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Laura Cogan

The Bay Area Issue: Editor’s Note

One day in July I ran into a colleague on my way to lunch. We commiserated about the state of the world, briefly, and then he asked me if I’d been to the Flower Piano program at the San Francisco Botanical Garden yet. He said he’d just been, and that after one of the professional performers finished her set, a few of the people milling around took turns playing. One played David Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” singing softly under his breath. Another, a child of about ten, played a classical sonata, with astonishing beauty.

There’s still art here, he said with a half smile as we parted ways. We’re still here, I said in agreement.

It was only the second or third time someone had made a remark in that vein to me in the past few weeks.

There’s a palpable sense that the pressure on creative folks in the San Francisco Bay Area is nearly intolerable—a widespread and reasonable feeling that is nevertheless at odds with the exceptional density of people still doing creative work of the highest caliber here. There’s a sense that we’re all hanging on by our fingertips, and maybe only the fingertips of one hand, while the other hand continues writing, continues playing.

Will the region that has always been our home endure as a generative hub of literary and artistic innovation? I want to say, Of course it will. But nothing is a given. If we don’t make deliberate efforts to make the Bay Area a sustainable place for bakers and musicians, teachers and translators, poets and playwrights to live, we could see a major transformation, one that will incalculably diminish the fundamental identity of this place.

In the meantime, the pressure from the sense of transience and the precariousness of it all naturally filters in and shapes the work we’re seeing. As always, remarkable work can emerge from struggle and heartbreak, even from despair. We can celebrate that, but it’s impossible not to worry about the cost. Because on the other side of that coin, the less romantic side, is all the unseen, unknowable work that could have been, but was stifled by lack of opportunity and support.

At a concert at the Fox Theater in Oakland in August, I chatted with a neighbor. The conversation quickly turned to lament, as it so often does: he’s a San Francisco native, and grew up taking the N Judah out to Candlestick (more lamenting) to see the Giants play. He was living with family while searching for housing, he told me, and increasingly widening the search area. He paused and then said, “I’m not sure whether the Bay Area is really a place people live anymore. Maybe it’s more of a temporary place to be for a few years.” He was thinking of leaving the state entirely, maybe moving to Scottsdale, Arizona, so he could visit the Giants at spring training.

At times it seems there’s as much despair about the inevitability of this transformation as there is about climate change: the decline is so far advanced and powerful in its own momentum, and the problem so expansive and multiform, and the leadership necessary to tackle it effectively and efficiently so lacking.

But then I’ll find myself in a certain neighborhood, or in certain company, and somehow all that disruption seems muted or far off, as though the fog had cast a protective spell on that corner of the Bay.

And if it’s not a foregone conclusion, if such pockets of neighborhoods and community persevere, then we have to try to protect the culture that we still have.

With that in mind, and on the cusp of our 35th anniversary next year, we bring you an issue dedicated to this unique place. If for you, too, it sometimes feels that this transformation of home is already a fait accompli, I hope this sampling, drawn from the wealth of our local talent, from all stages of career and across genres, pushes back against that notion—and, in so doing, makes an eloquent case for all we stand to lose, and all we must invest in conserving.

Some of us are still here; others have left. Some are poised to go, reluctantly or bitterly or enthusiastically seeking new terrain. Amid the tension and pressure, amid the injustice and anxiety, art and literature endure and blossom in the Bay Area with uncommon ingenuity, vision, and persistence.

Order ZYZZYVA No. 117—The Bay Area Issue—here.

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Letter from the Editor – Issue 116

ZYZZYVA Volume 35, #2, Fall 2019Dear Readers,

At the risk of stating the obvious, most of us will spend a large portion of our waking hours working. For many people, the work they must do is in tension with the life they want to lead. For others, work is the site of the most profound expression of their life force. Many of us labor somewhere in the middle, as both our work and our sense of self are subject to major change over the course of time. And while work and life are not the same, the sheer number of hours devoted to work (or consumed by it) makes it an inescapably important part of our existence. What we do at work— and how we think about it—can inform much of how we experience life itself as we go through our days.

It would be, probably, too strong to call this a themed issue. But threaded throughout many of the selections here—sometimes in the foreground, sometimes as an integral part of the underpinning architecture—is the theme of work. It’s the generative engine of conflict or a burgeoning worldview, the site of alienation or community, a place of escalation, ambition, escape, or beauty. At cosmetics counters and grocery stores, restaurants and cafes, newspaper offices and production sets, the stories, essays, and the interview here are laced with concerns about labor, class, money, and identity.

