Filipino publisher of Penguin Classics on why 'not every classic should be read in high school'

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Penguin Classics publisher Elda Rotor talks about Filipino excellence in literature and how experience plays a huge part in enjoying a classic book. Photos from PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Harold Augenbraum, an American editor and translator, came to Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo” due to an erroneous assumption of ethnicity — a mistake that exists partly thanks to our Spanish colonizers who forced us “indios” to take on Spanish surnames.

When Augenbraum was compiling a bibliography of U.S. Latino fiction authors, he stumbled upon N.V.M. Gonzalez’s book “The Bread of Salt” and thought he was Latino due to his hispanic last name. He soon found out that Gonzalez is Filipino. He still read Gonzalez’s work and interestingly enough, discovered “awed and edgy references to another writer, Jose Rizal.” This would be Augenbraum’s serendipitous first contact with Rizal, whose ghost continued to “haunt him.” He eventually found Rizal’s two novels, “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo,” two powerful works that he would translate 14 years later for Penguin Classics.

“Noli Me Tangere” came to Penguin Classics in 2006, “El Filibusterismo” in 2011. The “Fili” wouldn’t have been published [in Penguin Classics] if the “Noli” didn’t do well, says Penguin Classics publisher Elda Rotor, who in 2006 was an executive editor at Penguin Classics and was responsible for promoting the “Noli.” “The growth of readership [of the “Noli”] has stretched beyond the initial audience of Filipino readers familiar with the classic, and this is what makes any of our titles successful — the organic growth of a readership based on word-of-mouth recommendations, course adoption, connections made to other classics, etc.,” Rotor told CNN Philippines Life in 2016, back when Nick Joaquin’s “The Woman with Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic” was about to join the Penguin Classics roster, in time for Joaquin’s centennial.

Penguin Classics vice president and publisher Elda Rotor was recently in Manila for a series of talks and to launch the Penguin Classics and National Book Store essay writing contest "Loving Pinoy Lit." Photo by JL JAVIER

Now here we are five Filipino Penguin Classics later. Some of the books are already required reading in different universities (such as Howard University and Georgetown University) and schools, and it is a bit heartening to think of students in America reading through books that have punished us Filipinos through high school. Are these students also slogging through chapter-by-chapter analyses of the “Noli”? Which character would resonate most to them in a book full of lovers, thieves, and revolutionaries? Would they wonder about the turbulent times that Filipinos went through during the Spanish Occupation the same way we wondered about the French Revolution in “Les Miserables” or the scathing scandals that set Puritan Massachusetts ablaze in “The Scarlet Letter”?

It is worthy to note that the Filipino books in Penguin Classics are now being introduced by Filipinos. The poet Luis Francia wrote a comprehensive introduction to Jose Garcia Villa’s poetry collection “Doveglion;” writer Gina Apostol wrote about the impact of Nick Joaquin’s prose in “The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic;” and acclaimed Filipino-American novelist Elaine Castillo wrestled with the legacy of Carlos Bulosan’s “America is in the Heart” — both good and bad (Castillo’s first novel “America is Not the Heart” also tackled the immigrant experience by way of queering, anime, and food stalls). Among the recent books, only Joaquin was based in the Philippines throughout his career. Villa and Bulosan both immigrated to America. Villa became a renowned New York poet (he was called the ‘Pope of Greenwich Village’) whose peers included literary giants such as Jack Kerouac, W. H. Auden, and Tennessee Williams.

The five Filipino books in Penguin Classics. Photos from PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE


At a time when we’re pushing for larger representation in the media, it is encouraging to think that our classic books are up there — in gorgeous black spine format, no less — with Austen, Dickens, and Zola. But it’s not only Filipino classics that have been elevated into the literary canon, courtesy of Penguin Classics. There are other Asian classics such as the epic poem “The Song of Kieu” by the Vietnamese author Nguyễn Du; “East Goes West” by the Korean writer Younghill Kang; and a collection of essential Japanese short stories, “The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories,” introduced by Haruki Murakami.

“At this point in my career, if I’m a gatekeeper, I’m gonna use as much power as I can … but because [having these books] make our series better to have a diverse number of quality authors from around the world,” Rotor says.

“I don’t ever shy away from the fact that I identify as a Filipino when I’m in a meeting. In fact, I use it to my advantage because it helps them understand why Bulosan is important. If you can humanize a story, why a book is meaningful, it’s just an easier way to connect to a reader who’s looking around a bookstore.”

During a recent talk she gave in conjunction with the launch of the Penguin Classics and National Book Store essay writing contest "Loving Lit, she was asked "And the other people who aren’t Filipinos, don’t they question why you’re pushing for [these Filipino] books?”

“No because we’ve been pushing white authors for a long time,” she answered.

