Victor Meadowcroft attended the 2019 international book fair in Guadalajara, where he interviewed writers María Fernanda Ampuero and Ariana Harwicz, and publishers Diego Rabasa (Sexto Piso) and Carolina Orloff (Charco Press). Read more about his experience at the book fair.
Diego Rabasa is an editor and founding member (alongside his brother, the author Eduardo Rabasa) of the award-winning Mexican independent publisher Editorial Sexto Piso. Having started out publishing books in Mexico City in 2002, Sexto Piso opened a branch in Spain in 2005, and now boasts a catalog of over four hundred titles that can be found in bookstores in Mexico, Central America, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, and Spain. Although Sexto Piso began by mostly focusing on Spanish translations of nonfiction works that would otherwise have been unavailable in Mexico, they now also publish books by some of the country’s most esteemed writers, including Valeria Luiselli, Margo Glantz, and Mario Bellatin, to name but a few.
Diego took time out of his busy festival schedule to talk to me about the origins of the publishing house, as well as the significance of the Guadalajara International Book Fair in the Sexto Piso calendar.
Victor Meadowcroft (VM): For Sexto Piso, as a Mexican independent publisher, how important is the Guadalajara International Book Fair?
Diego Rabasa (DR): For the first four or five years of our imprint, ninety percent of our books were translations, so we started going to international book fairs very early. We went to the Frankfurt Book Fair in our second year, to the London Book Fair; we got some grants to go to the Salon Du Livre in France. We didn’t really use the Guadalajara Book Fair to buy or sell rights. But, as opposed to the other fairs I mentioned before, this book fair is very important because it’s open to the public, and this is probably the only time we get a taste of and a grip on the way our books are received by readers. When you’re a publisher, you don’t know who goes to the bookstores; you don’t know the reaction of a person when they pick up a book or when they read its back cover. Here, you get to see all of that, and you get to talk to a lot of people. For the first ten years, the editors of Sexto Piso were doing everything; we were sharing the shifts. So we were selling the books and having conversations with the people buying them, listening to their questions, seeing the reactions they had when we introduced a new collection or a new author or a new cover. I think Guadalajara has always been very special because we get to have that feeling [even now that we’ve expanded], and also because it is, of course, the most important event for the industry in Mexico, as well as for the Spanish-speaking publishing world. We’ve set out this time and place to take a look at ourselves and review how much we’ve grown or not grown, changed or transformed, been truer to our ideals or betrayed them or been able to expand them. It’s like a snapshot, almost an existential selfie, to look at ourselves in terms of what we want to be and where we are.
VM: How and when did the idea of starting your own publishing house come about?
DR: We started when we were very young. I was twenty-one, my brother was twenty-three, and our other colleagues were twenty-three and twenty-four. My brother and I were going through a rough phase: our father had just died very suddenly. We come from a very conservative family and our father was kind of the landmark of that conservative upbringing, and when he died it was kind of a breakthrough moment when we found the time and place to change paths. The first editor at Sexto Piso was Luis Alberto Ayala Blanco. He’s a very bright man and has this very unorthodox intellectual background. He was a political science professor at the national university, where I was studying philosophy and my brother was studying political science, and he was central to introducing us to a way of understanding knowledge that was, as I said, very unorthodox. It was like a mélange of traditional Greek philosophy and obscure political philosophers from the nineteenth century and even before: I’m thinking of Max Stirner, or Étienne de La Boétie, in France, around the seventeenth century. So he kind of embedded in us the bug of understanding the world as an enchanted place where different layers of meaning are happening at the same time, not only the mainstream, regular understanding of Western society as moving forward in terms of progress. He gave us readings that we couldn’t find anywhere. He had these old photocopies, and we would read photocopies of the photocopies, and photocopies of those photocopies, and then, when we had the chance to ask ourselves what we wanted to do with our lives, we said, “Well, why don’t we do these books that are important to us now, and have been important to people for three or four centuries before us? It’s not outrageous to think that we might find readers who find them as interesting as we do,” and we started publishing these books.
