Family Feud

As Latino literature moves into the mainstream, the ties that once bound grow frayed

If we have two, or three, or four, or five disgruntled writers," says Dr. Nicolas Kanellos, head of the nonprofit Arte Pœblico Press at the University of Houston, "we're batting a lot better than most presses." Kanellos may be right on that point: writing, of course, is a commodity like any other, and like all good retailers a mainstream publisher does its best to buy low and sell high.

But Arte Pœblico, which Kanellos founded 15 years ago at a time when mainstream presses mostly ignored Hispanic writers' work, built its reputation on being different. The son of a Puerto Rican mother and Greek father, Manhattan-born Kanellos leaped feet first into the 1970s Chicano movement, which aimed to recognize the Hispanic culture that has always existed alongside Anglo culture in the United States. While working on a doctorate in Spanish at the University of Texas, Kanellos took part in street theater and grassroots politics; in 1973, he founded a pan-Hispanic journal that grew into a small press. Finally, seven years later, the University of Houston offered to house the whole enterprise on its campus. To Mexican-American writer Denise Chavez, whose first book appeared with Arte Pœblico nine years ago, Arte Pœblico's activist past makes the present even sadder: Chavez is now suing Arte Pœblico for copyright infringement.

In a dispute that fellow Latino writers say could rip their flourishing community apart, sides have already been taken. Backing Kanellos are many of Arte Pœblico's current stable of 200 writers who still enjoy its famed supportiveness and personal attention. In Chavez's corner -- and represented by a fat stack of letters that Chavez keeps with her legal papers -- are angry Arte Pœblico refugees including poet Gary Soto and recent MacArthur Grant recipient Sandra Cisneros. In a torrent of missives as variably blistering, sorrowful, dignified and bilingual as one might expect from the country's premier Hispanic writers, the correspondents accuse Arte Pœblico of grafting the worst traits of for-profit publishing onto the emotional, dictatorial elements of a badly run small press.

"This is a very complex story, and a sad story to me as well, because it had to do with my trust," says Chavez in a phone interview from her home in New Mexico. "Literature is a business and you have to be very organized about it. When writers start out, there's such a naivete and such a hunger to get published. You're so eager to get published that you don't look at your contracts. You don't pay attention to things and you might find yourself signing away your book."

That, Chavez says, is what she effectively did with The Last of the Menu Girls, first published by Arte Pœblico in 1986. Chavez was a graduate student at the University of New Mexico when her teacher, the esteemed Hispanic novelist Rudolfo Anaya, suggested that she send her creative writing master's thesis to Arte Pœblico. Kanellos' friendly response -- he accepted the manuscript of short stories and in 1986 published it as Menu Girls -- began several years of editor-writer nurturing, for which Kanellos is still famous. Both he and Chavez describe how Kanellos helped the financially struggling writer first to win a fellowship at UH, then a job as an assistant professor in the school's drama department.

That personal commitment, Chavez says, imbued Arte Pœblico with a unique feeling of family: of Latino writers and publishers united not only by a product, but by blood and by the mandate to share and celebrate their culture. The informal, family atmosphere also extended to Arte Pœblico's production department, however. Relying sometimes on work-study students, the still-young press produced volumes pocked with run-on sentences, typographical mistakes, even unauthorized changes in the texts.

The same kind of amateurishness also characterized Arte Pœblico's business dealings. While Chavez remained on excellent terms with Kanellos personally, she soon grew uneasy with her lack of control of Menu Girls. Though she and Kanellos agreed to sign a new contract each time the book was reprinted, somehow, in printing after printing, no one ever seemed to answer Chavez's pleas to clean up the copy. "I should have said halt, stop," Chavez says. "I should have been more diligent."

Contracts, too, were makeshift affairs; Chavez claims that one of hers was signed by someone else when she was away from Houston. But at the time that seemed the price of getting published. Then, in 1991, when Menu Girls was published for a fourth time, Chavez asked again that the errors be corrected, only to hear the book was at the printers. "I said, 'You don't even have my signature on the contract, and you already sent the book to the printers,'" Chavez recalls. "I said I wasn't going to allow any more printings. I talked to him, and believe it or not he talked me into [signing]."

Chavez says she insisted that the fourth printing would be the last. But in 1993, Arte Pœblico published Menu Girls again. By that time the book had grown popular, attracting the attention of mainstream New York agent Susan Bergholz, with whom Chavez began working in 1993. "That's when I decided to leave Arte Pœblico," she says. "I said I would like to just pull Menu Girls. [Kanellos] said, 'Well, I'm sorry, it says on this contract that we own your book.'"

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