Jill Schoolman is the publisher of Archipelago Books, a newborn, not-for-profit literary press based in Brooklyn. Archipelago is dedicated to distributing contemporary and classic world literature by a diverse group of international writers and hopes to promote America’s awareness of other cultures. Kate Trainor recently spoke with Schoolman on behalf of the Brooklyn Rail.
Kate Trainor (Rail): What prompted you to start a press with a multicultural, multilingual focus?
Jill Schoolman: In part, I started Archipelago because there seemed to be an urgent need. So many important international writers, both living and dead, are simply not being introduced and read here. But, I must admit, it was more out of love than duty. I’m naturally drawn toward literature beyond our borders. It’s what I love to read. Reading is a voyage, and I find it more tempting to travel abroad.
Rail: Do you think that multicultural, multilingual literature is being ignored?
Schoolman: I think, in part, it’s the fault of the literary gatekeepers. Many editors and publishers in this country are monolingual and are hesitant to rely on outside readers, translated excerpts, or foreign publishers to make decisions. On top of that, there is a self-perpetuating myth among publishers that translations don’t sell. It is costly to bring over authors from abroad, and radio programs are reluctant to interview authors who need an interpreter (and are even more reluctant to invite a translator unaccompanied by an author on to a show to discuss a book). The media tends to pay less attention to world literature, with the exception of Nobel Prize winners and a select circle of recognizable names who have made it onto the map. I believe that American readers are hungry to know what people are writing about and thinking about beyond our borders, especially now when our government is doing its best to alienate us from the rest of the world.
Rail: Do you think most Americans are ignorant of what’s going on outside of their own country?
Schoolman: I think many Americans don’t bother to question what the media and the government are feeding us about global happenings. It feels as though the mainstream media wants to keep the country looking inward; it particularly doesn’t want the American public to know too much about genocides that the U.S. government is opting to ignore. Even if a certain number of us do question how the Fox Channel or CNN slices and dices international news, our relationship to what is happening beyond our borders somehow remains detached; it is difficult to cut through our deep-seated sense of complacency.
Rail: Is there one news media source that you trust?
Schoolman: I trust Pacifica’s Democracy Now and the BBC.
Rail: If the American media misinforms us about foreign affairs, is foreign media guilty of the same crime? Do foreigners have a deluded perception of Americans?
Schoolman: Yes, it’s a two-way street. Certain countries have freer presses than others, with a wide array of voices being heard. Italy, at the moment, is treading on dangerous ground with the major newspapers and television stations owned by Prime Minister Berlusconi.
Rail: In your recent travels abroad, have you experienced any anti-American sentiment (or, in light of recent events, pity)?
Schoolman: Yes, I was recently in Europe where outrage and dismay at the behavior of the American government and military were palpable. I find that most people do make a distinction, however, between being against the government’s policies and being against the people as a whole.
Rail: There seems to be growing pressure on Americans to speak more than one language. At this rate, does America have a future as a multilingual society, or are we becoming more American-centric?
Schoolman: I think we’d be surprised by how many households in our big metropolises navigate in more than one language, how many children of immigrants act as interpreter. It would be exciting if our public school systems would require second or third graders to start learning another language. I do believe it’s possible for this country’s linguistic landscape to shift, for the generation growing up now to understand the importance of a multilingual society.
Rail: One of your goals is to collaborate with educational institutions and introduce multicultural literature to students. Has this endeavor been successful? What institutions are you working with at present?
Schoolman: We have set up classroom visits for Yuri Rytkheu, a novelist from Chukotka, the northeastern tip of Siberia. He’ll be visiting high schools and universities in Alaska, California, and New York. His novel, A Dream in Polar Fog, is one of the first books in a translation series sponsored by the International Institute of Modern Letters—out in Las Vegas, of all places.
Rail: As a New York City public school teacher, I have many bilingual and non-English-speaking students. Sadly, it seems that those students who are more willing to adopt American culture and forsake their culture of origin tend to be more successful, both academically and socially. Is Americanization a prerequisite to success in our society?
Schoolman: It does put a lot of pressure on kids; it must create an inner tug-of-war. I believe it is possible to maintain cultural identity to a certain extent. Look at Canada. It seems that immigrants in Canadian cities are encouraged to maintain their cultural identities rather than shed them. You can hear a variety of languages on the radio. It’s a different model.
Rail: Do any of Archipelago’s books deal with this experience of crossing cultures, of maintaining one’s cultural identity while being immersed in another?
Schoolman: One comes to mind. We’re bringing out a Korean classic called Three Generations which is set in the 1930s in Seoul under the Japanese occupation. It is very revealing of the dual identity of Koreans of that time, both working-class people as well as middle class. But colonialism is another kettle of worms. Miljenko Jergović’s Sarajevo Marlboro humanizes and explores issues of shifting alliances and identities in the Balkans that grew out of the war.
Rail: Who is buying your books? Is there a certain demographic that gravitates toward this kind of literature?
Schoolman: It’s interesting to see. There are about 100 or so very strong independent bookstores across the country who have gotten behind our books wholeheartedly. The chains have been tougher to break into. It seems that the West is gobbling up our books with a greater appetite than the East, actually. Perhaps there’s still a touch more of the frontier mentality out there.
Rail: What are your hopes for Archipelago Books?
Schoolman: Well, I hope that our books will change lives, even in a small way.