The holidays are here and this year is in need of good tidings as much as any other. In these times of plague and prejudice, readers have sought refuge by burying themselves in books. With that in mind, Off the Page has curated a holiday gift guide of ten works by authors of color across genres to keep up healthy reading habits. Whether poetry, fiction, short stories, memoirs or even a cookbook, these selections from local writers and beyond are all available through LibroMobile, downtown SanTana’s intrepid indie bookstore!
Before turning the page on 2020, let’s end the year by supporting the small businesses and local creatives that are working hard to change who gets to tell our stories!
Contortionist Tongue by Dania Ayah Alkhouli
Dania Alkhouli’s Contortionist Tongue arrived just before coronavirus staked claim to the world. If not for all that it has wrought, the local Syrian American Muslim writer would’ve delighted more in-person audiences with readings from her evocative collection of poetry and prose. Instead, Alkhouli had to cancel her book launch party in mid-March while taking readings online. But Contortionist Tongue is as irrepressible as its author’s voice, offering insightful explorations of womanhood. In “This is How it Feels to Be a Woman,” Alkhouli likens it to the smothering of a candle’s flame against its will, a quick literary incision that howls like a paper cut to the soul, only the sting lingers for much longer. A lighter, but no less vivid portrait is painted when the poet recounts teaching her grandmother in Syria how to use her iPhone to stay in touch after she departs. Alkhouli is a poet of great promise!
Chicano Eats: Recipes from My Mexican-American Kitchen by Esteban Castillo
Four years ago, Esteban Castillo launched his “Chicano Eats” blog as a way to share his favorite recipes. It seemingly capped a culinary journey brought forth by the cultural hunger pangs felt when he left SanTana for Humboldt. But the blog’s popularity skyrocketed and now has inspired his new cookbook by the same name. Chicano Eats is user friendly, with colorful photographs and brisk descriptions accompanying recipes that don’t leave measurements to guesswork. Castillo offers an array of recipes for everything from tacos de papa to michelada ribs to dulce de leche chocoflan. And I always say, cookbooks are the holiday gifts that keep on giving all year long!
Xicanx Affirmations by Iuri M. Lara
In Xicanx Affirmations, Iuri Lara’s words pulsate with ceremonial reverence. The Santa Ana poet, educator and mother weaves together ancestral wisdom with a grounded sense of self. In “The Revolution,” Lara reminds that change can begin with the mess left in a bedroom and the family traumas spanning generations between homes. Another offering, “My Mother Indigenous” was revised and read aloud before thousands who gathered for the 2018 Women’s March in Santa Ana. “I was born in between,” she writes. “Despite the hollow spaces, the misconceptions, despite the hostile spaces, I was born free. My mother declared me that way.” Taken in, Lara’s affirmations are as timely as ever with a trying year coming to a close and the promise of renewal on the horizon.
A Summer Life by Gary Soto
Back in the day, I had the opportunity to be a student in Gary Soto’s creative writing class at UC Riverside. One of the books profe Soto assigned that quarter was A Summer Life, a collection of short stories he penned about growing up in the San Joaquin Valley. With Soto’s conversational prose, he reflects back on those days of a butchered haircut, the meaning of sin in stealing a pie from a German market and loving the Beatles in spite of his stepfather’s disdain. A life lesson accompanies Soto’s refreshing, descriptive storytelling. Whether for readers young or old, thirty years after its publication, A Summer Life makes for a perfect wintertime stocking stuffer.
Damnificados by JJ Amaworo Wilson
A triumph of political fiction, Damnificados gives the destitute a fighting chance. Inspired by a real-life occupation of a half-built skyscraper in Caracas, a sense of magical realism envelopes the novel. A mythic tower stands in a fictional Latin American metropolis during an unspecified epoch. Amaworo Wilson gives the reader a reluctant protagonist in Nacho Morales amid a rag tag army of damnificados who defend the tower they’ve holed up in from the powerful. Trash wars, two-headed wolves and floods infuse the story with a fantastical flair all while the world created by damnificados within the tower stirs hope outside the bounds of fiction.
Form His Arms by Gustavo Hernandez
Gustavo Hernandez, a mustachioed poet from SanTana, excels at setting scenes before interpreting them. Ahead of his forthcoming Flower Grand First next year, he blessed readers with Form His Arms, a summertime poetry mini-chapbook. “I come from a long line of mustaches,” Hernandez declares in “Cabrillo.” The poem has him finding meaning while gazing at a beach day photo of his youthful dad and uncle. Elsewhere, the short collection considers the escapism of a Maui resort only to find a simpler paradise in feeding a visiting house finch. Such satisfying revelations are the true gift of Hernandez’s poetry, whatever lands it traverses.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s new novel floats along eerie atmospheres and unwinding mysteries. Setting the scene, NoemíTaboada is sent off to the Doyle Mansion in mid-century Mexico after a letter penned by Catalina, her prima, arouses concern. The countryside manor is filled with an odd cast of characters who adhere to the most rigid of house rules. Englishman Virgil Doyle, Catalina’s husband, is particularly preoccupied with eugenics, the supposed scientific supremacy of the day. After all, to be a Doyle is to be someone, but it means something more. Moreno-Garcia’s gothic mansion is uniquely Mexican and just as suspenseful in uncovering secrets.
whispering to god and the city by Jesus Cortez
As an unofficial poet laureate of the other Anaheim, Jesus Cortez’s verses emerge from the city’s forgotten west side. His zine collection, whispering to god and the city, paints gripping portraits of hood violence, police brutality and immigrant working-class life. Though Cortez finds harsh poetry in the clicks of a cop’s cuffs tightening around young, brown wrists, he also voices a tender resiliency, mostly though the muse of his late mother. No other collection better shouts out the unspoken realities furnished every day in the barrios of OC’s biggest city.
Pandemia & Other Poems by Edward Vidaurre
The sudden arrest of the pandemic in winter’s waning days acquainted people with their shadow side, willingly or not. Some hoarded toilet paper at the grocery store; Edward Vidaurre penned poetry and asked in one verse if he remembered to buy some himself. His collection Pandemia & Other Poems is divided into four sections, chalk full of Covid contemplations, if not always in name. Vidaurre threads through this year with reflection and resolve. “Images” forces the reader to turn the book sideways to read, as life itself has been upended. “I’m afraid, yet I work through these ghostly streets of uncertainty,” he writes, inviting us to do the same.
Badge of Color, Breaking the Silence: A Documented Memoir by Harlen Lambert
Being the first Black policeman in Santa Ana didn’t come easy. With superb prose, Harlen Lambert’s new memoir Badge of Color, Breaking the Silence: A Documented Memoir recounts the racist hazing he experienced on the force beginning in the late 1960s, when more than a few Birchers served in uniform. The unrelenting harassment forced him to quit years later, but not before enduring enough to offer a portal into Santa Ana on the beat, from Black Panthers to a burning home he heroically rescued children from. Badge of Color is a must-have for all local history buffs, ethnic studies educators or just anyone wishing to take in an enlightening memoir in these times of racial reckonings.
Gabriel San Román is a contributor to Times OC and a former OC Weekly staff writer. Subscribe to his weekly Slingshot! Newsletter. And in case anyone is wondering, he's still the tallest Mexican in OC.