In Dagoberto Gilb’s story, a former construction worker and a writer sit across a table as wide as a canyon, trying to truly see each other and understand what happened between them years ago. Jim Gavin speaks with uncommon candor about money and its attendant anxieties. Michelle Latiolais’ poignant essay describes the grace and dignity she found in restaurant service. Michael Jaime-Becerra recalls how the experience of his first summer job—following in his father’s footsteps working at a Viva Mart—ultimately crystallized his understanding of the radically different life, and work, he’d need to seek out.

Reviewing the issue, I’m struck by how many of these pieces subtly, organically, challenge lazy clichés about what kinds of work are valuable, who should do which jobs, and how we’re expected to then feel about it.

Whatever you’ve worked on today, however you’ve spent your precious time and energy, I hope you’ll read something here that resonates. In some ways, I think the conversation opened here about labor is just a beginning—and something we may want to explore again in a future issue.

Yours, L.

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Letter From the Editor – Fall Issue 113

ZYZZYVA Volume 34, #2, Fall 2018The following is the Letter From the Editor as it appears in ZYZZYVA’s Fall Issue No. 113, our special issue focusing on the Environment & Conservation: 

Only in nature have I had experiences that could be described as spiritual. This may surprise anyone who knows of my longstanding lack of interest in camping, or, on the other hand, confidants who have witnessed the inverse of inspiration: times when I’ve been undone with distress over the plight of animals, plants, and ecosystems. Beyond all that, though, have been the private moments when, hiking or traveling, observing animals at peace in their natural habitat or taking in a vista, I’ve felt something like grace, something like awe, wash over me in a way that is both overwhelming and, somehow, steadying. In such moments, there is both a sense of stillness and unrelenting change; a sense of the breadth of life stretching in every direction (and through time), far beyond my own perception—a visceral sense of what is greater than me. And at the same time I have a more than usually concrete sense of my own being, of my feet on the actual ground, of my self as a physical creature (not just a mind endlessly busying itself). It’s as pragmatic as a sense of perspective sharply reasserting itself, and as ethereal as a daydream. There’s no accounting for such moments, and at times I’ve felt there’s no expressing them, either. And like so many phenomena on this little planet in this enormous universe, those moments have been real—whether or not anyone else can corroborate or appreciate them.

The ethos of this special issue assumes only that we can all agree on two things: first, that the environment is changing at an alarming rate (with Antarctic ice now melting at triple the rate observed ten years ago, and greenhouse gas emissions surging globally); and, second, that this is a matter of increasingly urgent concern, demanding action. Myriad questions and divergent opinions may follow from that shared ground. Some may never feel that care for the natural world is an ethical imperative, but will be mobilized by the likely devastating consequences for human beings—particularly the most vulnerable. We must make plenty of room in this movement for different views if we’re going to make progress. The hope must be to elevate the issue above partisanship just enough so we can have the necessary, generative disagreements and make the necessary compromises that may result in change, both local and global. Right now, in this country, we are stymied.

Concerns over the implications and applications of Artificial Intelligence (AI) are linked to questions about our relationship with the natural world, too, and should remind us, in case there has been some confusion, that our own minds are not computers; we, too, are animals, and irrevocably part of the natural world (not simply a force that acts upon it yet remains outside of it). Perhaps the underlying lesson is simply a cautionary tale about how difficult it is for humans to appreciate other kinds of intelligence and consciousness. Historically, we tend to perceive nonhuman intelligence as radically inferior—which says more about our powerful bias than it does about the creatures with which we share the planet. To hold ourselves separate from and somehow above our environment is a posture that frees us from the burden of worrying about catastrophe, but it is a failure of ethics and of the imagination that is destined to have dire consequences.

For this issue we sought out work that approaches the environment (and human interactions with it) from a wide variety of perspectives, but always as something more than a setting for human drama. Environment is treated here as a dynamic part of the drama, part of ethics, part of spirituality. Similarly, on the shadow side, when we think about social injustice, systemic violence, the exercise of power—the environment is ever-present, part of the drama. The environment, from parks to wilderness—and our (mis)apprehension of it all—is tangled up in every thorny moral issue, if we could only see it.

Perhaps most poignantly, in this month of very public suicides, for those who see us at or near a tipping point from which there can be no return, the environment poses this question: how do we continue, and continue to try, in the face of despair? One answer, perhaps the only answer, is that we simply must.

And there is room for hope, too. The works collected here remind us that our understanding of the environment has transformed before, and can change again. That local legislation can result in important changes with global implications, and with tangible results. That storytelling and the creative imagination have a role to play in advocacy; that such art can perhaps move the needle more effectively than argument. That we are guilty of terrible violence to ourselves and one another, but also capable, with tremendous effort, of improvement. That the end of this story is not yet written, that it is ours to decide and to tell.

