The library has acquired the papers of Manuel Zapata Olivella, the 20th century’s most important Afro-Hispanic narrator, according to William Luis, Chancellor’s Professor of Spanish. Olivella was a doctor, anthropologist, folklorist, diplomat and writer and is one of the most distinguished figures in contemporary Colombian literature. More than any other person, Olivella has been recognized for his focus on the people of African descent, not only to the history and society of Colombia, but also to the Americas as a whole.
The new acquisition, funded by the Heard Library Society, complements Vanderbilt’s J. León Helguera Collection of Colombiana. Eminent historian Malcolm Deas, a fellow at St. Antony’s College in Oxford and former director of the Latin American Centre at Oxford University, says Helguera “was able to put together what is without the slightest doubt the finest collection of Colombiana outside the country. If I may offer a comparison, the Helguera collection is in the United States for Columbia the equivalent of the University of Texas’s collections of materials on Mexico. It is the leading collection, with no close rival anywhere, in certain respects not even the Library of Congress.”
Paula Covington, Vanderbilt’s Latin American and Iberian bibliographer and an internationally recognized scholar, says the Olivella collection will have major impact. “This collection is significant because it represents the output of an author who pioneered the Afro-Latin American novel,” she said. “Prior to this, we have not owned any personal collections or manuscripts of a major Latin American writer.”
Covington and former University Librarian Paul Gherman worked for more than three years with Olivella’s daughter and the Colombian government (notably the Colombian Ministry of Culture) to purchase the collection. Vanderbilt doctoral student Pablo Gómez, a Colombian native, played a vital role by meeting with Olivella’s daughter, inspecting the collection and overseeing the crating of 150 boxes and shepherding them through the Colombian customs.
Luis has examined a few of the boxes and has already found a rare gem in the form of the manuscript of an unpublished novel, Itxao, el immortal. The collection also includes other manuscripts, letters, interviews, newspaper and scholarly articles, audiocassettes, slides and photos. The interviews and tapes of slave descendents illustrate Olivella’s dedication to preserving the passing oral traditions of Afro-Colombians.
Covington expects that a significant number of scholars—those interested in literature, Latin American culture and history—will want to make use of the collection. Luis made a brief mention of the Olivella acquisition in a recent issue of the Afro-Hispanic Review, which he edits, and has since received numerous requests from scholars wanting to consult these important resources. After the collection is cataloged, it will be available for outside research.