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Manoa 12.1 (2000) 183-192
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Fear of the Word: A Conversation with Will Schwalbe on Publishing Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Will Schwalbe is the American editor of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the Indonesian writer most widely known to international audiences. Jailed for two years by the Dutch colonialists for his nationalist political views, and in 1963 by the Sukarno regime for his defense of Indonesian-Chinese, Pramoedya was imprisoned again, in 1965, by the Suharto regime--this time for fourteen years. He spent ten of those years in the desolate penal colony of Buru Island. Following his release in 1979, Pramoedya was forbidden to travel and his books were banned. In 1989 Schwalbe guided into print Pramoedya's novel The Fugitive, and later he assisted with the Buru Quartet: This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and House of Glass. In spring of 1999 Schwalbe was Pramoedya's editor for The Mute's Soliloquy, a memoir. In conjunction with the launching of The Mute's Soliloquy, Schwalbe, along with Chris GoGwilt of Fordham University and John H. McGlynn of the Lontar Foundation, organized a speaking tour for Pramoedya, who was seventy-four years old in 1999. The tour, his first trip outside Indonesia since 1959, took him to numerous cities in North America and Europe. This interview took place in New York shortly after the book's launch and before the Indonesian presidential election in October 1999.
HA When did you first decide to publish Pramoedya?
WS In 1983, I read a translation of The Fugitive published in Hong Kong and the book haunted me. Five years later, while working in subsidiary rights at William Morrow, I became obsessed with publishing the novel for an American readership. A senior editor at Morrow, Maria Guarnaschelli, agreed to help. We got Pramoedya's phone number from PEN and called him up. "We're book publishers from New York," we told him, "and are interested in publishing The Fugitive." After we babbled away for about ten minutes, he said simply, "Ben Anderson, Cornell," and put the phone down. We called Professor Anderson, one of the best-known figures in [End Page 183] Indonesian academic circles, and proposed the idea. Anderson said that he himself wasn't interested in doing the new translation but suggested we contact John McGlynn, in Jakarta, who might be willing to translate the book using either his own name or his pen name.
HA William Morrow couldn't have thought the book would have much sales potential.
WS Even so, they were excited and proud to publish the novel because they realized that Pramoedya was a force to be reckoned with in world literary fiction. Then, when our edition of The Fugitive came out, it got phenomenal reviews. After that, we thought the natural thing would be to follow up with Pramoedya's Buru Quartet. I licensed the North American rights from Penguin Australia, which had published the first two or three volumes in paperback, then worked with the Quartet's extraordinary translator, Max Lane, to re-edit them slightly, removing the occasional Australian phrase that might sound awkward to American ears. Then we began publishing the volumes in hardcover.
At the same time, Pramoedya and his Indonesian editor, Joesoef Isak, asked my assistance in straightening out the international rights to all of Pramoedya's works, which were chaotic. His books were being published without his knowledge, without payment, often in translations that didn't remotely correspond to the originals. Because Pram had no one handling his international rights, I also became his literary representative through Morrow and we started handling all his foreign rights. We began to coordinate the publication of his books around the world and set out to make sure that he was paid properly.
HA From what I understand, you do this pro bono.
WS Morrow deducts a small administrative fee, but that's essentially correct.
HA You said you were working in subsidiary rights at the time. Was it your fascination with Pramoedya's work...