When one thinks of Irvine, California, often safety and good public education are the first things that come to mind. But Irvine is also a thriving center for the arts from its many theaters to its sizable literary community. One of the main reasons why Irvine stands out on the literary map is because of the University of California, Irvine’s M.F.A. Program in Writing, which is considered one of the best writing programs in the nation. This program has produced many notable artists including but not limited to: “Game of Thrones” co-creator David Benioff and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Michael Chabon, Richard Ford and Yusef Komunyakaa.
With World Book Day right around the corner on April 23, consider picking up a book from an Irvine-based or Irvine-related author. Below, I’ve compiled a list of a few books from authors who have either lived or studied in Irvine.
City of a Thousand Gates by Rebecca Sacks
Rebecca Sacks is a recent graduate of UCI’s M.F.A. program in fiction. Her debut novel, City of a Thousand Gates, tells the story of a cast of characters from around the world converging in Israel and Palestine. While these characters’ stories seem disparate from each other at first, they come together to illustrate the violence and many gates (checkpoints, walls and boundaries) that define life in modern-day Israel and Palestine.
Deep Down Dark by Héctor Tobar
In 2010, 33 miners became trapped in a collapsed mine in Copiapó, Chile. Miraculously, after 69 days below ground, all of them were saved and brought back up to the Earth’s surface. Deep Down Dark is their story as told by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Héctor Tobar. Tobar has multiple connections to Irvine; he both graduated from UCI’s M.F.A. program in fiction and is now an associate professor of English in UCI’s Literary Journalism Program.
Feeld by Jos Charles
Jos Charles is currently a Ph.D. student in English at UCI. Her second poetry collection, Feeld, is a lyrical exploration of gender and speech, making room for marginalized bodies. In it, Charles reclaims language to discuss the trans experience. It is the winner of the 2017 National Poetry Series.
A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is one of the most famous living African writers. He is currently at UCI as a Distinguished Professor of comparative literature and English. Former president Barack Obama, one of Ngũgĩ’s many illustrious fans, wrote on his Facebook page that Ngũgĩ’s novel, A Grain of Wheat, is “a compelling story of how the transformative events of history weigh on individual lives and relationships.” The novel follows a group of villagers in the wake of the Mau Mau rebellion and on the cusp of Kenya’s independence from Britain.
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
Interior Chinatown follows the story of Willis Wu, an actor on a cop show hoping to ascend from the role of Generic Asian Man to the more glamorous role of Kung Fu Guy. Through Wu and the cop show, Irvine-based author Yu tackles present-day issues such as race, stereotypes, media, and immigration in a satirical and witty way. Not only is Interior Chinatown a New York Times bestseller, but it also won the 2020 National Book Award in fiction, one of the nation’s most prestigious book awards.
The Magical Language of Others by E.J. Koh
As an undergrad at UCI, E.J. Koh first discovered her love for poetry and creative writing. Koh’s memoir, The Magical Language of Others, explores her relationship with her mother, who left her and her brother alone in the U.S. to return to South Korea when Koh was only 15 years old. Through letters between Koh and her mother, Koh retraces her family’s history and ponders both poetry’s and words’ abilities to explain the deep feelings of love we experience. The Magical Language of Others is the winner of many awards such as the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award, the Association for Asian American Studies 2022 Book Award in Creative Writing: Prose, and the Washington State Book Award in Biography/Memoir.
Obit by Victoria Chang
Poet Victoria Chang lived briefly in Irvine. She is the author of multiple poetry collections like Circle and Barbie Chang. Written in the aftermath of her mom’s death, her most recent poetry collection, Obit, is a poetic collection of obituaries for all that she has ever lost, and it offers commentary on the impact of death on the living. In 2020, it was longlisted for the National Book Award in Poetry.
The Red Coat by Dolley Carlson
Irvine-based author Dolley Carlson’s novel The Red Coat follows the story of an Irish domestic worker named Norah King. The novel kickstarts when King asks her wealthy employer if she may have an elegant red coat, which her employer is planning on donating. This simple request launches a series of events rippling across their friends and family. Set in 1940s and 1950s Boston, this novel is a fun read for fans of period dramas.