Meet the Filipino who runs Penguin Classics

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Penguin Classics publisher Elda Rotor at the Penguin Random House office in New York. She is responsible for introducing more Filipino literary classics in the prestigious roster of the publishing company's world literature editions. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It was a bit unbelievable — as with any international recognition bestowed upon any piece of Filipino culture — that Jose Rizal’s incendiary novel “Noli Me Tangere” was published under the prestigious Penguin Classics banner in 2006. Alongside novels belonging to the world literature canon, from Austen to Zamyatin, the very book that we studied in junior year exists in its own “Black Classics” edition, on whose cover are orange lettering on a black background and a white stripe bearing the distinctive Penguin logo and the “Penguin Classics” label emblazoned on it, sealing its position in the shelves of bookshops and book lovers everywhere.

Elda Rotor came into Penguin Classics as editorial director the same year “Noli Me Tangere” joined the Classics roster, as if in an auspicious stroke of coincidence. Prior to joining Penguin, Rotor had accumulated quite an experience in the literary publishing world. A year after she graduated from college, she served as editorial assistant for the trade and academic editor of Literary and Cultural Studies at Oxford University Press. She moved up over 13 years to be associate editor for trade paperbacks, and then editor and senior editor for trade books in the humanities. From there, she made the move to the U.S. arm of Penguin (now an imprint of Penguin Random House), where she’s been an editor for a decade now, and where she is currently the vice president and publisher of its Penguin Classics line.

Penguin Classics: Jose Rizal and Jose Garcia Villa The Penguin Classics editions of Jose Rizal's two novels — "Noli Me Tangere" and its sequel, "El Filibusterismo” — and Jose Garcia Villa's poetry collection "Doveglion.” The inclusion of "Doveglion" in Penguin Classics was inspired by a photograph of the author with a group of writers, which includes Elizabeth Bishop, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, and W.H. Auden at Gotham Book Mart in New York.  

Her job entails overseeing a massive list of 50 frontlist titles a year, with a backlist of over 1,600 titles. She has a team of three commissioning literary material from new translations, works from new estates, and authors who can write new forewords and introductions to new editions of Penguin Classics.

“I work with the estates of John Steinbeck, Arthur Miller, Shirley Jackson, and Dorothy Parker, among others,” she shares. “Every day there is something inspiring to work on, but there are a lot of pots on the stove, and the challenge is to keep things moving, publish thoughtfully, and always have the big picture in mind, of how the brand serves its audience, and how we can improve and grow.”

penguin classics elda rotor A section of the bookshelves in Elda Rotor's office at Penguin Random House with titles from the Penguin Classics line and some contemporary novels, including, if you look closely, “Toxicology” by the Manila-born author Jessica Hagedorn. Photo by JL JAVIER

penguin classics elda rotor Since it was founded by Sir Allen Lane in 1935 in the U.K., Penguin Books has become the premier publishing house in the world. Now an imprint of the international conglomerate Penguin Random House, it has offices in Australia, India, Ireland, South Africa, the U.K., and the U.S. (pictured). Photo by JL JAVIER  

After Rizal’s “Noli” and its sequel, “El Filibusterismo,” and Jose Garcia Villa’s poetry collection “Doveglion” (introduced by the New York-based Filipino author Luis Francia), Nick Joaquin will soon be published under Penguin Classics, which recently acquired rights to his short story collection “The Woman With Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic” and his play “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino,” in time for the author’s birth centennial in May 2017.

Rotor recently sat down with CNN Philippines Life in the four-floor Penguin Random House offices on Hudson Street in New York for exclusive portraits and a peek at the office that shapes the reading habits of the world. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

How did the integration of Philippine literature for Penguin Classics come about? Was it a hard case to pitch?

My predecessor first commissioned Harold Augenbraum to translate “Noli Me Tangere.” I know Harold was encouraged by Luis Francia to produce a new English translation. I started at Penguin right when the “Noli” was first published, so I devoted my time and energy to build a network of support around the publication. There were some great publicity and promotional activities around the “Noli,” and the ties I made with Filipino professionals in different industries from that publication have been long-lasting, it’s very inspiring.

After “Noli,” next came “Doveglion” by Jose Garcia Villa. Why him and why that particular work of his?

I had known of Jose Garcia Villa since I was in college. There is this iconic 1940s photograph of a group of writers at Gotham Book Mart in New York. It includes Elizabeth Bishop, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, W.H. Auden, and in the middle of the group was Jose Garcia Villa. I was intrigued by him and his position among these writers. I have that photograph on my bulletin board at work now and it was very satisfying to learn more about his poetry, his mentoring, and his career here in the U.S. I believe I learned about the availability of rights to his work through Luis Francia first, and through him I met the executor of the Villa estate, John Cowen.

penguin classics elda rotor A section of the bookshelves in Elda Rotor's office at Penguin Random House with titles from the Penguin Classics line and some contemporary novels, including, if you look closely, “Toxicology” by the Manila-born author Jessica Hagedorn. Photo by JL JAVIER

penguin classics elda rotor Inside the Penguin Classics offices are some promotional materials such as ​a corner shelf (left) and a vintage refrigerator reworked as a bookshelf made in collaboration with the company's Brazilian counterpart. Photos by JL JAVIER  

How’s the reception of the Filipino books in Penguin Classics so far?

Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” in particular has had steady course adoption each year, which was our hope. The growth of its readership has stretched beyond the initial audience of Filipino readers familiar with the classic, and this is what makes any of our titles successful — the organic growth of a readership based on word-of-mouth recommendations, course adoption, connections made to other classics, etc. Through the “Noli,” readers have a window to Philippine history and the revolutionary and artistic spirit embodied in Rizal.

