The writer, editor and critic Ilan Stavans is a polyglot master of many literary trades: His works include an authoritative anthology of Latino literature for Norton, a legendary Spanglish translation of the opening pages of “Don Quixote,” and a recent graphic novel “El Iluminado” (with Steve Sheinkin) which takes up themes inspired by Stavans’ Mexican-Jewish heritage.
Now you can call Stavans a publisher too. He’s launched a new e-book imprint, Restless Books. His goal, he told The Times in an email exchange, is to make U.S. publishing more “cosmopolitan” by publishing translations and new, original works by American authors.
Restless Books’ first offerings are from the Pakistani novelist Musharraf Ali Farooqi (the novel “Between Clay and Dust”), and the Chicano poet Jimmy Santiago Baca (three new books of poetry and memoir). In its first year Restless Books will also publish other works from Mexico, Argentina, Russia and Cuba.
“Only 3% of books published annually in the United States are translations,” Stavans said, a fact he finds “embarrassing.” “This country has become an island. We forget the rest of the world is out there. And great literature (fiction, poetry, journalism) is released on a daily basis in Turkey, Poland, Argentina, China.”
U.S. readers are “fed up of with the parochial diet” supplied by most American publishers, Stavans said. “Readers today access literature in multiple languages,” he said. “So instead of the old model of bringing a translation into the U.S. audience, in digital form we want to bring the translation and the original together and let the reader choose. Price and weight don’t matter here because we’re talking digital books.”
Next month, Restless Books will add more titles that hint at the breadth of its ambitions: “The Underground,” a novel by the Russian writer Hamid Ismailov that tells the story of “a half-African, half-Siberian child growing up in the fast-changing Moscow of the 1980s;” “Journey to the Land of Israel,” a 1963 account of an Iranian writer’s visit to Israel; and “125th: Time in Harlem,” in which “photographs, videos, and essays explore one of America's great ‘main streets’ during a time of profound transition.”
Stavans teaches at Amherst College in Massachusetts and Restless Books is based in Brooklyn. But he said the idea for the new venture can be traced back to his experience as a Mexican immigrant.
“I came to the United States seeking a free, creative environment where to flourish, an atmosphere where ideas are valued, an intellectual marketplace in which art is appreciated on its own merits,” he said. “I’ve lived half of my life in the United States and half abroad. My feeling is that this country is increasingly becoming narrower, more suffocating when it comes to freedom…. For me literature is a religion: [I breathe] through it, I dream through it, I become whole through it…. Writers are emblems of liberty. But at a time of increased monopolization of commerce, I believe the freedom fight is at the level of publishing and distribution. We can’t allow our kids, our students, our readers to be fed trash. We need to fight for a more balanced intellectual diet...”
Restless is producing “traditional” e-books (though it has no plans to move to print soon), Stavans said. And also “visual” e-books with interactive components. “Should we still call them books?” Stavans asked. “Call them what you wish: they deliver stories from different parts of the globe. And the need for storytelling is as essential as eating.”