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New online journal hopes to make literature real to kids

December 5, 2011 | 10:01 am

As the warm Sunday afternoon turned into a cool December evening, writers, artists and their supporters gathered in Altadena for a red-beans-and-rice showdown. The cookoff was between Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer Jonathan Gold and New Orleans-born author Jervey Tervalon. The judges -- who weren't particularly interested in casting judgment, after all -- were there for a fundraiser to support the upcoming launch of Literature for Life, an ambitious and multifaceted literary journal.

Spearheaded by Tervalon and run with the support of USC's Neighborhood Academic Initiative, Literature for Life will be, on the surface, an online literary journal like many others that includes fiction, poetry, nonfiction and art. Authors whose work will be found there include mystery writers Gary Phillips and Naomi Hirahara, novelist Janet Fitch (all of whom were in attendance) and USC alumna Susan Straight. The e-journal will have a clean, visually engaging, magazine-style look.

Multitalented Kenneth Kouot, who studied critical theory in USC's English department and is quick to say that learning programming languages is easy (it's not, for most people), showed attendees a preview of the website, which is expected to debut in January at LiteratureForLife.net.

Literature for Life has a layer beyond the magazine: It will connect the stories in its issues to schoolteachers, particularly in economically disadvantaged areas of Los Angeles, to help expand and deepen their efforts of teaching literature. Often the materials available to teachers have little connection to the world their students know -- Literature for Life will focus on stories of Los Angeles and of people with diverse cultural backgrounds to help make students understand literature's relevance.

USC's Neighborhood Academic Initiative is a rigorous six-year pre-college enrichment program that helps low-income students in Los Angeles prepare for college; those who meet the program's requirements receive scholarships to attend USC upon completion. With its support and a USC Neighborhood Outreach grant, Literature for Life is parsing curriculum requirements and preparing materials for teachers.

Earlier this year, Literature for Life sponsored the first USC Young Writers conference, connecting high school students with professional writers. "We want to encourage the young people of South L.A. and beyond to recognize themselves in authentic literature," Tervalon explained in April, "and thus begin to better see themselves as empowered readers and writers." Those voices may find a place in the Literature for Life magazine, next to established writers.

Its creators hope that as an online publication, Literature for Life will be a free, frequently updated resource that can step in to supplement the textbooks that strapped classrooms use. The fledgling nonprofit is accepting donations.

As for the red beans and rice? Tervalon's spicy version with cheap Bar S hot links was New Orleans authentic, but Jonathan Gold's dish, famed for using duck, goose and pork fat, was just as tasty.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Jervey Tervalon, left, and Kim Thomas-Barrios look on as Kenneth Kouot pulls up a preview of the Literature for Life website. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg / Los Angeles Times