By David Unger
NEW YORK CITY: I am the US rep for the Guadalajara International Book Fair so I know more than I need to know about the schizoid business of books. I’ve heard the Frankfurt, Bologna and London whispers: “If authors were here, they’d want to kill themselves if they saw what they were up against.” I’ve had similar thoughts when seeing national stands (Bosnia, Croatia, Honduras, Nigeria and Vietnam come to mind) at these fairs; let’s be honest, books from these countries garner little attention from agents and publishers buying and selling rights. I try to stay focused on my job — to bring an ever-increasing number of publishers, editors and agents to Guadalajara — and not to think like a writer when I am doing my work. But it’s clear to me that the little guys (third world authors and their publishers) have no chance in a powerful world where agents and editors sell and buy books that quite often they themselves have never read. It’s all about the sell and the tip sheet.
Publication doesn’t imply sales. In Guadalajara, for example, the big guns — García Márquez, Isabel Allende, Vargas Llosa, Orhan Pamuk, Nadine Gordimer — read in front of thousands, while Marcos Antonio Flores, Guatemala’s poet laureate, might read to a handful of visitors in a small upstairs salon. Surely there is an injustice here, but it’s one inherent in the global marketplace: talent helps, but publicity budgets create the buzz. Books are often bought based more on the “herd” concept than on literary or even entertainment merit. How many people do you know have actually read The Name of the Rose or The Corrections cover to cover?
Of course, every writer has a war story or two and my path to publication — as a Guatemalan who lives in New York has an Anglo name and writes in English — has left me with more than a few scars…
After translating Latin American poetry and fiction for thirty years, I published my first novel at the age of 51: Life in the Damn Tropics came out with Syracuse University Press in 2002. My editor, Irene Vilar, had planned to initiate the SUP Americas Series with my novel, but she abruptly left after buying my book. Orphaned, Life was shoehorned awkwardly into the Library of Modern Jewish Literature, alongside novels by illustrious Israeli authors A.B. Yehoshua and S.Y. Agnon. Sure, Marcos Eltaleph, my protagonist was Jewish, but he was, more to the point, a philanderer who preferred shooting pool, drinking and whoring — sweet debauchery — to living a respectable life within Guatemala’s small Jewish community.
Still, the novel was blurbed by Oscar Hijuelos and Francisco Goldman and reviewed favorably by PW, Kirkus and others. The novel, sadly, was crippled by a hefty price tag — $35 in 2002 dollars — and a publicity department with no idea how to sell a racy, political thriller set during the 1980s armed conflict in Guatemala, the country of my birth. The only bookstore in which I found Life was The Strand on Broadway in New York City, the review copy cemetery.
Two years later, Irene resurfaced at Wisconsin University Press and bought the paperback rights to Life for her recently launched Americas Series. My novel now stood alongside the work of Latin American masters Jorge Amado, Horacio Quiroga and Alfredo Bryce Echenique. Spanish rights were sold to Random House Mondadori, Chinese (Mandarin and simplified characters) to Locus Press, while Recorded Books published the Spanish audio version. And thanks to the Barnes & Noble Spanish-language buyer, Vivir en el maldito trópico finally appeared in dozens of bookstores with perceptible Latino communities.
Still, sales have not been spectacular and though there are many reasons for this (an unsympathetic protagonist?), I’ve also been told that, yes, my non-exotic surname has something to do with it. I could inject Yarhi, my mother’s maiden name into my moniker, but I doubt that that Syrian-Sephardic name adds much to my identity soup. Since I write in English, you would think that it would be easier to translate my work, but foreign editors do prefer their Latin Americans to have Latin American names and to write in Spanish.
Further, my work is set, almost exclusively, in Guatemala. Guatemala grows good coffee, has a thriving tourist industry (the ancient Maya) and Agador, the barefoot servant, in The Bird Cage hailed from there, but it’s been decades since the press covered my country with anything resembling diligence. Who wants to read about a failed state taken over by narco-gangs, ranking first worldwide in per capita murders? Not from a David Unger.
In 2009, Guatemala’s F y G Editores published Ni chicha, ni limonada, a short story collection translated into Spanish. The book sold well here and abroad (Recorded Books also bought the Spanish audio rights for this book) and has led to invitations as a Latin American writer to book fairs in La Paz, Lima, Bogotá, Guatemala City, San Juan and Guadalajara. Apparently, the fact that I don’t write in Spanish and my name isn’t Latin American isn’t problematic in certain quarters.
During the first day of BEA last May, my agent Andrea Montejo told me that Akashic Books had bought the world rights to The Price of Escape, a noir-ish novel about a Jewish refugee who flees the carnage in Nazi Germany and arrives in Guatemala only to discover that he’s gone from the fire into the frying pan, as it were. The novel is a cautionary tale about what happens to a character who pales before real life demons because he has failed to confront the demons inside of him. The Price of Escape is out now, and I’m humbled by how hard an independent house with limited funds can work to get proper space for its books.
Then the next day, Random House Mondadori bought Spanish-language rights to In My Eyes, You Are Beautiful, even though the novel had not been published in English. A Bildungsroman that is more a tale of female individuation, Para mi, eres divina follows the life of Olivia, a young Guatemalan coffee picker, who has the spunk to escape the fields, become educated and eventually build her own life in Mexico.
It is unusual to sell two different novels to two different publishers in two different languages in two different countries, both to come out in the same year 2011.
I had a very good 2010 BEA.
That said, at the London Book Fair earlier this month, I didn’t fare so well: I was told by two different publishers that The Price of Escape was not for them: an Israeli editor said that Israelis are tired of World War II novels with Jewish themes (not what the novel is about) and a Bulgarian said that she publishes only mysteries and Gothic novels from the U.S. So much for my theory of thinking that I am a Latin American.
Gringo in Guatemala
As strange as it might seem, by October I will have published three books in Spanish translation and only two in English. I have come to accept the fact that I’m a Latin American author writing in English whose main readership is south of the border even though I live in the US. Still, I sometimes feel like a gringo interloper among my fellow Guatemalan writers when I go home to present books. In this country, I do have an edge over my fellow escritores latinoamericanos because I don’t need a translator, but I do share with them the frustration of not having the bulk of my work appearing in my mother tongue.
Ten years ago, I was an unpublished writer. Being David Unger isn’t so bad. I eagerly await the coming decade!