Interview with Jason Baumann Montilla
Jason is Coordinator of World Languages and Collection Assessment at the New York Public Library. He is in charge of the foreign language collection in the Library’s branches and also the statistics about the Library’s Collections. He currently lives in New York City. Jason is of German and Puerto Rican descent and grew up mostly near Woodstock, NY.
Theresa- Welcome today, I’m so excited to have this opportunity to sit with you. First off, please tell me a bit about your doctoral studies.
Jason– Thanks. Sure, I’m working on my PhD in English at the CUNY Graduate Center. I’ve finished all of my course work and now I’m starting on my dissertation which is going to be focused on prison literature in the United States, particularly on black and Latino writers, specifically about intimacy, love and sexuality in their lives.
Theresa-How did you become focused in that area?
Jason-I was really interested in the writer Miguel Piñero. He was a Puerto Rican, playwright and poet from the 1970s in NY. He started out as a writer in prison. When I was looking up secondary things written about him, I noticed that no one was talking about his sexuality even though that’s what he was mostly talking about- romantic relationships-in context of prison life. That is to say, between people of same sex and also about sexuality on the outside. I think a lot of his writings are about sort of the clash between the conceptions of sexuality in Puerto Rico and American ideas about sexuality and how they don’t really match up. This is especially around identity and identifying as gay and that sort of thing. When I was looking through the people who write about him, I found that they really didn’t do that, so I started questioning it. I first started thinking about it when I became a librarian. The branch I worked in held very classic African American Crime Fiction. Authors such as Chester Hines, Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines all started out writing in prisons. I started reading these writers when I worked there as a librarian because my patrons in the library really loved these books. It was all the same kind of things- all the writers talking about intimacy. In prison literature you expect it to be very harsh.
Theresa- You speak about crime fiction in the African American population, what about the Latino population? What do you find are the trends?
Jason– What people like to read? I do the collection development for the foreign languages, so I just have an idea about what people are reading in Spanish. Romance is always the biggest thing in Spanish, such as Harlequin romance novels-in Spanish translation- which are some of the hottest things in the library. The Latino population likes romance and also spirituality. They like American bestsellers in translation. They want to read what they see everyone else reading. They also want Latin American fiction bestsellers. Right now I have a big problem, Isabel Allende has that new book, El Cuaderno de Maya, and the demand is out of control. Although the New York Latino community is very diverse, it’s the core Latin American fiction they’re most interested in.
Theresa- So what about urban New York-San Francisco Latino writers? What are they writing and what are you seeing, is there a call for it?
Jason-I think of Ernesto Quinones, and Lyn Di Iorio who’s written this supernatural romance about a woman who gets involved in Palo Mayombe. It seems like a supernatural crime romance. There is a sense of the history of these places. Latino history in various American cities is addressed. It’s haunting in the way that the past in the city ends up being expressed in these supernatural stories. I don’t always have a good an eye on what’s out in English. I don’t really buy books in English. My English collection development colleagues would have a better sense of that. The Latino readership, in Spanish, is a hard market to reach. That’s something I’m struggling hard to work with right now. The Chinese speaking community in New York City is smaller than the Spanish Speaking community but the Library circulation and usage in the Chinese community is much higher.
Theresa-What do you think some of the obstacles are?
Jason– The New York Latino community is much poorer. It’s actually the poorest and least educated community in New York City if you look at the statistics. I feel like in the past we gave them a lot of high literary fiction and felt that romance, like American bestsellers in translation, were sort of a bad thing-like a lot of fluff. I just want to give people what they want to read and turn this around. Part of it’s focusing on core needs: books on health, education, and career. And the other part is just the love of reading. I’m focusing more now on Genre fiction, because if you look at the numbers, that’s what people want to read. It’s not for me to make judgments on literary value. For those who study the history of literature you see that what was thought to be in bad taste 100 years ago are what people seem to be the most interested in and think are the most valuable today. Take Melville, he was a trashy writer (laughs). Herman Melville wrote trashy adventure novels up until Moby Dick and everybody hated Moby Dick and they didn’t think it was good, but weird. The focus on literary fiction seems to be a mistake because nobody is ever interested in the literary fiction of a hundred years ago. They’re always interested in the trashy fiction of 100 years ago.
Theresa- What would you term as your burning desire for the community in terms of your work? What is your fever in what you do?