In this way, this issue hopes to frame a less partisan but no less urgent approach to concerns of the environment—an approach disinterested in wearing the label “environmentalist,” and focused instead, as Obi Kaufmann proposes, on conservation and restoration. We’re hoping to do our part to lean into the creaking motion (already in gear, but working against so much lethargy when there is not a moment to spare), to make complete this paradigm shift in how we see our relationship to the environment, and to divorce ourselves from clichés of tree-huggers vs. capitalists—clichés that sneeringly diminish all of us.

Once the perspective has shifted and the picture has sharpened, the question won’t be whether to act, but how.



You can read the issue in its entirety by subscribing to ZYZZYVA or ordering a copy of Issue 113 today. 

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Letter From The Editor

“Literature is the question minus the answer.”
—Roland Barthes

To learn which questions are unanswerable and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.”
—Ursula K. LeGuin, from The Left Hand of Darkness

Dear Reader,

Perhaps you, like me, find yourself asking a lot from literature these days: greater solace, finer insight, deeper resonance. For me that’s led to thinking more pointedly about such expectations, and I’ve found it is useful to ask not only what literature can do to respond to current events, but also how; not just what meaning literature can make, but how such meaning operates.

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One Year Later: A Message to Our Readers

High resolutionDear Readers,

Today marks an anxious anniversary of sorts—grave for many reasons, but in no small part because we do not yet know the full consequences of the event we’re reflecting on. We cannot know because it is still unfolding and, whatever the effects are, we are still in the middle of it.

One year ago this evening, as the presidential election results rolled in, Oscar and I texted each other. What should we do, I asked? You should write something, Oscar answered. So on November 17, we sent out a letter. We called it the Solidarity Letter, and we hoped it would serve not only as a way of communing with all of you—our friends, colleagues, contributors, and readers—and reaffirming a set of core ideals (equality and dignity for all, freedom of the press, democratic principles), but also as a statement of intent and purpose as we looked to the future.

Ever since the election—without exaggeration, every day for the past year—we’ve been working to create a Resistance Issue, and on December 1st we’ll share it with all of you. As we’ve shaped the issue, we’ve shaped our evolving vision for the journal, too.

It’s our belief a literary journal can and should be engaged with a world in tumult; we can offer both respite from the often vapid noise of a 24-hour news-cycle and relentless partisanship, and, at the same time, invite deeper, more thoughtful engagement with the most urgent questions facing our culture and our country. We believe there is a role for this journal to play in the current environment, and that we can do so without diminishing our commitment to our foundational cause of contemporary art and literature. We believe we can curate a conversation elevated above party loyalty, one that is thoughtful even when it is provocative, which dares to be both idealistic and intellectual, informed as much by poetry as it is by history.

The forthcoming Resistance Issue asks many questions about art, culture, and political engagement, and endeavors to offer a few ideas for consideration. The robust special section is comprised of essays by Troy Jollimore (on how Wallace Shawn’s work illuminates our predicament), Robin Romm (on what Imre Kertész teaches us about art as resistance), T.J. Stiles (on the road we travelled to arrive at this precarious moment), and Andrew Tonkovich (on “free persons” and writing), as well as poetry by Victoria Chang, David Hernandez, Dean Rader, and Ruth Madievsky. Beyond these themed pieces, the issue also includes stories by Kristopher Jansma, Dana Johnson, and Krys Lee; an excerpt from Dorthe Nors’s forthcoming novel; poetry by Judy Halebsky, Bino Realuyo, and Jenny Xie; and a riotous conversation between Matt Sumell and Michelle Latiolais on writing, mentoring, and anger. And it’s all bound up in an exquisitely-crafted, illustrated cover by Josh Korwin—a piece of art in and of itself; one evocative of these strange times.

Please join us as a subscriber and guarantee yourself a copy of this landmark issue of ZYZZYVA. We hope you’ll take part in the community and conversation we’re striving to curate.

Yours in solidarity,


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Notes on the First 30 Days

IWillFightForYou_1.21.2017On the morning of Inauguration Day, I met up with a friend in midtown Manhattan, where we rented a car and set out for Washington, D.C. Our plan was to make the drive before nightfall, have a quick dinner, finish making our signs, and get a good night’s rest before the Women’s March. Not only was it less expensive to rent a car than to fly or take a train, but our road-trip had the added benefit of keeping us away from TV all day—a serendipitous media blackout for which we were both grateful. We didn’t turn on the radio, either—we brought a playlist. There was in this avoidance an expression of grief, a turning away or a lowering of the eyes.


