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A Latin American Literary Treasure Hunt

December 7, 2021

Joseph Hiller holding up three books from his collection while posing next to his bookcase brimming with books
Joseph Hiller's collection of Latin American literature (top shelf) is quickly outgrowing his homemade bookcase.

By John Zhu

One day between his first and second years as a master’s student, Joseph Hiller found himself in Calle Donceles, the historic downtown center of Mexico City, hopping among the many old used bookstores the area was known for.

These were the kind of places that had 10-foot-tall bookcases with dusty shelves, collections with endless categories, and stacks of old, unexpected gems—the kind of places he had read about in The Savage Detectives, Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño’s work about poets in 1970s Mexico City.

On this occasion, Hiller was on the hunt for a less well-known work by another Latin American novelist, Alejo Carpentier. He bounced from store to store, trying to decipher how each establishment organized its collections and where to dig for the literary treasure he was seeking.

“And then maybe the fifth or sixth store I went into, I found it!” Hiller said. “It was really exciting. Not only did I find it, but it also had this fun dedication on the inside front page: ‘For my noble and beloved friend Octavio: This task for your travels. Christmas 1978.’

“It was kind of fun to both find the book and to find it with this bit of someone’s memories, some history of the gift, written on it.”

That discovery is one of the crown jewels in Hiller’s collection of small-press, experimental, and untranslated Latin American literature, a collection that has grown to more than 100 items. The spark that kickstarted his collection years ago also played a key role in leading him to Duke’s Ph.D. program in cultural anthropology.

Front cover and inside dedication of the Carpentier book
Front cover and inside dedication found in Joseph Hiller's copy of Alejo Carpentier's La consagracion de la primavera. (Photos courtesy of Hiller)

“Hungry for Understanding”

Earlier this year, Hiller wrote an essay about his collection, which won Duke Libraries’ Andrew T. Nadell Prize for Book Collecting. That essay later won another award in the National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest held by the Booksellers’ Association of America.

In the essay, Hiller described how, growing up in a small town in rural central Pennsylvania, he found a window to the wider world through nearby Bucknell University. A service-learning trip to Nicaragua at age 14 planted a seed of curiosity about Latin America, which was nurtured by subsequent visits to the region before and during his undergraduate studies.

Then, right after graduation, he read an English translation of Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives.

“Once again, I found myself hungry for understanding,” Hiller wrote in his essay. “I wanted to immerse myself in Bolaño’s world of manifestos and writers and late-night poets, of radicals and criminals and queer people holding forth. I had read Latin American authors before, of course, but his work flipped a switch in me, turning me in a new direction.”

That hunger spurred him to start purposefully collecting non-mainstream books by Latin American authors, books that usually have not been translated into English and can be hard to find even in their home countries.

The official cover of Chronicle of A Death Foretold on the left versus the possibly bootleg version Hiller picked up on the right
Left: The official cover of Chronicle of a Death Foretold.
Right: The cover of Hiller's possibly bootleg copy.
(Right photo courtesy of Hiller)

The first “official” entry in the collection was a tiny, irregular, possibly bootleg copy of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which Hiller picked up as bus reading a decade ago while interning in Venezuela. The collection swelled from there and now spills out of the top shelf of the bookcase Hiller built with his partner.

In all, Hiller estimates his collection contains more than 90 books and about 30 pieces of ephemera—magazines, bookmarks, records, and the like. They came from second-hand bookstores in Mexico City, giant book festivals in Bogotá, independent presses throughout Latin America, a strip mall in Miami, and even the Hunky Dory record store in Durham, where he recently chanced upon a record inspired by another of Garcia Márquez’s works.

Books also came from online, from subscriptions, and from acquaintances. Hiller even found a gem while attending a trans rights march in Bogotá—an anthology of queer and trans writing and art that was produced by a grassroots organization. Hiller said he hasn’t seen that book anywhere else except at that event on that day.

“The books I’m often most excited about are the ones that I don’t know where I would have found them other than the places where I found them,” he said.

 New books that he collected in Bogotá during summer 2021.
Top: Some of Hiller's collection of Latin American ephemera. Bottom left: Part of his book collection. Bottom right (photo courtesy of Hiller): New books that he collected in Bogotá during summer 2021.