Jason– There’s a pleasure in getting people things that they didn’t think they could get. To make the NYPL have the hottest materials in all these different languages-particularly as bookstores disappear more and more. That there be a neighborhood location, free to their community that would actually have materials they want in their language. Some languages are easier to get. For instance, it’s hard to get materials in Albanian, so we’re working very hard to make sure the Albanian neighborhoods have a full stock library in Albanian available. And also to get people the core books they need for their lives to support their health, education, personal growth. That’s the excitement at the baseline of my gig. Right now, I’m trying to fill the library with classic merengue and bachata cds (laughs). Like Fefita la Grande and Milly y los Vecinos. I want to bring that to life. Yes, bringing unexpected content that I know people would love if they knew it was there.
Theresa- I think about my father, who for years has made treks into Bushwick or Flushing [Brooklyn] to get those old records. We had them growing up but like you say the Latino community is poor, so they’re not going out there. They don’t have the money to spend on the records, books- make it accessible. It’s not about clicking on-line to Amazon and getting a book or record of your choice. First of all, it may not be there and then, who can afford it?
Jason– Right now libraries are going digital. People think that everyone is online and everyone has an ipad. From circles I run in, I know that everybody doesn’t have an ipad. How do I both manage to make sure that they continue to get all those things they need in print? The people I serve are not so connected and my quest is about how I help those communities to get connected. How can I hep make this transition real? That’s the problem, that’s what’s exciting and the challenge of what I do.
Theresa-I know that you’re a writer, so can you tell me about your writing?
Jason- (laughs) Right now, I’m barely writing at all. Between work and school and family, it’s a real balancing act. Mostly I write poetry. Most of it, I’ve been thinking about this recently, has a lot to do with my grandmother. She would say all these refranes (proverbs) in English, translated very literally into English. I always heard these weird things, like “You can’t be so bald that people see your brains” (laughs). I was always sort of wondered what that means. My poetry is a lot about that. Direct translations make the language very weird. I also use her sense of humor in my poetry in a lot of ways. She was a very funny person, a tragically funny person, because a lot of times horrible things happened. My mother has the same kind of sense of humor, something awful will happen and we’ll just say whatever horrible thing it was and we’ll think it’s incredibly funny. It’s so ironic and sardonic and ridiculous and an example of how weird the world is and the ridiculousness of all the people involved. I’ve always had problems with different boyfriends, one in particular. He’d say “That’s not funny. How can you laugh at these things?” How could you not laugh at these things? I try to make my poetry funny because I think a lot of people don’t think a poem can be funny. They think poetry has to be depressing in a self-referential sort of way. Very direct, autobiographical and it’s your life (lightly beats center of chest) and it’s sincere. So I try to push my poetry in the opposite way to be funny and sardonic, and also in the middle of a conversation. So if I were writing right now (laughs) that’s what I’d be doing but unfortunately I haven’t had time this year to write. It’s been very depressing to me (laughs).
Theresa- Do you have particular philosophy or theoretical foundation that keeps you afloat? You’re so busy!
Jason– (Laughs) You know me! You know that I’ve been deeply inspired and affected by Afro Caribbean spiritualities. I’ve also practiced yoga all my life. I think those two things keep me grounded. I went to school for philosophy originally. I’ve always loved Spinoza and Democritus and Nietzsche. They were all divine materialists- who believed the immanence of God into creation, so that the world itself is God. Everything you do is a creative expression, everything striving to express that Divine Essence all the time. We’re all creatively making things happen as part of God’s image. That’s my philosophical base.
Theresa-I love the image of that- all of us working together and keeping us dynamic. You’ve just answered three questions with that (laugh). You were behind the Stonewall exhibit. Can you tell me about that?
