Restless Books is a digital-first publishing initiative spearheaded by Ilan Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. Stavans is also a writer and cofounder of the Great Books Summer Program at Amherst, Stanford, and Oxford. We spoke via Skype about his books, which “reflect the restlessness of our multiform lives.”
Frances Riddle: How was Restless Books born?
Ilan Stavans: Restless was conceived in a moment when decisive transformations were taking place. Booksellers were shrinking in size; big publishers were limiting the number of books coming from different countries, from different languages. Restless came out of a response to the limited exposure an American reader has to international fiction. We aim to translate great work from a variety of languages. That was and is our mission—to compensate for the commercial way of thinking the big publishers have in New York City. We are a mid-sized publisher, but our goal is to help internationalize the landscape of American literature as much as possible. The Press aims to publish fiction, non-fiction, and poetry dealing with restlessness as a condition.
FR: Was this focus on movement—restlessness—inspired by your own immigrant experience?
IS: Yes. I’m originally from Mexico; I’m of Jewish ancestry. My family has lived in a number of different places in the world, and I myself lived in many different countries until I settled in the US. And even here, since the mid-‘80s I’ve been restless, moving from one place to another and from one language to the next.
FR: What advantages are offered by your digital-first publishing model? Have you found any drawbacks to doing things this way?
IS: The idea was to start out digitally because it was more economically sound, because the move from print to digital was already taking place, and because it is far easier to make translations readily available in digitized form. Of course, the digitized form means that the margin of revenue is much smaller. There’s Amazon, a huge emporium controlling book distribution, so you have to look for ways to go beyond that big conglomeration of power to find your own readership.
The idea is to start in digital form and find the audience for each and every one of our books. Each book will eventually deserve a different attention and will be exposed to a different readership. We feel it is our duty not only to bring the books out—but to get them into the right hands, in front of the right set of eyes. By doing so first in digital form, we are able to test the market temperature, getting a sense of our audience. After that, we can build on that connection by offering a print book and making it available to a readership that doesn’t necessarily embrace digital books. Even though we have witnessed this transformation from print to digital, it’s a transformation that (for a while) was said to go faster than it is actually going.
FR: Restless Books publishes genres that are not often seen in translation to English—such as science fiction and graphic novels. Are you making a conscious attempt to expand the horizons of the literature we see in translation, or are you just guided by what you’re interested in reading?
IS: For me, the two things are inseparable from one another. Publishing is about intuition and taste. If you like something, if you’re convinced that it’s a quality book and you want to share it with somebody else, I think you’re in the right business. I think when you have a book in front of you, you really have to follow your heart; allow yourself to really embrace that book, or to let it go and let somebody else do it. Personal affection, personal interest plays a large role, but I also want to go beyond the parameters of how literature is coming to be understood. This is where my background as a scholar and a person devoted to cultural analysis and cultural criticism comes into play.
In general terms, science fiction is considered a very lucrative genre in the US, in Russia, in certain parts of Europe, but seldom is it connected with Africa or with Latin America. Borges would never have identified himself as a science fiction writer, even though he wrote a number of stories that could be considered science fiction. The idea here is to be able to look at countries that are traditionally seen as producing other types of literature, such as Cuba, and show that science fiction as a form has been alive and well but we have bypassed it because of our narrow ways of perceiving literature.
We discovered these three extraordinary science fiction writers in Cuba who use their political landscape of censorship, of the vision of utopia that was being built after the Cuban revolution, to create a type of science fiction that hardly anybody has noticed. So now through these translations we’re able not only to see Cuba and Latin America through a different lens but to show that science fiction is alive and well in other parts of the world and we need to expand the horizons of how we view translated literature. Restless wants to show literature that’s coming from Pakistan, from Nigeria, from Cuba, from Chile, that not only goes beyond our traditional way of looking at literature but ultimately is incredibly well written.
FR: Do you think the digital revolution in publishing may have changes in store for translated literature?
IS: As an immigrant and as a lover of world literature I live day-to-day in translation. Translation for me is the very source of what literature is about. I would even suggest that there is no work of literature that is not translated, even when it’s written and read in the same language. I think the digital revolution makes translation more available and more widespread. But it also has the capacity to cheapen it, to make it less rigorous. The fact that you can publish your own book (you can do your own translation and simply upload it to the Internet!) makes translation a very democratic medium but also one that is doomed by the sheer quantity and by the low quality of what comes to us.
I think that this makes publishing today all the more important. It’s about rigor, it’s about care, it’s about focusing on what matters to you and bringing it to an audience. It ultimately succeeds when you put all the love and devotion that you can into that book. Translation is not just bringing words from one language to the other but also bringing the entire culture with it, the heart of that culture. A good translation is a painstaking effort. Every single word has to fall into the right place. For us, the first and most important step for every book is to match that book with the right translator, somebody who will fall in love with it and do a good job. And once we get it back we are going to edit it line by line, very meticulously to make sure that the work lives up to our expectations.
FR: Could you talk about a few recent or forthcoming titles from Restless Books that we should be on the lookout for?
IS: Right now, we’re working on a collection of luminous essays by Juan Villoro on soccer, and a volume by Sergio González Rodríguez, who compares Al-Qaeda to the narcotraffickers in Mexico. The type of violence that both of them create is very similar, but in the mind of journalists and politicians it’s very different. We’ve also acquired three books by the Chilean novelist and guru Alejandro Jodorowsky. We’ve recently made a partnership with Simon & Schuster who will be distributing our print books and Jodorowsky’s Where the Bird Sings Best, out in March, will be our first title distributed by them. It’s an autobiographical novel about his Jewish family in Chile and the shaping of his own vision of things. And it will be followed by two of his novels. We have a historical novel by György Spiro who is Hungarian. It’s 1,200 pages, so we’re publishing it in serialized form. It takes place during the Roman occupation of Judaea; it’s a page-turner. We have a couple of novels on the U.S.-Mexican border by Carlos Velázquez, in which language becomes a protagonist, and a travel volume by Andrés Neuman, author of Traveler of the Century. We have a French graphic novel set in Iran. We have a memoir by the Cuban jazz musician Paquito D’Rivera, about coming to terms with his own instrument, the saxophone. He talks to it as if it was his partner, and tells his whole story together with it. We’re really excited to be working on so many first-rate books.