Interview by KRIZETTE CHU
Portrait by NOEL PABALATE
One of the most powerful female executives in the US book industry is Elda Rotor, a Filipina-American born in the Philippines but raised in the US. As the vice president and publisher of Penguin Classics, she has used her vast influence to bring Filipino authors to the prestigious Penguin lineup like Nick Joaquin, Carlos Bulosan, and Jose Garcia Villa.
For the first time, Elda is in the Philippines to reach out to young Filipino kids and hear what they have to say about Filipino classics, by way of an essay writing contest jointly held with National Book Store. It is the first time the contest is being held in the Philippines by the international publishing company, as well as the first time it is held outside the United States.
Elda talks to Manila Bulletin Lifestyle to discuss her rise to the top (and how we can learn from it), how she fell in love with Filipino authors and books (despite growing up in a non-book loving household), and why she wants to give more writers of color a chance to be heard.
You’re here to promote an essay writing contest open to junior and senior high school kids. Can you talk about this project you’re doing with National Book Store?
I feel like it’s really important to connect to young people in order to stay relevant with our series. We just launched the high school essay contest in the United States two years ago, so we’ve only had two contests. What we learned as publishers is, how do kids react to these classics and it helps us learn what makes classics still relevant to modern readers? And I wanted the opportunity to bring this essay-making contest to the Philippines because, one, I’m really proud of being Filipino, and also that we were able to put Philippine classics in our series. How do young people here connect to their heritage through literature? And what can we learn about the stories through their eyes?
You mentioned that you were rebelling when you were growing up in the US. When did you finally learn to appreciate your Filipino heritage?
I wrote poetry and I was my published in my 20s, so I became more familiar with other Asian-American writers in the New York area. So, through the poetry route, through poets like Eric Gamalinda and Luis Francia, I would know more Filipino writers.
My stepmother is a doctor, my father’s an engineer, My mother was a nurse. Obviously a lot of Filipino relatives in the medical field. So that, in a sense, is how I rebelled. I became an English major.
So your parents allowed you to pursue English as your major?
I don’t know if the word is “allowed,” I just basically figured out a way of telling my dad, “This is what my passion is.” What I did learn from my family is the need to succeed. I think I wanted to prove to them that if you loved something, you could strive for excellence. I didn’t grow up with readers at all, but I just loved storytelling and reading. I loved editing, too. I liked working on literary magazines. I liked helping other people make the best of their work. And I think that personality trait has kept with me. I like that idea of helping other people.
You’re the publisher and vice president of Penguin Classics. Is your dad finally proud of you now?
I mean, he’s a Filipino dad, so he’s not going to really over-express (his pride.) But I think the one time I knew that he probably was happy with me being a book editor was when I invited him to the Philippine consulate. And they were serving San Miguel beer. Everything about the event was very Filipino, and it was my job that brought us there. So for that particular event, he was very happy.
How did you get to this stage in your professional life?
Right out of school, I worked for a labor union for freelance writers as an assistant. And that was good for me to understand that it was a hard life to be a freelance writer, and I was like, okay, maybe I won’t be a writer, but I wanted to work with books, and I’m okay with being editor. A lot of authors do not want to be doing the editing side.
At the same time, I was growing in my interest in book publishing. I would say one of the main reasons I stayed and maybe flourished in publishing is that each of my bosses at Oxford Publishing decided to be a mentor, instead of a boss. So they each gave me such a level of respect by explaining why I was doing something, or why they were having a meeting with somebody, or asked my opinion about something. On the other hand, I had to do all of the grunt work, too, but I appreciate the fact that they did not shut me out. I’ve learned from that and I hope that’s how I treat people who work with me now. As a younger assistant, I pitched to my boss, who allowed me to pitch a book idea to the president of the company. That was not very common. And I guess I came off well enough that I was able to do that book. And I got a promotion and another promotion through 13 years that I was there. And then I got the job at Penguin Classics. I liked the idea of the brand of Penguin, but I also wanted to know how that brand could be made stronger, or improved by not just focusing on British literature or certain types of American literature, but really saying like, what does a Penguin Classic mean? It means to have a high quality, authoritative edition of a great work of literature, and that means something to a specific community of readers. Or it could come from the more marginalized voices of the United States. And those two forces are what propelled me and my team to treat Penguin Classics differently than our predecessors have.
