The Golden State’s Highway 99 runs from Red Bluff to Bakersfield, a main artery that connects the cities of California’s Central Valley.
The anthology “Highway 99: A Literary Journey Through California’s Great Central Valley,” features the works of some 70 authors in its first edition who tell stories of life along the 99. Its pages are comprised of notable authors, including John Steinbeck and naturalist John Muir, who wrote about the area, as well as stories, poems, and fables authored by known and less-known Valley residents and the Native Americans.
Northern California resident Stan Yogi was the book’s editor and main researcher. Prior to compiling stories for Highway 99, Yogi had a limited connection to the Central Valley. He grew up in Southern California and as a young boy would visit friends of his father in the small south valley town of Earlimart, where his father had grown up the son of impoverished Japanese farmers.
He said he discovered a lot about the Central Valley during the process. He found moving, funny, poignant stories, poems, and essays from authors who really shared their connection to the Valley.
“The writing really displays a toughness,” Yogi said. “It’s a no-nonsense kind of style of writing that reflects the Valley’s personalities: hard work, coaxing the land, relying on nature, the uncertainties, the joys and disappointments… (There’s a) flourishing of writing of diverse people over time, recording their experiences in very moving ways…. In more recent times there’s been an emergence of more Latino and Southeast Asian writers.”
He said there are stories where John Muir describes the Valley as a carpet of flower blooms and Yogi noted that it’s probably hard for people to imagine that now. He also spoke of a writing about Tulare Lake, which was at one time the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi and no longer exists, which many people don’t know.
“There was a ton of material,” Yogi said. “I was guided by whether the writing was good and enlightening and if it fit the themes.”
Among the themes he mentioned were the changing geographical landscape, different people who migrated or immigrated to the Valley and the natives, and working the land.
He said that there is some overlap in the themes of the stories and poems.
“It was fun to see the echoes of different themes… It was really a fun process,” he said.
Yogi added that the biggest challenge was making the cuts. He has vivid memories of submitting the final manuscript to the publisher and then calling them to add a new story or poem he felt was worthy.
The first edition of the book was published in 1996 and a revised edition was published in 2007.
“I was really guided by existing anthologies,” Yogi said of his strategy to pull stories together for the book. “…They provided guidance with the authors. I already knew there were some well-known authors like William Saroyan of Fresno, Maxine Hong Kingston of Stockton, Joan Didion of Sacramento.”
The previous anthologies that featured the writings of Central Valley authors were Down at the Santa Fe Depot: 20 Fresno Poets (1970), Valley Light: Writers of the San Joaquin (1978), California Heartland: Writing from the Great Central Valley (1978), and Piecework: 19 Fresno Poets (1987).
The editors of California Heartland, Gerald Haslam and James Houston, helped Yogi shape the themes of the Highway 99 book and also helped him get in touch with other authors.
“I met dozens of writers throughout the Valley,” Yogi shared.
He noted how authors know each other and offer information about other authors in their network, and called learning about and meeting new authors “an organic process.”
At the time of its publication Yogi was on the staff of California Council for the Humanities (Cal Humanities). He said that in addition to awarding grants, the book was part of a larger project the Council did that also included readings by 10 of the authors in 10 cities and the cities’ libraries to invite discussion.
Yogi said that the impetus for the book project came from a public lecture series by Modesto Junior College English professor Lillian Vallee called “The Other California” and was funded with a grant from the Council. It covered topics such as the financial piece, labor history, the culture, and other aspects of the Central Valley.
Yogi said that in working on the second edition of the book, he worked with two other people. They added material – 33 new selections and a new foreword by Mark Arax – and it had to fit it with what was already there. He didn’t want to have an addendum but needed to integrate the stories. Again, he said the hard part was making cuts.
Yogi said the Highway 99 book helped to spark more literary and cultural appreciation for the Central Valley and the people of the Central Valley.
By DAWN M. HENLEY
“Highway 99: A Literary Journey Through California’s Great Central Valley" is available for purchase at http://www.amazon.com/Highway-99-Literary-Journey-Californias/dp/0930588827