This got him thinking about the power of language. Curwen had always admired writers who write about language and linguistics: Among them The New Yorker’s Comma Queen, Mary Norris; linguist Geoff Nunberg; and novelist Walker Percy, author of The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language is, and What One Has to Do With the Other. He drew on their work to inspire his thinking about how to tell a story about the Tongva language.
First, he needed a good character with a good story. He found both in Pam Munro, the linguist who was teaching adults and children how to speak Tongva as part of a “‘reclamation effort’ to preserve a language no longer spoken.” But the story still needed a narrative arc, something that would move it forward.
“That was what I figured I’d take the reader on,” Curwen says. “A journey of sorts that began with this strange world that you didn’t know existed because it’s so covered up by concrete, and ending with a nature walk where the world is revealed by the Tongva words themselves.”
But it soon became clear that this story about words needed more than words to come alive. It needed images of the places, people, and things evoked by the words. It needed audio to capture the singular melody of the Tongva language. It needed video to marry voices and images in what LA Times photographer Katie Falkenberg calls “a visual poem.”
The result is “Finding Tovaangar,” a multimedia story that seamlessly combines many layers and moving parts: a narrative embedded with images, audio, and video; an illustrated guide to Tongva (think digital flash cards); an interactive map of Los Angeles’ evolving cultural landscape; a study guide for elementary school teachers; and a personal narrative by the lead writer. An example of multimedia storytelling at its most ambitious, it not only entertains, but teaches and engages on multiple levels.
Produced through a team effort, the story combined the efforts of no fewer than eight collaborators:
- Thomas Curwen, staff writer
- Katie Falkenberg, photographer and videographer
- Sean Greene, digital editor
- Michael Whitley, assistant managing editor for design
- Jared Servantez, multiplatform editor
- Steve Clow, deputy metro editor
- Mary Cooney, director of photography
- Steve Padilla, Column One editor
We asked them to share the story behind the story — the planning, work-flow, and decisions that go into a project like this. Their answers, thorough and generous, offer a peek under the hood at all the moving parts that comprise the engine of a great story. Our conversations have been edited for length and clarity.
How does a multimedia piece like this come together? How did the idea evolve?
THOMAS CURWEN (writer): The thrill of working on a story like “Finding Tovaangar” is walking into a room with the wisp of an idea and watching it come to life through the perspectives and sensibilities of my colleagues. We were fortunate because there was no rush to publish, and we had time to develop each facet of the story.
After attending one Tongva class, I realized that a story about the structure of the language would not carry the narrative momentum that I needed. A story about the mechanics of language could be kind of dry, like writing about algebra. What we needed was a character with a really good story. Pam Munroe provided both.
After three visits to the Tongva classroom, one field trip, numerous conversations with the teacher, and reading about Tongva culture and native California languages, I started to write. I filed a draft with my editor, Steve Clow, and we showed it to the team. That’s when they began to explore various visual and audio presentations that would tell the story.
MICHAEL WHITLEY (assistant managing editor for design): We knew it was a great story, so the question was: How can we tell it? I didn’t want to think of it as a print or a digital story. What usually happens is that we start thinking of it as one story (print) and then we make it into the other (multimedia). And in this instance we were trying to think of it all at once.
SEAN GREENE (digital editor): Tom was looking for ideas on how to bring the language to life for readers. We knew from the get-go that the story needed a creative visual approach to bring readers in. During an early meeting we decided that we wanted the written story and online presentation to recreate how the Tongva people experienced Los Angeles with no buildings, no freeways — just the land. The language was the mechanism we could use to explore that.
One of our first multimedia ideas was to capture these video landscapes of various places that are important to the Tongva and the story. Photographer Katie Falkenberg brought back the most peaceful, dreamy footage from Signal Hill, Topanga State Park, Santa Ana, and a shot looking out toward Catalina Island. She chose places and vantage points that reflected a minimal modern footprint. We were very much trying to take readers back in time, to create a feeling that they were in Tovaangar, the word the Tongva use to define their “world.” In support of the videos, I used still portraits and photographs that Katie made in the Tongva classroom and on their field trips.
This is a story about preserving an indigenous language as a key to unlocking the past. But instead of starting with the language, you opened with a word-image that reminds me of a landscape painting. What inspired you to begin the story this way?
