By the time the light of a star becomes visible to the human eye, its source could already be dead and gone. It’s a universally acknowledged truth, but also a pretty damn good metaphor. What gets lost in the past, can somehow still be felt in the present—one simply needs to look at the sky to remember.
Perhaps one can take a look at Exploding Galaxies for example. Empowered by the late artist David Medalla’s spirit of whimsy and wonder, publisher Mara Coson is helping expand our Filipiniana section. From the works lost in the diaspora to the classics that have gone out of print, the publishing house is making Philippine literature more accessible, one color combination at a time. Joining Coson in this literary odyssey is editor Don Jaucian, still fresh off of his debut essay collection. Together, they embark on a journey to rediscover Philippine letters that have been eclipsed by time.[READ: What’s on writer Mara Coson’s reading list? Historical fiction, humor, and dogs with their humans]
Their first stop: playwright Wilfrido D. Nolledo’s postmodernist novel, “But for the Lovers.” A quick search for Nolledo at any major local bookstore chain would be futile. This gap can be attributed, in part, to a majority of his works being published in magazines and university presses. Both of which are difficult to find. “But for the Lovers,” on the other hand, found a home and received its flowers from an international audience. The hardbound first edition burned fast and bright in 1970, later reignited with a paperback edition by Dalkey Archive in 1994, before having its light ultimately extinguished into unfamiliarity.
We have great authors whose names we know and respect, yet whose books we can’t find.Mara Coson
But that’s the thing about dead stars. They may have come and gone, but their light persists and lingers. The way, years later, a wandering writer going through the catalog of Dalkey Archive would stumble upon this literary masterpiece and realize that its electric prose and vibrant characters from the past can still illuminate the Philippines in the present.
We caught up with Mara and Don via email to talk about the highlights of running a publishing house, the role of literature in nation building, and the joy of getting lost in a constellation of well-written prose.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What’s the story behind the name Exploding Galaxies?
Coson: The name Exploding Galaxies has little to do with cosmological fascinations, and is more inspired by the late Filipino artist David Medalla. Medalla had such a playful way of seeing the world and its possibilities, you can see that all through his life’s practice, and I wanted to capture that spirit of exploration in the way we approach the press and the search for our titles. I love approaching literature with wonder and never being sure where a good book can take me.
Medalla founded a commune called The Exploding Galaxy in London around the late 1960s, and while our press is far from one, it showed the powers of his orchestration in creating magic in people expressing themselves.
I was lucky to have met him in his final years and learned more about his practice, as well as through his monograph “Exploding Galaxies” by Guy Brett, the same name as the press. David gave me his blessing through his partner Adam Nankervis and I’ve been happy to use it ever since.
I once saw him take some bubbles from his work the “Cloud Canyons,” informally known as bubble machines, push it up into the air with his palm, and blow it so that it is suspended in the air like a cloud. This is the image I remember every time I see the name of our press.
People get quite curious when they hear the name, it’s unusual. And some people who are familiar with Medalla’s work are tickled when they recognize the nod.
Apart from out-of-print and contemporary fiction, what other criteria do you consider when selecting titles to acquire?
Coson: I think the books have to be very compelling for me and the team, and also for the readers we’ll take with us as we go along. No matter how different one book in the series might be from the other, the books will bring something to the table. What I find really fun about this search for books is not only finding them but finding a strong personal connection to them—and somehow inexplicably life-changing. I feel almost instinctively which ones are ours to publish. Maybe it’s fate, or simply a love for literature. Another way we choose is if the title has spent too long in the dark and needs to be out there in the world. We have great authors whose names we know and respect, yet whose books we can’t find.
Could you walk us through the process of republishing out-of-print works?
Coson: I’m a first-time publisher, so I have been learning as I go along. Other than the operational requirements of starting a company and all the legal paperwork like acquiring rights to publish, you have to find the author or their estate. It’s like detective work. Once you get their OK, the book itself has to be transcribed digitally, and our team has to proofread over and over until they get cross-eyed. We also commission a foreword and introduction to go with the new edition. The book designer then typesets the clean text file, chooses the right color for this book in the series, and we go to print. As I learn as I go along, what I cannot tell you about yet is how the work will be out in the world—I think that’s the real test. But I’m feeling optimistic.
Among your current roster, which book was the most challenging to acquire?
Coson: Everything has so far been very difficult. Can you interview us again in a few years, so I can tell you which was the easiest?
How would you describe Exploding Galaxies as a brand? How did you construct this brand identity?
Coson: I think one of the most interesting considerations is designing it as a series of books. When the books we publish are seen all together, they form a strong and meaningful constellation, even if we keep well in mind that these books are so individual. I think because we’re only at our first title, we’ve yet to see the construction of how the series will present itself and it will only become clearer as we publish our next books.
In addition to finding these incredible works, we also wanted to design the books well—their size and feel, how comfortable the typesetting is, who introduces the new edition. We wanted people to follow us on a journey and spot each new book as an Exploding Galaxies book. Each new book carries a different color combination, and on the spine we put the year of first publication so when lined up on a shelf, you can also sequence the books by year.
It’s easy to dismiss books as commodities, especially that there’s a segment of the public who can’t afford to buy books or prioritize buying books.Don Jaucian
It’s been a month since the announcement of Exploding Galaxies. How would you describe the reception so far?
Jaucian: I think we’ll know more when the book comes out or during our launch event. But so far it’s quite astonishing to see that there’s a sort of “cult of Nolledo” who are so happy to see that they won’t have to order “But for the Lovers” abroad or through Amazon (or pasabuy from overseas) anymore. There are a lot of people who are excited to get their books. We’re just as excited as them.
What challenges have you encountered in your first month? What other challenges do you foresee?
Jaucian: It’s a challenge to put these books back to print. From talking to the estate to seeing the reception of the readers. We’re hoping that many readers—young, old, casual, avid, etc.—will take interest in the books that we’ll publish. They may not be huge names in the canon of Philippine literature but they are as essential as the ones that are constantly read. Nolledo, for example, has had a huge following during his time and that an award-winning writer such as Robert Coover wrote a glowing foreword in the Dalkey Archive Press’ edition of “But for the Lovers” speaks to Nolledo’s understated legacy in Philippine letters.
Your site and your first Instagram post allude to how the fiction of the past can offer something new and valuable to today. How do you envision these republished works contributing to today’s literature and society in general?
Jaucian: Books are a part of nation building. I’ve had conversations about this with friends, editors, publishers, and booksellers about books and publishing since I joined the press. It’s easy to dismiss books as commodities, especially that there’s a segment of the public who can’t afford to buy books or prioritize buying books. But I’m encouraged by the effect of “Maria Clara at Ibarra,” which has launched a renewed interest in Rizal’s novels and other classics of Philippine literature. It just goes to show that there are people out there who want to understand more about our country through our literature. I’m not delusional enough to think that literature can help us fix our country but there are many things about our culture, our heritage, ourselves, that we can start to understand through books.
How would Exploding Galaxies be like a year from now?
Jaucian: We’re preparing to publish more in the coming months so I hope the press develops quite a following; readers who are always ready to complete their Exploding Galaxies books on their shelves because they know we’ll deliver (and that the books are thoughtfully designed is a bonus. Haha).
What has been the best part of starting Exploding Galaxies?
Jaucian: For me, it’s seeing how excited people are with our first book, and that they’re already giving us titles that we should publish in the future. I guess people are just as delighted as we are to see these books in print again, books that are considered “lost” or “underappreciated.” But personally, joining the press meant that I get to read a lot of books. Good or bad, I’m just so thrilled to get lost in them.