Oscar Villalon on His Favorite California Books

The California Book Club panelist looks for works that beautifully relate the struggles of so many in the state.

oscar villalon
Oscar Villalon

More than a quarter of all Californians can trace their roots to Mexico. Oscar Villalon is proud to be among them. As he once wrote for Literary Hub, “My opinions are shaped by the fact that I’m Mexican American, raised in government housing in San Diego, the first to go to college, the son of blue-collar parents, a child of the Southwest, bilingual, bicultural.” As managing editor of the San Francisco literary journal ZYZZYVA—one of the partners of the California Book Club—Villalon adds an important voice to the world of letters, championing writers who are often overlooked in a field not known for its diversity. He adds this perspective to the California Book Club—he’s one of six panelists to choose titles for the club. In addition to Literary Hub, Villalon has also written for Alta, the Believer, Freeman’s, and Zócalo Public Square. The book club asked him about California books via email.

What’s your most treasured book about California—or that’s set in the state?
That’s tough to answer, as what I treasure shades in and out of cherishment with what the day may bring. All the works that dig into how hard life has been in California, and relate that struggle beautifully, are what I am especially grateful for being available to us. That covers a lot of ground, from In Dubious Battle and I Hotel to City of Quartz and The Revolt of the Cockroach People.

What are some of the best overlooked books that take place in the Golden State?
Max Miller’s I Cover the Waterfront has to be one of them. (Growing up in San Diego, I wish I had read that book when I was young.) Michael Jaime-Becerra’s story collection, Every Night Is Ladies’ Night, is a book that deserves a much wider readership, as does Michelle Latiolais’s She and Glen David Gold’s memoir, I Will Be Complete.

Who are some new California authors you’re most excited about?
If by “new” we mean authors whose debut works of fiction were published in the past few years, then I would say R.O. Kwon, Tommy Orange, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Rita Bullwinkel, Chia-Chia Lin, Margaret Wilkseron Sexton, and Kathryn Scanlan. Also, there are many emerging writers who are working on first books that I’m greatly looking forward to reading.

What’s a California story that deserves to be told in a book?
Anyone that knocks the scales off your eyes and lets you see things for what they are. What our wildfires tell us about who lives where and why, and about who will suffer the consequences of climate change in California and to what extent, and who has the power to shape policy (and who doesn’t), and how those people attained and use that power even as we are consumed in flames would make for an amazing tome worthy of a Robert Caro.

What’s the one California book that people need to read right now?
Anything by Percival Everett or Dana Johnson.

Read more about the California Book Club selection panel here.

John McMurtrie edits for McSweeney’s Publishing and the literary travel magazine Stranger’s Guide.
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