By BARRY LANK
Echo Park — Imagine Echo Park in a dystopian future, being invaded by outsiders. Kind of like how many residents now view neighborhood gentrification, but as a science fiction story. With aliens.
That’s the theme of Constantine Singer’s first published novel, “Strange Days,” which is aimed at the young adult market. It tells the story of Alejandro “Alex” Mata, who realizes that extraterrestrial Locusts are surreptitiously invading. The only thing that might stop the invasion? An ability to time-glide and “witness” the future.
Singer, who has lived in Echo Park since 1999, sets the story in his own neighborhood, including scenes from Echo Park Lake, the Laveta Terrace Stairs, Elysian Park, Belmont High School, and the Alvarado/101 underpass. As a young adult novel, the book also connects with Singer’s work life as a high school teacher for 20 years, including the last nine years at Alain LeRoy Locke College Preparatory Academy in Central L.A.
We asked Singer about the book, its setting and its target audience.
You’ve said the book is an allegory of gentrification. How so?
One of the motifs in the book is the palimpsest – the overwriting of new text on old parchment without erasing the earlier work. Alex Mata, the main character, lives in a near-future Echo Park in a house his grandparents bought back in the 1990s. He’s part of the “old text” of the neighborhood even though he doesn’t realize it – he’s a teenager and not necessarily a deep thinker. Instead his situation feeds into his recurring sense of displacement which manifests in his feeling like an inside/outsider wherever he goes. He doesn’t fit in with the kids in his neighborhood because he’s from a working-class family, but he’s also an outsider at school because he’s fourth generation, doesn’t speak Spanish well, and lives north of Sunset in a house that his family owns.
In the beginning of the book, Alex is an unconsidered adopter of new technology. He doesn’t think about the ramifications of what he’s doing – how it might affect others or what the long-term implications of his decisions are — his only thought is for having things the way he wants them.
When things go sideways for him and he no longer feels at home in his own neighborhood, he is forced to examine his own decision-making and his own level of culpability for buying in to the hype.
That’s a bit like how I feel about my own excitement for things like coffee-shops and bistros when they first started appearing in the early 2000s.
We moved to Echo Park at the end of the Clinton administration. We loved the neighborhood, even though it was at times difficult – our house was shot up a couple times in crossfire and my car had several bullet holes in it after the first year – but our neighbors were wonderful, the community was close-knit and mostly welcoming, and we felt like we had found a home.
When bistros and coffee shops came, we were excited and we became regulars. We referred to it as “tithing,” because we were so dedicated to the idea of their survival that we reserved a portion of our dining out money solely for neighborhood places so we could help keep them open.
What we didn’t realize is that our advocating for newness, for “advancements” in our version of the palimpsest neighborhood was a major contributor to the destruction of the others. We were part of the invitation to change and some of the ideas and acts of proprietary entitlement I continue to see and hear in the name of “highest and best use” shows up in the book.
What makes this book “Young Adult”? Is it easier or harder to write for this age group?
I wanted to write something my students might like to read. I couldn’t write about what it’s like to *be* them, but I wanted to write something that at least features kids who look, sound, and feel like they do.
One of the things I see in my kids – especially the ones I’ve been working with for the last few years — is that they operate on an assumption of exclusion. They tend to think that outside of their immediate environment, the larger society is for other people more than it’s for them. I wanted “Strange Days” to be a bit of an invitation – “you belong here.” Genre fiction may not be much, but I think that the more often kids see other kids like them involved in things, the more likely they’ll be able to shift their assumptions about what’s open to them.
Writing YA is a bit different than writing adult literary fiction. Fortunately, I wasn’t all that good at writing adult literary fiction and YA offered me a chance to write to my strengths.
The same basic skills of diction, plot, character development, and pacing are required for both, but the emphases change depending on the audience. Kids tend to be a little more emotions driven than adults and they don’t necessarily have the patience for a lot of exposition or description. YA writing tends to be stripped down, fast-moving, and focused on feelings.
When did you start writing fiction, and why?
I’ve thought of myself as a writer since high school, but I didn’t do much writing at all until I was 38. Early middle-age reminded me that thinking about myself as something didn’t make it true. I was halfway through my life and if I kept postponing the writing I’d probably die of old age without ever turning thought to reality.
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