Against Narrowness: Indie Publishing's Diversity Offers Response to Tyranny
Editor’s Note: This commentary by Ilan Stavans, publisher of Restless Books is part of an ongoing Foreword Reviews series called #IndieVoices, in which we invite small publishers and indie authors to address the 2016 US presidential election and its aftermath.
In addition to being the publisher of Restless Books, I am a scholar in the humanities. In particular, I study Latin America, a region that, perhaps ironically, offers invaluable lessons to those of us in the United States committed to resisting xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny.
I am thinking of two lessons in particular. The first is that an astonishing literature can be produced under tyrannical regimes, as was in Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, and Colombia. Writers have always been solitary actors, but in that era many congregated around a single objective: to antagonize the forces of repression. Just a few of the results were the poems of Pablo Neruda, Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges, El Señor Presidente by Miguel Ángel Asturias, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, and Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits.
Not that they worked in tandem. In fact, they regularly disagreed with each other, at times ferociously. That is as it should be. Everyone knows that literature is at its best when writers battle their own ghosts in their own terms. And when they don’t have an agenda. These authors didn’t force a particular message upon the reader. Instead, they opened new vistas onto how people in Latin America reacted to that period and also offered context. These books are considered classics today.
The second lesson is that tyrants, whose intent is to limit people’s freedom, end up isolated in their palaces, consumed by their own fictions. It is too early to debate the implications of this second lesson for the United States. In any case, I want to focus on the first, though from the viewpoint of publishers.
After the election of Donald Trump, who may be the most anti-literary US president in history, in addition to being among the most racist, sexist, and xenophobic, the task of independent publishers is clearer and more urgent than ever. Simply put, our mission is to combat narrowness, not through ideological banter, but by promulgating insight inaccessible by other means. We can no longer rely on our media, which has become polarized almost beyond usefulness. Major news sources are less and less interested in making people think, in exploring issues fully, and in humanizing people at the edges of the mainstream, whose perspectives are beneath their consideration.
Literature has the responsibility to oppose the trends toward isolationism and thoughtless antagonism. Yet it needs champions to survive. The act—and art—of reading is threatened by the dominion of flashier, noisier entertainments such as TV, movies, and online media. And too often the large corporate publishers with the leverage to make a space for books give in to the homogenizing, dumbing-down demands of the market. Yet literature—good literature!—will never die. It thrives on the precipice. And indie publishers contribute enormously to it.
At Restless, we do this through publishing books by authors of unfamiliar vantages, whose stories speak to us across linguistic and cultural borders. Authors like the Icelandic poet and feminist philosopher Oddný Eir, the cult film guru Alejandro Jodorowsky, the important (and heretofore untranslated into English) Hungarian historian, novelist, and scholar György Spiró, the Cuban science-fiction writer Yoss, who subverts state censorship through sci-fi, the authors of our series The Face, in which authors tell stories encoded in their own faces, and through our new Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, which every year champions the work of a first-generation, debut author.
I’m often asked how we at Restless Books choose our books. My answer is always the same: through passion. One of us needs to fall in love with a book coming from another landscape (another geography, another language, another viewpoint) and make a convincing case to the rest of us for its entrance into the diverse marketplace of the United States. We have a set of parameters under which this passion exerts itself: how the writer delivers the narrative through sensitive, carefully crafted language; how that narrative stresses the local while striving for larger universal truths; and the degree to which those elements become empathetic to us.
We sell books not for the sake of profit, but because they are necessary in a universe where thinking deeply, thinking wildly is more and more an act of rebellion. Indie publishers don’t need to publish political books in order to be part of the resistance. In fact, at Restless our books don’t have an overt ideological bent. Yet by inviting us to the underbelly of globalism they are countercultural.
I am ready to go a step further by asserting that without indie publishers, pluralistic democracy is an impossible. It is through this large conversation with ourselves and the rest of the world that we come to terms with our collective humanity. This is a tall order, of course, but an open society demands such ambitions from us. After World War II, no one thought that Latin America would be the place to renew fiction after Joyce, Proust, and Kafka were swept away and replaced with the horror of war. Having someone—having something—to write against has a long-lasting effect. Yet at the time, Latin America didn’t foster an environment where indie publishers were allowed to thrive, so this revolutionary literature appeared in Spain first. Only after it was celebrated abroad, through translation, were tyrannical regimes forced to contest with it frontally.
Obviously, the situation of the United States is different. This country has a stronger institutional foundation, one harder to obliterate. In the case of the publishing industry, it is vigorous, which is not to say it is beyond censorship. In fact, censorship here works in a different way than it does in other parts of the world: the silencing of alternative voices is done by drowning readers with transient, worthless stimulation. Now more than ever, indie publishers are called to defend the space of the individual as a unique, self-defining unit. My conviction, especially now, is that the next few years will be characterized by terrible strife, but also by cutting-edge, magisterial literature emerging from unexpected places. Independent publishers in the United States and elsewhere are positioned to take crucial risks in making room for those voices.
I look forward to contributing to the next wave of voices that astonish us.
Ilan Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, is the publisher of Restless Books. His latest book is I Love My Selfie (Duke), due out in March.