I have found, at times, only temporary reprieves from the anxiety, persistent since the election, that whatever we do, whatever donations and calls we make, whatever petitions we sign or letters we send—it is not nearly enough. Though I harbor no confusion over the moral obligation to try and keep trying, I know I’m not alone in feeling besieged time and again by the crushing worry that nothing I can do will amount to an adequate response to the moment.

The demands of the moment are urgent, complex, and enormous. What art will suffice for this darkening time, what activism? One way in which the new president and Steve Bannon, his primary advisor, exercise power (however instinctively, however strategically) is through language (the deluge of lies and misdirection), another is through demoralization. (What practical purpose could threatening to defund the already modest National Endowment for the Arts possibly serve, if not to send a chilling message to artists and writers and the organizations that support them?) What power can the resistance harness in language and images to fight back; and what can we do to uplift and inspire each other?

That others have been here before, have felt the pressure of these same questions is saddening, yet also a source of solace and, potentially, guidance and inspiration. Wallace Stevens’ “Of Modern Poetry” echoes frequently in my mind:

The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.

Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice.

In just the first month of the Trump presidency we’ve already lived through several extraordinary tests. The deluge of public lies, the ethics violations, the travel ban, the ascendance of Bannon, the ICE raids: as each new event jolts our consciousness, many of us cycle through feelings of helplessness, anger, sorrow, and determination, and sometimes we land on a perch of hope. We find some way to respond. We show up, we make calls, we share information, we make ourselves seen and heard by our representatives. We savor a momentary satisfaction while surveying the landscape—looking for what more to do, and for what may be next around the bend.


By mid-morning my friend and I were looking for a restroom and a snack. We stopped at the Clara Barton Travel Plaza along the New Jersey turnpike, and as we pulled into the crowded parking lot I saw women in groups of four and five emerging from dozens of cars and vans, many of them in pink hats. The line for the women’s room was lengthy, and a sense of energy and anticipation radiated from the clusters of women gathering in the small food court. We exchanged nods and smiles with strangers when our eyes met.

We bought a pint of what looked like sugar-coated doughnut holes and a container of caramel dipping sauce and, noting the light rain that had started to fall, decided to eat our snack there and take a short break from driving. We found a spot by the window, but as I sat down I realized I was directly in view of a television mounted from the ceiling, broadcasting the inauguration. Mike Pence was being sworn in. And then Trump. A small crowd gathered to watch, and I watched their faces in profile. No one spoke for some time—as if the room was holding its breath for a moment, waiting to see if something might somehow intervene and disrupt the proceedings. As the new president turned to receive congratulations from his family, the rain picked up, pounding the pavement. Restless and dumbstruck once again, we got back on the road.

Back in San Francisco the following Tuesday, I was heartened to hear from my office the muffled call-and-response of protestors on Market Street. Show me what democracy looks like; this is what democracy looks like. I was even more heartened to learn later on the evening news of multiple protests around the country that same day: in Austin, New York City, Denver, Orlando, Philadelphia; in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina; Overland Park, Kansas; Vienna, Virginia; Rochester, Michigan, and many other places. It all felt like a muted answer to the question that had haunted me since the march: now what?

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Letter From the Editor

The following Letter from the Editor appears in the Winter issue. It was originally written a few days before Election Day.

“What is essential is the intense presence of the viewer in the intense presence of the art.”—Edward Albee

Edward Albee

Edward Albee

Dear Readers,

For eight years I lived in New York, and during that time I took in a reasonable amount of theater, on, off, and off-off Broadway, whenever and wherever I could get tickets. There was, as you can imagine, a great deal of serious and experimental work to choose from, which was particularly fortuitous because my graduate work was in part on Samuel Beckett. One memorable evening, my father and I saw a brilliant production of Endgame at the Irish Repertory Theatre starring Tony Roberts as Hamm (you may best remember Roberts as Woody Allen’s patient and much taller friend Rob in Annie Hall). In Endgame he was confined to a dilapidated wheelchair for the entire play, his eyes shielded from the audience by sunglasses, his body shrouded in piles of rags—and from this disadvantaged position Roberts captivated in every moment. Another fine evening of theater was also had well off Broadway, in a production juxtaposing three short pieces by Beckett (including Not I) with, after an intermission, Counting the Ways, a one-act by Edward Albee. Albee became another playwright I sought out, and over the years I saw Sally Field in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? and Kathleen Turner in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Both productions featured the always excellent Bill Irwin.) After each show I left the theater feeling drained, as though I myself had been through an extended bout of personal reckoning. Yet I returned to see both productions a second time. What is it about Albee’s work that seems so essential? What makes his work such a complementary pairing with the stylistically distinct Beckett?

