Any biologist will tell you that a species cannot survive, long-term, in a monoculture. New, fresh genetic material is necessary to make it robust and able to fend off disease, bad weather, or genetic mutation. It’s why we don’t marry close family members, or if we do, there are biological penalties. Monocultures tend to produce faulty genes.
The same can be said for a nation and its literature. Without the influx of fresh DNA, fresh cultural perspective, new stories from different traditions, literature can be stuck in a monoculture, in a formula, leading to stagnation and a crisis of imagination.
Fortunately, independent publishers understand this and, no matter what the prevailing sentiments in government or society, they tend to seek out new voices, new blood, new genetic material. One such publisher is Restless Books. Its publisher Ilan Stavans, writing in Foreword Reviews, recently addressed the danger of a literary monoculture posed by reliance on only a few large, corporate publishers: Stavans wrote:
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.
I first became fascinated with Restless Books a couple of years ago, when practically out of nowhere, a new genre came to America that I had never heard of before. Cuban Science Fiction. At first, it did not make sense to me that those living in a dystopia would also enjoy reading about dystopia. Since November 8, 2016, I understood. It’s the same reason, I suppose, that Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has seen a surge in popularity lately.
Stavans had gone to Cuba to hunt for hidden literary gems and came back with a guy who is like a rock star in Cuba. So famous, that he is simply referred to by one name, like Madonna, or Cher, Or Beyonce, or Bono. His name is Yoss.
Restless Books has also sponsored, for two years now, a prize for New Immigrant Writing. The winner gets $10,000 and a contract with Restless Books. The first winner, Deepak Unnikrishnan, earned the award for his book Temporary People, about guest workers in the United Arab Emirates.
Ilan wrote, in introducing the prize. “The ethos of America is defined by its immigrants. Their stories have always been an essential component of the nation’s cultural consciousness.” What he’s saying, essentially, is that immigrant writing is American writing?
You can also listen to a conversation I had with Stavans on our inaugural podcast, where we focused on voices marginalized during the 2016 election—in this case, immigrants.
If you’re wondering whether we are making a statement about immigration policy under the current administration by honoring Restless Books, let me lay that to rest right now: Yes, we absolutely are making a statement. This is why I’m very happy honor Restless Books with the Foreword Reviews Publisher of the Year Award.
Howard Lovy is executive editor at Foreword Reviews. You can follow him on Twitter @Howard_Lovy