At the ceremony for the 26th annual Lambda Literary Awards at Cooper Union’s Great Hall in New York City on June 2, Luis Negrón, a bookseller from Santurce, Puerto Rico, accepted the Gay General Fiction prize for his debut work, Mundo Cruel. Recognition from a panel of judges was a new experience for the writer, who is still an emerging voice (especially in the English-language market), but it was also a landmark moment for the Lambda Literary Foundation. Mundo Cruel is the first translated work to ever win in the General Gay Fiction category.
Seven Stories released the English edition Mundo Cruel, a slender collection of nine short stories, in March 2013. It was first published in Spanish in Puerto Rico in 2010 by Editorial La Secta de Los Perros, then by Libros AC in subsequent editions.
“Negrón’s stories seamlessly combine a real camp sensibility with a strong, sincere sense of humanity,” said William Johnson, managing editor at Lambda Literary. “That is what really impressed me about this wonderful collection—the genius in balancing these often opposing aesthetics: irony and sincerity.” Johnson added that he hopes the selection of Negrón will “expose more readers to some of the exciting gay voices that are coming out of the Caribbean.”
Seven Stories publisher Dan Simon also touched on the global implications of Negrón’s triumph. “Those of us who believe deeply in the value of books and the value of good writing, also believe in the international conversation,” he said. The book, which Simon said was one of his favorites in the Seven Stories catalogue last year, was brought to the publisher’s attention by an assistant named Gabriel Espinal, who first read the book in Spanish. “He gave one of the most beautiful presentations at our editorial meeting,” said Simon. “He sold us on it—we had to take this very young editor’s word for this book, but we had no doubt.”
Mundo Cruel’s path to an English-language publication began in Espinal’s family’s coffee shop, located inside of the Tertulia bookstore, which is one of the oldest independent bookstores in Puerto Rico and is a gathering place for the literati from the nearby University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus. The location afforded Espinal’s mother a certain familiarity with area writers, and just before Espinal moved to New York to look for work in publishing, she gave him a copy of Negrón’s book. “Mundo Cruel in Spanish blew me away,” said Espinal. “The stories were fantastic, but more than anything, it was the language that got me.”
Several months later, when Espinal was interviewing for an internship at Seven Stories, Simon asked him about his favorite writers. “I couldn’t help but mention Luis,” recalled Espinal, who has since left the publisher and is now finishing up a year of service with AmeriCorps. “I started interning at Seven Stories shortly after [the interview] and figured Dan had forgotten about Luis, but a few months later, when he offered me a job in the editorial department, he asked me about that Puerto Rican short story author I’d mentioned.”
In June 2011, Espinal made his impassioned pitch for Mundo Cruel at a staff meeting and was given the green light to pursue acquiring the book. Later that same day, he called Negrón to make an offer, which the author accepted. It then came time to find a suitable translator—always a crucial decision, but especially so here, given the fact that, for Espinal, the strength of the book lay in the veracity of Negrón’s language and dialogue. “The Spanish that Luis captured in the original was mesmerizing, [and] I had no idea how it could be translated into English intact,” said Espinal. As a “long shot,” he reached out to Suzanne Jill Levine, a decorated translator of Latin American literature, who has worked on books by, among many others, Manuel Puig, one of Negrón’s “biggest literary idols.” The gambit paid off, and Levine signed on to the project.
Simon acknowledged that it is always difficult to introduce a new voice, but the collection developed a “core enthusiastic” readership, and a year after Mundo Cruel was published in the U.S., it was named a finalist for the Lambda award. For Negrón, winning the Lambda was as much of a shock as being published in the U.S. in the first place. “I was surprised someone wanted to translate the book,” said Negrón. “It was either too Puerto Rican, or too gay, too this or too that, but I said, ‘I owe myself.’ ”
While Negrón noticed that his Puerto Rican and American readerships interpreted certain stories in different ways, he was relieved that the fundamental themes of the book were not lost in translation. “The feedback from the American press overall has been really great. I was happy that they get it, they really get it. It’s not a book about people searching for an ideal world. It says, we can be happy while we wait for happiness.”
For Simon, Mundo Cruel’s victory at the Lambda Awards is larger than just one book winning one award; rather, it embodies a double embrace of both the “gay community, and choosing a work in translation. ” He added, “It’s very significant. It represents a kind of looking outward and not just looking inward.”