Rose Mary Salum, founder and director of the Houston-based bilingual Spanish-English quarterly magazine Literal: Latin American Voice and the affiliated Literal Publishing company, recalls that when Literal was launched 17 years ago, many viewed it with skepticism. It was a time when the literature and culture produced by Spanish speakers in the U.S. was just emerging. Literal started as a bilingual publication and has remained faithful to its original objective: to be a cultural bridge between the Anglo and Hispanic worlds. Today, both the publication and the publishing house, launched in 2014, are a testament to plurality, allowing a wide variety of Latin American voices to express themselves with the same authority as those who write in English.
Literal was among the first publishing projects in Spanish in the U.S. and is notable for being one of the few publications outside of a university setting that promoted art and culture in Spanish. There are now numerous Spanish-language book publishers in the U.S., as well as lists from university presses and indie houses, and the Spanish-language imprints of the Big Five publishers.
Why? Because there is money in it: according to a report from Kiser & Associates, revenue from U.S. sales of Spanish-language books tops $350 million annually.
Salum, who was born in Mexico and is of Lebanese descent, is also a writer of short fiction and has taught at universities in Iowa and Texas. Among the first titles she published at Literal was Delta de las arenas: Cuentos árabes, cuentos judíos, an anthology of short stories by Latin American writers of Arab or Jewish descent. The press then found its footing by launching several contests—for essays, poetry, novellas, and short stories—and published the winners, all of whom were from Mexico.
One objective of Literal is to demonstrate that Latin American literature is more than magic realism and can address universal, rather than merely local, concerns. An example of this is Literal Publishing’s imprint Dislocados (the Dislocated), which aims to capture the voices of the displaced and those who have left their native nations to settle in the U.S. Another imprint, Lateral, covers a wide range of subjects, with many books published in bilingual editions. Its list features collections of poetry and cultural criticism, such as Submergido: Cuban Alternative Cinema by Luis Duno-Gottberg and Michael J. Horswell, a critical history of Cuban movies. Forthcoming titles include a collection of essays in Spanish by Cristina Rivera Garza, an English translation of a novel by Argentine author Ana María Shúa, and two books by Salum herself. Literal magazine remains vital as well and maintains a vibrant online community, with more than a dozen regular columnists.
Literal has succeeded in a country that does not acknowledge its bilingualism. Salum acknowledges that because the purchasing power is low among the Hispanic population in the U.S.—and they have priorities other than buying books—raising awareness about reading requires creativity and energy. This can take the form of creative writing classes, live storytelling, acting workshops, film festivals, and book clubs.
Salum says the mission of Literal remains intact: to established a necessary dialogue—an exchange between two languages that have much to explore and learn from each other.
América Gutiérrez Espinosa is the Latin America editor for Publishers Weekly en Español.