Is it particularly complicated to make a Penguin Classic out of a work of Philippine literature, which sadly remains underrepresented in the international literary scene?

I don’t think it’s particularly complicated. It helps a great deal to identify a group of advocates who are knowledgeable of the author and work to help contextualize their importance to the series. Offering comparative titles and authors, relevant themes, this all works to illuminate both the uniqueness and universal aspects of the work. This information is shared among a larger team of people working on Penguin Classics, from our sale reps to publicity to marketing to the art department. We want to open all the potential avenues of opportunity to find new readers for our works, and knowing more about what made a work originally relevant helps connect it to how it can be relevant to modern readers.

Soon to join the roster of Penguin Classics is Nick Joaquin. Do you have a list of Filipino authors whom you would like to add to it?

I have had a few queries and suggestions in the past. There are several factors that help inform our decision if an author is right and ready for Penguin Classics. For Nick Joaquin, his reputation and legacy spoke for themselves. Having his centennial coming up and the fact that these works have not been widely available outside the Philippines made the idea of a Penguin Classic so much more exciting.

The growth of the readership of “Noli” has stretched beyond the initial audience of Filipino readers familiar with the classic, and this is what makes any of our titles successful — the organic growth based on word-of-mouth recommendations, course adoption, connections made to other classics, etc. Through the “Noli,” readers have a window to Philippine history and the revolutionary and artistic spirit embodied in Jose Rizal.

 

Tell us about the joys and challenges of having a book published as a Penguin Classic. What is the process like?

The main joy is bringing an audience to a work that would otherwise lead a quiet life, not having the chance to be brought into the light of a modern readership. A greater joy is hearing individual responses of how enlightening or enjoyable a book has been, and connecting that experience with the fact that the edition was a Penguin Classic. The challenges are working very hard to edit, produce, and publish a book and to see its reception to be very modest. So either you realize that the readership was small, or that for some reason we failed to reach a wider audience for a variety of factors.

There are already a great many editions of literary classics available, especially of the ones already in the public domain. Why then do you continue to put out even newer editions, some in special editions such as Penguin Threads, Penguin Drop Caps, and Penguin Couture Classics?

In the 10 years I’ve worked at Penguin Classics, it’s proven to be true that there is nothing that compares to a quality edition of a great work of literature. We are very much in the digital world, providing e-books for much of our list. But there’s something about the physical beauty of a book, finely executed inside and out, that readers find deeply satisfying. We bring much work and thought into the production of our books, from authoritative texts, interior design, to cutting-edge book design, and we have built a strong reputation for this distinction. Developing series such as the Penguin Drop Caps, Penguin Horror, Civic Classics, and soon the Penguin Orange Collection and Penguin Galaxy represents our dedication to our readers and curating special series for their interests that are beautiful objects unto themselves. Overall it reflects the deep respect we have for the reader’s experience and our focus on enriching that experience with a Penguin Classic.

penguin classics elda rotor A desk in the Penguin Classics office with some of the imprint’s hardbound series (including Penguin Horror, introduced by the filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro, and the Drop Cap series) and cover studies. Photo by JL JAVIER

penguin classics elda rotor While it's best-known for its literary classics line, particularly the black-spined editions, Penguin Books USA also publishes titles by contemporary authors. Photo by JL JAVIER  

Do you think Filipinos themselves read enough Philippine literature?

I don’t know if Filipinos themselves read enough Philippine literature, but I tell anyone who listens that the numbers speak for themselves. If you want Filipino writers to be published, you must support their publications. Publishers, marketers, etc. look at comparative titles and their sales. My ability to publish “El Filibusterismo” is connected to the success of “Noli Me Tangere.”  The opportunity to publish Jose Garcia Villa is informed by the community who buys Rizal. There is no obligation to read exclusively but there are many reasons to read supportively.

Are there any Filipino new voices you’re reading and keen on seeing more work from?

I’m excited for Mia Alvar and am reading her work now; she is part of that bridge of Filipino voices that I hope readers will traverse to learn more about the exquisite talents these writers bring and how they illuminate the Filipino experience. There is another writer, Elaine Castillo, whose work I read for my colleague at Viking (another Penguin Random House imprint), and I very much look forward to her novel, which features Ilocano characters across multiple generations, since my family is Ilocano. She has such a distinctive narrative voice, unsentimental, sharp and observant.

penguin classics elda rotor “I work with the estates of John Steinbeck, Arthur Miller, Shirley Jackson, and Dorothy Parker, among others,” Elda Rotor says of her work in Penguin Classics. “Every day there is something inspiring to work on, but there are a lot of pots on the stove, and the challenge is to keep things moving." Photo by JL JAVIER

penguin classics elda rotor Penguin Classics has been known to release gorgeous editions of books from the world literature canon, such as the new Pelican Shakespeare editions and classic novels​ like Paul Auster's "The New York Trilogy" and Mikhail Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita." Photo by JL JAVIER

Finally, do you have a list of Penguin Classics “required reading”?

Of course! Here are some, based on my own favorites and also recommended titles that will surprise, inspire, challenge, and astonish your readers:

  • El Filibusterismo” by Jose Rizal
  • “My Antonia” by Willa Cather
  • “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse
  • “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck
  • “All My Sons” by Arthur Miller
  • “Passing” by Nella Larsen
  • “Ceremony” by Leslie Marmon Silko
  • “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan
  • “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson
  • “The Poetics of Space” by Gaston Bachelard
  • “Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe” by Thomas Ligotti
  • “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde
  • “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte
  • “Persuasion” by Jane Austen
  • “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov