By Ashley Bell
In a crowded room, eager UCI students and aspiring writers surrounded the beaming light of inspiration that is Bee Sacks. The UCI MFA writing program alumni and author of two novels hosted a Q&A session with UCI students to address questions that can irk even the most experienced writers. Just the day before, I interviewed Sacks to learn about both their career and recent novels City of a Thousand Gates (Harper Perennial, 2021) and The Lover (Harper, 2023).
The road to writing
Long before deciding to become a writer, Sacks recognized the importance of gaining real world experience. After graduating from Dartmouth in 2008 they pursued an internship at Vanity Fair, working on projects that ranged from the British royal family to the African ivory trade to the Rockettes. Though Sacks had originally intended their time at Vanity Fair to last just a couple of years, they spent over four years climbing the career ladder, eventually becoming an editorial associate at the magazine.
Though Sacks found the editing experience at Vanity Fair a useful way to enhance their writing skills, they felt a longing to “get back in the world of ideas and in-depth research.” This led them to attend Tel Aviv University in Israel for their first master's – in Jewish studies. It was there that Sacks found inspiration they shared in their journalistic work, for magazines such as Paris Review Daily and Tablet. Immersing themself in the culture, Sacks drew inspiration by studying Hebrew and Arabic, and spending time in the living rooms of Palestinians and Israelis — all of which helped shape the narratives of Sacks’ two novels.
In the war-torn region, Sacks faced the harsh realities of violence – including bombings and border crossings – along with the area’s enduring beauty and encountered relationships amid conflict. Sacks’ writings grapple with these realities, illustrating devastation, survival and loving connections of different characters.
A reader turned writer
Sacks has always considered themselves a reader. Lost in fiction like Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby or Marguerite Duras' L'Amant, Sacks never imagined themselves as a professional fiction writer. That all changed when Sacks attended the 2015 Bread Loaf Writers Conference at Middlebury College. It was there that they encountered the praises of UCI’s writing program from conference participants, and began to imagine themselves a writer. Sacks reflected how “the people I met were so fulfilled by their experiences at UCI, and emphasized how it was a place where they felt their writing was nurtured.”
By the time they were accepted into the program in 2016, Sacks was living as a journalist and freelance editor, and the decision to move to Irvine from Israel-Palestine was not an easy one. But UCI Writing Programs Director Michelle Latiolais encouraged Sacks to consider coming to Irvine to grow as a fiction writer. As Sacks recalls, "Michelle said to me, 'I think you are writing a novel, and I hope you will come write it here.' Who could say no to that?"
Empathy through literature
Sacks delves into the complex topic of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict in both of their novels. And of all the achievements of Sacks’ career, they are most proud of their connections with students and readers – especially Palestinian readers. To have Palestinans express that their lives were accurately reflected by Sacks’ novels “meant more than any award could.”
As an Ashkenazi Jewish writer who took Israeli citizenship in their twenties, Sacks felt the pressure to accurately represent different perspectives, something that they give special attention to in their Kafka Prize-winning book City of a Thousand Gates. The novel tells a fictional story of the aftermath of the murder of an Israeli girl and the brutal beating of a Palestinian boy. In the novel, Sacks employs 19 different narrators from Israel and Palestine to illustrate their shared humanity and the impacts faced by these communities. Through the eyes of such a wide range of people, readers are able to see the overarching commonalities between the sides that effectively encourages empathy.
For Sacks, the true impact of their work revolves around representing those who are often left voiceless. This ability to cultivate empathy and perspective within readers is the main reason Sacks believes fiction literature is vital to the structure of our society. Sacks believes that fiction allows us to understand and confront the discomfort while realizing that “our desire to connect to each other and to know each other and to love each other is always stronger and more profound than any boundary.”
Advice for writers
The journey to becoming an author can be strenuous, and Sacks offers some sage advice to fellow writers:
- When dealing with failed projects, treat yourself with patience and kindness. Each word you write matters. Sacks’ most recent novel actually began when they were at UCI, but took years to transform into the novel they just published. So give yourself space to return and revisit your words!
- Despite the challenges of rejection that come with this career, Sacks advises writers to feel the extent of the pain while remaining kind to yourself. For Sacks, “The real tragedy would be for me or you or anyone to stop writing just because of rejection. Be gentle and be brave. But keep going!”
As an undergraduate English major and perfectionist, I found these words to deeply resonate with me, even while writing this article. The daunting world of writing is filled with societal stigmas and other challenges. Hearing stories like Sacks’ gives me hope. It also reveals how writing is an act of bravery, a means to express and has the capability to create true change.
Join the department of English and Sacks for a talk at UCI on January 24, 2024.
About Ashley Bell
Ashley Bell is a passionate UCI Humanities intern and English fourth-year student minoring in creative writing. Through her work with the School of Humanities Communications Department she has engaged in various projects that have deepened her love for writing, research and exposure to other perspectives.
*For more information about Israel and Palestine, Sacks encourages reading works by Palestinian authors like Adania Shibli and Mohammed El-Kurd, as well as Israeli authors Ayelet Tsabari and Amos Oz.
To read more about Sacks’ most recent novels, including The Lover, visit https://beesacks.com/books
(Photo: Alex Kacha)