November 5, 2014

LITERATURE IS A GIFT TO THE WORLD: WHY THE YOUNIVERSITY MATTERS

by Jonathan Marcantoni



Authors Jonathan Marcantoni and Chris Campanioni are the founders of YouNiversity.  Their first class is about to “graduate.”  It’s been a learning experience for both the students and the teachers.  The Latina Book Club congratulates Jon and Chris on their vision, and wish their graduating students much publishing success.---mcf




Jonathan Marcantoni
 I am a Puerto Rican writer. That is how I introduce myself. Puerto Rican first, writer second. Writing, not only the practice but my entire conceptualization of the artform, is filtered through that identity. I pride myself in being a storyteller of my people, of our struggles on and off the island, of our pan-Latino community. As co-founder of Aignos Publishing, I put such a heavy emphasis on Latino literature I would receive emails from non-Latino authors asking if we signed them as well. I felt bad when I received those emails, I never meant to be exclusive, and it planted a seed of doubt concerning whether my nationalist swagger was helping or hindering artists.

When Chris Campanioni and I started the
Chris Campanioni
YouNiversity, 
the idea was for it to be universal, yet our main focus was on finding Latino students. . The goal of the YouNiversity is to empower and strengthen passion for the art of writing as well as educate aspiring writers on the business aspect of a literary career. Having been published in both English and Spanish, I knew how hard it was to find a good, respectable publisher willing to take our work as it is, without whitewashing the content or asking us to change the way we tell stories to be more palatable to Middle America. To try to publish in many Latin American countries is an uphill battle, especially in the Caribbean. Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile have the best infrastructure for publishing opportunities. Otherwise, most publishers you find are dedicated to academic, historical, or political works. There are but a handful of publishers that focus on experimental or socially-conscious literature. In Puerto Rico, there is only one, Isla Negra, that is dedicated to serious, innovative literature, and they only accept submissions once a year. So our attention was immediately on Latino artists who desperately need a leg up in finding their way in the publishing world.  What we ended up with was something different altogether, and the experience has opened my eyes to the importance of being an international, and not just Latino, author.

Three students, Yma Johnson and Emma Mayhood from Eastern Michigan University, and Julia Horniacek from Ramapo College in New Jersey, were selected from fifteen applicants. We had originally chosen a fourth author, from Mexico, but she quickly dropped out due to her unwillingness to complete the assignments. We had a Puerto Rican author who contacted us, and who was full of charisma and enthusiasm, but not enough to actually submit a writing sample. The experience was incredibly disheartening, and it made me wonder why Latino authors were not taking us up on the opportunity we had presented them with. This attitude blinded me to a bigger truth, which is that we had reached out to college organizations, writing groups, Facebook and Twitter, yet for all the promoting and outreach, very few people in general responded.

The question I should have asked myself was, why are aspiring writers passing up the chance to learn about their industry, hone their craft, and make long-lasting business connections, for free? My immediate thought was that it was due to Chris and I not being famous. When a person is in a media and artistic mecca like New York or Los Angeles, it can be easy to forget that outside those cities lie endless communities where the arts are a fringe element, and worse still in the United States, largely unprofitable. Unless you are famous, you do not draw a great amount of attention from your communities. When I did semi-professional theatre in Georgia, there was always the self-parodying “diva” that obsessed over the twenty people who came to see them act in a community theatre production they had been doing for a decade or more, as if they were Bette freakin’ Davis. For most, art is more a pastime than something essential, and so trying to convince a bunch of college students bred on the mentality of making money over pursuing passion (hell, even college writing programs spend more time preparing their students to find work in the publishing world or as teachers than they do on the actual craft and art of storytelling) to dedicate a year of their lives to a creative endeavor was perhaps a bit naïve on our part.

Now, four months into the program, I believe that the reason is even simpler:

This program is very demanding. 

Since June, the students have learned how to write query letters, they have networked with industry professionals, built social media platforms, and learned how to brand themselves as artists. The YouNiversity has entered its second stage, where the focus has shifted from the business and promotional aspects of being a writer to the artistic. We want our students to understand that storytelling and promotion are separate disciplines, and that an artist should create their work outside of industry demands or trends. In order to document the progress of the students, a blog was established at http://youniversityproject.wordpress.com/ where the students have interacted with publishing and media professionals from the U.S., Europe, Latin America, and Africa. In the coming months, the students will focus on strengthening their particular styles and honing their voice. They will also create multimedia projects to find new ways to translate their art to other mediums and also create new communities for that art.

Yma, Emma, and Julia, as you can tell from their names, are not Latinas. Emma and Julia are white and Yma is Sierra Leonean. They all have distinct, endearing, and intense voices. These women write with an enviable passion for exploring their inner and outer worlds, and are not afraid to push buttons or break down barriers in the pursuit of fully realizing the story they wish to tell. Working with these three women made me feel silly about my moniker of Puerto Rican writer. It is good that I love my culture and wish to help my people, but that can be done without negating the struggles inherent in all of humanity. The YouNiversity has opened up doors, professionally and creatively, for our students, but it has also taught me about the importance of artistic expression. To engender in another person the confidence to face the world and proclaim the depths of their souls is a tremendous gift, and that is what Chris and I wish to do as we expand the YouNiversity to other communities.

What I am going to say now will seem to contradict what I just said, but I do still feel it is important that we use the lessons from the YouNiversity to impact the Latino community. It is a chip on my shoulder that needs to be satisfied, and so the next iteration of the YouNiversity, in 2015, will be strictly Latino. It will also accept writers who are not in college. Chris and I will approach local organizations (Chris is in New York and I am in Colorado) to bring them on board in participating with our students, who we will seek out both in the U.S., Spain, and Latin America. By making our local communities involved, we wish to create greater participation and interaction between the students and their peers. We will also be seeking sponsors to make the YouNiversity a more immersive and multi-tiered experience that better combines visual media, social media, and literary growth amongst the participants.

From there, the sky is the limit. Ultimately, we envision bringing on more mentors from specific communities and specific genre backgrounds and literary movements. That way we can blend the universal pursuit of art with the needs of particular countries and groups. The more we can bring people together, the less we will feel the need to pigeonhole ourselves. Having self-identity can be a wonderful thing, but the identity we too often forget is that of human being, citizen of the world, and it is that identity we wish to develop most. Ultimately, the YouNiversity will be a haven for the global literary cause, giving voice to our human spirit; uniting, educating, and most of all, inspiring connection.###



ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Jonathan Marcantoni is the author of COMMUNION (with Jean Blasiar), TRAVELER’S REST, and THE FEAST OF SAN SEBASTIAN.  A PEN member and advocate for raising awareness of the persecution of writers and artists worldwide, he is the co-founder of Aignos Publishing and has been featured in El Nuevo Día, El Post Antillano, Warscapes, Fronteras on Texas Public Radio, Jazz y Letras, Across the Margin, and el Movimiento Independentista Nacional Hostosiano. With fellow author Chris Campanioni, he has launched the YouNiversity Project, which gives students from around the country the opportunity to learn about the publishing industry and how to pursue a career as a writer. He is an active duty Army soldier, husband, and father of three girls. He lives in Colorado Springs, CO.  To learn more about the YouNiversity Project, follow their blog at http://youniversityproject.wordpress.com/.