When we first moved to the Bay Area in the 1980s, my immigrant father, a newly employed research engineer, turned into an anthropologist, too. Full of energy and enthusiasm about what was utterly new, he investigated every lead on what made the region tick. What happens here? Every cultural festival, every religious house, every magazine, every newspaper, our neighborhood café, the local library book sale, and the bookstores—all of it was an adventure.
As years passed and we came to know the contours of the Bay, the sulfuric smell over the Dumbarton and the temples and the quirky cafés and the foggy coastline, my father began subscribing, one after another, to various publications—he was curious about the production of American culture and the English language. Reader’s Digest, National Enquirer, the Atlantic, Book of the Month club. There was no distinction between high and low culture. All those words, in different shapes, which were written by people with vastly different personalities and imaginations and curated by those with different tastes, brought me insights into a place that blazed with complicated and sometimes befuddling contradictions: California.
In my child logic, I imagined that if we had all these experiences and we put all those insights from everyone together, like the jeweled shards at the end of a kaleidoscope, we might eventually develop a sense of belonging. It would be a club, of sorts, that offered you the opportunity to inhabit more minds and more lives than just your own—a home in books. Vibrant literary experiences remain a joy of the state. These past few months have seen the birth of a new one: the American Fiction Series, a subscription box from the company Boxwalla, founded by Lavanya Krishnan and Sandeep Bethanabhotla and based in Southern California.
The subscription features two literary books and an additional token once every two months—the first, a Moleskine notebook; the next, a Star Spinner Tarot deck. The selections arrive in an elegant box with a geometric tan-and-olive Boxwalla logo printed on it. The selections in each box are curated by acclaimed author and book critic Alexander Chee (How to Write an Autobiographical Novel). Accompanying the tarot deck were two works by literary authors based in California: Jean Chen Ho’s Fiona and Jane and Jonathan Escoffery’s If I Survive You.
We asked Krishnan and Bethanabhotla about their inspiration for the box and what’s ahead. This interview was conducted over email and has been lightly edited.
What were the conversations that led you to develop the idea for this particular subscription box?
We’ve lived in Southern California since 2006, and one of the things we enjoy about living in Southern California is the diversity, specifically as reflected in the food: there are vibrant immigrant communities here, and you have access to Mexican, Taiwanese, Indian, Korean, Iranian, Vietnamese, Arab, Turkish, Lebanese, Ethiopian, Moroccan food—a window into these cultures and an opportunity to partake of these cultures through food. We especially love the food scene in downtown Santa Ana, Anaheim, and San Diego.
We’d been a bit disenchanted by the American literary scene in recent years—in a way, it didn’t seem to reflect the diversity and the “interestingness” that we had encountered in real life. But when we did a bit of digging a few years ago, we realized there were some very interesting American writers—Alexander Chee, Percival Everett—that we found ourselves falling in love with. And then in 2020, when there was sudden public awareness of the lack of diversity in American publishing, many of our customers and subscribers asked us to curate diverse and inclusive American fiction; our focus up until then had been great literature from around the world, with the United States as one of the countries.
We thought long and hard as to how we wanted to showcase American fiction to our audience, and we realized that we wanted to collaborate with Chee to do so. We approached him and were moved and honored when he agreed to explore this idea with us. And in the brainstorming that followed, the format was fully realized in the form of the American Fiction subscription box: a reimagining of the literary landscape of America.
What is your collaborative process like with Chee for the selection of books?
We had several brainstorming sessions, which was an iterative process that covered, among other things, how we wanted to shape the series. Alex recommended a few books for us to vet and check out, and we would read them and come back to him with feedback. It was thrilling because he was, in a sense, turning the tables and curating for us as readers. And when he asked us to check out the books that eventually became the first and second boxes, we were absolutely bowled over by his choices, and these were exactly the kinds of books that we’d been looking for and rarely finding. And they felt like Alexander Chee’s gift to us.
Alex’s experience editing The Best American Essays 2022 also informed his process of curating the boxes: that he needed to dig and read around the gatekeeping to find the gems. We told him that he had free rein to showcase the absolute best, regardless of trends and other unimportant things relating to salability, and the choices he came up with—and comes up with—continue to blow us away.
What are books you love and would recommend to readers that are set in Southern California?
Erasure, by Percival Everett! Everett is one of our favorite writers—and not just one of our favorite American writers. The protagonist of Erasure is a professor at a university in California, although a lot of the novel is set on the East Coast as well, in D.C. Everett himself is a professor of English at the University of Southern California.
Also, we highly recommend Jean Chen Ho’s wonderful Fiona and Jane, available in our second box.
What do you envision for the future of the American Fiction subscription box and Boxwalla more broadly?
Alex has written it best in the letter included in the first box:
This country is in an argument over what it means to even belong here. And meanwhile, there are some fascinating new novels & story collections emerging month by month, literature like we’ve never had, alongside editors & houses reaching back for the writers left behind, older writers, some living, some dead. The result is a reimagining of our literary landscape that we risk missing if we don’t really look.
Boxwalla’s mission remains to showcase the best literature from around the world, to connect readers with writers and books that might become their favorites, and to provide a jumping-off point to explore the wonderful literature available to us.
Toward this end, we are very excited to announce a collaboration with the anonymous curator behind @poetryisnotaluxury, who lives in Los Angeles. Poetry can be such a universal balm in difficult times, and @poetryisnotaluxury does such a wonderful job curating poetry for their feed, appealing to so many yet without dumbing down the form.
In our initial conversation with @poetryisnotaluxury, we realized that we are kindred spirits in the “good fight” for literature and were very much on the same page in terms of the kind of poetry we loved and wanted to showcase—great poetry from around the world, with an emphasis on underrepresented voices, criminally underrated poets, and more. The three of us bonded over a poem by Donald Hall, and @poetryisnotaluxury also introduced us to a wonderful Iranian poet. It was a good fit, and we are excited to come together to showcase some great poetry.
Join us on Zoom on Thursday, January 19, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Jaime Hernandez will join CBC host John Freeman and a special guest to discuss Maggie the Mechanic. Buy your copy of Hernandez’s book through the Fantagraphics website and use the code CALBOOKCLUB15 to receive a special 15 percent discount for CBC members. Please drop by the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow book club members know your thoughts about the book. Register here for the event.
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA PUNK SCENE
Michelle Cruz Gonzales (The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band) writes about recently reading Maggie the Mechanic. —Alta
WHY YOU SHOULD READ THIS
Alta Journal books editor David L. Ulin writes about the world Jaime Hernandez depicts in Maggie the Mechanic and other stories in the Love and Rockets series, commenting that they are as “essential as any about the region during the past 40 years.” —Alta
AFFIRMING HISTORICAL FICTION
Former CBC editor Rasheeda Saka reviews Toni Ann Johnson’s interlinked collection, Light Skin Gone to Waste, which won the 2021 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and is “concerned with the tenuous veneer of a kind of upper socioeconomic class.” —Alta
These were the bestsellers at California independent bookstores as of December 21. —Alta
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