The task of a publisher

I was honored to introduce Elda Rotor, publisher of Penguin Classics, at the Kundiman gala night. Below is my speech. (Note: sadly, a few hours after the Kundiman event, an Asian American poet who attended it was harassed in the East Village by a racist who was eventually arrested. Talk about orange flames of nativist hatred.)

Mentorship is a two-way gift: both the receiver and the giver eventually possess something of value when the present is right. Perhaps empathy is the most valuable gift of the mentor: and when one mentors a writer, I think it is important to recognize that empathy has to do with understanding art’s labor—that the labor that goes into art (which for the reader paradoxically must seem imperceptible)—is intangible though intensive, arduous but unseen, and too often fraught with waste and a sense of uselessness, a sense that the future, the finished work, will never come.

Mentoring an artist is the gift of believing in the future.

In the best of all possible worlds, the publisher is art’s mentor: her task is to believe in the necessity of that intangible labor, the future of art. We know in this day, in this past week, how much more urgent the work of the publisher is—quite simply—the publisher’s job is to shape a future that will allow our species to survive.

It is terrifying to say that, but it is true.

A publisher’s mentoring job is now possibly world-altering, if the publisher gets it right.

The magician nature of a publisher’s job, a kind of sorcery prophesying the future of books was revelatory for me, when talking to my own publisher & editor: I saw how so much depends on, as they say, a red wheelbarrow, that is, on one publisher’s or one editor’s imagination: that a book might or might not come about without the contents of one stranger’s mind, a stranger’s invention of a book’s future. And if a publisher’s job is world-altering, how important is that publisher’s ability to imagine? Especially to imagine the worlds one’s specific mind does not know? The gaps in one’s imagination? To mentor books outside of one mind’s comfort and bounds?

Kundiman’s great fortune and foresight today is to honor a mentor par excellence, Elda Rotor, an editor and publisher who, in my view, has that gift of empathy for the labor of the writers Kundiman cherishes—these writers of America’s future, these various and powerful voices of Asian America that America must hear so that the project of America’s democracy might go forward with the vigor and fire of America’s historical truth, instead of the orange flames of hermetic, nativist despair.

Elda is vice president and publisher of Penguin Classics, a vanguard of the past to which our future is tethered. She has been in publishing since the 1990s, working first as an assistant then becoming an acquiring editor at Oxford University Press, before moving on to become the editorial director of the venerable Penguin Classics line. Today, she is the only woman of color in an editorial position at Penguin—this is because she is also the only person of color in an editorial position at Penguin—which does not make Penguin an anomaly; in publishing, so I understand (though my stats are not highly researched), there is perhaps only Chris Jackson, publisher of Ta-Nehisi Coates and now with his own imprint at Random House, who in Elda’s generation matches her cred.

So Elda is a unicorn. A minotaur. An entirely lovely one: so glad she is with us tonight: but her uniqueness gives pause for all of us.

I will admit that I was fascinated when I saw Elda’s name once in a book of poems—because I am a fan of Arturo Rotor, a Filipino short story writer, doctor, and scientist, who turns out to be related to Elda. I’m a fan-girl, so I looked out for Elda because of her name. And it is significant that no one in this audience likely knows Arturo Rotor, though he was a leading writer during the Commonwealth, when the Philippines was part of America. But I am happy to say that Penguin is coming out with another Filipino classic, Nick Joaquin, because of Elda: watch out for it in April 2017.

In the times I have had the luck and pleasure of speaking with Elda, my sense is that mentorship is at the heart of Elda’s life work because she came to publishing as a poet, and she remains a poet. With friends from high school and college—she grew up in Manhattan where she went to Catholic high school before studying English at George Washington University—she published her own start-up poetry journal, New Digressions, which with her three friends she created and sold kamikaze style from 1992-1997, a blitzkrieg literary affair that shows the spunk and prepossession and amazing confidence that permeates Elda’s ways of going about her life—she simply acts and does, knowing that if she did not do it, who will? Her job in the world, from the time of her youth as a poet in Manhattan, was to find, as she puts it, points of wonder—and in that way, without quite noticing it, it seems, Elda in herself is a point of wonder for us, writers who understand what it means to exist in a publishing world that is in many ways not yet ready for the multiplicity and complications and wonder of the kinds of stories we wish to write, but which in fact the world needs.

Mentorship is also the work of Kundiman—Kundiman is about providing a space for empathy for the writer’s work—in particular, the intangible labor and urgent work of Asian American art. What luck, what fortune does Kundiman have to honor today a publisher who is a lodestar for the best of all possible publishing worlds, an editor and a poet, a child of immigrants and a publisher of classics, a mother bringing up children of color in a future in which the survival of people of color will be the test of this nation’s humanity. Elda is a touchstone for the ways publishing can usher into the world stories that will allow our children to grow up slightly more hopeful about the possibilities of America’s democracy, this project of the future that is the present, the gift, that the work of Kundiman and the work of publishers like Elda Rotor provide. It’s my great honor to introduce you therefore to one of this night’s honorees, Elda Rotor, publisher of Penguin Classics.

 

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Elda (right) at her Penguin office.

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At the Kundiman gala.