THOMAS CURWEN (writer): After speaking with students in the class, I was struck by their impressions of Tongva, how the language helped them see Los Angeles through the eyes of its original people. That, in itself, is an amazing feat considering how built-up and developed the L.A. basin is. As I drove the city’s freeways and streets thinking about Tongva, I began to wonder what Los Angeles looked like 500 years ago. In my mind, I stripped away the buildings and concrete, the imported plants and trees. To see Los Angeles as the Tongva did — as a natural environment — is, I believe, the greatest legacy of the language today and the most basic take-away (the nut graf, I suppose) for readers.
Your story weaves together history, linguistics, etymology, ethnology, and a lot of modern-day characters and scenes. What was your strategy for story structure? Did you map it out in advance? Did it change as you began writing?
THOMAS CURWEN (writer): Once I had the idea of the opening — L.A. as it once was — the rest of the story fell into place. I often conceive of narratives in chapters: I knew I had to take readers to the news component of the story, which was the monthly meeting of students with their instructor Pam Munro. After telling Munro’s story — what she found 30 years ago — I thought it a natural leap to explain what the Tongva people had lost. Finally, I wanted the students’ experience of Tongva to reflect Munro’s gift to the community. Closing on the field trip, I thought I might be able to bring all these element together and give readers a sense of the world falling away from English to Tongva.
How did the video come together? Did you start with filming classes, or interviewing people? Did you map out a scene-by-scene storyboard in advance?
KATIE FALKENBERG (photographer/videographer): I started by attending a class and filming there, but from the beginning, when Tom pitched the story to the photo/video department, what really stuck out to me was when he described how the language connected people to the land. I knew right away that that would be the emphasis of the video.
This was a piece that was different than what I usually do — there wasn’t a clear narrative arc — so I decided to try to make the video more like a visual poem. The final piece really came together during the edit. When I was listening to the speakers talk about their connection to the language, and the connection of the language to the land, I envisioned overlaying video portraits with visuals of the landscape. All of the landscape shots are of areas that played a big part in the Tongva culture.
What challenges did the story present to the copy desk?
THOMAS CURWEN (writer): The biggest challenge of the story was its fact-checking. First, I needed to reconcile the various spellings of Tongva words from the ethnographers 100 years ago to Munro herself. Then I wanted to make sure that I represented the history of the Tongva people correctly. I worried that my writing about Tongva might be seen as being presumptuous, even colonial, so I wanted to make sure I accurately represented the language and the people. Multiple conversations with Munro and Tongva descendants in the class helped.
JARED SERVANTEZ (multiplatform copy editor): Most of my interaction with the team was in emails and Slack messages asking a million questions about this and that. This being a story about a long-dormant language that very few are familiar with, it raised some unique challenges on the copy editing side. Traditional spell-checking techniques weren’t really an option for the Tongva words and phrases in the story. We also had a long email chain about how best to render the glottal stop punctuation marks, debating whether to use straight apostrophes or curly smart quotes. (We ultimately settled on the straight marks after consulting with Pam Munro.) It was a challenging copy editing process but also a rewarding one.
STEVE PADILLA (Column One editor): I think it’s worth noting the debate that we had with Jared over the glottal stop punctuation marks. It might seem like a small detail whether we use a ’ of a ‘. Readers might think we just slap stuff into the paper. This is a good example of how we agonize over the little stuff. In the end, nothing is little.
The interactive map is a really fascinating part of this story. It allows us to glimpse layer after layer of change in Los Angeles. The landscape remains steady, but the human footprint shifts upon it. And as you move through it, you zoom in and out in a way that reminds me of Google Earth. Can you talk about how you conceived this — and how you then made it come alive in a digital form?
SEAN GREENE (digital editor): This was an important facet of the story for us to tell because it put Tom’s main story in historical context and helps readers connect to this place in a very direct, immediate way. The first map readers see is the Los Angeles area as it exists today. When readers begin to scroll, they’re taken back in time as modern place names and roads fade away to reveal the word Tovaangar — which translates to “the world” — and the names of Tongva villages. From there, we take readers on a virtual tour of Tovaangar. I think the map helps readers immediately connect to Tongva because the first thing they do is look for the villages near their own homes. It really brings the past to the surface.
At first, we were set on geo-rectifying one of two old maps from the Los Angeles Library that show Tongva settlements across the L.A. basin. I got about that far when Tom found a new source of inspiration and, importantly, data for this map. A few years ago, Steven Hackel, a UC Riverside historian, worked with colleagues to develop the Early California Cultural Atlas, which painstakingly mapped the locations of about 60 villages belonging to the Tongva (as well as other local tribes, such as the Chumash, Tataviam, and Serrano). Their work also looked at California mission records that show native peoples’ migration to the area’s four missions. We were particularly inspired by this visualization. Hackel and his colleagues generously provided us with their data to help us tell this important facet of the story.
