Across California and much of the nation, people are sheltering in place as they wait out the COVID-19 pandemic. If you need a break from reports of the growing health crisis and tanking economy, take refuge in uplifting reads from San Francisco State University Creative Writing alums and faculty, all of which have received critical praise.
San Francisco State Creative Writing Department Professor and Chair Nona Caspers says it’s no surprise grads and faculty are getting recognition. The Creative Writing program is well-established and encourages cross-genre exploration. Students in the three-year MFA program can take classes in poetry, prose or playwriting. “Faculty in Creative Writing encourage invention, risk and voice-depth,” Caspers said. “Students are attracted to San Francisco because they’re renegades, so many have that sensibility coming in.”
Check out these books if you’re looking to give your mind something new to chew on.
“Under the Music” by Maxine Chernoff
SF State Professor of Creative Writing Maxine Chernoff has been writing prose poetry for decades. Her latest collection, “Under the Music” (MadHat Press), offers up a kind of greatest hits tour of her work in the form, pulling from 10 previous books yet remaining cohesive. The result is a collection in which “the absurd proves inextricable from the ordinary,” writes Kate Silzer of Hyperallergic, an online arts and culture publication. “Chernoff subverts the expected, exposing the seams that stitch together our experience of reality.”
“Fiebre Tropical” by Juli Delgado Lopera
Five years after graduating from SF State’s MFA program, Juli Delgado Lopera has published a first novel. “Fiebre Tropical” (Feminist Press) is a coming-of-age tale narrated by Francisca, a Colombian teen who moves into an ant-infested townhouse in Miami. As her family learns to find their way in America, Francisca struggles to understand herself — and embrace her gayness. Lopera’s prose is as “ebullient and assertive as Rosie Perez shadowboxing in the opening credits of ‘Do the Right Thing,’” says New York Times writer Dwight Garner.
“Last of Her Name” by Mimi Lok
Another MFA Gator — Mimi Lok, who earned her degree in 2007 — also recently published her first book. And it got quite a reception: “Last of Her Name” (Kaya Press) won the 2020 PEN America Literary Award for Debut Short Story Collection. A window into the lives of complex women and the connections they make, the book was also shortlisted for the Northern California Book Award. Although it’s Lok’s literary debut, she “writes with the self-assuredness of a literary veteran and the insight of someone who’s spent a lifetime studying how humans interact,” says National Public Radio.
“Spider Love Songs and Other Stories” by Nancy Au
2017 MFA recipient Nancy Au has taught creative writing at both SF State and California State University Stanislaus. Like Delgado Lopera and Lok, she recently published her first book to critical hosannas. “Spider Love Songs and Other Stories” (Acre Books), a collection of 17 short stories that run the gamut from gritty realism to flights of fantasy, was longlisted for the PEN/Bingham Prize. “Au’s stories have power to wound and comfort, to heal and connect,” writes Maggie Su at the Cincinnati Review. “Her stories offer powerfully realized alternate worlds.”
“Cantoras” by Carolina De Robertis
Recent SF State MFA graduates aren’t the only ones pulling in literary awards lately: “Cantoras” (Knopf) by Assistant Professor of Creative Writing Carolina De Robertis received a Lambda Award for Best Lesbian Fiction. (It was also a finalist for the 2019 Kirkus Prize for Fiction and one of NPR’s Favorite Books of 2019.) The novel — De Robertis’ third — is the story of five Uruguayan lesbians who escape the country’s intolerant dictatorship and find each other on an uninhabited cape. The book follows the women for the next 35 years as they move back and forth from the beach to Montevideo and struggle to live authentic lives. “If this book were an opera, De Robertis would be deafened by curtain call after curtain call,” writes Janet Levine for the New York Journal of Books. “It is, to say the least, a most memorable page turner that carries a siren call of hope.”
— Jamie Oppenheim