UC Irvine MFA Alum Rebecca Sacks and Her Debut Novel “City of a Thousand Gates”

Her novel explores the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Photograph by Saria Darmon

A novel of radical empathy, it’s told from the shifting perspectives of multiple characters—a brash German reporter in her mid-20s, a Palestinian comparative literature professor, a Jewish American new mother, a soldier living in an Israeli settlement, a pro soccer player—and it turns on two acts of horrific violence. Sacks, who lives in Los Angeles, wrote it almost entirely when she was studying at UC Irvine from 2016 to 2019.

What were important lessons you learned in UC Irvine’s fiction program?
One of the teachers who had the greatest influence on me for sure was Michelle Latiolais. I was living in Tel Aviv and I had sent her some really preliminary material that gave a sense of what I was trying to do, and she said, “I think you are writing a novel, and I think you should come and do it here.” She was one of those voices—(when I thought), oh, there are too many characters, am I going to get in trouble with my community for speaking up in a certain way, she said, “You just go back to the writing and worry about that later.” (Associate professor) Danzy Senna was also wonderful. I took a risk with one of the stories about the young soccer player, the horrible scene of the beating. I’d never written anything that demanding as a writer, and demanding as much from a reader, and I was scared that doing it wrong could be its own act of violence and erasure. She made me feel like I was on the right track.

You made a Birthright Israel trip that had a profound impact on you and then moved to Tel Aviv to pursue a master’s in Jewish Studies. Can you talk about that?
I didn’t grow up in a Zionist household, or a religious household even, so when I went to Israel, I was developing the strongest Jewish connection I ever had to other Jews. I do feel I became a Jew in Israel. Yet, simultaneous to this happening, I was also developing this acute sense that in order for me to have a life there, other people had to be erased. It wasn’t like I had one set of feelings and an education displaced those feelings or contradicted them. It was as if these contradictory understandings were emerging simultaneously, almost like gestating two opposed twins at the same time. So it was as if I was learning and unlearning or loving and despairing at the same time, and I think that has never changed for me.

What has the reaction to the novel been like?
I would say the most meaningful feedback I’ve gotten is from people who maybe think of themselves as liberal but (for them) there is a lot about the reality of Israel’s approach to Palestinians that is maybe too complicated or difficult to look at. And hearing, “Your book helped me to open my heart and be a little more brave in my seeing”—that’s been the most meaningful to me. Yes, some people have been angry and said some not-nice things to me. But I know what it looks like when someone reacts in fear and anger, and I try not to take that personally. What I do let myself take to heart is when people let me know that they felt their heart opening when they read the book. That will sustain me.

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