Monday, November 19, 2007

Planeta Lecture: 100-Plus Gather for a Latin American Literary Evening in New York City

By Gregory Horvath, Hispanic New York Project

Is there a public in New York City for English-language events about contemporary Spanish-language literature? This question was answered definitively on Wednesday, November 14, 2007, as more than 100 people filled the Lecture Room of Columbia University’s School of Journalism for the “Planeta Lecture: Spanish-Language Literary Voices and the United States.” In a panel discussion moderated by Claudio Iván Remeseira, director of the Hispanic New York Project of Columbia University’s American Studies Program, a diverse group of Latin American writers—Jorge Franco (Colombia), Roberto Ampuero (Chile) and María Negroni and Pablo De Santis (Argentina)—addressed an even more diverse crowd representing a wide range of professional, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.

The event, co-sponsored by the Spanish publisher Grupo Planeta, the Fundación José Manuel Lara and Columbia University's Hispanic New York Project, took place at a time when there is a growing awareness among writers, publishers, booksellers and other sectors of the literary world of the extraordinary growth of Spanish-language titles in the United States in the past few years. One of the main goals of the Hispanic New York Project is to help promote the development of that market and encourage the publication of more translations into English of Spanish-language works. In doing so, we hope to bring attention to an important aspect of the culture of the Americas that all too often is relegated to the margins within the U.S.

The Hispanic New York Project (HNYP) is hosted by Columbia University's American Studies Program, whose director is noted literary critic and scholar Andrew Delbanco. (Professor Delbanco was unfortunately unable to attend the event; his introductory remarks were read by HNYP contributor and Columbia University professor Roosevelt Montás. In addition to the above-stated goals of fostering the growth of the Hispanic literary market within the U.S. and encouraging the translation of Spanish-language works, the HNYP seeks to create an academic and cultural center that promotes the Latino and Latin American cultural heritage of New York City and to serve as a venue for communication and collaboration among artists, writers and intellectuals representative of those cultures and the Upper Manhattan, Harlem and Washington Heights communities.

Paradoxically, the Planeta Lecture took place at a moment when many are lamenting the recent loss of two of the last remaining Spanish-language booksellers in Manhattan, Librería Lectorum and Librería Macondo, which recently closed their stores on West 14th Street after decades of operation. (Lectorum will continue its operations online.) The closing of these stores, widely regarded as important institutions in the city's Hispanic cultural history, has been deeply felt, but there are encouraging signs as well: The continuing operations of bookstores like Caliope in Upper Manhattan, the growing presence of Spanish-language titles in national chains such as Barnes and Noble, the opening of new bookstores such as La Casa Azul in East Harlem and the Spanish-language book sections in independent bookstores such as McNally Robinson NYC are some of the many indications that Spanish-language literature is thriving in New York City and has plenty of room for growth.

The keen interest in Spanish-language literature among New Yorkers is also attested to by the quality and number of events organized by the following institutions, among many others: the Instituto Cervantes; NYU’s King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center; the Americas Society; and various campuses and centers within the City University of New York (CUNY) system, including the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños at Hunter College and the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute. In joining this vibrant cultural scene, the Hispanic New York Project seeks to contribute to the development of a promising reality for both readers and writers of this important literature, as well as to the consolidation of the necessary dialogue between English- and Spanish-language cultures in the United States.

The mood on Wednesday was one of palpable excitement, a reaction that has also been demonstrated by the response of English- and Spanish-language media in the U.S. and abroad (see the lists of links to news stories below). And happily, Lectorum was present, with its representatives at a table selling nearly every copy of the authors’ books. The celebratory atmosphere was captured by Roberto Ampuero when he signed my copy of his novel Boleros en la Habana: “Para Gregory, en esta noche latinoamericana en NYC” (“For Gregory, on this Latin American evening in NYC”).

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