I think it has something to do with Albee’s unsparing examination of who we are, and how we allow ourselves to become such mysteries to ourselves: this kind of investigation is demanding, but speaks directly to how art can craft meaning from the raw material of life. It has a personal dimension (his plays often examine intimate and long-term relationships), as well as a social and a political one. Albee’s work calls for us to wake up, to take stock, to challenge ourselves to confront who we’ve become. It asks us to see how we’ve wounded the ones we love, intentionally or otherwise, how we’ve drifted from our intentions and our better selves; to stop skating along complacently and consider the complexities of identity, relationships, and society, in all their tangled, gnarled glory. It’s an exhausting but profound journey we take. In other words, his work delivers on the promise of art.

Beckett is, still, literally incomparable. He plumbs essential questions about existence by relentlessly discarding all excess: the staging is spare, and speakers are often confined in one manner or another so that distraction is minimized and the dialogue can then do its work of relentlessly circling and closing in on the matter at hand. Through rhythm, repetition, a deliberate kind of digression, and a concentration on language itself, Beckett drills below the noisy, stubborn surface of daily life. “Absurd” is a word that often gets thrown around in discussing Beckett’s work, but the work is more stripped to a core (the voice that speaks, the mind that thinks) than it is simply absurd.

Albee’s work does something different but related. He, too, works to shatter the tough shell of the quotidian and to burrow into the difficult subject matter underneath. He presents material in what appears to be a more familiar setting (with the trappings of home and family), and then proceeds to make the familiar deeply strange. He uses crisis and excessive drink and elements, yes, of the absurd to crack the polite surface and to push his characters, and the audience, past delusion and into painful confrontations. Like Beckett, he uses language, humor, and extreme situations to dissolve our complacency.

There was an unpleasant dissonance in learning of Albee’s death in September within the same week I read about Tom Wolfe’s inexplicable new book in which he claims evolution cannot account for the human development of language: a thesis he supports with flawed logic and an exuberant obtuseness. We are in a time of real resistance to the facing of facts and hard truths that Albee championed. (How discouraging that evolution itself must still be counted among these.) This seems, indeed, to be a time of minimal respect for facts, for science, and for hard truths. Evolution (and its deniers) seemed to be of interest to Albee through the years; his 1975 play Seascape is in part a meditation on evolution. In one scene, a character attempts to explain evolution to a mated pair of man-sized lizards, with little success. In 1998, Albee clarified these needlessly muddied waters: “I hold that we are the only animal who has invented and uses art as a method to communicate ourselves to ourselves. And I am convinced that this has a great deal to do with evolution; again, my apologies to the creationists.”

virginiawoolfplaybillToday, many of the trends and tics in American culture that most worried Albee seem amplified. In Stretching My Mind, a 2005 collection of essays, interviews, and reflections spanning his career, Albee laments critics who, instead of seeking to shape public opinion and guide public reception for art that may be difficult, try only to reflect existing opinion back to the public in a kind of self-congratulating hall of mirrors. “It is not enough to hold the line against the dark,” he wrote in 1989. “It is your responsibility to lead into the light. People don’t like the light—it reveals too much. But hand in hand with the creative artist, you can lead people into the wisdom…simply, that it is the dark we have to fear.” This concern endures, and a parallel abdication of duty in politics and political coverage—with too many members of the media shaping their work around public feelings about issues rather than the issues themselves—confronted us in this election season. Too many demurred when presented with an opportunity to call out a lie, retreating instead to the now familiar defense that the public can decide for themselves—evidently without the benefit and expertise of those whose job it is to analyze, contextualize, and fact-check.

Explaining in The Paris Review the meaning of the title of his most famous work, Albee said, “who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf means who’s afraid of the big bad wolf, who’s…afraid of living life without false illusions.” The answer, if we are honest, is all of us. There is a perennial quality to this challenge at the heart of Albee’s work, but rarely have we been in more urgent need of the courage to dispel our personal and collective false illusions than now. Albee’s voice was singular. His loss is a great one for the arts, for the theater, for those who appreciate a thoughtful and meticulous kind of provocateur.

As we go to press with this issue in early November, we are in an odd position, knowing that it will publish about a month after the presidential election. Whatever the outcome, there will be much to concern us. For this is one of those loaded moments in our history when the tectonic shifts rumbling far below the surface can be easily felt.