The literary canon that we’ve come to know has been called the Dead White Male Canon, owing to the dominance of the “Dead White Male” in required reading lists. Rotor feels that not all of the classic books should be read at such a young age. She says: “Not every classic should be read in high school. You don’t tell teachers that [Laughs]. Because I think you need to live life a little bit, you need to feel the pain and the suffering and the disappointment of life, or the tragedies and joys and bliss and love and that takes time to live. But when you come back to these books, you’re gonna feel like ‘These authors speak to me, they know me,’ and that’s a good thing. It can take time but they’re always going to be there.”

Rotor’s work in Penguin Classics isn’t just ‘diversifying,’ it’s letting all these voices from different parts of the world speak for themselves so we can enrich our understanding of humanity.

Elda Rotor gave a short talk at National Book Store EDSA Shangri-La Plaza Mall about her life in books. Photo courtesy of NATIONAL BOOK STORE

“It’s really a celebration, a chance for us to learn more about stories that might actually connect with us but we don’t know it yet,” Rotor says. “And it’s giving the opportunity to marginalized voices, to really give us a sense of this incredible amount of literature that we would love help gain a wider audience.”

Rotor's recent visit in the Philippines gave her an opportunity to finally launch “Loving Pinoy Lit,” which has been a year in the making. For the contest, junior and senior high school students must pick a Filipino Penguin Classics book and submit an essay discussing why the book “remains relevant for today's generation.”

The deadline has passed, which means that the members of the judging panel, which includes me, would be reading hundreds of essays sent by the students — and it has, so far, been an interesting ride. The winners will be announced on Sept. 14, 2019 through National Book Store’s social media pages (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter).

Rotor is looking for the next Filipino book to join the Penguin Classics roster. Everyone has their own idea and I’m pretty sure that there are a few people who have given her suggestions while she was here. There were a few names that came up, female authors especially since all the Filipino books in Penguin Classics are written by men (“I’m very aware of this,” she says). Wouldn’t it be great to have a Penguin Classics edition of Gilda Cordero Fernando, Lualhati Bautista, or even Doreen Fernandez, whose works have recently developed a newfound following?

I finally got the chance to sit down with Rotor after she went around a few schools and bookstores for two days durig her Manila visit. In the following interview, we discussed the joys and challenges of running a publishing imprint with 1,900 black titles, discovering emerging talents, and how she turns off “reading for work” mode. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

I was interested in what you were saying about the idea of a personal canon, especially for someone who’s responsible for thousands of titles under Penguin Classics. So in this day, when people are challenging the White Male Canon, how does one go about building a new canon for a publisher of classics?

I feel like part of my interest is redefining that word because I think for a certain group of readers it feels very restrictive, the idea of a canon they think immediately of the Western Canon. But with the hardcover series that I’m launching for next spring, [called Penguin Vitae], it’s really about taking ownership of your life as a reader and being proud of the books that have been pivotal to the chapters of your own life, and in a sense having it be a way of communicating with other readers, books that gave you a sense of joy or sense of recognition. As I said before, a canon can have a diverse array of titles because they affect you so they’re not always this perfect looking group of titles, which is basically how a person is.

Three of the forthcoming books in the new Penguin Vitae series, which will be released on February 2020. According to Rotor, the Penguin Vitae series is "about taking ownership of your life as a reader and being proud of the books that have been pivotal to the chapters of your own life." Photos from PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE

But there has been resistance in how you’re shaping the canon through Penguin Classics, some critics saying that some of the inclusions were wrong, etc. How do you go about that kind of criticism?

I think it’s about encouraging people to know that we’re not closing doors, we’re actually opening doors and windows. What makes me excited about the word ‘diversity’ is it’s really exciting to acknowledge communities of readers who want authoritative editions of books that are already their canon. It’s kind of joining their party and a celebration of works, and also giving this experience to us in having this engagement. [It’s like,] ‘Let’s talk about this title that’s never been in our series before. And let’s welcome people who have already been familiar to this work but have them join in the conversation of the people who are discovering it for the first time.’

What are the considerations to make a book fall under Penguin Classics?

Ideally a book has to be … we think it should sell well to a general reader, ideally. But at the same time we can envision course adoptions for college. So the perfect Penguin Classics could be both because the general reader is the one that will be hit with publicity and marketing. And very much the word of mouth, the going to their booksellers and getting the book however they want to get books is important for that actual initial release but it’s an investment for course adoption that’s so important because once you have professors add it to their syllabus, they could very well have it there for years. And then you’re affecting another generation of readers so I take that very seriously.

There are times when a title that we do, we publish, might not fit equal sides, it might be more course adoption than general readers, we’ll still do it but it has to be a pretty strong course adoption book. We’ll do it if it’s only for general readers if we know that we’ll get a lot of attention or if it’s such an exciting subject that it will find readership [on its own], like Tesla for instance. I did the Titanic, First Accounts, I did it for the anniversary of the sinking but it [was] about listening to people. Titanic has some crazy fans out there. [Laughs]. The one who did the cover art became so obsessed with the Titanic when he did it. It’s great. So when we know there are a certain cult following for things, we’ll know it might be enough for a book to do.

