September 21, 2018

How to introduce an internationally acclaimed writer to American readers


This December, Melville House will publish Revolution Sunday, a novel by the acclaimed Cuban writer, actress, radio host, and televised intellectual Wendy Guerra and in a translation by Achy Obejas. It tells a story of state-surveillance, accusations of espionage, and as Kirkus put in its starred review of the book “an explosive portrait of loneliness and isolation.” Guerra’s books have won her legions of fans across the Spanish-speaking world along as well as in other languages into which she’s been translated. In fact the only place in Latin America where she isn’t widely read is Cuba, where her books have been purposely made unavailable by the government.

Photo via Hope House Press/Unsplash

There’s another frontier that Guerra has yet to make headway into, and that’s the United States. While a previous novel Everyone Leaves did appear in 2012 (also in a translation by Obejas) in a limited print run so small that copies alone go for nearly $20 bucks and new for $60. Revolution Sunday will mark Guerra’s first actual trade publication, meaning it will be available to the masses.

But beyond our own excitement, trying to capitalize on an international writer’s fame abroad doesn’t always, ahem, translate to recognition here. Cracking the code in what keeps a writer in translation in obscurity and what makes brings them to wide levels of praise isn’t easy, but there are methods. It helps, of course, to have champions: American writers who cheer on a writer’s arrival to the American literary market. In Guerra’s case, it was a delight to see the great fiction writer Laura Van Den Berg tweet out her excitement at receiving a galley copy.

As much of a vital first step having an American champion can be, many works in translation aren’t given this kind of boost this early on. Often, for a first book out, it is more common to include blurbs from foreign periodicals, which has its merit, for sure, but a send-off is not the same as a welcoming. If the champion falls through before publication, there are still ways to break out the heralding trumpets. A starred review periodicals like Publishers Weekly and Kirkus is certain to turn some heads, especially if both reviews give the book a star. (Note: Publishers Weekly has not yet reviewed this book at the time of this writing).

Even if a book has a champion and a two starred reviews, a work in translation may hit what that great wall of review publications. The chances of a major review publication assigning a book review of a first time writer in translation is pretty thin, and the hope of a first time writer in translation running the review circuit from The New York Times to The New York Review of Books is more or less a pipe dream. This can be the case for American writers, too.

Which is why publishers, especially indies, tend to commit to building a writer until that happens. That means publishing beyond a debut, it means trying to get the author over to America and helping them build their connections here, it means keeping tabs on their whereabouts and working with the translator to offer a short story or interview now and again to make sure no one forgets them. It means a lot of hard work.

And, this work is without the guarantee that the writer will stay with the indie pub in the future. Many people are surprised that a writer like Alejandro Zambra, well-reviewed and regarded here, and who is now published by Penguin Random House, made his American debut with us when we published his novel Bonsai, in a translation by Carolina De Robertis, in 2008. While regarded as one of his best, Zambra stayed a more or less cult writer for American readers. It wasn’t until 2015, that Zambra finally broke out in the American market with My Documents, his fourth book to appear in English, in a translation by Megan McDowell, and of which garnered him a profile in the New Yorker by James Wood under the headline “Latin America’s New Literary Star.” Zambra wasn’t new, he had just finally been recognized by the literary elite.

Such is our hope for Wendy Guerra who is, after all a Latin American literary star. Trust us when we say keep an eye out for her.

Michael Barron is an editor at Melville House.