“But then there is the acknowledgement that all the things that are or ever were good, even amid this fearful, volatile time, here they are.”
-Oscar Villalon, managing editor of Zyzzyva
Founded in 1985 in San Francisco, the legendary literary magazine Zyzzyva has always been ahead of the curve. The luminaries published in its pages in the early stages of their careers include Jane Hirshfield, Jim Gavin, Haruki Murakami, and Jill Soloway. 2020 marks a major milestone for Zyzzyva: its 35th anniversary, commemorated with a landmark issue, #118, featuring the likes of Bryan Washington, Lysley Tenorio, and Lauren Markham.
Editors extraordinaire Oscar Villalon and Laura Cogan steer this brilliant ship from their offices in another storied San Francisco institution, the Mechanics Institute (where they also throw the best holiday parties). Oscar, the former books editor of The San Francisco Chronicle and a member of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, is a lifelong Californian, and a writer and critic whose work has appeared in Freeman’s, The Believer, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. (He also knows a lot of fun facts about Iggy Pop and the Stooges). At the 2020 in-person Fest, Oscar was slated to speak on a panel celebrating Zyzzyva‘s 35th anniversary, as well as on “Staying Gold: California Dreams, Devastations, and Destinies” with David Ulin and Susan Straight. Here, he shares with us how he’s striving to bear witness, parent well, and stay sane during COVID-19: with a little help from some of his favorite albums.
BABF: Are there “comfort books” you have in rotation for times like these? Or has your concept of a “comfort read” changed in the midst of the utter weirdness and uncertainty of this current situation? What do you find yourself drawn to, books-wise, right now, whether for escape, inspiration, or strength?
OV: This crisis is so volatile, and the reality of my wife and I both working at home in our small apartment while making sure our son does his schoolwork so depleting, that I haven’t had the mental energy to turn to books the way I would like; that is, I haven’t been able to get blissfully lost in them. Not yet, anyway.
But my makeup is such that even at this time I’m drawn to novels or nonfiction about tribulation. I’m in the middle of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart, and keep dipping into Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths, and only finished Jack London’s The Sea Wolf about 10 days ago. Perhaps as things get worse, I’ll be eager for Stendahl or Dumas.
BABF: What do you feel most compelled to do right now, individually, as a writer? As an editor? As a parent?
OV: As a person and as a citizen, I feel I must, above all, bear witness to how this crisis is being handled and what it is laying out as stark as can be about our society and its values. As an editor, to help ZYZZYVA continue to do its work and to be of assistance to writers as much as I can. And as a parent, to allow the boy to express himself to me and his mother about what he’s feeling and what he’s noticing. He’s carefree at the moment, because he’s a self-described “indoor kid.” He has his parents, his movies and video games and comic books, and our dog has warmed up to him considerably since we’ve been cooped up. Despite what’s outside the door, he’s very happy.
BABF: What’s one thing you’ve seen or witnessed or experienced since this all began that strengthened your faith in humanity or made you feel hope?
OV: Re-listening to albums I haven’t had the chance to hear again in some years. Being confined, I’m doing much more cooking and cleaning than I normally would; every meal to be had has to be made in the kitchen, so every day the dishes get washed, the stovetop cleaned, the counters spayed, etc., to say nothing about having no reason to procrastinate on cleaning every other bit of the home.
So I’ve been listening to all sorts of things, sometimes for hours at a time. “Pet Sounds,” “King of America,” “Summerteeth,” “New Adventures in Hi Fi,” “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music,” “New York,” “14 Songs,” and on and on, music I delighted in through my twenties. There are the albums themselves, their exalting artistry and soulful beauty, and there are the transporting memories of youth associated with that music. But then there is the acknowledgement that all the things that are or ever were good, even amid this fearful, volatile time, here they are.
BABF: Is there a favorite local small business you’d like to namecheck for people to support during this time?
OV: Wild Pepper on 26th Street in the Mission. They’re a block around the corner from us, and have been our go-to delivery restaurant for years. Living under this new normal doesn’t mean I’m giving up their basil eggplant or General Tso’s chicken.