We published Étienne de La Boétie and Max Stirner, but we also published Roberto Calasso, who was friends with Luis Ayala Blanco. My brother, who’s very bright and very stubborn, contacted the American historian Morris Berman, and we kind of tricked him—we told him that we had this very old, traditional publishing house in Mexico, but that we were starting a new imprint and wanted him to be the face of it. Now he’s one of our closest friends—we’ve published seven books by him. The first book ever published by Sexto Piso was his The Twilight of American Culture, a cultural study that compares American cultural, political, and economic infrastructure to the late Roman Empire. This man found four cornerstones where he could pinpoint the fall of the Roman Empire: education, expansion beyond their military means, the impoverishment of the psychological and spiritual life of the everyday citizen . . . and medical services, I think. He traced the parallels between the Roman Empire and the United States in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and the book did very well. That’s how we came to be. It was very chaotic, as the story has been so far.
VM: And how did you arrive at the name Sexto Piso (Sixth Floor)?
DR: We were young, reckless, and stupid. But we were very fond of books, and we had this very dumb joke: a friend of ours came back from Paris with an illustrated catalog of ways to kill yourself, and one was to jump out of a building. But in order to kill yourself when you jumped out of a building, you needed to make sure it was from at least the sixth floor—you could only guarantee you would die if you jumped from the sixth floor. And then we used that as an internal joke—we’d say, “I’d rather jump from the sixth floor than go to my meeting at the IRS office.” When the idea to start the publishing house came along, we said, “Let’s do it, and if it doesn’t work, we can just jump from the sixth floor.” As I said, we were very young, so please take that into account!
VM: What is Sexto Piso’s philosophy, and how do you select the books you publish?
DR: As I said, Roberto Calasso has always been like a polestar for us, and he has a seminal text where he speaks about the concept of important books being unique items, and being the residual material form of a transformative experience. This is the way he started the Adelphi publishing house, where he would publish mythical texts from Indian philosophers; or Albert König, an early-twentieth-century German surrealist painter and graphic artist; or Robert Graves—authors who didn’t have a straightforward connection between them, other than the fact that they wrote, as he describes it, “books that these authors could not avoid writing.” When you study this improbable constellation that Adelphi created, and how it wove together traditions that were seemingly very far apart, you understand what he means. This was always the way we oriented ourselves as editors, as publishers. We tried to publish books that came out of this powerful tradition of unique items. And, also, the books that we love as readers. When you attend a publishing program, the first thing they tell you is, “Don’t publish the books that you love as readers. If you want to do that, have a library at home and cherish all the books you love as readers.” We kind of built our publishing house in the opposite direction. We published the books we loved as readers.
VM: Do you think we are living in a particularly good moment for Mexican independent publishers? What are the main challenges you face?
DR: There’s another text by Roberto Calasso in which he speaks about this project that came to be in the midst of the October Revolution in Russia: there was this place called the Writers’ Bookshop, for poets—Marina Zwetajewa, Mikhail Osorgin—and they started gathering books in exchange for things they could get on the black market. They would exchange a bag of weed for a collection of poetry, or whatever, and at the end of this text, Calasso writes, “This is something we need to bear in mind when times are difficult in publishing—and times are always difficult.” Publishing has always been kind of a marginal activity, a marginal profession, and when you talk about it in a country like this, where half the population lives below the extreme poverty line and there are huge illiteracy rates, then of course the challenge becomes much more important and much greater, but also much more urgent. It is difficult.
I think that, like most other industries, the publishing industry has been contaminated and intoxicated by centralization and a lack of distribution of content. Modern capitalism works by concentrating people’s desire around singular products, where the offer of this material machine can provide. You can’t get tennis shoes or clothes designed for you; your desire has to go to these specific nodes. And this is also happening in the publishing industry. If you look at Penguin Random House, Planeta, and Ediciones B, three big publishing moguls, those three have about eighty percent of the coverage of the market, which means that a Mexican reader only gets to choose from whatever these three companies decide to publish. This is very dangerous in terms of bibliodiversity. We started before things got even harsher and even more difficult, because we created Sexto Piso before the 2008 crisis, and we became established in Spain, which created a very unique position for us compared to other publishing houses and the way we get to participate as local imprints in the two most important markets. That gave us some leverage that is very hard to obtain right now.
