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- Photo by Rob Bartlett
Ryan RivasBook publisher and literary community builder | For working tirelessly to get Orlando on the same page
The image of a city, in the minds of people who've never been there, is formed by writing about that city – whether it's fiction, film script or news reporting. In Orlando's case, that means a whole lot of people in the world think our city is a tropical paradise peopled by Disney princesses, toothy reptiles and an army of Florida Men. Ryan Rivas, the publisher of Orlando-based literary imprint Burrow Press, grapples daily with the question of what "Florida literature" is.
"There's an assumption that focusing solely on Florida would limit the audience. Of course, the nation has a morbid curiosity about Florida. I see this as an opportunity to subvert that gaze," Rivas says.
"Just like Orlando is misunderstood as a theme park city, I think the phrase 'Florida literature' makes people think of Carl Hiaasen and his brand of wacky crime novels. But Florida lends itself to truthful interpretation through many genre lenses – not just realism set in a Florida city, which can be wonderful, but fabulism, absurdism, sci-fi/speculative, horror, noir," Rivas says. Readers can find writing that embraces Florida in those genres by Karen Russell, Lauren Groff, Laura Van Den Berg, Vanessa Blakeslee, James M. Cain, Padgett Powell, Jeff VanderMeer, Lindsay Hunter, Teege Braune, Alisa Nutting, Kristen Arnett and more – nary a murder-by-stuffed-marlin among them.
Book by book, in novels, story collections and anthologies (including many of the above authors), Burrow Press is helping build that multifaceted image of Florida. From early releases like the various volumes of 15 Views of Orlando and 15 Views of Miami to We Can't Help It if We're From Florida, Rivas says, BP has made an effort "to blur the line between local and national by featuring writers who grew up in Florida but have gone on to do great things in the national literary world."
A natural extension of this has been to organize readings and events that contribute to or even strengthen the literary scene. Rivas works with host/MC Jared Silvia to put on Functionally Literate, which matches local writers with national authors in loosely linked subject matter, and Loose Lips, in which a different host each month invites writers to share new work inspired by the last 30 days of news.
"Lately I've been thinking about a more abstract, lower-case-F 'florida literature' that isn't place-based but nonetheless expresses the textures and tensions we associate with Florida experiences," Rivas says. "Stark contrasts like gritty/glossy, natural/manmade, rich/poor; hidden or erased histories; actual displacement and/or emotional estrangement as a result of tourism." Despite being so attuned to the displacements and estrangements endemic to this city of immigrants and transplants, Rivas wouldn't change much.
"In 10 years I'd love to see just as many art and literary spaces as there are craft breweries and coffee shops, though I'd settle for affordable housing and public transit," he says. "I don't have a desire to change the city. Just to keep doing what I'm doing."