Late last month indie publisher Restless Books announced it was launching a prize to honor "immigrant writing" in the U.S. The annual prize comes with a $10,000 advance and a publishing contract. Restless publisher Ilan Stavans, an immigrant himself, said he hopes the award quashes stereotypes about immigrants and remind people that this country is, after all, "made up of outsiders."
What prompted you to create this prize?
I am an immigrant from Mexico. I came to the United States looking for a landscape where I could explore ideas freely and to test my entrepreneurial spirit. Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined what this country would offer me. I am both deeply thankful and unreservedly honored to be part of this large experiment called America. It has taught me that if we don’t do things for others, we are nobody. Early in my career as an essayist, I was given the trust of countless people—readers, editors, friends—who believed in me and my words. It is my turn now.
Immigration has long been a hot-button issue in this country; presidential candidate Donald Trump recently grabbed headlines for racial epithets he made on the subject. What are some of the reigning stereotypes about immigrants, and why do you think they persist?
That immigrants don’t know English; that they are awkward, not to say primitive; that they aren’t patriotic enough; that they are taking someone else’s classroom desk and hospital bed; and, more importantly, that they don’t have the panache that is required to be a true American. All baloney! The United States is a nation trapped in a vicious cycle. Since the beginning, it has been made up of outsiders. ... It takes a few minutes of conversation with one to realize that immigrants, in fact, are often like converts: more nativist than the natives; that is, American just like everyone else, except a little bit more.
Are there any similar literary prizes out there?
Not to my knowledge. The reason, in my eyes, is complex. Immigrants are supposed to go through a period of acclimatization to become “like the rest of us.” So, the thinking goes, it’s better to wait until the metamorphosis has taken place before supporting them. Granting them money for being immigrants is often seen as a celebration of difference; what foundations like to endorse is unity. This, needless to say, is a misguided viewpoint.
What do you think about the state of immigrant literature in America today?
We have cutting-edge voices like Junot Díaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, Gary Shteyngart, Dinaw Mengestu, and Edwidge Danticat, whose oeuvre speaks to the heart of the American experience. In 2009, I edited, under the aegis of the Library of America, an anthology called Becoming Americans: Immigrants Tell Their Stories from Jamestown to Today. It featured immigrants from different backgrounds, from black slaves like Phillis Wheatley to Yiddish-language speakers like Henry Roth. Through this endeavor, it became clear to me that immigrant literature takes many forms and has been essential since the Mayflower. With this literary prize, I want Restless Books to help bring the new generation of immigrant writers to the fore. But I’m not just looking for realistic, socially conscious literature. That would be a mistake. I’m hoping for a David Foster Wallace with an accent. At its core, the United States is grateful, warm-hearted, full of unexpected twists and turns, not a cold and bullying prison—it’s a place of infinite jest.
This interview has been edited and condensed.