Meet Elda Rotor, the Filipina Behind Penguin Classics
Recently, Penguin Classics' Elda Rotor gave a special talk at National Book Store themed, “What Makes a Classic?”
A few hours before the talk, Rotor granted T&C an exclusive interview where she talked to us about her career in the New York publishing industry, her advocacy of the classics, and her love for Filipino literature.
Rotor is the Manila-born, U.S.-raised vice president and publisher of Penguin Classics. She earned her degree in English Literature with Honors from George Washington University, graduating cum laude. She has been in the publishing industry for over two decades and was a key figure in creating the Penguin Orange Collection, Penguin Civic Classics, the Penguin Drop Caps, and Penguin Vitae.
There are five Filipino works on the esteemed list of Penguin Classics: Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo by Jose Rizal, Doveglion by Jose Garcia Villa, The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic by Nick Joaquin, and America is In the Heart by Carlos Bulosan. Can you tell me a little bit more about these titles and how they became Penguin Classics?
There are the Noli and Fili, that are of course, national epics. They capture an important, historical period similar to novels like Crime and Punishment or Les Miserables. They give a sense of an entry point to one’s Filipino literature experience, but there’s always the hope they won’t be the only part of that experience, but one of the starts.
For Jose Garcia Villa, I’ve had his postcard near my desk since I was in my early 20s. I found it in a bookstore in New York City when I was out of college. On it, there’s a picture of a young Asian American writer who is surrounded by prominent white authors around him from the same era. I found out that this man in the middle was Jose Garcia Villa and from then on, I had always wanted to know more about him. He worked in the same neighborhood as me in the West Village, and walked the same streets and went to the same restaurants. Luis Francia was really important in terms of giving me the context of his influence and introduced me to the executor of the estate. I was just fascinated with the fact that there was a Filipino poet, who was active in those literary circles at that time and really established himself in the United States. His poetry I find very unique and a bit experimental. It gave me the opportunity to show a different side of Filipino writing.
Nick Joaquin was recommended specifically by Gina Apostol, the novelist of Insurrecto. She approached me and said, “You should really think of Nick Joaquin and I think that his short stories would be great.” She explained that they were being taught [in schools] and [cited] the reasons why he was an important Filipino writer. That’s how we came to publish Nick Joaquin.
Bulosan, I’ve heard of for a while. His work, America is in the Heart, was especially important to me, to deepen readers’ access to the U.S. immigrant experience. His is one of the best and most painful stories to read. It’s really groundbreaking and gives you a sense of testament. It truly is an American story. I thought it was compelling that he was from Ilocos since I am Ilocano also. So when I was given the opportunity to publish Bulosan, I thought we should certainly add it to the series.
How did you end up in the United States?
I was born here in Makati, but we moved to the United States when I was less than a year old. My mom was a nurse. My dad was an engineer. I’d come back, maybe four times throughout my life. When I was eight or nine my dad had to do a business trip across Asia. I came to the Philippines for a month and stayed with my relatives. I think that was a really pivotal time for me to really just enjoy being in my home country. Even though I was raised in the States, I grew up very Filipino.
How did you become interested in literature?
Well, I was supposed to go to George Washington University for the medical program. Throughout my freshman year at the university, I knew I was coming into my own and I was drawn to English. I had always loved books and the humanities. When I was in the fourth grade, I started writing poetry and I also enjoyed reading a lot when I was a child and also editing. So I rebelled and said I wanted to become an English major. After I did that, I felt like my experience in college was deeply satisfying because I was able to shape my curriculum and pursue things that I was passionate about. Being involved in a literary magazine and writing poetry at the same time, and having really great English professors just made me want to strive. I also really loved being a student. Afterward, I got a job in New York book publishing, and I’ve stayed in that career since then.
What was your first job at the Oxford University Press like and how did it eventually lead to your position at Penguin Classics?
The trade paperback job that I had was actually new. They had just created it, and I was the first person to work at that job. It was really educational reviewing the backlists of books that had already been published and that had been in paperback and to choose which of those could have an updated edition, for example, if a publication was having a 25th or 50th anniversary. I noticed that what all these titles had in common is that they were still accessible even after having been in print for so long. That was when I learned that there was an equation to what makes a classic and to what makes a successful book that is constantly in print. In some sense, they’re still relevant and don’t feel outdated, even if they were written years ago.
This realization would fit in well when I was working with Penguin too, because we’re really always looking at the past to find a way towards the future. That’s the fun of it for me, to find and dig up these treasures that were celebrated in their time, and highlight something that will ring true to modern readers now.
What personally draws you to the classics?
I love the fact that no story is ever really, truly new. It makes you feel like you’re never alone. It’s a humbling experience when writers find a way of capturing an emotion or scene that connects with a pivotal part of your life, and it sparks that sense of joy or recognition. For me, that is such a valuable aspect of what makes the classics work.
You’ve been in publishing for over two decades and a lot has changed. What personal change have you experienced in your years working in the industry?
What changes is my ability to mentor the people who are working with me. Each individual member of my group has their own strengths, and none of us have the exact same passions or interests, but our differences are great because it increases the number of audiences that we can reach. Since I’ve been doing this for 26 years, I have a sense of what feels right as an editor. I think there are definitely challenges as I continue to be a publisher, especially with anything that would be competing for our readers’ time, but the idea of mentoring the next generation of editors is something I really enjoy.
Penguin has expanded into e-books, podcasts and other types of digital media. How is your company changing the way it engages with the modern reader?
It’s exciting that there are so many different formats now to connect our readers with our authors and their stories. One of the formats that is increasing exponentially is audiobooks. There are times it’s not always possible to pull out a paperback or e-book, such as when you’re in the car, working out, or taking a walk. During these times, it’s possible to enjoy listening to the classics through audio as well.
How does Penguin present Filipino literature to its international audience?
Under the banner of Penguin classics, the interesting thing about bringing in Filipino authors is that they become part of a continuum of storytellers, and juxtapose them against their contemporaries. Our way of introducing Bulosan, for example, was through the knowledge that our readers were already familiar with Steinbeck. Steinbeck wrote about the experiences of white, migrant workers, and that helps to contextualize this story of a Filipino man who is also a migrant worker, maybe even in the same field. We never want to impede on the expectations of our readers, leading them to think, “oh, I won’t understand this. It’s not my world.” A writer can be from a different part of the world, but convey an exact same kind of experience that you’ve had in a scene. I think we compare books by the universal emotions they bring up for us as readers, and not from specific differences, although this is also something to honor.
Today, National Book Store launched the essay-writing contest: “Loving Pinoy Lit,” in partnership with Penguin Classics. The contest features the five Filipino works of literature and a search for an answer to the question: “What makes these works relevant to our young, modern readers today?” How did the Loving Pinoy Lit contest come about?
Two years ago, Penguin hosted an essay writing contest for our American high school readers. When I knew that I would be coming to the Philippines for vacation, I wanted to do a contest for our readers there as well. I thought it’d be a great opportunity to connect with the community here and get a sense of what makes the Penguin Classics titles relevant to young people, especially with the momentum of having five Filipino titles in our series.
For more details and the complete mechanics of Loving Pinoy Lit: A Penguin Classics Contest, search for the hashtags #EldaRotorInPH and #LovingPinoyLitwithNBS on social media. Connect with National Book Store [email protected] on Instagram and @nbsalert on Facebook, Twitter, Viber, and Youtube.