Literary Issue 2017: It's Lit in the Valley

It's Lit in the Valley

Viet Thanh Nguyen | It's Lit | Kirstin Chen | Ron Hansen | Arlene Biala | Literary Watchlist

Viet Thanh Nguyen's short story collection includes a great piece on his parents' market.

The South Bay's reputation as a literary bastion has always been underappreciated. Higher education, agriculture, banking, aerospace and, most famously, software and high tech are the accomplishments often trotted out at the top of Silicon Valley's resume.

Less known is that the South Bay and its environs have also served as a vital literary community, one of the most influential in the nation.

In 1847, California's first newspaper, The Californian, opened in Monterey before quickly moving north to San Francisco in an ongoing competition with the other early paper, The California Star. In 1876, Mary Hallock Foote moved to what is now the Almaden Quicksilver Mine, the experiences giving her material that would be become the memoir A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West. Jack London opens his masterpiece, The Call of the Wild, with the kidnapping of the character Buck from College Park railroad station in San Jose.

The Beats, from Kerouac to Ginsberg, would often visit Neal Cassady in Los Gatos. Short story master Raymond Carver bought a house in Cupertino in 1972. Khaled Hosseini attended Independence High School in San Jose and Santa Clara University before writing The Kite Runner while interning at Kaiser Hospital in Mountain View. John Steinbeck, whose many works take place in and around the valley, lived in Los Gatos. The largest collection of his papers are held at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library at San Jose State University.

In other words, the literary contributions of Silicon Valley predate the invention of the integrated circuit—and will undoubtedly live on long after.

Increasingly, and, at times, seemingly against its will, San Jose has become an arts and culture destination. While the rest of the world focuses on the area's technical innovation, expansive and ornate murals now dot the downtown landscape. Art shows, concerts, and open-mic nights define the downtown night scene and help cultivate the city's young, diverse talent. Through the shrewd use of grant programs, street festivals, art walks, spoken-word events and other artistic rumblings, the South Bay feels as if it's finally on the cusp of realizing—or perhaps more appropriately, regaining—its creative potential.

As much as the tech and literary scenes act as strange bedfellows, they also exist in a quiet symbiosis. Right now, engineers across the South Bay are quietly writing the next Great American Novel. Conversely, great writers and poets are sustaining themselves through tech careers when literature is not yet sufficient to provide a viable living.

In the same way that transistors and semiconductors amplify electrical voltage, the writers of Silicon Valley give depth and shape to our shared stories.

The current South Bay literary scene is as diverse as it is astute. Whether it's novelist Kirstin Chen's elegant, thought-provoking prose in San Jose, Santa Clara's Ron Hansen's historical fiction, or Santa Clara County Poet Laureate Arlene Biala's soul-nourishing verse, local writing aspires to lofty achievements while keeping a local profile.

Beyond that, there are countless creatives—poets, novelists, even publishers—in the valley honing their craft for the betterment of us all. As such, Metro asked our featured authors and created our own list of writers in the South Bay we think deserve an extra look.

continue to Kirstin Chen