I would say one of the main reasons I stayed and maybe flourished in publishing is that each of my bosses decided to be a mentor, instead of a boss.
How do you choose which book to add to your lineup, as classics are not “discovered” the way new writers are?
What we do is enhance a book’s visibility, and will basically shift them in the light to ask, “Why would we want to read them now?”
I pay attention to where the fun is. Is it in sci-fi, fantasy, or horror? I’m sure there are classic titles in these areas. I am technically an acquisitions editor. So I’m at the very beginning of the process. I look for the editor or the contributor. Or if I have an idea for an anthology, I will try to find an expert who will edit it. Sometimes we work with agents of the biggest estates. And so I take care of the estates of Arthur Miller, John Steinbeck, William Golding…
What makes a classic?
A classic is something that stands the test of time. I would say that the youngest titles we put out were like 15 years old, but usually it would be more like 20 to 25 years. When there’s a big anniversary, or a centennial, they’re really good reasons to do something for the book.
As a Filipino, is it a conscious decision for you to look for more authors of color?
I think it’s definitely embedded in my sensibility as an editor. It also is in my sensibility as a businesswoman. A lot of people are talking about the need for diversity, and I am taking advantage of that attention now. I also feel it’s really important that if you can, while you’re a gatekeeper, to make that impact. So not only do we actively look for classics by writers of color, and marginalized voices, but I also look for contributors who can also give us new introductions or new forewords. Even for the covers, we had designers like Filipina cover artist Sarah Gonzales, a young artist from Toronto. So if there’s an opportunity to kind of widen that net, we do it.
A lot of Filipino writers want to make it big abroad, but I don’t know if we’re very knowledgeable about marketing to a foreign audience. Do you have tips for them?
I think it’s unfair to expect writers to be extroverted. But it does help for them to be part of a community of readers. In terms of social media, building the knowledge that people have of your work and being in touch with your fans online, that helps a lot.
What do you think is the most challenging thing you have to do to engage the modern audience?
I love pop culture, I love other forms of media. And I also love TV. What I do is, anytime there’s something exciting that’s happening outside of the book world, we try to draw in people who love whatever they’re watching, and tell them, “By the way, that is inspired by this book.” And the agility of being able to communicate with our readers through social media is the fastest way to do it. There’s a Netflix show about teenagers who had no parents called The Society that came out. The creator of that TV series said that he was inspired by Lord of the Flies. What you do is you build on that.
Is it hard to get the Gen Z kids through?
It’s hard, I feel like those people come to the classics on their own time. What I want them to get a sense of is that there are really great stories waiting for them when they’re ready. I also feel that sometimes certain classics are not meant to be read when you’re young, that you get much more out of them when you’ve had some life experience.
Is it hard to convince people to buy the book, when these classics are part of public domain?
That’s one of the biggest challenges I’d say is because there are so many competitive volumes out there that are free, but they may be poorly made or not edited. So we need to keep informing consumers that if you want the best experience, go to a trusted publisher who’s going to proofread that text, who’s going to contextualize the book for you, and give it to you in an appealing package. But that is tough.
For the kids who want to join the contest, what kind of essay are you looking for? Any tips?
I would say put yourself in that essay. Don’t wash away your personality. Use the best skills you’ve learned from your teachers in terms of writing. Don’t hesitate to put your opinion in there, and be personal about it. Know what parts of these authors’ works are moving to you and what parts do you disagree with and what parts are inspiring.
A Classics Beginner? Here are books Elda recommends
- The Outsiders by SE Hinton
- The Pearl by John Steinbeck
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
How to join the Penguin Classics X NBS essay writing contest
- The contest is open to all junior and senior high school students. One entry per student.
- Submit entry until Aug. 31.
- Choose from one of the five Filipino books and write why it’s relevant for today’s generation:
- Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere
- Jose Rizal’s El Filibusterismo
- Jose Garcia Villa’s Doveglion
- Carlos Bulusan’s America’s in the Heart
- Nick Joaquin’s The Woman Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic
Visit www.nationalbookstore.com/ lovingpinoylit for more info on the essay writing contest.