Author Aris Janigian. (Lisa Persky )
A couple of months ago, I wrote an essay for the Sunday Arts & Books section lamenting the lack of a coherent literary response to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Then Aris Janigian’s third novel, “This Angelic Land,” came across my desk. In its pages, Janigian, a longtime L.A. resident and former humanities professor at SCI-Arc, uses the riots as a filter through which to contemplate not just Southern California but America itself. Recently, Janigian and I corresponded, via email, about the book.
Jacket Copy: “This Angelic Land” revolves around the 1992 riots, but it just came out this spring. Why did it take so long to write?
Aris Janigian: At the beginning of 1992, I started a semi-autobiographical novel set in Los Angeles. The narrator was a hip guy living in Mid-Wilshire who wakes one morning to find he’s suffering from vertigo. The story drops in and out of a typical day in the life of a 20-something Angeleno, and it was going on 100 pages when the riots hit. I dropped that story for the time being and began writing feverishly about what I was experiencing, the strange fear and awe I felt smack in the middle of the storm. When I returned to my Los Angeles story, I discovered that the riots had changed everything. I could no longer write about Los Angeles without taking into account what had happened. But what had happened? And just as important, how would I write about it? I approached these questions timidly over the next 18 years. Eventually, two years ago, with two other published novels under my belt, I decided to make a serious go of it again. I pulled out that L.A. story, married it to my observations of the riots as I had gone through them, and that became the basis for “This Angelic Land.”
JC: Los Angeles is notoriously oblivious to its history. Did this weigh on you at all in working on a novel about events 20 years in the past?
AJ: History is by definition a narrative of what has happened, so I’m not sure Los Angeles is so much oblivious to its history as it is obsessed with controlling the narrative. There is too much at risk to let it get out of control, which is one reason that nobody, at least that I know of, had written a novel about the riots until I took the subject up. This was frankly surprising to me but, in another way, made perfect sense because the riots made so little sense for so many people. In the face of all that, I felt a certain exhilaration alongside a definite anxiety in writing this book. I timed the publication to coincide with the riots’ 20th anniversary, so review copies were on the desks of every radio, TV, or print producer or editor in town. Except for a couple of people, the media’s answer to my breaking the silence was to turn up the silence on their end. It’s almost as though people were saying, “How dare you think you can tell our story!” Out of the gates, at least, I had gotten more coverage for my two prior novels, which were about Fresno farmers, circa 1960.
JC: Let’s talk about the title. It emerges late in the novel, when one of the central characters, Adam, reflects on the glories of Southern California even in the middle of the riots.
AJ: The title comes from the last lines of William Blake’s poem “America — a Prophecy”: “And so the Princes fade from earth, / scarce seen by souls of men / But tho’ obscur’d, this is the form / of the Angelic land.” From the other side of the Atlantic, Blake is watching America come to a violent birth. He writes that poem as a mythic or allegorical retelling of that coming into being. Two hundred years later, the L.A. riots proved another kind of uprising, where, as I envisioned it, America was undergoing a different kind of birth. I like to think that Adam straddles the two realities; in the crucible of the riots, he is a witness to this transformation. He sees the glory of America, the wonder of Los Angeles, and he feels the sheer grace of living in that place, but at the same time, he is forced to square those feelings with the wanton destruction he witnesses.
JC: The novel is narrated by Eric, Adam’s brother, yet he’s in New York during the riots, so the story he tells is largely secondhand.
AJ: Eric — like Adam, a refugee of the Lebanese civil war — is loath to leave Lebanon, but when he arrives in America he decides to dive in as deeply as possible, even to disappear. He moves to New York, and eventually becomes a filmmaker who makes a small name for himself documenting the destruction of architecturally significant buildings in New York and New Jersey. His distance from the events mirrors the distance he put between himself and his family, especially his brother. As the narrator, he embarks on a kind of discovery, just as I embarked on a kind of discovery in writing the book.