Colombian Prisons, from the Outside

The interest in Latin America that spurred Hiller to start his collection also led him to Tulane for a master’s in Latin American Studies. He then joined Duke’s Ph.D. program in cultural anthropology, attracted by the scholarship of Professors Diane Nelson, Orin Starn, and Anne Allison (his doctoral advisers) and the close mentoring relationships between faculty and Ph.D. students.

Now in his third year of Ph.D. study, Hiller is conducting research into the experiences of family members and loved ones of people incarcerated in Colombia. The country’s prison system, Hiller said, had historically been very different from the American system.

“Prisons tended to be in city areas that are much more open to the outside,” he said. “Prisoners tended to not have uniforms. They tended to be in more of these open patios instead of being locked individually or in small groups in cells. And family members would typically come in every week, sometimes multiple times a week, to bring in food and clothes. Sometimes prisoners would have businesses on the inside, like a shoe shop or a laundry.”

At the same time, though, Colombian prisons struggled with violence and smuggling of drugs and weapons. In the early 2000s, using part of its economic aid from the United States, Colombia began building new prisons based on the more restrictive U.S. model, even using blueprints of Florida prisons.

Hiller is exploring some of the consequences of that shift nearly two decades later. Research has shown that the changes had not reduced violence, he said. At the same time, criminal laws became more punitive, prison populations ballooned and became more racialized, queer and trans people were imprisoned more disproportionately, and prison conditions deteriorated, with limited access to essentials like food, medicine, and running water.

Moreover, prisons moved farther away from cities, which affected familial connections.

“A lot of people ended up being locked farther away from their families, so those kinds of relations that they depended on to survive through prison were either really difficult or impossible to maintain,” Hiller said.

On the other hand, he noted that the Colombian prison system operates under laws that are often far more progressive than in the U.S. For example, people in Colombian prisons are entitled to intimate partner visits, a right that only exists in a few states in the U.S. Furthermore, that right applies regardless of gender and sexual orientation. Also, trans people in Colombian prisons cannot be forced to cut their hair and can choose what they wear. Prisoners also have the right to human rights advocates.

“So there are progressive laws that are supposed to protect and preserve people’s humanity in different ways and understand that people on the inside need to maintain connections with people on the outside, which is articulated a lot as key to their re-socialization—what imprisonment is supposed to do,” Hiller said.

“The actual day-to-day impact of these laws, these rights, and these rulings is what I am interested in.”

When COVID severely restricted access to Colombian prisons, Hiller shifted his research focus to how families and loved ones maintain connections with those behind bars, how the formal rights help or limit those connections, and what kind of political advocacy and struggle are taking place in this area.

“A lot of my work tends to look at NGOs, social movements, and academic research,” he said. “It’s building from the relationship of an intimate connection to somebody behind bars and asking broader questions about what does justice mean in Colombia, what’s the role of prisons in achieving justice or in thwarting justice, and what is the role of the law in fixing things and what does that tell us about where we should devote our energy if we care about social change and justice.”

Surprise Intersections

While Hiller’s book collection and his research sprouted from the same hunger for learning more about Latin America, they are not directly connected. Occasionally, though, they intersect in unexpected ways.

While doing his master’s research in Bogotá, Hiller was browsing in a literary bookstore and made a surprise discovery—Niebla en la yarda, a non-fiction book about the experiences of three Colombians extradited to prison in the U.S. It was published by Angosta Editores, a small press with a limited distribution area, and had not been translated into English.

Hiller found the book very interesting and thought it deserved greater exposure. So this spring, he nominated it for publication in the Latin America in Translation Series by UNC Press and Duke University Press, and it was accepted. Before submitting the nomination, he checked with Angosta Editores for permission, and the press connected him with the author, Colombian journalist Estefanía Carvajal.

This past summer, Hiller was conducting field research in Bogotá on a Summer Research Fellowship from The Graduate School. He took the opportunity to fly to Medellin and meet Carvajal, building a connection that could help his research.

“Next year when I go back to Colombia for more long-term research, hopefully I will get to hang out with her more because she has all these connections to prisons, Colombian authorities, the government, and other journalists,” Hiller said. “Hopefully going forward she will be someone who can be an interlocutor and a colleague in thinking about prison issues in Colombia.”

Just one more unexpected treasure from the stacks.

Hiller holding up his copy of Niebla en la yarda
Joseph Hiller shows off his copy of Niebla en la yarda, which he successfully nominated for translation and publication in English.