THE most magical thing about journalism is the possibility that anybody, anywhere, might publish something alive. This kind of democratic miracle doesn't occur very often, even in the age of the Internet, but when it does, it's exciting and inspiring. The example I've run across most recently is KoreAm Journal, a six-year-old monthly publication with a circulation of 12,000 that is published out of an office-warehouse complex in Gardena, California.
"KoreAm" is short for "Korean-American"; part of what's impressive about this journal is that it has risen out of the swamp of ethnic publishing, where boosterism is the prevailing ethos and one of the most interesting subjects in American life is made safe and dull. KoreAm Journal does inform subscribers if someone becomes the first Korean-American to achieve a position, or if a leader protests some insult to the group. But it also reports bad news ("KOREAN BANKS DOING POORLY IN LOS ANGELES"), and it can get across the full scope of a big, messy issue such as black-Korean relations. Rarer still, it tries to capture the ambiguity and complexity of its main theme -- assimilation.
The most popular feature in the journal is an anonymous advice column called "Dear Banana Man." The author, depicted in a cartoon that accompanies every column as a muscular, booted, moustachioed figure in a banana costume, is a swaggering know-it-all who swats back answers to questions about everything from presidential politics to courtship. Not long ago I wrote to him, meekly requesting an interview. As I should have expected, Banana Man printed my letter in his column and then responded to it in print.
My editor assures me that I'll get paid for granting this interview. My first question, of course, is how much? If there is no money, then I gotta ask, "What's in it for Banana Man?" Publicity is the last thing the Great Yellow One desires.
We ironed out that issue (Banana Man dropped his insistence on being paid), and I went to see him in Los Angeles. Attempts to unmask Banana Man, and his teasing evasions, are a leitmotif of the column. He has hinted that he may be married with children, but the main impression he gives is of a tough, macho, ungovernable character. Here's a typical Banana Man pronunciamento: "These namby-pamby, bleeding-heart liberal weenies who favor gun control are totally lost." He says he has received death threats as a result of his column.