While Hackel’s group already created maps that can be explored like Google Earth, we wanted to guide readers through Tovaangar and fly them to places that are important or noteworthy, such as the village Pimu on Santa Catalina Island. We also wanted to show how many places around Los Angeles still reflect their Tongva origin in their names. Places such as Topanga, Cahuenga, and Azusa all come from Tongva words.
I used a tool called Mapbox to create the base layer (the color and shading of the terrain, the roads, water, labels, etc.). I was also able to add additional data layers, including the locations of villages belonging to the various tribes and the four local missions. Once all that’s in place, we’re ready to fly people around the map to create a sort of virtual tour.
(Listen to a sample of the Tongva language.)
What about the audio tour? It reminds me of flash cards that people learning a new language often use to expand their vocabulary by pairing words and pictures. But yours adds an audio element. How did this idea come about?
MICHAEL WHITLEY (assistant managing editor for design): When Sean and Tom pitched the story, we talked about how difficult it is to show language graphically. That’s when we decided to go with the flashcards. They are instantly recognizable as a tool for learning language, and they invoke a kind of specific feeling about knowledge acquisition. People who speak any language can immediately connect the word to the picture. It’s almost universal. Simple. Readers see it and get it.
For print we imagined the illustrations on color rectangles or squares like flash cards, and for the digital story we would animate the illustration with slight movements. It was an ambitious list of words to illustrate and the first few rounds of line work was in black-and-white and very rough.
Once we were convinced the idea was a good one, we reached out to illustrators Peter and Maria Hoey. They have worked on some really challenging projects with us, such as illustrating World Cup uniforms, or all the NCAA basketball tournament teams — on deadline no less. They are able to take our idea and add their own thinking. Their first round of black-and-white sketches hung on my wall for a week, and every person who walked in was fascinated and immediately wanted to know the whole story. Peter, Maria, and Sean then worked on the animated versions. It was a great collaboration, and we ended up with something that feels simple and intuitive.
SEAN GREENE (digital editor): The audio tour came about as we were brainstorming what to do with all these recordings of words that Katie made. We knew we wanted to do something with them because they were a good chance to showcase the language and let readers lean in and play. Michael first suggested the idea of “flashcards,” which manifested in the print version of the article. The animations and audio recordings gave us a chance to create a separate page online — the audio tour that allowed readers to dive into the language.
I think the most exciting visuals we had to work with were Peter and Maria Hoey’s 28 animated illustrations. The Hoeys sent several iterations of illustrations that were commissioned to go with dozens of Tongva words that Katie recorded during interviews. The first illustrations were simple line drawings, which were already perfectly awesome. By the time the full color versions came in, all arranged on a single page, I knew we had something very special. I immediately felt the urge to explore. It reminded me of picture books I had as a kid, with images and words sort of spread across the page. I based the design of this page on my memory of those books.
You added a really smart element: a study guide for teachers. How did this idea come up?
THOMAS CURWEN (writer): Steve Padilla thought the story would support a study guide, and given the fact that fourth-grade students in the state study the California missions, we thought teachers would appreciate an opportunity to incorporate the Tongva story into their lesson plans. We started to put together a few questions ourselves but realized that we needed teachers to help us come up with questions that would be appropriate for their classrooms. I gave a copy of the story to three friends who teach in Los Angeles and asked them to come up with five questions each.
In your “Behind the Story” essay, you talk about seeing language as a time machine, “capable of carrying the imagination into the past.” You also see it as something that can suffer extinction, like a living species. Language can divide us, or it can build community. Why are these things particularly relevant to Los Angeles? Did this story change how you think about language?
THOMAS CURWEN (writer): The “Behind the Story” essay gave me an opportunity to broaden the story beyond the Tongva language. I felt this was especially important given the fragile state of native languages in the world. I was especially struck by a wonderful story written by Nicholas Casey for The New York Times, “Thousands Once Spoke His Language. Now He Bears the Burden of its Survival.”
Given the currents of xenophobia emerging in America today, I believe there is good reason to celebrate the fact that more than 100 languages are spoken in Los Angeles. But I was also mindful that 20 years ago voters in California chose to eliminate bilingual education in the state. That decision has since then been reversed, but I believe it’s important not to take for granted the steps being taken to create a more inclusive society. Pam Munro — and her students studying Tongva — are a good example of that effort.