumes us, and then we become part of it.

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