Interview Posts

An interview with Sam Cooney, Publisher, “The Lifted Brow”

The Lifted Brow is an Australian literary magazine which was established in 2007. In a very short time it has gone on to establish a formidable reputation in the global literary landscape. A few years later they established a publishing firm call Brow Books which too has established a fantastic reputation as well. Most recently Brow Books have sold UK and Commonwealth rights of Intan Paramaditha’s Apple and Knife , short story collection, to Harvill Secker.

“Paramaditha’s stories are shockingly bold and macabrely funny, powerfully defamiliarising the cultural lore of patriarchy. What makes them special is their lack of interest in representing women as victims – here, the taboo of feminist anger is flagrantly and entertainingly broken.”
–The Saturday Paper

Sam Cooney is the publisher of The Lifted Brow and Brow Books. He came to India in January 2018 as part of the Australian Publishers delegation. The delegation is organised by the Australia Council for the Arts and has now become an annual feature. The main aim is to encourage cross-pollination of the two publishing industries and fostering business ties. I met Sam Cooney at a reception hosted in January 2018 by H. E. Harinder Sidhu, High Commissioner, Australia at her residence in New Delhi.

When we met Sam gave me a copy of The Best of The Lifted Brow: Volume Two that blew me away with the quality of contributions. This is what I wrote to Sam upon reading the book.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the second volume. Now I can understand why publishers are reading this journal closely to spot new talent. It is extraordinary craftsmanship you have in the bunch of writers. Whether it is fiction or non-fiction, all write with such strength and powerful voices. The manner in which they express opinion and play with the form of prose and poetry to make it their own is splendid. I cannot decide which of the contributions is my absolute favourite. It probably is “Humans pretending to be computers pretending to be humans” about Amazon Mechanical Turk. Wow! It is at moments like this I never know if we are now living in a speculative fictionalised world or is this reality? It is a bit surreal. After reading the essay I cross-checked with a few of my programming friends who said this particular business exemplifies the sheer ingenuity of Bezos to monetize at every given opportunity.

I also like the way the editorial board of TLB has arranged the articles. So while you can dip into it at any point there is a fascinating trajectory from fiction to non-fiction with some of it sounding so real that it is impossible to tell which zone are we in — real or imagined. I was stunned to read the experimental essay “Two or three things auteurs know about auteurs” and that the dialogue in this piece is constructed entirely from quotes by Jean Luc Godard and Baz Luhrmann.

Here is an interview with Sam Cooney. It has been lightly edited.

Sam Cooney.
Photographer: Alan Weedon

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Why did you decide to launch the literary magazine The Lifted Brow? How did you select the marvellous name?! 
 
The Lifted Brow was founded by writer and editor Ronnie Scott, with the first issue being published in January 2007 when he was in his very early twenties. He edited the magazine for five years/for thirteen issues. (You can read an interview with Ronnie here at HTMLGiant which sheds a lot of light as to how and why The Lifted Brow was created, and its purpose.) The origins of the magazine’s name are a mystery – some say that the name just magically appeared on the front cover without anyone even typing it, some say that its anagram for the worst swear word there is in the English language, some say you can simply ask Ronnie Scott and he’ll tell you a very straightforward and unremarkable story of how it was decided.
 
How do you seek contributions? According to Wikipedia you have an impressive list of established writers as well. How did you manage to persuade writers like Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood to contribute? 
The various editors of the magazine (you can see them all here) source contributions both by direct commissioning and by reading unsolicited submissions. Each issue of the magazine is made up of a combination of commissioned work and submissions – it’s central to our ethos that we are always open for submissions from new writers/writers we don’t already know. For the bigger writers we’ve published over the years: it never ceases to amaze how easy it is to find the email address of any writer, no matter how famous, and it’s also always a surprise how positively any writer can react to an unknown editor/publication contacting them for new work if that editor/publication is doing so with genuine keenness and built from a love and respect for that writer’s work.
 
What is the process of selection and editing for the essays? 
For each round of submissions, every piece is read and assessed by several people – a mix of editors and interns. These readers assess pieces against criteria we’ve internally agreed upon—criteria that is very specific to The Lifted Brow, specific to the kinds of work we want to publish and why—and then we come up with a longlist of the best pieces, which are then discussed by the editors, who ultimately choose which pieces to work on and publish.
Our editorial process is incredibly rigorous and thoughtful. From all I know of the industry, I have no doubt whatsoever in saying—and it is not meant to sound self-aggrandising to say—that our editorial process is the most generous and detailed of any literary publication in Australia. This is especially important because we choose to work with writers who are often emerging (and this doesn’t mean young), and we also work with writers who are constantly pushing the boundaries of writing. Sometimes we have worked with an writer for over a year on a piece, going back and forth with edits until the piece is the best it can be.
We also sometimes open for pitches and not just for finished pieces – in these instances the editors assess the pitches and then choose the ones they will ask the writers to write for us.
 
What have been your learnings from managing a literary magazine for so many years — publishing, reading patterns, changes in literature, distribution etc ? 
 
