We’re delighted to welcome Oscar Villalon, the managing editor of one of the preeminent literary magazines of our time, Zyzzyva, founded in 1985 and a recent recipient of a Whiting Literary Magazine Prize, to the California Book Club as this month’s special guest. He’ll talk with January’s CBC author, Jaime Hernandez, about Maggie the Mechanic.
Villalon is a selection panelist for the California Book Club, a longtime jurist for the California Book Awards, and a former board member of the National Book Critics Circle, as well as the former books editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. His writing has appeared in Freeman’s, VQR, Zócalo Public Square, and the Believer. He is also a contributing editor to Literary Hub. Like Hernandez, Villalon grew up in Southern California, and his experiences of place and memory are part of the material he draws from in his writing.
In an essay in Zócalo Public Square, Villalon explains that he hasn’t taken his family to the old three-bedroom apartment where he lived with his seven-member family growing up, though they visit his father in a condo: “the gulf between that place and the apartment I grew up in the ’70s and the ’80s seems to spread beyond the horizon, a distance only traversable by me, and only in my memory.”
More recently, Villalon penned a surprising essay about the McDonald’s on 24th and Mission in San Francisco. He starts out by talking about legendary historian Mike Davis’s observation that Mexican and Central American immigrants’ experiences are shaped by their maintenance of an aspect of their old homes in public spaces in their new country. Villalon takes note of sidewalks that function like open-air markets in the motherland, transformed into a kind of “agora” where “part of being alive means being outside, seeing and being seen.” Inside the McDonald’s is “one of the unlikeliest oases of public life in all of San Francisco,” he writes. “Folks are here to linger, to meet up, to be together alone,” but also—it’s intimated—to read.
Books can also serve as oases, albeit of a different and sometimes more private sort. When Los Bros Hernandez started out, they self-published their bold, complex comics—they were reared on comics because their mother was a fan. While opening the mail for the Comics Journal, editor in chief Gary Groth discovered one of the early comics, sent to him for review, and realized its groundbreaking power. As cofounder of Fantagraphics, he asked whether he could publish Love and Rockets. The rest is comic book history.
As a writer, you never know who is reading your work, who might find inspiration and sustenance within it, what relationships, having nothing to do with you, might coalesce around it. Hernandez pays homage in his work to the ordinary people he and his brothers came up with. He depicts lives dented by economic disadvantage, yet these depictions are crisp, full of irreverent comedy and honesty.
While the fantasy and escape we typically associate with comics lurk on the margins of his work, the art is meaty not because of those pleasures, but because of its deep attentiveness to what he’s observed in real life. No facet of daily life is too small to chronicle. Hernandez’s gorgeous black-and-white illustrations are not idealizing—they’re alive to the bodies of his characters, depicting insecurity and longing and sex and almost-sex and even gas.
Hernandez’s Locas, it is sometimes remarked, is a world of women—more specifically, it’s a world of queer Chicana women. While one of his central characters, Hopey, has intense feelings for the main character, Maggie, she understands that Maggie can’t help but like boys “too much.” In the melancholy closing story, a boy narrates his ill-fated crush on Hopey, the unbreakable nature of the bond between Maggie and Hopey, and the way he remained an outsider to it.
We hope that you join us this month for a lively and memorable conversation about Love and Rockets and that you’ve enjoyed this month of essays featuring Hernandez—let us know how we did.•
Join us on Zoom on Thursday, January 19, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Jaime Hernandez will join CBC host John Freeman and special guest Oscar Villalon 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.
THE DEAL IS ROTTEN
These were the bestselling titles at independent bookstores across California for the week ending January 11. —Alta
PARADOXES OF A DIVIDED STATE
Author and professor Keenan Norris (The Confession of Copeland Cane, Chi Boy) writes a special report about the community college system in California, where “very real problems shadow the spaces of student opportunity everywhere.” —Alta
SYMPATHY FOR THE UNDERDOG
Ulin writes a tribute to major novelist Russell Banks, who passed away on January 7. —Los Angeles Times
Pasadena resident Nikki High announced that she is opening a new bookstore, Octavia’s Bookshelf, which will focus on the work of BIPOC authors. The announcement received a flurry of social media attention. She explained that Octavia E. Butler’s fiction “was the first time I saw a writer write about Black people in the future.” —Orange County Register
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