Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Diverse, Talented Authors Spice Up Local Literary Scene

Sri Lanka-born author Nayomi Munaweera will speak at San Jose State's MFA open house this Thursday.

A vibrant matrix of author events will enhance the landscape of San Jose this spring, slaughtering the Western literary canon of dead white drunks. First up, an open house for San Jose State's MFA program in creative writing erupts from 6:30 to 8pm Thursday in the Steinbeck Center of the MLK Library.

All are welcome, especially those who want to meet professors and MFA students, or learn anything about applying to the program. Finding a tribe of writers in San Jose to hang with anywhere can seem impossible, so this event can be a great place to start.

The open house is just the beginning. For the rest of the semester, SJSU, as well as the university's Center For Literary Arts, will reveal once and for all that the Western literary canon needs a serious vitamin and supplement package. Now, this is not to say Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce and Steinbeck are obsolete, far from it; rather, it's just that such an emphasis tends to ignore many relevant voices. To wit, a colorful tapestry of real, live, contemporary humans will make themselves known throughout this semester, beginning with Nayomi Munaweera, the 2019 Lurie visiting author-in-residence.

The history of the Lurie visiting author could be a feature story in itself. Each spring semester, a distinguished scribe of some sort arrives at SJSU to teach a graduate seminar. Ursula K. Le Guin was the first one, in 2000. Since then, several geniuses have followed suit. For the spring semester of 2004, the writer and explorer Simon Winchester was here. When I wrote the story, Winchester told me that he and his partner were already about to take a flat in San Francisco so he could write his book on the 1906 earthquake when, five minutes later, he received a serendipitous call inviting him to be the 2004 Lurie visiting author. He had never even heard of SJSU at the time.

From there, it only got crazier. Legendary travel writer Tim Cahill showed up in 2010 and spent mucho after-class hours at Flames on San Fernando, during which I intruded several times. Poet Kim Addonizio arrived in 2013, which led directly to Ted Gehrke booking her at the Blues Festival. Andrew Sean Greer arrived the following spring and then later won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Other Lurie authors-in-residence have included Christina Garcia, Vendela Vida, and travel writer Don George last year. One of George's students just won a gold award from the North American Travel Journalists Association for a story she originally workshopped in his SJSU class.

Now we have Munaweera, originally from Sri Lanka, and who now lives in Oakland, currently deep into her third novel. You can catch her at the MFA open house and then at her own event on Feb. 28 in the MLK Library.

Also supplementing the vanilla canon this spring will be a variety of author events lined up by the Center for Literary Arts, some of which take place on campus, while others erupt out in the community. Poet Analicia Sotelo, for example, appears at the San Jose Museum of Art at 7pm on Feb. 7, in yet another example of local institutions collaborating with the university to elevate the literary arts. Local poet ASHA will appear on the same night. That one should be a barnburner.

Then, come March 7, the cosmic muse of synchronicity strikes again. Three Asian-American women novelists who released a book to rocking fanfare in 2018—Vanessa Hua, R.O. Kwon and Kirstin Chen—will tag-team for a glorious triple-shot event. The serendipity here is bonkers. You see, every year, the Steinbeck Center sponsors one-year fellowships for writers to pursue a writing project while in residence. The projects need not relate to Steinbeck, but they must be promising enough to warrant support. Hua, Kwon and Chen all received this fellowship in past years, each one published a novel last year, and now all three return for this event. Via their novels, they are elevating Asian diasporic voices in new, refreshing ways.

Finally, recent Man Booker Prize-winner Paul Beatty will descend upon the Hammer Theatre on March 19 for the James D. Houston Memorial Lecture. Consider the canon slaughtered!