My learnings are far too many and far too deep to even outline here properly. But a couple of important ones: I’ve learned that the single most valuable quality that a publication and organisation must maintain is its integrity. What The Lifted Brow—and our entire organisation has—is the complete trust of its communities, whether it be readers, writers, artists, funding bodies, other publications, publishing houses, or people who belong in several of these communities.
I’ve also learned that there is nothing more important than energy and enthusiasm – that the best editors are people who are completely devoted to seeking out the most interesting work, and that there are no shortcuts to do this.  There are too many lazy editors who wait for the writers and writing to come to them, to their inboxes, or via social media, or via their group of friends or acquaintances. This is how the status quo is maintained, and it’s wrong.
The only way the magazine has been able to sustain itself for so long is that our entire staff are all volunteers, and always have been. It sucks, because every single person who has ever worked on The Lifted Brow deserves to have been paid for their time, labour, skills, knowledge, etc. But the plain fact of the matter is that no matter how we’ve been able to find money (sales, government funding, events, etc), once we’ve covered printing costs, contributor fees, and all the many other costs of producing a publication and running an organisation, there’s never been enough money to pay our staff. And we’ve never wanted to change what we make and how we do it in order to chase short-term dollars – we’ve always said that we are trying to make meaning and not money, that our goal is always to make whatever money we can from exactly the work we want to publish. Still, paying staff my single biggest goal, and is why I am now actively pursuing a not-for-profit model, so that we can unlock ways of securing income that will allow us to pay staff.
We’ve recently transitioned from a private company to a not-for-profit organisation. We’ve always operated like a not-for-profit in that any money we make will always go back into our operations, but now we are legally and structurally a not-for-profit, including being registered with various government bodies and having a board and etc. We hope to be able to pursue funding through various trusts and funds that are only open to not-for-profits, as well as looking at philanthropy and other approaches. It’s a model that other organisations have successfully realised, and we are looking to them for clues and guidance.
 
Why did you decide to launch a publishing house — Brow Books — in addition to the literary magazine? Does it not put a strain on the editorial team as the cycles of publishing are very different. 
We launched Brow Books for the same reason that The Lifted Brow was launched – because no one was doing something that we believe is hugely important. (The Lifted Brow was created because Australian literary journals of that era had become quite staid/were closed off to writers who didn’t conform to a narrow definition of ‘good’ writing, and Ronnie Scott was reading other literary publications from around the globe and decided that Australia desperately needed one.)
Brow Books will publish books that other presses won’t take on because they are deemed (often mistakenly, in our belief) commercially unviable, or too weird or provocative – books that are incredibly important to our society and culture, writing that feature voices and ideas that need to have that mainstream platform of being published in book form. We don’t see enough of the kinds of writers and writing we publish in our magazine and on our website go on to publish books, which we’ve long thought was frustrating – and in Australia, if you are a writer then you basically need to have access to book publishing in order to sustain a career.
One central guiding principle to Brow Books is that we won’t publish a book if another Australian press can and would do a better job of publishing that book, and we haven’t strayed from that so far. Brow Books exists to fill a gap – there are too many book presses in Australia publishing the same kinds of books, competing with each other, and we definitely don’t want to add to that noise.
Brow Books staff are largely separate from those who make our magazine – as you’ll see here.
Who commissions books on behalf of Brow Books or is it the same editorial board of TLB? 
 
Me and the rest of the book editors are in charge of finding titles for Brow Books – whether it’s through our open submissions or through commissioning.
In an interview with Kill Your Darlings you remarked that while it is interesting to review existing literary magazines-cum-book publishers such as Granta, McSweeneys, New York Review of Books, these models cannot be copied exactly in Australia. What are these differentiating factors you refer to?
 
I said that these models couldn’t be copied exactly, but that something very similar could work. Different factors include: our population in Australia is smaller and sales numbers are commensurate; there isn’t a tradition or culture in Australia of philanthropy in the literary arts; we’re trying to set our organisation up in an era that is distinct from when these others were established; that pretty much all of these above mentioned literary magazines-cum-book publishers had/have one very rich person propping them up for at least a period of time.
What are the key differences in your editorial practices/commissioning for The Lifted Brow as a literary magazine/longform and for the book publishing programme? Or to put it another way — what are the focus areas of these two very distinct forms of literature that you are now responsible for?
 
In fact, the focus areas are the same! We see Brow Books and The Lifted Brow (as well as our website publishing, our events, and everything else we do) as being different ways to attack the same goals.
 
I liked your phrase “agile publishing”. How do you propose to apply it in your publishing programme/s? Will it also involve experimentation with forms and formats or the experimentation will be restricted to print formats alone?
Any kind agility we have will be due to our size, and our willingness to be proactive in our commissioning. We aren’t reinventing publishing in any way – we are huge fans of books and how publishing has worked, but we also see big gaps and problems particularly in Australian publishing. Our experimentation, at least in the short term, will largely be in respect to content – to who we publish, and what kinds of writing we publish. We are much less interested in experimenting wildly with physical or digital formats – it’s not where our interest nor where our strengths lie.
17 June 2018 

Jane Harris’s “Sugar Money”

‘All those slave, the friars bought with borrowed money.’

‘Who told you that?’

