Just a couple of weeks ago, the 2023 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Norwegian writer Jon Fosse. In a career that has spanned four decades, the author and dramatist has published some forty plays and numerous works of prose and collections of poetry, and he has won every major Scandinavian writing award and some beyond. You’ve likely never heard of him, and you’re hardly at fault. Fewer than 3 percent of all books published in the U.S. are works in translation.
Let’s say, though, you’ve found your interest piqued by the prize’s prestige and are now looking to get your hands on some English-language Fosse. It might surprise you to learn that the newly minted laureate’s main U.S. publisher is based not in Midtown Manhattan but on the corner of Commerce and South Walton, in Dallas’s Deep Ellum—and that that publisher is the country’s biggest of literature in translation.
The Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex has long been easy to malign as more highways and hair than intellectual mecca. Will Evans was ready to confront that reputation when, in 2013, he founded the nonprofit indie press and bookstore Deep Vellum. “I started shouting from the rooftops about a concept I was ridiculed for,” he says, “which is this term ‘literary Dallas.’ I got made fun of by everyone. I just didn’t care because I knew people were talking about literature.”
At the time, the only independent bookstore in Dallas was Pan-African Connection; Half Price Books, at its flagship location on Northwest Highway, was still selling only used titles. Neither the city nor its leading cultural funder, the Arts Community Alliance, had ever given a grant to a literary organization, Evans says. But he had reason to keep the faith: two literary nonprofits, the Writer’s Garret and Wordspace, were supporting local authors. The Dallas Museum of Art and the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture were providing programs and lectures. And the region’s wealth of universities—UT-Dallas, UT-Arlington, Southern Methodist University, the University of North Texas—were bringing writers and artists to campus. But “no one was connecting the dots,” Evans says. He set out to meet with everyone he could.
From the start, the North Carolina transplant, who had come to translation as a student of Russian culture, wanted to create not only a publisher that highlighted stories from around the world, but also a literary community tethered to the press’s home. The first step toward both goals was Deep Vellum’s first book: Texas: The Great Theft, a borderland tale by acclaimed Mexican author Carmen Boullosa, translated from the Spanish by Samantha Schnee. The second was a physical location, in a neighborhood with a rich arts tradition, that could host events and welcome new readers. “Some people think of Deep Vellum as a publishing house,” Evans says, “and some people think of Deep Vellum only as a bookstore. It’s vital to our mission as a nonprofit to be both, because we don’t want to publish books into the void. We want to have a space that people can walk into at any phase in their reading journey and encounter books that’ll change their life.”
Shortly after Evans moved to the city, another arts establishment helped solidify the emerging literary scene in Dallas. While he was busy getting Deep Vellum off the ground, Evans recalls, he read a newspaper article about two civil engineers from Spain, Javier García del Moral and Paco Vique, who were planning to open a bookstore in the Bishop Arts District. In 2014, just months before Deep Ellum’s first book hit shelves, the Wild Detectives was born.
To step into the Wild Detectives’ Oak Cliff bungalow feels like being transported to a cafe-bookstore in Mexico City or Barcelona or Buenos Aires. The whole enterprise has the air of sobremesa, the Spanish custom of free-flowing conversation following a meal, with patrons browsing, drinks in hands, or heading to the patio to linger for a poetry reading or musical performance. The shop carries an ample selection of international titles, especially from Latin America and Iberia, in both English translations and Spanish—including from Deep Vellum, of course.
“Dallas was an accidental thing,” says García del Moral. He and Vique landed in the city for work, but they immediately identified its poverty of bookstores as a paradoxical boon to their business idea, which was born in part from García del Moral’s existing relationship with the founder of the Spanish publisher Pepitas de calabaza, headquartered in the small city of Logroño, Spain, where he grew up. “There was a real hunger from people to support things that they really believed in,” he says. He credits migration to Texas broadly, and Dallas specifically—where roughly 25 percent of the population is now foreign-born—as another factor in the Wild Detectives’ success. Especially in heavily Hispanic Oak Cliff, a store celebrating Spanish-language literature has found a supportive audience.
“One thing I’ve found in the years since I’ve moved here,” he says, “is that the perception of the Spanish language has changed. In the beginning, people would hide when they spoke Spanish. Nowadays, it’s more like an aspirational thing. People are learning and realizing that by speaking that language, more things are open and accessible to you.” Both Evans and García del Moral also see Texas’s proximity to Mexico as distinguishing their access and priorities from those of coastal outfits. “It’s so rare to read anything from Latin America that’s not about the migrant crisis, as it’s framed in the media,” Evans says, noting that Deep Vellum endeavors to counter that trend with its Latin American selections. “If we’re in Dallas, and it used to be a part of Mexico, we need to turn our gaze outward to look at ourselves for who we are.”
That proximity may have brought about the biggest coup of “literary Dallas”: in 2016, Vique and García del Moral attended the Hay Festival Querétaro, a spin-off of the UK-based Hay Festival of Literature & Arts, which organizes satellite events in such cities as Santiago, Chile; Medellín, Colombia; and Segovia, Spain. Two years later, the Wild Detectives hosted the Hay Festival’s first programming to ever take place in the United States. Among the speakers and performers at the 2018 Hay Forum Dallas were members of the Bogotá39 list, chronicling the best emerging writers in Latin America, among them Juan Cárdenas, from Colombia; Lola Copacabana, from Argentina; and Eduardo Rabasa, from Mexico. And while the COVID-19 pandemic briefly slowed the annual event’s growth, it’s now back on pace: the forum will expand to a full festival in 2024.
Before that, though, the Wild Detectives will celebrate its tenth anniversary, this April, when it’ll host a weekend-long celebration. Deep Vellum likewise marked its decennial this year, and the business recently surpassed $1 million in annual sales. That fiscal milestone is in no small part the product of the press running the playbook of New York’s legacy publishing houses against them—in 2020 Deep Vellum acquired Dalkey Archive Press, the holder of rights to seven of Fosse’s books, in the fourth and largest acquisition it’s made to date. And this fall, Evans’s press will proudly publish its first history of its own backyard—Deep Ellum and Central Track: Where Cultures Converged, by Alan Govenar and Jay Brakefield—under its Texas-focused imprint, La Reunion.
The horizon is not without hurdles, though. Evans coleads, with novelist and SMU professor Sanderia Faye, the Dallas–Fort Worth chapter of PEN America, the international writers’ organization devoted to defending free expression. Though Texas has proved fruitful terrain for publishing and selling socially engaged literature, it is, of course, subject to the laws of the state legislature, and PEN is more active in Texas than ever before as it works to track and challenge book bans. House Bill 900, which requires booksellers to rate titles sold to schools for “sexually revelant” content, is currently being contested in court, but García del Moral says he still worries, as a literary professional and as a reader. “Certain people are afraid of anything complex, which is, I think, the best way to kill a society,” he says. “It’s very scary, but I think it makes our role more relevant.”
Evans, meanwhile, has no doubt he’s up for the fight. “Dallas is a ‘go big or go home’ city,” he says. “I wouldn’t be doing all this if I weren’t in Dallas.”