[Posted November 19, 2021]
A new publishing house now calls Hillsdale home. Westwood Press founders Jessica Kaplan and Edward Zegarra are jumping into the Portland literary scene with both feet from their home base in Hillsdale.
Both PhD's in anthropology, Kaplan and Zegarra plan to focus their wide-ranging interests on nonfiction and literary fiction with a positive take on the future of culture and society. Now accepting original submissions to inaugurate their book publishing program, they are also on the lookout for translation projects (Spanish to English and vice versa) and offer services to independent authors looking for help to bring their manuscripts to publication.
Why Hillsdale? Its proximity to the Portland literary scene attracted the publishing entrepreneurs, but it was friends and family that sealed the deal. "An overwhelming number of people in Portland read books, statistically more than the national average. When you’re looking to go into publishing and you connect with a readership, that’s the community you want to be in," Kaplan explained.
The pandemic gave the couple a new perspective on what they wanted from their lives, so after a few years of working in the publishing business in Vancouver, BC, they were drawn "home" by a desire to be closer to loved ones. Kaplan grew up in Hillsdale, attending Rieke, Robert Gray, and Wilson (now Ida B. Wells-Barnett) High School; Zegarra is bi-coastal, born in California but then doing much of his growing up in Florida and New York.
Pandemic-induced insights extended to their professional lives as well, inspiring them to seize the moment and set out on their own. "We fell in love with publishing and started thinking, you know, we could do this ourselves," says Kaplan. She continues, "And if we did it ourselves we could be in control of the works we put out there and promote works that we thought would be a benefit to society and to future generations.”
The two met in graduate school while doing research in the remote highlands of Peru. Both eventually earned their PhD's in anthropology, a field that has given them a broad base of knowledge in which to ground Westwood Press' publishing program. They come by their very wide-ranging interests courtesy of their academic training, Zegarra says. "Our interests are broad because anthropology is a four-field discipline that encompasses linguistics, sociocultural anthropology, archaeology, and biological anthropology."
The books they plan to publish will incorporate research with deep exploration of interesting subjects, whether fiction or nonfiction, and "pull from history, culture, and myth to blend all of those into something that is poignant for contemporary audiences," as Zegarra puts it.
Kaplan points to three books they recently enjoyed as just an example of the type of stories they're interested in publishing. The first, "Empire of Wild" by Canadian author Cherie Dimaline, looks at identity and the colonial erasure of indigenous groups through the Metis tale of the Rougarou, a werewolf-like bogeyman. Another is a horror story set in Mexico, "Mexican Gothic" by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. In a review, The Guardian said, “It’s Lovecraft meets the Brontës in Latin America.” Kaplan adds that the real horror is deep-seated racism and entrenched sexism, playing on "deep cultural and historical knowledge interwoven with something fantastical."
On the nonfiction side, a recent favorite was "Facing the Mountain." Through a combination of archival research and first-hand interviews, Daniel James Brown tells the story of three second-generation Japanese American volunteer soldiers and one patriotic resister in World War II, and of their families interned in American concentration camps.
For Kaplan and Zegarra, the overall goal of their publishing program is community-building toward a positive outcome. As their mission statement says, they "are excited to champion impactful, forward-thinking books that foster collaboration and promote intercultural dialogue."
They hope to embody those values as community members as well, and look forward to engaging with the neighborhood around not just books, but civic life in general. In that regard, Kaplan acknowledges she has big shoes to fill: Her mother is Linda Doyle, a long-time Hillsdale-neighborhood organizer who was involved for many years with schools and local arts organizations. Doyle published a weekly email newsletter, The Spotlight, for more than 11 years as a bridge between the high school and the community, and was a founding member of the Wilson Area Arts Council, a non-profit raising money for public arts education at a time when school budgets were being cut, among other grassroots activities.
As publishers, Kaplan and Zegarra are excited to apply their background as anthropologists to understanding authors' work on its own terms and helping to bring it to a wider audience.
Learn more about Westwood Press at www.westwoodpress.com.