No matter where we find ourselves, the motto that appears above the figure in our cover art is apt: be strong. We all have a great deal of work to do—as citizens, as artists, as members of myriad overlapping communities.

A world in crisis demands our full attention—a willingness to dispel our self-protective illusions—and requires the full-voiced efforts of our better selves.

Wishing you and yours a peaceful holiday season, and a bright NewYear.



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On Concluding Our 30th Anniversary: Letter From the Editor: Issue No. 105

billboard_latestissue_cover_16winter_largeDear Reader,

In 1946, Lionel Trilling penned a barbed sort of defense of “little magazines”:

“They are snickered at and snubbed, sometimes deservedly, and no one would venture to say in a precise way just what effect they have—except that they keep the new talents warm until the commercial publisher with his customary air of noble resolution is ready to take his chance, except that they make the official representatives of literature a little uneasy, except that they keep a countercurrent moving which perhaps no one will be fully aware of until it ceases to move.”

In her introduction to The Pushcart Prize XI: Best of the Small Presses (1986–87), Cynthia Ozick mused in reply to Trilling, “What the small presses keep warm, and alive, are those very forms ‘the cultural situation’ tends to submerge: essay, story, poem.”

So here we are at the close of 2015, charged with keeping new talents and vital forms warm; charged, too, with keeping a quiet countercurrent moving. In practical terms, I take this to mean we are tasked with encouraging authors doing laudable work in contemporary literature, bringing their works to print in the finest form possible, and advocating tirelessly for their value. We endeavor to sustain our authors with all we have to offer (printed page, honorarium, online presence, events, moral support), and hope that, in time, our efforts help them find publishers, agents, and yet more readers, and garner career-sustaining awards and grants, as well. Beyond this service to writers, the journal must offer its readers—dedicated adventurers in contemporary writing, invigorated by work not yet codified by any canon—all the pleasures and insights of literature.

For ZYZZYVA, 2015 marked three decades of all this: discovering new talent, supporting writers and artists at all stages of their careers, and presenting innovative work.

But we also celebrated something less grand yet essential: thirty years of work we might file under “keeping the lights on”: paying rent and bills, fulfilling orders, fixing the printer, maintaining a website, hustling for ads and donations, rebooting the wireless connection, fixing the printer—once again.

This is no small thing. Not many journals, let alone independent ones, make it this far.

And while we may not see the world as so openly adversarial as Trilling saw it in 1946, by its sheer indifference ours may be an even more hostile environment than the one he was observing; it is almost certainly, in public forums, a less civil one. Yet we persevere, and do so with a sense of purpose no less keen than ever.

Working out of San Francisco plays a part in keeping us focused. We all know the city is changing, and that artists and writers and the organizations that support them are under increasing pressure. In a fraught economy of apps and “sharing,” San Francisco may offer the country a representative future, one destined to reach across the continent and wreak disruption along the way. I hope we may yet also offer the country a representative model in how to push back against some of these tides, reversing the crowding out of culture and the diminishment of bohemian life, working vigorously to preserve the diversity of voices and vocations that make a city thrive.

I’m not inclined to see a binary opposition between tech and the arts as inevitable or organic, and I’m troubled by the prevalence of that attitude— and how easily it lends itself to a corresponding condescension to the arts (and publishing, too), as though the only way to look forward or to be visionary is through the lens of an app; as though we must take for granted that paper and ink are hopelessly outdated. Too often the implicit question seems to be, How can tech improve literature and help publishing? Too seldom do we ask what literature might teach tech.

The literary and visual arts are an essential part of what has made San Francisco innovative, beautiful, and visionary. It is a concentration of culture, after all, that makes a city a city. Without it, San Francisco would be all surface, a glorified bedroom community with pockets of its urban past preserved for tourists.

It’s a tough time, but ZYZZYVA has endured booms and busts before thanks to you, dear reader, and to the indispensable financial support of every donor, subscriber, and board member; and to the hard work and dedication of every volunteer and intern.

And daily there are reminders of how vital and fun this work is; how lucky we are to be doing it. We’re encouraged by the astonishing wealth and originality of talent in contemporary literature—among those we publish and those we’re reading outside the journal. We’re thrilled by the wide recognition and acclaim that has arrived for authors such as Marlon James and Elena Ferrante, and are inspired by their daring and important work. We’re heartened by the recent awards and recognition our own contributors have received, and by the robust support of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Zellerbach Family Foundation. We’re inspired, too, by the dedication of our colleagues and their fine work in publishing, in bookstores, and in the arts. We’re honored that each of you holding this volume has carved out time in your day and space in your mind for the pages we’ve labored over.

