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Philippine titles now Penguin Classics

What high level of interest was shown by the large attendance of authors, readers and publishers at the Thursday forum of the National Book Development Board (NBDB) and the Book Development Association of the Philippines on “Trends in Literary and Academic Publishing: The Penguin Classics Experience,” with visiting Penguin Classics executive Elda Rotor.

When Honeylein de Peralta, Penguin Random House regional marketing manager informed us that Rotor, who has Philippine roots, would be vacationing in the country—a visit after many years—NBDB knew that we had to arrange a meeting with her.

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Rotor has impressive credentials as vice president and publisher of Penguin Classics (PC); she was formerly associated with Oxford University Press. But it is her surname and her affinity to a well-known author of short stories, Dr. Arturo B. Rotor, in the early years of Philippine writing in English that initially intrigued me. One of Dr. Rotor’s best known stories is “Zita,” and his first published anthology in 1937 is “The Wound and the Scar.” It turns out Elda Rotor herself is just discovering her granduncle today.

Rotor began her discussion by raising the question: What makes a classic? Borrowing from two of the authors she has worked with, she said it is a book that uses words for an experience that we ourselves cannot express. Or, it is the relationship one has with the book, a relationship that grows, that changes.

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Rotor is driven by the same philosophy of the Penguin Random House founder, Allen Lane, who in 1935, while awaiting his train in London, wondered how to get high-quality literature into the hands of more people.

PC’s four-person team publish one to five titles every month, books with the now distinct dramatic black band at the bottom of the cover bearing the title and author of the book. Since classics are obviously reissues, Rotor is meticulous about every edition. The cover reaches out to the reader and the students especially since, in most cases, these books become part of the curriculum. The contemporaneity of the total look of the book is important to Rotor, who has a special eye for design and typography, having majored in literature and art studies.

For instance, for “Little Women,” it couldn’t just be the standard bonneted four girls art, which is the most commonly found in other editions. She wanted a cover that would allow the reader to identify with any of the March girls in spirit, even if the physical attributes may differ. For “Joy Luck Club,” she foreswore the use of dragons and instead focused on an Asian-looking mother-daughter, as the book centers on such a relationship.

Another selling point of PC is the introduction, which also gives the age-old text a fresh, cutting-edge approach. Rotor invites contributors with established scholarship and knowledge of the classic book. The latest to join the Philippine authors series published by PC is Carlos Bulosan’s seminal immigrant story, “America is in the Heart,” released in time for Asian American Heritage Month. It was timely and appropriate to have Fil-Am novelist Elaine Castillo write the intro, as her first novel released in 2018 was “America is Not in the Heart.”

The Philippines is finally represented in the PC collection through five titles. “Noli Me Tangere” was released in 2006 right before Rotor’s tenure by her predecessor Harold Augenbraum, who wrote the introduction. The release of “Noli,” Rotor said, came about because New York-based writer Luis H. Francia “challenged” Augenbraum to do it. Other titles have followed: “Doveglion: Collected Poems” by Jose Garcia Villa; “El Filibusterismo” by Jose Rizal; “The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic” by Nick Joaquin; and “America is in the Heart” by Carlos Bulosan.

Do only Fil-Am communities patronize Filipino authors? Rotor does not think so. I myself was surprised about an American university student seated beside me on a flight from El Nido. She was part of a large student group from Fordham exploring the Philippines, and she was reading PC’s “Noli,” because she said it was her way of knowing the country better.

And what better venue for such a lively discussion on books, cover art, print media tieups and the need for the continuous marketing of titles than at the Ben Chan ArtSuite, Ateneo Art Gallery, in the university’s latest showcase building, the Areté, the ancient Greek word for the highest possible level of excellence. Such conversations have to continue.

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Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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TAGS: National Book Development Board, opinion, Penguin Classics, Philippines
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