Most people work to make their own dreams come true. Others work to make others’ fantasy a reality. And many a dreamer’s wish would be to ‘write their own book.’ There is a magic wand in the hand of a young Filipina-American editor, Elda Rotor, as she makes this happen from her quiet office in downtown New York City.
You can barely hear a breath as you walk past the cubicles of publicists, publishers, and editors on the 4th floor of 375 Hudson. “That’s because we’re all reading,” says the “Classics” Editorial Director Elda Rotor.
These readings resulted in the renewed recognition of the Philippines’ national hero, Jose Rizal’s revolutionary novel, Noli Me Tangere. Elda’s Filipino side takes pride in claiming that the country’s national hero is an author—and one who truly proved that the pen is mightier than the sword.
Growing up in New York, she was always interested in poetry, even as a child. Her love for poetry inspired her to join a literary magazine in high school, and college. “I thought I wanted to go to graduate school for English but what I really wanted to do was work in book publishing, because I love the idea of finding literary talent and helping someone shape their work. I thought I had the right personality to be an editor because I love helping people polish their creation, and I had a love for books ever since I was a kid.”
“New York is the best place to be for the book publishing industry, so I started seriously looking after college.” Elda went to Washington DC for undergrad, then came right back to New York, where she first worked for the National Writers Union, a labor union for freelance writers. She then decided to look for book publishing jobs.
The New York Times Help Wanted had an ad for Oxford University Press for Editorial Assistant. She tried, applied, and got the job. It was at Oxford where Elda’s view of editing was formed. She had a great experience and stayed 13 years. “The mentoring and promotions at Oxford University Press really helped shape who I am now professionally. I had great role models to learn from—intellectually, professionally and most importantly, as a human being—how to treat others in the workplace, how to treat your own work,
how to work with authors, and so on.”
At Oxford, Elda built interest in serious literature and gained respect for writers and academics. Elda acquired serious non-fiction trade books before moving to Penguin Classics to be Executive Editor. “Moving over to be the Executive Editor at Penguin Classics in 2006 was another defining moment I am still taking in.” Before she even had a chance to exhale, Penguin promoted her to Editorial Director in 2008.
At Penguin, Elda faced an exhilarating opportunity that she soon shared with the Filipino community. “When I found out that they were publishing the Noli, it made me more excited to be at Penguin. My predecessor had already signed it up when I came in. They were just publishing it. I thought that it reflected the promise of a more diverse global bookshelf and I felt very committed to promoting the best classics from around the world.”
And so, Rotor took it upon herself to make it a pet project in terms of publicizing it. She reached out to the Filipino community, the Asian community, the translation community and the academics. “I wanted to seriously promote it as a major international classic.”
In November 2006 came another highlight in Rotor’s personal and professional life—the publication and recognition of Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere as a Penguin Classic. To share the news, Rotor first met with key personalities in the Filipino community, starting with the Consul General in New York, Cecilia Rebong. The Philippine Consulate General and the Filipino American community in New York soon celebrated with a very special event: the Order of the Knights of Rizal (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut chapters) and the Kababaihang Rizalista (Ladies of Rizal) enacted a play from a chapter of the book. Guests were then treated to a trivia game about Rizal’s life and works.
Harold Augenbraum, the executive director of the National Book Foundation (USA), who authored the translation, shared the process of the book’s publication, from his accidental discovery of Jose Rizal to his growing curiosity of his works. Pre-research, he thought Rizal was Latino. At the reception, he said, “Rizal is as important to the politics and culture of the Philippines as any writer in any country in the world. One could perhaps cite such writers as Leopold Senghor in Senegal and Vaclav Havel in the Czech Republic and perhaps Jose Marti in Cuba as important figures to the development of their countries, but I believe that Rizal and his image have become, over the decades, the most important central figure in the development of a social and political culture to his country as any single figure to their own country.”
Both Philippine Consul General Cecilia Rebong and Sir Roger Alama, past regional commander of the Order of the Knights of Rizal USA, gave a summary of Rizal’s life and his importance in shaping Philippine history. At the event Elda relayed the successes of the translation, reporting that the Noli is now part of the literature studies and required reading in at least 15 universities in the US, including Harvard University, UCLA, San Diego State, Texas A & M, State University of New York Buffalo, the University of Illinois in Chicago, and the University of Hawaii.
Having seen the success and value of the Filipino classic, Penguin signed up the sequel, El Filibusterismo, which is now being translated in time for the 150th anniversary of Rizal’s birth in 2011.
For more information on Elda Rotor and Penguin Classics or the Noli, visit www.penguinclassics.com.
(Photos by Kirby Calvario)