It’s trash day in Japantown and, even still, it’s easy to find parking a few blocks up from Roy’s Station. Outside it is sunny, flat, pleasant—whistling weather.
Though the houses are innocuous and orderly, in neighborhoods like these, a telepathic agoraphobe might live. Or someone recently returned from an alien abduction. Or a never-ending series of aunts who remove your teeth, divine your future from your bowel movements and force feed you squirrel sausage.
All three of these situations have recently been imagined by South Bay writers of speculative fiction, writers who are currently putting San Jose more firmly on the literary map.
These writers aren’t alone. Recent years have seen San Jose acting as an emergent literary hub. Khaled Hosseini and Viet Thanh Nguyen have both represented the city’s various neighborhoods in realist prose. A cadre of talented poets like Janice Lobo Sapigao, Kay Ryan, Christina Hutchins and Mighty Mike McGee all write San Jose in verse. The Center for the Literary Arts (CLA) has recently brought big names to town like Ocean Vuong and Hanif Abdurraqib (currently being rescheduled). Poet J. Michael Martinez now teaches at SJSU, which welcomes back their Legacy of Poetry Festival this April—the same time the CLA hosts prose master Joy Williams.
While San Jose in fiction had previously been relegated to cameos (when it appeared in fiction at all), a new generation of writers is now widening the South Bay’s literary representation—into the world of the surreal, the speculative and the strange.
At Roy’s Station I meet K-Ming Chang, whose second book Gods of Want opens with the aforementioned endless aunts. Chang grew up in San Jose and still lives here. She walked to meet me from her grandmother’s house. Among the first orders of business: What is speculative fiction? And why is it getting more popular?
“To me, the word speculative is so expansive,” Chang says. “It has so much possibility. It can’t be contained in a genre label, so I feel like speculative fiction is a non-genre. It is too expansive that you can’t really gatekeep it. Speculation is already a part of writing, intrinsically.”
Depending on who you ask, this “non-genre” of speculative fiction can include: science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, fabulism or surrealism. In a basic sense, it is a literature of the fantastical and the unreal.
Mike Chen was born in Good Samaritan Hospital and wrote Star Wars: Brotherhood, as well as the suburban alien abduction story Light Years from Home. For Chen, speculative fiction is largely a marketing description.
“When I was first getting into this industry, speculative fiction was kind of the umbrella term for: we don’t want to sell you under science fiction or fantasy,” Chen says. “Like, we want you to be taken more seriously than those genre conventions typically are. It is the publishing industry’s way of taking a science fiction or fantasy story but then saying, ‘Hey literary fiction readers, it is okay for you to touch this.’”
As a writer of character-driven sci-fi and, most recently, a work that has been categorized as “urban horror,” Mike Chen is both literary and cross-genre. His debut book Here and Now and Then was nearly accepted for publication five times. Each time, sci-fi imprints turned down the manuscript because it was too literary, while literary imprints said it was too sci-fi for their audience. He finally signed with an imprint of Harper Collins “who wanted to bring sci-fi vibes to their list.”
According to Chen, the seminal works The Time Traveler’s Wife and Station Eleven really broke the seal on speculative writing.
“Genres have really blurred in the last ten years,” he says. “The Time Traveler’s Wife and Station Eleven [are] these character-driven stories which are using these genre tropes, but they are not genre. Once those became accepted, more authors trickled into that.“
Rachel Swirksy—whose novel in progress centers on that agoraphobic telepath mentioned earlier and whose most recent book, January Fifteenth, also straddles the literary sci-fi divide—grew up in San Jose. When asked why speculative fiction appears to be on the rise, she cites the explosion of Harry Potter, the expansion of young adult fiction and, more recently, the popularity of Marvel movies.
“We have these instead of Westerns. And other action movies which at one point filled that niche,” she says.
Chen adds the current taste for speculative fiction could also have to do with streaming services.
“Streaming TV has brought so much genre-driven work with really good actors and really good writing and really in-depth character work,” he says. In short: “You’re seeing strong characters. And it is on a spaceship.”
Beyond this, there is also the popularity of Star Wars and the use of magic in other media forms, like video games, Swirsky explains.
“There are plenty of exceptions to this, but it seems to me that people who were born after Star Wars was already a ‘thing’ are more amenable to the idea of speculative fiction just being a part of stuff. That becomes double downed on when you have video games. They incorporate magic constantly. Video games are more likely to have elves or spaceships in them,” she says.