But to answer your question, yes, it is hard: Mexico has one of the worst ratios—just above Haiti’s—in terms of bookstores per capita in Latin America. We have a bookstore for every 120,000 people, you know? Just to put this in perspective, Argentina has a bookstore for every 40,000 citizens, Colombia for every 50,000 citizens, Spain for every 20,000, and Germany for every 14,000. We have very few bookstores, so you can imagine how difficult it is to find a space amidst these commercial challenges.
“The Mexican scene is much more vibrant, much more diverse, much more present in the international field now than it was maybe fifteen years ago.”
VM: I read that in 2004 you received the prize for Young Publisher of the Year. What was it like to receive this recognition, and was it one of the factors that helped Sexto Piso become established as a publisher?
DR: It did, it helped us. Especially because, as I said, we started looking outward very early. We went to the Frankfurt Book Fair very early, we were looking to establish ourselves in Spain very early, and, specifically, that prize brought us to the attention of a bookstore in Spain called La Central that, for me, is the best bookstore there is in the Spanish-speaking world. The owner of this bookstore found out about Sexto Piso because of the prize, and he was the one who first took us to Spain, and that was where our Spanish adventure began. So just because of that it was important.
VM: Can you recommend any of your authors who we might not know about in the anglophone world, and who you feel should be translated?
DR: You know, something very strange happened about ten years ago. There was a kind of cultural transformation in Mexico in many different fields—not only in literature, but also in cinema, contemporary arts. The Mexican scene is much more vibrant, much more diverse, much more present in the international field now than it was maybe fifteen years ago. I associate this with the war on the drug cartels that tore Mexican society apart. I think there was some sort of artistic response to all the fear, all the frustration, all the pain that came out of the stories that started becoming kind of our everyday news feed. One of the reactions to this was that the world started to look at Mexico like, “Wow, what the fuck is going on in this place? It has higher murder rates than Iraq or Afghanistan.” So we got attention, and this attention, combined with the artistic response, meant that many Mexican artists and creators became well-known on the international scene. We started working with Valeria Luiselli ten years ago, and then she started moving within the international scene in ways that maybe no other Mexican writer had done before. She’s been published in more than twenty languages, selected for huge international prizes. But it’s not only her, there are other authors, many of them not published by Sexto Piso: I’m thinking about Fernanda Melchor, for instance, whose Temporada de huracanes [Hurricane Season] has been a huge success worldwide and will be published in the US by New Directions. There’s our Emiliano Monge, Julián Herbert . . . This generation of writers, which just happens to be the same generation to which we belong, was received by international markets like no previous generation in Mexico.
For example, we published a Mexican novelist named Brenda Navarro, who wrote a very powerful and painful book about a woman who kidnaps a young boy on the playground. The story is told in the first person—one voice is the mother who loses the child, and the other is the one who takes the child. I talked to Heather [Cleary], a translator from Spanish to English, about it and she started to consider [translating] it. But then we realized that this book had been sold [in the US] months before, and there were already other people circling around. What I’m saying is that international publishers and international translators are looking at what’s going on in the Mexican market in ways that they never have before, so most of our young authors have already been translated into English, French, German, and other languages.
VM: So you feel that a lot of the best writers have already been discovered? There isn’t a sense of all these great writers who are just waiting to be translated?
DR: Maybe some of the most daring ones are left: I’m thinking about a Mexican essayist and poet named Luis Felipe Fabre, who is, for me, the best—or one of the best—writers of my generation. He hasn’t been translated, because he works in a very peripheral zone in terms of the publishing market, and even we don’t sell his books very well. I can’t imagine what it would be like to translate his books, but he’s so brilliant. Today we had a meeting with the editorial board at Sexto Piso, and we all agreed . . . we were disagreeing about everything but the fact that, for as long as we keep doing this, we need to find the will to keep doing some books that we would publish whether they sold one copy or 100,000. But I would say that other than these sorts of very obscure, difficult writers, if right now I were to make a quick list in my mind of the ten most well-known or well-regarded writers of my generation, they’ve probably all been translated. At least into English.
Read more about the 2019 FIL Guadalajara
Read interviews with writers Ariana Harwicz and María Fernanda Ampuero, and publisher Carolina Orloff (Charco Press)