A hearty and heartfelt toast of gratitude to all. Here’s to the adventure and joy of the endeavor.

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The Misapprehension of Satire: On ‘The Zone of Interest’ by Martin Amis

The Zone of Interest“O Germany—
Hearing the speeches that ring from your house, one laughs.
But whoever sees you, reaches for his rifle.”
—Bertolt Brecht (from Hannah Arendt’s
Eichmann in Jerusalem)

I. Introduction

January marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the infamous labor and extermination camp in Poland where more than one million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, right under the nose of Polish citizens and the wider international community. The timing of this gruesome anniversary is poignant, as European anti-Semitism is perhaps more virulent and threatening now than at any point since the war. Anti-Semitism has unfortunately proven itself to be an extremely adaptive prejudice, taking different forms wherever and whenever it emerges; it has also proven to be monumentally destructive for culture. “The politics of hate that begins with Jews,” as Jonathan Sacks wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “never ends with Jews.” The anti-Semitism we see in Europe today has roots in historic prejudices, but there are new aspects to its current incarnation. The distinctly European strain of anti-Semitism has combined with tensions surrounding events in the Middle East, as well as simmering resentments from Europe’s often alienated Muslim communities.

European leaders have struggled even to face, much less stem this rising tide of bigotry. The French ministers of foreign affairs and the interior penned an op-ed for the New York Times last July, titled, almost plaintively, “France Is Not An Anti-Semitic Nation.” Just three days later, on July 13, crowds marching in anti-Israel demonstrations set the streets of Paris on edge with chants of “Death to the Jews” and two synagogues were attacked; a third synagogue was defaced the following day, and similar attacks, as well as assaults on Jewish citizens, continued throughout the following months in Paris, Lyon, Nice, and elsewhere. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been steadfast in her denunciation of bigotry, but even she must be unnerved by the thus far uninhibited rise in anti-Semitism in Germany, where demonstrations last summer also featured chants of “Adolf Hitler.” Despite Germany’s stringent laws prohibiting the use of overt Nazi imagery, the production of clothes that assists white supremacists in identifying each other through more subtle branding has proven lucrative for at least one company. A recent article in the New Republic details the enormous expansion and popularity of Thor Steiner, a clothing company that “has gone from a small business patronized by German neo-Nazis into a multimillion-dollar clothing chain with a presence throughout Europe.” Thor Steiner’s clothing features sly references to Nazi imagery and slogans, and over the past several years they’ve opened stores in “the Czech Republic, Finland, Slovakia, and the United Kingdom, among other countries, as well as 13 locations in Moscow.” They’ve registered their trademark in the U.S., too. Meanwhile, the surge of violence continues. Several weeks ago, a gunman in Copenhagen targeted bystanders at a free-speech rally and a synagogue, killing two civilians and injuring five police officers. As we commemorate the past, our most urgent obligation is to honestly confront the thorny history of anti-Semitism, and to face its current incarnation with clarity.

Historical records are, of course, critically important in such work, but literary fiction has a role to play as well. Where the sheer magnitude of the historical record of the Holocaust can sometimes become so overwhelming that our empathetic faculties are all but exhausted or shut down, fiction can offer us a way in, once again. Both the writing and the reading of Holocaust fictions are fraught with pitfalls, yet the subject calls to us, and it is a call that should be heeded. Over the past year several new novels have been published around the subject, and, in light of recent events and the escalation of violent attacks, one in particular seems perhaps even more relevant now than when it was first published: Martin Amis’s 2014 novel, The Zone of Interest (306 pages; Knopf), deserves renewed attention, not only for what it accomplishes, but also for the confused reception it received. Some found it to be satire, which implies the work offers exaggeration to the point of comedy. That’s not how I read it. With this recent surge of anti-Semitism tearing its way through Europe, it is more important than ever to read such books carefully, and to scrutinize not only their pages, but how they are received.

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A Layered Portrait of a Mind at War with Itself: ‘Viviane’ by Julia Deck

viviane“The cry of the mind exhausted by its own rebellion”—Albert Camus

The slim spine of Julia Deck’s first novel, Viviane (The New Press, 149 pages), expertly translated from the French by Linda Coverdale, belies its intellectual heft. Deck’s crystalline language, too, appears innocently transparent, offering up on a silver platter events just as they transpire and thoughts just as they emerge from the narrator’s troubled mind. But this, too, is delightfully deceptive, as the hidden influences of language, and the impossibility of knowing or telling exactly what happens, appear to be part of Deck’s central concern.

