‘A Literary Field Guide’ blends poems and stories into ‘a kaleidoscopic picture’ of O.C.


When Lisa Alvarez would tell people that she was editing an anthology of poems, novels and short stories about Orange County, she often got puzzled looks.

“The initial response is, ‘There’s nothing here,’” she said. “People think about the popular culture images of Orange County, the desperate ‘Housewives,’ the terrible Laguna Beach TV show, and they don’t think of it as a place with a history.

“My project showed me that indeed there was a history.”

Now anyone can get a glimpse into this history with “Orange County: A Literary Field Guide,” edited by Alvarez, a professor of English at Irvine Valley College, and her husband, Andrew Tonkovich, an English lecturer at UC Irvine.

The 400-plus page book, published in February, contains more than 60 poems, short stories, novel chapters and narrative nonfiction by emerging and established writers — including Michael Chabon, Joan Didion, E.L. Doctorow and Steve Martin — that reflect on the county’s diverse natural and man-made landscapes.

“It’s a kaleidoscopic picture,” Tonkovich said. “It’s a brief sampling and a bit of a wonderful, crazy quilt of the county.”

The pair selected previously published writings — from mainstream presses to small literary journals — that meditate on specific places.

“It wasn’t enough that the writer had lived here in Orange County — plenty of writers have lived here or passed through,” Alvarez said.

“That’s what fuels our inspiration to call it a field guide. A traditional field guide tells you where you are in the natural world. A literary field guide will guide you through that world and tell you stories from those places.”

While the stories take place over the past 140 years and are told by a diverse group of narrators, located from the ocean to the mountains, several themes emerge.

One is that of the new arrival.

“We are what we are not only because people grow up here, but because new people come here,” said Alvarez, who notes that each of the book’s six sections includes stories from new arrivals or immigrants, including Victor Villaseñor, the son of Mexican immigrants, and Firoozeh Dumas, an Iranian immigrant in Newport Beach.

The book also tells coming-of-age stories of those who grew up in Orange County.

In an excerpt from his 2007 memoir, “Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life,” comedian and actor Steve Martin writes about the summer of 1955, the year Disneyland opened, when at the age of 10 he got a job at the theme park and his “first lessons in performing.”

Another theme throughout “Orange County” is the ever-changing landscape.

“Whether you were born here or arrived and made your home here, one of the threads I’ve noticed is that of constant change,” Alvarez said. “Throughout the book, the land that one grows familiar with and adjusts to keeps changing, whether it’s because of new people arriving, new developments or nature.”

An excerpt from Jessamyn West’s 1973 memoir “Hide and Seek,” for instance, tells of swimming in the Santa Ana River as a child.

“There was never a river more suited to children than the Santa Ana,” she writes. “The water was crystal clear, and it flowed over sand that was sometimes gold, sometimes silver.”

“The idea that someone wants you to swim in the Santa Ana River horrifies them,” Alvarez said of her students at Irvine Valley College, where she uses her book in class. “But it also makes them realize how quickly that changes, that it wasn’t always the paved cement gutter running under the freeway, that it was once a wild and beautiful place.”

Political tensions also run through the stories.

A description of the Vietnam War display at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum , in Yorba Linda — which UC Irvine professor emeritus Jon Wiener calls the “Nixon Liebrary” — is just pages away from a short story by Anh Chi Pham, a Vietnamese refugee.

“There are cultural, political and historical conflicts,” Tonkovich said. “Tricky Dick is partly responsible for the Vietnamese diaspora, much of which has settled in Westminster and Garden Grove. This has actually shifted politics considerably, so that much of Orange County went the other direction in the last couple elections.”

Alvarez said these complexities were key to the project.

“In collecting a book about what we imagine is the real Orange County, we didn’t want to fall into the trap of just celebrating — ‘look at us!’ — that kind of chamber of commerce, PR kind of thing,” said Alvarez, citing an essay from Raul Alvarez’s 2015 book, “There was So Much Beautiful Left,” which reflects on the death of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill man who died after an altercation with Fullerton police.

“We wanted to include a range of challenging pieces as well,” she said.

For Alvarez and Tonkovich, it is through this diversity of voices, perspectives and subjects that readers will gain a richer understanding of what the county truly is.

“I hope readers get a deeper appreciation for where we are and how we live,” Alvarez said. “I hope they get a sense of what I would imagine is the ‘real’ Orange County....

“We’re trying to go beyond the façade that is often too easily sold and accepted.”

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil is a contributor to Times Community News.