“Living without the skin”: Or the ego position of not voting for Hillary Clinton

I always say, I am voting for Hillary Clinton because I grew up on Mao. Of course, the latter part is not strictly true. I barely read Mao when I was sixteen and joined campus marches against the Marcos dictatorship at the University of the Philippines in Diliman. But, as they say, I have many good friends who were Maoists. I watched how campus activists moved and strategized for larger aims—the larger aim being to destroy imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat-capitalism, of course. 🙂 We weren’t marching for small change. We were going for the big bucks, the revolution. But the chess-positioning and the coalition-building and the tactical warfare maneuvering even re: the most picayune details of campus-election-candidates and so on are imprinted like weird DNA that never gets erased in my brain, no matter how I try. I do strange internal analytics whenever confronted with anyone (friend, lover, boss, student): I consider myself and my class and historical position in relation to the other, and I am always refracting this positionality back into my relationship with that other [friend, lover, boss, etc] so that, however desperately I would like to have an unmediated relationship [with anyone really, even my daughter], I am always defeated. My old teenage, UP-campus-activist mind gets in the way. I am never only myself: I am always part of a goddamned world dialectical-materialist struggle, even when I am just choosing my kid’s gym shoes or bored as shit at a faculty meeting. 🙂 But what my experience with campus activism at Diliman taught me was that the decision one made (and ALL of one’s decisions were political) was always contingent on the needs of the moment—in relation to the larger cause.

It was our end that was necessary; our means were contingent.

Thus, the rift among my friends upon the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, for instance—a figure (correctly) enshrined in our PSR teach-ins as basic panginoong-maylupa slash comprador-bourgeois. When one of my classmates from the English department, Cochise Bernabe, asked me in 1983 if I wanted to go and serenade Ninoy at the airport when he arrived, I looked at him as if he were nuts: why would I want to do that?? Cochise, clearly, was not among the Maoists. Of course, now, looking back, I regret not going—what experiences I miss as a writer because of what I scorn as an ideologue! Anyway, we had to decide: were we for the obviously imperfect widow Cory Aquino (an oligarch, from one of the most powerful landlord families of the country—but also, at the time, clearly a means for change) or do we boycott? Officially, the party line was boycott; at the same time, many of us joined the Cory marches: the split, in my view, lay in the Gramscian instincts that, however doctrinaire the higher-ups might be, were deeply engrained in our campus activism. Not that we read Gramsci then (our handbook was Amado Guerrero, after all). But as Gramsci says, “the truth is, one cannot choose the war one wants.” There is an ego position, I think, in seeing political choices as being determined by ideological purity: we wish the war to be on our personal terms. In 1986, I chose to march for Cory because I thought the left needed to be in the trenches given the needs of the moment—marching strategically, with larger aims in mind. I still believe that at the time, even with what I know now, my choice was correct. Overthrowing the dictator was “historically necessary,” a material change for the country (though revolution is yet to come…). And it is terrible that the left, which gave organization and momentum and clarity to the anti-dictatorship movement that installed Cory, did, as we argued would happen, get left behind in the immediate euphoria of that so-called rebellion, since it had publicly boycotted her election. The leaders of the left failed to seize the moment.

They should have read Gramsci.

(Of course, there are many, overdetermined reasons for the weakened Philippine left and, of course, for all the atrocious post-Marcos governments that followed the people power rebellion of 1986.)

In the case here of Hillary Clinton, I choose to vote for her because we need to be in the trenches and so advance our larger aims. The notion that she must respond perfectly to my demands is an ego position that I have long discarded. As I learned as a kid in Diliman, I am never only myself—I am part of a larger struggle. My vote is strategic and provisional, and yes, it is a sign of my defeat, but it is also a sign of my refusal to lose the war. With Trump, we lose a lot—not least of it enthroning a raging racist—he is a concrete threat to people of color—we need to accept this fact—that allowing this man to govern us is an irreparable reality that we do not need to live to regret. (That Trump’s campaign manager, Manafort, was the PR consultant to the dictator Marcos is a historical repetition not lost on me.)

Gramsci had made this interesting analogy of politics to anatomy: “By highlighting the anatomy and the function of the skeleton nobody was trying to claim that man (still less woman) can live without the skin.” He was talking about “structure/superstrucure”; but I use the metaphor in terms of ethics. To imagine that we can live with the harm of a trumpity presidency on our civil liberties, on the poor, on #blacklivesmatter, on Muslims, and so on, to not recognize the ethics of the moment, is to imagine that we “can live without the skin.” We highlight the skeleton—our ideological purity—but we still need to live in the world.

I’m not saying that a vote for Hillary is “historically necessary,” as an election is just one of the tools for change, and repeatedly, as we can see, it is a fairly deficient one. But a vote for Hillary is also, to me, not merely “arbitrary”: there is a concrete difference in our choices. One is flawed but makes sense and has allied goals (for one thing, she shifted given the demands of Bernie Sanders: one must see that as a good sign); the other makes no sense at all.

Difference matters: literally. Difference is material—difference is part of the world of things.

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will: the Gramscian mantra my friends in Manila mutter every day as they wake up to more strange news of extra-judicial killings in the Philippines on one hand and the prospect of peace in Mindanao on the other, both under the not-so-trumpian yet certainly perverse new Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte. Everywhere, there’s a specter of global weirdness haunting the world these days. Sadly, it is not the specter Marx was foretelling. But we can still act in the ambiguous moment and vote—with our larger goals in mind.