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New ‘Citric Acid’ quarterly journal gives O.C. some literary tart

Jaime Campbell, managing editor, and Andrew Tonkovich, a retired English lecturer at UC Irvine.
Jaime Campbell, managing editor, and Andrew Tonkovich, a retired English lecturer at UC Irvine, from left, are launching “Citric Acid,” a new Orange County literary journal. The debut issue premiers online this weekend and gathers contributions from an array of O.C. writers.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

For naysayers, Orange County’s literary scene is as barren as the citrus orchards that once dominated its landscape but have long since been bulldozed to make way for suburban blandness. O.C. supposedly traded its tart to be trite.

But that’s never held true for Andrew Tonkovich, a recently retired UC Irvine English lecturer and author who’s made a mission of appraising the paper trail left behind by the county’s roster of writers while looking forward to the future first drafts of its ongoing legacy.

Along with Lisa Alvarez, his wife, Tonkovich co-edited “Orange County: A Literary Field Guide” five years ago. The sweeping anthology with selections from more than 60 writers, past and present, proved groundbreaking and rattled the reputation that preceded its namesake.

Following up on that effort, Tonkovich is now readying the launch of “Citric Acid,” a new online literary journal debuting this weekend. Its inauguration is a highly curated assemblage of the county’s contemporary scribes ready to kick off the publication’s mission one quarterly issue at a time.

“I’d like it to be a cultural clearinghouse that introduces the best of Orange County,” Tonkovich said. “It’s very much a DIY project that explores multiple genres, but I like to keep the adjective ‘literary’ in there to distinguish us from more journalistic sources. ‘Literary’ is an affectation, but it’s a helpful word. It attracts a certain variety of readers.”

Before “Citric Acid,” Tonkovich taught English at UC Irvine for nearly a quarter-century. Beyond the classroom, he also hosted “Bibliocracy” on KPFK-LA 90.7 FM for many years, served as a longtime contributor to OC Weekly and continues on as editor of the “Santa Monica Review.”

Tonkovich retired from the university last year and hung up the proverbial tweed jacket with elbow patches. Around the same time that “Orange County: A Literary Field Guide” published, Tonkovich began considering the idea of a likeminded journal as his next venture.

But then, union activism with the University Council - American Federation of Teachers, publishing a book of his own, a health scare and, finally, the onset of the coronavirus pandemic sidelined his ambition until it could be postponed no longer.

“The remarkable confluence of the terrible pandemic with my own retirement got me thinking that it’s now or never,” Tonkovich said. “It’s a metaphor, in some ways, of both embracing an opportunity and making the most of a crisis.”

For him, the first task came in soliciting the advice of fellow travelers. He consulted with colleagues from the Los Angeles Review of Books, a site that pledged to make “Citric Acid” one of their channels.

“That would put us in a pretty impressive lineup of their affiliated literary friends,” Tonkovich said.

He also drew inspiration from former Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin’s “Air/Light,” an online literary journal published by USC’s English Department.

The editorial team behind "Citric Acid" out in Modjeska Canyon.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Of course, Tonkovich sought guidance from the folks who know O.C. best by writing about it, including LibroMobile owner and author Sarah Rafael Garcia. She’s enlisted as an advisory board member and contributor.

“‘Citric Acid’ is more than just literary solidarity,” Garcia said. “It challenges the social construct of what it means to be from and live in Orange County as an activist, writer and critic of the region’s politics and stereotypes, as well.”

Tonkovich didn’t have to stray far from his Modjeska Canyon quarters to find a managing editor for “Citric Acid.” Jamie Campbell, a fiction writer whose work has appeared in the Sonora, Santa Monica, Los Angeles and Angel City reviews, is up for the task.

The premiere issue ready to greet readers features an array of contributions from O.C. writers, far and wide. Natalie J. Graham, the county’s poet laureate, offers a scintillating sermon of unwinding from the grind in nature. Mary Camarillo, author of “The Lockhart Women,” contributes another poem that flips the script on the county’s founders and pioneers.

Elaine Lewinnek and Thuy Vo Dang provide a guide to their forthcoming “A People’s Guide to Orange County,” authored with Los Angeles Times columnist Gustavo Arellano.

“Joel Robinson is going to be covering the natural world,” Tonkovich added. “That’s his beat. He’s barefoot! He walks around with his straw hat and does tours.”

In addition to conceptualizing and curating “Citric Acid,” Tonkovich also counts himself among its first contributors with a short story about his late comparative literature professor and noted anti-war activist Dr. Peter Carr. The Aliso Creek resident helped found the antinuclear Orange County Alliance for Survival before dying of a heart attack in 1981.

“He should be considered one of the seminal artists of Orange County,” Tonkovich said. “He was so busy being an activist and a teacher that the art and the writing just got lost.”

Beyond Tonkovich’s own story about becoming the caretaker of his mentor’s activist and artistic effects, “Citric Acid” is also poised to become a virtual gallery of Carr’s art, including a sketch drawing of the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant and the cautionary words, “Nuclear radiation isn’t good for fishes or other ocean-going creatures.”

There are no immediate plans to take “Citric Acid” to the printers outside of a possible annual roundup of standout stories. But its inaugural issue hopes to leave an indelible imprint on the county all the same as a new station for navel gazing through dissident art, nonfiction, memoir, poetry, short stories, reviews and insightful analysis.

“The future is unwritten,” Tonkovich said. “The resources are limited but the imagination is robust.”

The inaugural issue of “Citric Acid” is now online.

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