Highway 99: A Literary Journey, a collaboration between the council and independent Bay Area publisher, Heyday Books, was the first literary anthology of writing from and about California’s great interior region, the Central Valley. Featuring 130 works ranging from early Yokut stories to contemporary fiction by major writers from the region, including US Poet Laureate Philip Levine, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Richard Rodriguez, the volume aimed to write the Central Valley back into the story of California, too often defined only by North and South, and to highlight the cultural significance of the region, as well as its complex and contradictory histories and rich ethnic diversity.
The highway served as the “spine” of the project, providing the physical framework for an ambitious series of public programs from Bakersfield to Yuba City that aimed at build and strengthen community around a common literary heritage. Conducted in partnership with libraries, schools, colleges, and other local community groups, Writers in Conversation events brought writers back to their hometowns, some for the first time in decades. Reading and discussion groups using the book led by authors and scholars enabled people to come together to learn more about their communities and to gain a deeper sense of how these literary works related to the context of local history and regional concerns.
The Highway 99 book and programs also spoke to the importance of diversity as a topic of persistent importance in the state and the nation. Stan Yogi, who edited the volume, feels the project was particularly significant in calling attention to the themes of exclusion and inclusion that are central to American and California identity, noting the strength of anti-immigrant sentiments in California at that time that are “playing out in other parts of the country now.”
For Yogi, the project illustrated the idea that “all communities—whether we define community by geography, ethnicity, or interest—have to have shared stories to make it a community.” By initiating and guiding collective conversations around local history and stories, the Highway 99 project helped local and new residents alike to discover common ground and shared experience.