In describing her current work, Swirksy evokes many genres, offering some specific reflections on magical realism.
“The novel I’m working on right now I would call literary speculative fiction. It could be called contemporary fantasy or surrealism.” She admits to having “mixed feelings about the term magical realist to describe work outside of the post-colonial/occupied context”a context she says she does not have.
Chang, whose work has been called magical realist, also speaks to the cultural specificity—and quick-to-hand nature—of the term magical realism.
“We haven’t fully developed a language for forms of non-realism. Magical realism is so recognizable that we tend to use it even if it doesn’t belong to that specific tradition,” she says. “I think I am trying to find another word or term or language for it. I really like fabulism—it sounds like fable, and I am really interested in myth and fable: mythologizing the dollar store, mythologizing doing chores and having dinner with this family member. Bringing a mythic nature or a cosmic nature to really minuscule daily occurrences gives me a lot of pleasure.”
Swirksy offers a definition of magical realism by Ecuadorian magical realist Ana Hurtado that suits Chang’s mythic interest in Dollar Stores.
“Her definition is that it is work that is influenced by place, the place that you’re familiar with,” Swirsky says.
For Chen, his books typically take place in metropolitan areas, out of plot necessity. He describes the need to put his book We Could be Heroes in a fictional equivalent of San Francisco.
“The reason that it takes place in San Francisco is because if you have a super hero that can fly and you’re having bank robberies happen and things like that, it is much more dynamic in San Francisco because it is so compact,” he says. “Compared to San Jose, which is really sprawled out and your bank might be at a strip mall and not in the heart of the financial district.”
But when writing his novel Light Years from Home, a drama about a family adjusting to the return of a family member abducted by aliens, he found Mountain View served the story better.
“It is a suburban family story which has X-Files type stuff that happens to them and so I put it in Mountain View, because I live close to Mountain View and because I was able to identify the geography as the characters moved around. So, same thing about making it practical to the story,” Chen says.
Chang has a different way of comprehending and writing the suburban setting of the South Bay. For her, it is a place where the specific and the strange both occur.
“These places might seem very mundane or really interchangeable, but, to me, they are really deeply specific because of the communities that surround them, or the occasions that the characters are going to those places,” she says. “I enjoy bringing a sense of portal fantasy or magic to these places that we may consider mundane because there is nothing that is really that mundane about it. Going to the dollar store with a sense of wonder—I feel like is how the characters live their lives.”
Swirksy’s novel in progress likewise embraces the suburban, as well as the edges of town.
“The novel I’m writing I’ve located outside of San Jose, but I am using a lot of the images and things I remember from growing up in San Jose—being in a suburb and, what does this place behind a parking lot look like, what does the edge of town look like that isn’t built up,” she says—adding “although in San Jose, I’m not sure that still exists.”
For Chang, writing about places which no longer exist is integral to her entire writing practice.
“Japantown and downtown San Jose are both really important places to me and because things are changing so fast in San Jose—businesses going out of business, landmarks changing—part of my urge to write about San Jose comes from a feeling of grief. Feeling like—if I don’t write about these places, they’ll exist nowhere. They aren’t physically there anymore so I feel like I have to write them. If not in writing, how do these places exist?”
One of these places soon to not exist is Great America, the land under which was sold to a developer in June of last year.
“Great America is in the first story of my first book and I remember thinking, very specifically, wanting to keep that place,” Chang says. “I thought it had an interesting tie into what it means to be American and perform being American. A lot of my characters are oftentimes immigrants, or children of immigrants.”
The highly imaginative nature of speculative fiction often takes these authors beyond a physical place and into ideological ones. Underneath the aliens, myth and superpowers, their writing concerns immigration, emigration, identity, disability, the personal and the political.
Chang describes how writing intersects with her queer identity.
“As a queer child, I was often inventing my own ancestors, or inventing my own language for myself,” she says. “It was oftentimes secret, or just for myself. It is really fun to queer origin and to think about it not in biological terms, or nuclear-family terms. I feel like I’m always writing up against the nuclear family, or circling it, or trying to break past it or have a more expansive understanding of family.”
This imagining, reaching, and reassessing has an effect on the kind of stories that Chang produces—stories which don’t necessarily always include a revelation.
