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Honoring Jill Schoolman with the 2017 Ottaway Award

By Edwin Frank

At the 2017 WWB Gala, Edwin Frank presented Archipelago Books publisher Jill Schoolman with the Ottaway Award for the Promotion of International Literature. His remarks are below.

It’s an honor to be here to honor Jill Schoolman and with her, thanks to her, Archipelago Books. The previous winners of the Ottaway Award have all been extraordinary and influential editors, but Jill is the first person to be given the award who is not only an editor but the founder of a publishing house, the sort of small, independent publishing house that for most of my life almost anyone involved in the business of publishing would have said, to be blunt, hasn’t a hope in hell. But here we are, here Archipelago Books is, on the eve of fifteen years old, and the archipelago continues to expand and its many islands continue to reveal all sorts of strange and strangely familiar life-forms: Tulli, Cărtărescu, Frankétienne, Knausgaard, Stockenström, Vieux Chauvet, Latif, Hölderlin, Scève, the archipelago stretching not only in space but through time. The dead keep company with the living there. 

It is a beautiful, mythic, wild, welcoming, and unsettling space, a space like no other space, a space full of new and old things that reveals things we have never known and renews the things that we have always known. Archipelago is, in other words, something else, even as—and this is also important to Jill’s achievement—even as it is part of, and has helped to create, a larger scene. Jill started Archipelago in 2003—the same year Words Without Borders began—and like Words Without Borders, Archipelago is dedicated to publishing books in translation. We all know how precarious the situation of books in translation has always been in English-speaking countries, but since 2003 that has, in a small but distinct way, a way that matters, begun to change in America. Archipelago alone hasn’t brought about this change, but Archipelago was one of the first of a growing array of small, independent presses committed to publishing venturesome new books, very often, though not only, in translation, among them Deep Vellum, New Vessel, Contra Mundum, Wakefield, Open Letter, Europa, Dorothy: A Book Project, publishers who have in turn been supported by a growing network of independent bookstores and independent readers.

This is a good thing and something that has, I’d also stress, a political as well as literary aspect. 2003 was, of course, the year that Bush invaded Iraq. The existence of Archipelago stood then, and stands now, as a reproach to the crude parochialism of that administration and the nativism and know-nothingism of the current administration and to the wars that administration after administration of this country have continued to wage against the world.

That needs to be said. What also needs to be said—what is really all-important—is that in fashioning Archipelago, Jill has both hewed to her own taste and shown an unfaltering commitment to the independence of literature. There is no discernment, at least of literature, without taste and as to the independence of literature, that is simply to say we do not know where literature may turn up or what it will turn out to be. It may be progressive or transgressive. It may be reactionary. It may be, in the case of a writer that Jill and I both admire, Céline, both brilliant and base, no less unforgettable for being unforgivable. If it is real literature it will, in any case, be something we do not expect it to be or perhaps even want it to be. It can upset. It must surprise. A few years ago Jill published Peter Wortsman’s new translation of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, one of the grittiest works of modern literature, one of the defining works of modern literature, the kind of work that bears rereading and retranslating because it lies so close to the form-making and form-breaking power of the imagination. (Rightminded people of all sorts are of course perpetually trying to suppress these fairy tales.) Jill published it—and this is a small example of how she can surprise—with illustrations by various Haitian artists, a lovely way of recognizing those worlds beyond borders that the imagination, the only actually indispensable nation, can open for us all.

Archipelago has supported the independence of literature and the centrality of translation to that independence from the start. Jill upholds these things, and trusts her taste, with a conviction and resolve that are rare indeed.

Let me end with the conventional anecdote. When Jill and I first met, not long after she had started Archipelago, she had just been told that she had to leave her apartment. A few days later I saw her again, and I asked her whether she had found a new place. She had. I was pleased but a bit surprised and naturally I wanted to hear about that special nightmare of New York life, the apartment hunt. Well, Jill said, she’d gone to Brooklyn where she walked about till she saw a brownstone with an attractive red door. She knocked on the red door and asked if there was apartment for rent. There was. She took it on the spot.

You don’t lead a charmed life unless you have some real magic. Jill lives behind that red door to this day. And so in some measure, thanks to Archipelago, do we all.

Image: Jim Ottaway, Jr. and Jill Schoolman. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan.

Published Nov 6, 2017   Copyright 2017 Edwin Frank

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