Story by Anna Adami. Photos by Liliana Banta.
“Books are solitudes in which we meet.” -Rebecca Solnit
Will Evans, founder and publisher at Deep Vellum, would describe Solnit’s solitudes as “individual stars in the sky.” He is interested in the meeting point, the line drawn from one star to the other. When two or more points connect, they create something new: a constellation, a conversation, a community. In Will’s words, “the whole world is connected through stories.” Seeking connections has not only defined Will’s career, but it has also defined, as literature is apt to do, his personhood.
After five years working in the music industry, Will attended graduate school at Duke University studying Russian Culture. Duke’s program emphasized intersectionality and interdisciplinary studies. Will simplifies these terms into “collaboration.” He noticed that “people generally work in silos. They don’t often intersect with other individuals, ideas, and schools of thought.” Will was never interested in working in a silo. “I love collaborating with people,” he affirms.
Will kept collaboration in mind when navigating a silo of his own interest. He asks, “What do you do when you love Russian literature? Typically you go get a PhD and study Dostoevsky for the rest of your life. But I’m more interested in the idea that is taught by Russian writers. That literature is a tool of power. Writing and reading are powerful acts, political acts, social acts.”
This idea propelled Will to pursue translation. When researching where to publish his first translated work, Will learned there were few options. Not a lot of people were publishing translations. Instead of bemoaning this gap, he aimed to fill it. Incidentally, he found another gap in Dallas, one that intersected with the gap in translations. Dallas had no literary publishing house and no independent bookstore. “Dallas had great writers, but none of the dots were connecting between them” he says. He turned this lack into opportunity.
In 2013, Will founded Deep Vellum, a nonprofit independent publishing house and literary arts center in Dallas. Its mission is to bring the world into conversation through literature. Will aims to bring international writers to Dallas and Dallas writers to the world. “The dialogue has to go both ways,” he explains. “We’re not just talking to the rest of the world like we have all the right ideas. We’re listening to the world. We’re sharing ideas back and forth. We’re sharing styles and identities, new ways of expressing the things that bring us together as humans.”
Many of the voices Deep Vellum amplifies are by writers and languages that have been persecuted or oppressed. In Uygherland, the Farthest Exile, Asmatjan Osman is the first ever poet to be translated from Uygher to English. Millions of Uyghur people are currently held in concentration camps where the Han Chinese majority attempts to strip away their culture. In Life Went on Anyway, Oleg Sentsov looks back on his life as a dissident artist. He is a Ukrainian filmmaker who was kidnapped from his house and sentenced to 20 years as a political prisoner in Russia. Deep Vellum hoped that publishing his stories would contribute to his timely release, and it did. Will says, “You ask yourself, why haven’t you read these kinds of books before? Who’s been choosing? We’re publishing books that are falling through the cracks of major publishing.”
Even the American voices Deep Vellum publishes are thoughtfully diverse. “We’ve published an Afghan American writer, Pakistani American writer, Iranian American writer, Russian-American, Mexican-American writer. And they’re all American as apple pie now. But American isn’t just apple pie.” By publishing a range of local voices, Will shapes the definition of “American” into something more holistic and inclusive. By reading stories, by “getting into the head of another person,” we expand our understanding of what it means to be human. “The more readers and the more writers that we have here,” Will says, “the more indicative of the people that we all are.”
Along with publishing, Deep Vellum also runs an independent bookstore. The store is just as important a player in the mission to create conversations through literature. “It’s not just a place for transactional relationships,” Will says, “it’s not just about selling books. It’s about bringing people together with literature at the core.” Before the pandemic, Deep Vellum Bookstore hosted concerts, films, theatrical performances, comedy, poetry, writing workshops, and political organizing meetings. After the pandemic, it will continue this work, along with further work to champion reading and literacy in Dallas as a whole.
“It interests me to be in Dallas,” Will says, “Dallas is so full of itself and so down on itself, all at the same time. The DFW area has more people than most Scandanavian countries.” It is evident that to Will, belonging in a place comes with an invitation, maybe even a responsibility, to contribute to that place, to give it love where it needs it. He sees need in Dallas’ reading community.
Reading and writing are vital artistic forms. Like visual art, music, and film, reading stirs and moves our spirits. Literature, Will says, perhaps fiction specifically, “is a way to sort of synthesize reality into some kind of higher truth, these things that unite us and bond us.”
To find out more about Deep Vellum, visit deepvellum.org. “We’re always looking to make new friends,” Will says. Since Deep Vellum is a nonprofit, donations also go a long way. “They help us to finance the production of books by authors that you would never get a chance to meet otherwise.” Buying books from Dallas’ local independent bookstore goes a long way, too. You can order any book you’ve ever wanted from Deep Vellum’s Bookshop page. Each book you buy supports your local literary community, allowing for more voices to enter the world and more events to bring people together.