But are there books that you do because you feel obligated to put it in the canon of Penguin Classics?

Hmmm. I don’t really think so. Not obligated to do. There are books that have already been in Penguin Classics that we’ve inherited that we continue to put the editions out and we’ll promote, they might not be as popular as they were in the past. But the thing about Penguin Classics is most books stay in print. We have print on demand. When we know a book isn’t as popular with general readers but might still be adopted for professors, we’ll be sure to have that available. If no professors are using it, that’s the time when we have [it] out of print.

But we are very careful to check that with the marketing, just to be sure there aren’t longtime instructors who won’t be able to find that book ever again, mostly we do have print on demand, we have a very long tail for Penguin Classics.

“I don’t ever shy away from the fact that I identify as a Filipino when I’m in a meeting. In fact, I use it to my advantage because it helps them understand why [our books are] important."

So you would say academic course use of Penguin Classics make up a huge part of what you do?

Yes, absolutely. I think so. And I think it’s really key to be part of the syllabi for a variety of types of universities. It’s not just Ivy League schools. The state schools are really key too. And there are these intro to humanities courses that will be taking “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” for instance. I really do love having notes from our academic sales people when newer titles are being adopted. When “The Women’s Suffrage Movement” came out in March, it was already being adopted for courses. It’s really heartening to see that because it also shows us that maybe we’re doing the right thing and [that] these are books that professors are looking for and if it already fits something for a semester, and that’s a great feeling.

Aside from the books that you sell, how do you know you’re doing your job well as a publisher?

I’d say ... feedback from professors, feedback from general readers, if we get feedback from our field reps who go to the independent bookstores, it’s really wonderful to hear what they say about how the individual Black Classics are being done or the anticipation for a book. Like, I’m really looking forward to “The Penguin Book of Migration Literature” and we’ve been getting great positive notes from our sales rep across the country for that book. So that’s when I know when I’m hopefully doing a good job.

The Penguin Asian American Classics, which also includes Carlos Bulosan's "America is in the Heart," were released in time for the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Photos from PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE

How strongly do you feel is your responsibility in terms of setting the discussion about contemporary issues, as a publisher?

I feel like what we do is we’re paying attention to what’s selling. We noticed that Hannah Arendt sells more now in the past few years, also “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which was an influence in “1984,” that was interesting to see. And then on the other side, we’ve constantly seen upticks for Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations.” So it’s inspiring because people come to books because they’re responding to the world. If we can help that search, we’ll do it. So Penguin Civic Classics was really part of that, it was part of what are we talking about, civic engagement, what are these texts we’re supposed to know as citizens but really we don’t. They’re so easily accessible but maybe we won’t really reach until we Google it or something, and how can we make it a pleasant experience to learn something about history.

You mentioned that you’re always reading for work but how do you turn that off when you want to read something just for yourself?

I have to leave for vacation. I’m on vacation now so I’m reading for pleasure [Laughs]. So I just finished Ocean Vuong’s [novel, “On Earth we are Briefly Gorgeous”], on the plane on the way here, it was like tearing... I was so happy that I saved finishing that book. And then I waited until I was in the Philippines to start “Insurrecto” and it was like having Gina [Apostol] sitting next to me and having a cocktail with her. [Laughs]. I’m just compelled to read things for work, it’s almost endless, we’re looking for titles and usually they’re not always in perfect book form when I have to read it, or either dusty, and I’m actually allergic to book dust! [Laughs]. I’m scratching now thinking about it. If I can’t bear opening it, I’ll ask [my assistant] to Xerox it.

When I interviewed you three years ago, you gave a list of your recommended Penguin Classics. Since then you’ve put out a lot of books. Any recommendations from your new and recent books?

“The Stonewall Reader” would be something that’s really important. I’m a big fan of Shirley Jackson in general but I prefer “We’ve Always Lived in the Castle,” it’s so much creepier. “The Haunting of Hill House” doesn’t creep me out because the house doesn’t creep me out as much. But the girls in the other book are really scary...

What about from the new Asian American Classics?

“East Goes West.” Alexander Chee [who wrote the book’s introduction] kind of giggled his way through reading it and said how much he loved the book, and I’ve also heard that from Korean-American friends who were so happy that we put out an edition of Younghill Kang. I started reading that but then I had to put it down because I had to read something else, but what I loved about it was that it gave me a sense of New York City from an immigrant’s point-of-view, from the early 20th Century and talking about the streets that I lived down in Lower Manhattan. It was really exciting so I can’t wait to go back to it.