On the first page, Deck flatly introduces us to Viviane Élisabeth Hermant’s excruciatingly uncertain perspective: “You are not entirely sure, but it seems to you that four or five hours ago, you did something that you shouldn’t have.” Her predicament is stark. At forty-two, Viviane is a new mother and newly single: her husband, Julian, has left her for another woman, declaring one day, “I’m leaving, it’s the only solution, anyway you know that I’m cheating on you and that it isn’t even from love but from despair.” Utterly alone, Viviane now believes, though she cannot be sure, that she may have killed her therapist. As Viviane tries to determine what she may have done, she is both detective and, perhaps, culprit in this psychological thriller. She delves into the “hole [her] memory has become,” trying to remember what she did. But she conducts her investigation in the external world, too: following and even interviewing witnesses in a series of increasingly bizarre and chilling encounters. It is a captivating and puzzling story, and it is refreshing to see a new work of literature explore the ways narrative can both bend perception and reflect a psychologically troubled mind without allowing the narrative itself to lose all sense. This is a literary thriller with aspirations, one with a well-developed understanding of the literary and theoretical traditions of modernism and post-modernism.

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The Absurdity of War, the Absurdity of the Media: Robert Perisic’s ‘Our Man in Iraq’

Our Man In IraqOriginally published in Croatia in 2007, Our Man In Iraq (Black Balloon; 202 pages), Robert Perisic’s finely crafted and witty novel, is now the first of his books to be translated into English (with translator Will Firth). American readers should delight in discovering Perisic’s work, while lamenting this inexplicable delay.

The novel opens in 2003. Toni has patched together a promising life: the Economics editor for PEG, an independent local newspaper, he lives in Zagreb with his beautiful girlfriend, Sanja, an actress who has just landed her first major stage role. Marriage seems to be on the horizon, and perhaps a move to a grander apartment as well.

But trouble simmers beneath the slick surface. Sanja’s big break gradually but inexorably draws her into another world and another echelon of fame. The new apartment Toni views as a way to keep their lives and relationship evolving will require taking out a massive loan. And most urgently of all, there is the matter of his man in Iraq. Despite his determined efforts to break free of the family he considers pre-modern and all its associated tribal encumbrances, Toni has nevertheless become a kind of fixer for his extended family. His latest improvisation in that role has far-reaching consequences: to provide his cousin Boris with gainful employment, he has set up the veteran in a correspondent’s role, covering the American-led invasion of Iraq for PEG. For reasons that are never entirely clear, Toni seems to believe he can keep his employers from discovering that Boris has no training as a journalist. Inevitably, the reports Boris sends from the field are not fit to print: rambling and pensive, they are elliptically insightful about war in general while devoid of factual information about this war in particular. But they betray far more disconcerting traits than amateurism—Boris’s most distraught missives suggest he may be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. When the reports cease altogether and Boris seems to disappear, Toni observes, horrified, as his life unravels rapidly on all fronts.

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Personal Essay Elevated to Art: Aleksandar Hemon’s ‘The Book of My Lives’

The Book of My Lives In the first of the linked essays in Aleksandar Hemon’s new book, he begins by remembering how his sister’s birth changed his childhood; how life would always thereafter be divided between before and after her arrival, how nothing would ever be the way it used to be. And then he reminds us, “But nothing has ever been—nor will it ever be—the way it used to be.”

It’s a fitting admonition for the fraught work of memoir writing. Memory, of course, betrays us incessantly, and the creative impulse of the fiction writer is somewhat at odds with the rigors of telling the non-fiction tale of one’s own biography. In The Book of My Lives (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 214 pages) Hemon collects fifteen essays about his life, all but one of which has been previously published. In gathering them, a nuanced picture of Hemon’s life emerges, yet it is not the singular, master narrative imposed by the standard memoir format.

The hybrid conception of The Book of My Lives places it neatly at the nexus of a recent surge of creativity and interest in the essay, and a protracted period of interest in the personal memoir. The force of Hemon’s writing is undeniable, and several of these pieces are exceptional; yet the collection is at times ungainly, with instances of repetition that give it a restless quality, a sense, if read straight through, of pacing in concentric circles around the book’s core subjects. This is not entirely for the bad: it’s interesting to see Hemon working and re-working his material, approaching the material of his experience from varying angles (much as he’s done in his fiction), and seeking narrative arcs in that material. This may be an unintended consequence of grouping pieces which were written separately and as stand-alone essays, but the effect is also an honest message about how we tell ourselves the stories of ourselves, revising and reflecting as we go along.

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