Jason- One of the other jobs I do here is I work on gay and lesbian collections for the library. The library has one of the largest archives of Gay and Lesbian history in the country. There’s another center called the One center on the West Coast that grew out of the Mattachine Society. Our collections grew out of an organization called the Gay Activist Alliance in the 1970s and out of that morphed the independent library called the International Gay Information Center. They collected gigantically and I heard that it filled several apartments at the end. At a certain point they decided to donate that material to the NYPL and the library became the cornerstone for Gay & Lesbian collections at NYPL. As those materials were being processed, a lot of activist organizations were coming to term. They donated while in transition, especially in terms of AIDS activism in the 1990s. So we had all this gay liberation in the 1970s, and then the archives of major organizations from the AIDS crisis from the 80s to the 90s. GMHC gave us their archives when they moved. ACT UP NY gave us their archives and People with AIDS Coalition- all of these big pioneering organizations donated their materials to the library. We took in so much material- more than we could easily process. So we had a bit of a backlog and we had to raise some money to try and process that material. When they started the fundraising initiative they needed someone who could speak to those collections. Having been part of that, part of the radical fairies which is very connected to that 1970s gay liberation, and of ACT UP. I knew what all the material was and I could speak to the content and was part of that fund raising initiative. We’ve raised 2.2 million dollars and were able to do a lot of processing. In 2009, I looked up and thought “Oh my God it’s the 40th anniversary of Stonewall” and given the institution that we were, I knew we had to do something. So I curated an exhibition that showed off what our holdings were in history of gay liberation focusing in that year 1969. In 1999, the library had done a really pioneering exhibition that was called Becoming Visible. That was the first major exhibition done by a public institution on Gay and Lesbian history, but that was like an encyclopedic show. Really from the 19th century to the present about gays and lesbians in the United States. I focused on 1969 and the political changes that happened. I think a lot of people act as though that moment of the Stonewall riots caused gay liberation and I wanted to dispel that notion. I wanted to show how much activism had led up from the 1950s on to that moment. There was the gay political community in NYC already in 1969. When those riots happened they mobilized around that and turned Stonewall into a symbol. If there hadn’t been ten to fifteen years of political activism already in NYC- that would have fallen into nothing. But that happened and everybody mobilized around it and turned it into a symbol of gay activism. The activism before that of Mattachine era and the Daughters of Bilitist-they a lot of sense of respectability. I think they had to make the argument for gay liberation, gay rights, along with being respectable and good citizens. In 1969 there was the whole surge of energy from the student rights and anti war movements. All these people who might have been gay but who were also involved in those movements sort of fused with the earlier generation of activists and stepped up the game in a different kind of way. So it was about that transition from the earlier gay activism to 1970s gay activism. And that’s how that evolved. (Laughs) Also, it’s great to put that in a public library setting where everyone will come for a tour of the library and to change minds and put that on Fifth Avenue, in this bastion of culture, to show that that’s culture and historically important. That’s the goal.
Theresa-The whole goal of activism from apartments, to street corners where people are hanging out giving the message to each other by word of mouth- to what seems suddenly- it’s here on Fifth Avenue in the main branch of the NYPL. It’s pretty astounding. It’s actually very moving.
Jason- I feel very blessed to do what I do. It was a great opportunity to be in this position and to help make that happen. Yeah.
Theresa- Can you tell me more about the Daughters of Bilitist?
Jason-The Daughters of Bilitist was the main lesbian organization in the United States in the 1950s and 60s. It was started in San Francisco. It produced the newsletter called The Ladder. To be in the know you had to subscribe to The Ladder. Barbara Gittings was the head of the New York Chapter of The Daughters of Bilitist in the 1960s. She was a key activist in taking homosexuality off as a diagnosis of mental illness. She was a key person, her and Frank Kameny, were the two that spearheaded that effort. They personally took it on to declassify it at the American Psychiatric Association’s meeting in 1970. They brought in a gay psychiatrist who was dressed in a Richard Nixon mask and had his voice disguised via microphone. This psychiatrist couldn’t professionally risk being known as testifying at that meeting. It was a turning point in the psychiatric community in the United States. The library has Barbara Gittings’ and her partner Kay Lahusen’s archives. We’ve digitized a great deal of the photos. http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?1606153
Theresa- One last question, Jason, how do published authors get their books onto a library shelf?
Jason– For those authors who want to get their books in libraries, the key issue is whether their publisher is being picked up by library wholesalers. Many public libraries buy their books from Baker & Taylor and Ingram, so if these distributors aren’t carrying them they will be hard for us to get.
Theresa- Jason, I’d like to thank you for sharing some of your experience as a librarian for the New York Public Library. I say “some” because your knowledge base is immense. I, for one, have been provoked, by your words, to read more and to continue being an active servant in this vast spiritual life working side by side with other like minded people. Thank you.