SF’s ‘Crown-Jewel Literary Journal,’ Turns 35

Established in 1985, ‘Zyzzyva’ has published works by Raymond Carver and Amy Tan.

During a recent Litquake on Lockdown event, Jane Ganahl, co-founder of the San Francisco literary festival, Litquake, described the small but powerful local lit mag Zyzzyva as “the crown-jewel literary journal of the Bay Area.” She is not wrong.

Since its founding 35 years ago this spring, Zyzzyva (named after the dictionary-concluding American weevil) has published new works by both Raymond Carver and Amy Tan. It was the first journal to present Haruki Murakami to an English-language audience. Issue 1, published back in the spring of 1985, featured poetry by Alice Walker, and “Carpe Diem,” a short story by Lucia Berlin who, in 2015, became a literary phenomenon with the publication of her posthumous collection, A Manual For Cleaning Women (currently being adapted into a film by Pedro Almodovar).

For the last decade, Zyzzyva has been run by Laura Cogan and Oscar Villalon, who, along with editorial assistant Zack Ravas, manage nearly every aspect of the magazine. In addition to editing its three annual issues, the two read roughly 2,000 manuscript submissions a year, write grant proposals, maintain the website, and send out mail orders. Under their editorial custody, the journal has introduced readers to new works by authors like Pulitzer Prize nominee Tommy Orange, Hugo-winner Charlie Jane Anders, and Rebecca Solnit, who, among many other achievements, coined the word mansplain.

Cogan, a San Francisco native, says what defines her city in the literary world is its diversity. 

“What I really love about the literary culture here is the diversity of voices and perspectives. It’s just so dynamic,” she says. “The reason we do what we do with the journal is to help readers find out what’s happening in contemporary literature here.”

Before his role as the magazine’s managing editor, Villalon edited for McSweeney’s, and the Chronicle before that. He says writing from the Bay Area is distinct from the writing published in New York, because the latter is “closer to Rome.”

“Part of what characterizes San Francisco literature is that it’s not already codified by big publishing in New York,” he says. “So you don’t know that you’re not supposed to do certain things. You’re free to pursue whatever it is that interests you — or whatever it is that’s haunting you — and try to pin it down.”

Issue 118, out now and current through summer, is a kind of literary monadology, a weaving-together of many distinct (and distinctly Bay Area) voices. Among its 33 pieces of fiction, poetry, essay, and art, are a bittersweet essay by USF professor Dave Madden, an excerpt from a forthcoming novel by Pushcart-prize winner Lysley Tenorio, and a poem about the JFK assassination called “Zapruder Film Blooper Reel.”

Villalon describes sequencing each issue as an act of finding its particular rhythm.

“When you juxtapose a story or a poem you see how they inform each other, the mood of each piece. We try to play those against each other to create a rhythm to the whole thing.”

Issue 118 ends with “Before and After,” a quietly unsettling short by emerging author Elizabeth Reichert, in which an American ex-pat living in Hong Kong finds himself caught in a slow reenactment of a childhood tragedy.

“We ended with Elizabeth’s story partly because we wanted to emphasize the power of that ending, the discovery of this narrator,” Villalon says. “We wanted to leave people with that note of him realizing the type of person he really is.”

In addition to the journal, Cogan and Villalon have also expanded Zyzzyva’s literary involvement to include some two dozen yearly reading events (all of which are currently taking place online), regular writers’ workshops, and a website which hosts new book reviews and writer Q&As.

And while surviving 35 years as a small-run, print-only lit journal in San Francisco is cause enough for celebration, Cogan says Zyzzyva’s role in the lit scene is still growing.   “We’re hoping to shift from thinking about Zyzzyva as an isolated publication, to looking at this as a community organization, wherein the events, the website, the workshops, and the journal all work in concert to support the contemporary literary arts.”

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