Jill Schoolman Interview

An interview with Jill Schoolman of Archipelago Books as conducted by
Taylor Davis-Van Atta.

TDVA: Who do you trust to guide Archipelago toward important writers? There are a
few authors — Elias Khoury, Breyten Breytenbach, Mahmoud Darwish, to name just the
ones I’ve read — whose work seems to have struck a chord with this press, and who
Archipelago is particularly dedicated to. What drew you to these writers and when/how
is the decision made to pursue and translate more of their body of work?

JS: Interest and awareness of international literature seems to ebb and flow in waves. I
do think it’s connected to the spirit of the times. In the 60′s and 70′s, many of the big
houses brought out a good amount of international literature, and Americans certainly
felt more connected to the world then in a visceral way, we took unjust wars
and massacres and coups personally and would take matters into our own hands. In the
80′s, during the long Reagan years, a complacency seemed to set in and the scope of
the books that were being published here seemed to reflect a less outward-looking
energy. I think during the Bush years, Americans were so infuriated by the lies they
were being fed and the horrific decisions that were being made in our name, that one
natural response was to try to connect to the rest of the world through their literature. I
believe the need to connect to each other through stories, the appetite to understand
the world through the ’other’, and to make sense of who and where we are through
writing and reading and seeing (from various vantage points), is a part of the human
condition. It is up to editors and publishers and booksellers and librarians and hungry
readers to feed this vital part of our beings. I think one major obstacle for so many
editors in the English-speaking world (besides their publishers whispering the
mantra ”translations don’t sell” in their ears) is that they aren’t comfortable reading in
other languages, or completely trusting others to help guide toward important writers
from other parts of the world.

TDVA: Can you attribute the relative influx of literature-in-translation over the past 5-10
years to anything in particular? Has anything (politically, culturally) changed in the US
that makes books like those Archipelago releases more amenable to readers, or do you
think there has always been an appetite in America for international literature, and this
need just wasn’t being met?

JS: I believe that innovative literature can act as a catalyst toward social change,
toward a deeper understanding of the human spirit and condition, and certainly toward
changing our perceptions of others and the world around us. I think the publication
choices we’ve been making are in a subtle way political. The voices and visions of many
of our authors are questioning and expansive, opening up or stretching concepts of the
possible, breaking down stereotypes, humanizing and exploring complex situations,
revealing sides of history that have been ignored in this country, allowing the voices of a
hushed people to be heard, blurring the lines between reality and dream,
between poetry and prose. Our books might reflect an instinctive pull toward connection
and inclusiveness rather than division, toward the underdog, toward struggles to find our
higher selves or realms beyond our selves, toward pacifism and love, toward embracing
complexity. I’m not sure if these gravitational forces, or soft spots, are political at heart,
but they continue to shape our choices. I think it’s virtually impossible for an
independent press to be an apolitical entity– giving voice is a political act, as is silence.

TDVA: Outstanding. Many thanks for taking part. Having just finished reading WHITE
MASKS last night, I’m in something of a political mood. So let’s begin with a question of
the politics of independent publishing… we all know that literature-intranslation
comprises a pitiful percentage of the overall work published in the US, but in
recent years there has been a relative influx of international literature to the US with the
advent of Archipelago, Open Letter Books, HOST publications, Europa Editions, among
others, added to those presses (New Directions, Grove, Dalkey, et al) that have been
focused on world lit for decades. Keeping this relative rise of international literature in
mind, there is a quote from Eugene Ionesco that goes: “To renew language is to renew
the conception, the vision of the world. Revolution consists in bring about change
in mental attitudes.” This quote strikes me because it speaks to a vital principle at the
heart of independent publishing and reminds me of a virtue the Russian Formalists held,
which essentially was that art holds the power to alter the perception of the individual
and that the altered perception of the individual can impact how perceptions are altered
in others, and how people view the institutions with the real power. So, for the
Formalists, there was a real sense that subversive art was a powerful tool for the
reinvention of society while conventional art only served to reinforce the status quo.
There is not an overtly political bent to what Archipelago publishes in terms of subject
matter (at least not from what I’ve read), but are politics and the redistribution of power
central to the mission of the press? Can an independent press be an apolitical entity?

JS: I believe this phenomenon is created by the media even more than by publishers or
readers. It’s easier (or less risky) to latch on to one name than to wade through many
unpronounceable ones… a name that’s already been approved. Although publishers
are guilty of setting this up as well. It wasn’t the work of Bolaño alone created such a
sweeping sensation, it was the marketing machine greased by the energy and passion
of his committed editors and publicists that got reviewers and readers to take notice of
his books, and then it snowballs… I think it’s less a question of colonization and more
one of laziness, conformity, and fear of the untrammeled. There have been other
Chilean writers published here besides the work of Bolaño alone that created: Gabriela
Mistral, Nicanor Parra, Antonio Skármeta, Ariel Dorfman, Alejandro Zambra. The
challenge remains for us (independent publishers with limited resources) to finds ways
of getting reviewers and readers and booksellers to pay attention to unfamiliar names.

interviewBarzakh Mag