Penguin Classics’ Pinay publisher puts the spotlight on PH literature

Johanna L. Añes- de la Cruz

Posted at Jul 29 2019 06:03 AM | Updated as of Jul 29 2019 07:01 AM

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MANILA -- As an executive at the world’s largest publisher of classics, Filipina Elda Rotor has the opportunity to push for the inclusion of Filipino writers into the esteemed list of Penguin Classics authors. 

With Penguin Classics’ 75-year history and 1,900 titles in its backlist, Rotor, who is its vice president and publisher, is faced with the daunting task of overseeing the publication of the world’s greatest literary works while making sure that the roster remains diversified and relevant to today’s readers. 

To date, the publishing giant already has in its esteemed roster five titles by Philippine literary greats: José Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo”; Jose Garcia Villa’s “Doveglion: Collected Poems"; Nick Joaquin’s “The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic"; and Carlos Bulosan’s “America is in the Heart.”

“I’m the one who pushes for them (Filipino books),” said Rotor, who recently visited the Philippines after 18 long years to give a series of talks on publishing. “I don’t ever shy away from the fact that I identify as Filipino when I’m in a work meeting. In fact, I use it to my advantage because it helps them understand more like why is Bulosan so important. If you are able to humanize why a story is meaningful, it’s just easier to connect to a reader who’s looking around a bookstore.” 

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Elda Rotor gives a talk on publishing classics. Johanna L. Añes- de la Cruz

But she emphasized that it’s not just her and her team who does all the work as she recognized the invaluable guidance of a great number of people in helping her choose which works to include in the venerable register of Penguin Classics. There are advisers, writers, and scholars who helped contextualize the importance of each of the five works to her and consequently to the global stage. 

“It’s necessary to be able to make those bridges happen, otherwise it’s just a harder route to take when you want to explore the possibility of new authors,” she said.
Speaking to an intimate crowd of book lovers and high school students at a recent event sponsored by National Bookstore, Rotor talked about the road, at times winding and difficult, to having the five Filipino writers published by Penguin Classics. 
She shared: “After we did the 'Noli,' it seemed natural that we do the sequel, the 'Fili.' But from a business aspect, especially since it can be a challenge to diversify the list and to convince people you really need to convince to take a chance on authors that they haven’t heard of. We needed the 'Noli' to sell. The network of Filipino writers and influencers just helping our marketing, publicity, and sales people, giving them the tools, giving them the book descriptions the sales (team) handle to try and help them relay why American readers should read José Rizal. That helped us sell more copies of the 'Noli.' So when it came time to have meetings and say I want to do the sequel, the first question was ‘How did 'Noli' sell?’”

Thanks to its vibrant sales, having the 'Fili' published next was an easier task. “So in order for the 'Fili' to be published, the 'Noli' had to do well. After that it’s a trickle effect; with the 'Fili,' there was momentum there.”

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(From left) Jennifer Javier, senior regional sales manager for Southeast Asia and Guam, Penguin Random House; Xandra Ramos-Padilla, managing director, National Bookstore; Elda Rotor, vice president and publisher, Penguin Classics; Honey de Peralta, sales manager for Southeast Asia, Penguin Random House; and Yvette Fernandez, editor-in-chief, Town and Country Philippines and editorial director of Esquire Philippines. Johanna L. Añes- de la Cruz

It was Rotor’s fascination with Villa’s poems that made her push for his inclusion in the venerable list of Penguin Classics authors. She still keeps a postcard of the Filipino poet that she has had since college. She admitted, though, that Garcia was a tougher sell. 

“Poetry (books) well, they’re modest sellers but they have a devoted audience. Jose Garcia Villa had more impact as a New York poet and was part of an early 20th century group of writers that I was fascinated by,” Rotor noted.

She credited Filipina writer Gina Apostol for introducing her to Joaquin’s work, who, though well known and much loved in the Philippines, was still largely unknown internationally. Rotor recounted: “She (Apostol) basically said to me that ‘You have to think about Nick Joaquin. I think he’ll be perfect.’” 

“With Carlos Bulosan I have known about his work and in the US it’s really important for us to give different aspects of the American experience and to think about the hard questions about migration and immigration. It’s very timely. It’s already a great seller now,” she said. 

She shared of how she considers Bulosan a difficult read with his brutal honesty when it comes to racism and oppression against migrants in the US. Even so she added with a smile: “But there is some beauty in that pain and I think that’s what makes it so special.” 

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Elda Rotor being interviewed by Yvette Fernandez, editor-in-chief, Town and Country Philippines and editorial director of Esquire Philippines. Johanna L. Añes- de la Cruz

There’s still much work to do, though, because a title by a female Filipino writer has yet to find its way to the pantheon of Penguin Classics authors. Rotor is well aware of this inadequacy. 

“I’m open to suggestions. I’m very aware of this. I just like to learn who’s going to be out there and what’s that equation of a work that is old enough that it could be in classics and it could be taught but also relevant to general readers,” she said. 

When asked how Philippine literature could have a stronger presence in the international scene considering the wealth of talented Filipino writers, she urged Filipinos to support Filipino artists. “You have to put your money where your mouth is. You have to buy that album, that book, that piece of clothing they designed because there are gatekeepers, business people who will look at the numbers,” she said. 

She proudly shared that the five Filipino classics are now required reads in some American universities both state and private like Howard University, Georgetown University, and the entire University of California system. 

Given the popularity of social media, gadgets, apps, Rotor was asked if books will still be around in the future, and without batting an eyelash, she confidently responded that, indeed, books will be around for a long, long time. 

“The only thing that makes us human is our ability for storytelling.”