By Annabel Adams
Orange County, California, best known for its “real housewives,” theme parks and picturesque beaches, is perceived by some as a cultural wasteland. But to UCI alumni Lisa Alvarez and Andrew Tonkovich, it’s a literary mecca.
In their just-released anthology, Orange County: A Literary Field Guide
(Heyday Books, 2017), the husband-and-wife team compile descriptions by more than 60 writers – some established, others emerging – of the county’s built and natural environments. Readers are invited to explore the culture and geography of an area that only 50 years ago was mostly orange groves, open fields and rolling hills. The literary tour begins at the coast and continues over the mountains, through the canyons and into the cities of Anaheim, Irvine and Orange.
Alvarez and Tonkovich admit that when they first moved to Orange County more than two decades ago from notoriously liberal Santa Monica, it was with skepticism and hesitancy. Pleasantly surprised by its complexities and contradictions, they now call themselves county “boosters,” and their roots run deep. Both are graduates of UCI’s prestigious M.F.A. Programs in Writing (fiction), and teachers. Alvarez is an English professor at Irvine Valley College, and Tonkovich is a lecturer in UCI’s Department of English. They’ve raised their son in Modjeska Canyon.
“Place is a connector, and so it’s imperative – especially in the classroom – for people to learn about where they are,” Alvarez says. “Orange County’s history often gets paved over quite quickly, so an important aspect of this book is showing its rich, multifaceted and significant history. With that in mind, we specifically chose pieces that are connected in a very direct way to the landscape and the place. It wasn’t
enough that someone lived in Orange County when they wrote the piece; we were looking for some kind of reflection on what the county, or some part of it, looked like.”
Inspired by positive student response to a California-themed composition class that Alvarez taught at IVC, the anthology has been a decade in the making. It features excerpts from previously published works, offering a wide range of historical and contemporary points of view from diverse voices.
“A large part of our ambition – in life and in this book – is to build a sense of community and solidarity and bring people into a meaningful discussion,” Tonkovich says. “I hope reading the guide instills an appreciation for the quirks, legends and places of Orange County and encourages people to continue to explore its history and geography from a variety of perspectives and experiences.”
The anthology includes a foreword by Gustavo Arellano, editor of OC Weekly and author of Orange County: A Personal History, and contributions from such internationally renowned and award-winning writers as Michael Chabon, Joan Didion, Philip K. Dick, Yusef Komunyakaa and Susan Straight. The book also contains selections from 21 alumni, faculty and former faculty of UCI’s M.F.A. Programs in Writing.
“From its inception, UCI has evinced an irrepressible ‘can do’ capacity for creative work across all forms of writing: poetry, fiction, literary journalism, translation and even a brand of critical theory, deconstruction,” says Georges Van Den Abbeele, dean of UCI’s School of Humanities. “The writers who have contributed to UCI’s creative capacity are far too many to list, though this volume provides a helpful initial sampling and testifies to UCI’s enduring capacity to enable the OC’s creative potential.”