“My characters are reaching towards a family or a community that doesn’t even exist yet. A lot of queer theorists have talked about queerness as a horizon—you’re always reaching for it, and it is never there, it is never the present. Queerness is always what has not yet arrived,” she says. “That, to me, has guided a lot of my writing. I think, in writing, we often prize the epiphany—by the end of the story, by the end of the book, you’re going to reach something and it is going to be this brilliant revelation that is going to be like: this is why you read this book!”
Of course, there is a sense of the tragic in always reaching for a horizon, a Sisyphean quality we can all relate to, whether we like it or not. Chang says, however, that speculative fiction can be a way to imagine those places on an otherwise unreachable horizon.
“It is tragic that we don’t live in that world, which doesn’t exist yet. This sounds really obvious, but I think that is tied into my love for speculative fiction and for speculating within writing.”
There is tragedy in Swirsky’s novel in progress, as well, which is informed by a dynamic observed by the author as a young person, wherein young, gay Latinx boys kicked out of their homes ended up in the care of sexually exploitative caregivers. Another point of tragic reckoning stems from the suicide or overdose of a friend who was queer and whose death Swirsky attributes, at least partially, to the rampant hostility towards queerness.
“At some point, it became about that outsider position. That position outside of society,” Swirksy says of her book.
She is seeing some evidence of a horizon of queer acceptance drawing closer, yet she maintains that many remain ostracized and exploited.
“The attitudes towards queerness has changed radically in the last 20, 25 years,” she says. “There are still of course people who remain on the fringes, on the edges of society. There are so many trans homeless kids and plenty of kids who get kicked out of their homes and adults who are willing to be sexually exploitative.”
Another current in Swirksy’s work explores the tension within the disabled community around narratives of recovery and identity.
“A lot of it is about disability and, through that, I’m also talking about gender and relationships,” she says. “As a disabled person, as someone who interacts with other disabled people, there’s the question of whether to focus on recovery or accommodation, which I think really varies depending on the community.”
K-Ming Chang’s work also explores recovery, though in an entirely different sense.
“Not in the sense of recovering from something, but recovering certain stories and lineages that haven’t been given their due. Like, I honestly feel like I wouldn’t be writing if I didn’t come from such a matriline of storytellers, or if I didn’t feel there was some injustice in their erasure, or in the demeaning of their stories. So there is this weird sense that writing is such a joy, [and then a sense of anger and injustice and rage that] I have to do it.”
It was from her mother that Chang discovered an everyday, magical moment which may appear in a forthcoming work.
“My mom recently mentioned to me that there is this flock of wild parrots that lives at this intersection in Sunnyvale,” she says.
When she asked how they could see the parrots, the answer surprised her. It was easy: they lived in a tree outside a grocery store.
“And I thought, that is so not glamorous at all. I thought we’d have to go on a trek,” she says. “She also told me that the reason why those parrots—she thinks—existed is that it used to be an orchard, all that land, and it is now a shopping plaza. There used to be fruit stands, and fruit trees, and there are still remnants of the orchard, but most of it is gone.”
Chang visited the intersection and found the parrots, exactly as her mother described.
“At dusk, they all take off and do a huge lap and then come back to the tree and sleep. It was such an astonishingly beautiful thing to see while I was standing at a four-way intersection. With traffic, people doing their grocery shopping, people trying to go to CVS, and there’s me in the parking lot like, Oh my god, majestic birds!”
Moments like these make writing fabulist or magical realist works an easy choice for Chang.
“There is something about this that is so magical. And it is strange. It is strange. It is real. It is absurd. It is magical realism! It is fabulism, it is speculative. I feel like I am never grasping, or needing to reach, like, how do I make this magical, or nonrealist, or fantastical? It is there already. You might as well just, you know, inch up, turn the birds into gods, I don’t know, have the people ride the birds, we don’t know. But it is there.”
In the worlds of these three writers from San Jose there is a special alchemy, wrought by place and a welcome attitude to the strange. Their work represents a major movement towards the development of San Jose as a place within the literary imagination, challenging the notion that it is somehow bereft of artistic inspiration because of its suburban nature.
“People tend to think of a landscape like San Jose that’s quite sprawled out, they might think, are you going to find those inspirations or interesting things? And I’m like well, I went to an intersection and I was so inspired that I felt like I could write a novel about these parrots, so—” Chang says, laughing.
Of these three writers, Chang is the only one who remains in San Jose proper.
“In some ways, I relate to those parrots. I feel like I’ll do anything to stay here, even after all the places I know and love are gone. I’ll be those parrots, homing and haunting the four-way intersection, because I do feel a deep sense of home here, like the parrots do.”