‘Father Prudence, years agone. They took a loan from the French government and another from another merchant in London. Being the case, the French authority might say those Fort Royal slaves and their descendants belong to them. The London merchant might say the same. Of course, the friars would argue otherwise but some would say they lost the right to the slave because of the debt and their misdoings.’

‘They might have repaid those loans since.’

‘No,’ Emile replied. ‘I asked around St. Pierre the other night. They never repaid one sou, to this day. Everybody knows they are in debt from Salines to St. Domingue. That’s why they want those slave back, to grow more cane. Cane is sugar, sugar is money. That’s all we are to them. But loan or no loan, the English will care not one farthing. Now they rule the land of Grenada, they must surely lay claim to the slaves at the hospital. And if we take Celeste and the rest without permission, those Goddams will say we stole them.’ 

Jane Harris’s third novel Sugar Money has been shortlisted for The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2018. It is set in 1765 when two brothers Emile and Lucien are charged by their French master, Father Cleophas, to return to Grenada and smuggle home forty-two slaves claimed by English invaders ( commonly referred to as “Goddams”) and working at the hospital. It is a tricky mission as there is the constant danger of the two brothers being caught. Since the two brothers are slaves themselves they have no option but to obey. Emile is under no illusions about how dangerous the mission is but is tempted to return to Grenada for he can meet his sweetheart Celeste. The action-packed novel spread over a few days is narrated by the younger brother Lucien who was taught English by a Scotsman working at the Grenada hospital.  The French friars want “their” slaves  back as they need help to till their cane sugar plantations in Martinique.

In the Afterword Jane Harris elaborates  upon the true incident which inspired her story.

In 1738, the French Colonial Government in Grenada built a hospital overlooking the main town of Fort Royal (now known as St George’s). By 1742, the hospital had been handed over to the care of a band of mendicant monks or friars: the Brothers of Charity of the Order of St John the God — les Freres de la Charite — who had been running a hospital in the neighbouring island of Martinique for almost a hundred years. the friars looked after the sick but, in order to fund their charitable works, they also ran plantations alongside their hospitals — plantations which relied on the labour of enslaved people. The poverty-stricken friars took out loans in order to purchase these slaves, some of whom they trained as nurses to work alongside them in the hospital. the rest of the slaves were set to toil on the plantations, growing indigo and sugar cane. …the British invaded Grenada in 1763 and took over the hospital. 

She continues that in August 1765, one of the mendicant friars, Father Cleophas, travelled from Martinique to Grenada in an attempt to persuade the slaves to return with him. Unfortunately he was discovered by the English and asked to leave. After which he persuaded a “mulatto” slave to go on a mission for him. It was disastrous as the English once again discovered the plan and prevented most of the slaves to escape. Of the 11 who did to Martinique had to return to Grenada and they saved themselves by blaming the mulatto slave. As a result he was the only one made an example of and hanged.

Sugar Money is an absorbing read with some truly horrific descriptions of how the slaves were treated by their masters. The brutal violence is relentless with the slaves living in constant fear. It is a story that is truly horrifying for what happened in the past but also with the knowledge that such situations continue to exist in many parts of the world even now*. It may not always be the colonial master and slave relationship but many people are being exploited in a similar fashion for purely business gains.

In an interview Jane Harris clearly states what set her off on this quest to write this historical fiction. Also being acutely aware of her white privilege; a fact which is good to know particularly in an age where conversations about cultural appropriation are constantly being resurrected.

Of course, I was – and am – very aware of my white privilege and did ask various friends, writers of colour, if they thought I was crazy to tackle such a subject. They told me that yes, I probably was crazy – but as long as I did it well enough, it wouldn’t matter. So, that was the challenge; I knew I’d have to write a good book.

She adds:

Research is crucial. It begins when I have the idea for a novel and carries on all the way through to the final draft, even to proof-stage. I’m one of those writers who likes to be as historically accurate as possible, so the research never ends. However, I’m also a great believer in ‘hiding’ the research. Your research notes shouldn’t be visible to the reader. If a fact isn’t relevant to the story then, really, it shouldn’t be in the book.

Even though The Observations is entirely a work of imagination, not based on true events, the period detail still has to be accurate. Gillespie and I is also a work of imagination, set in the art world of Scotland in the late 1880s, at the time of the International Exhibition, and so I had to undertake a good deal of research to get the detail of Glasgow and the art world right.

When it came to Sugar Money, research had a hand in steering the plot. These were real people, enslaved people, and I felt I owed it to them to stick closely to the facts. Having said that, there are great gaps in what is known about the true story behind the novel, with the result that I had a lot of inventing to do. With some of the people involved, all I had to go on was a list of slave names and it was from those names that I built their characters. For instance, I just knew that someone called Angelique Le Vieux had to be a force of nature. At other times, in terms of narrative, I had to piece together the plot by looking at the motivation of a character and analyzing what actually happened in real life e.g.: X happened and then Y happened – so why did the person involved make the decision to do Y? That’s often how the narrative grew. So, the facts often drove the fiction.

Sugar Money is a gripping book waiting to be turned into a period film. The descriptions are so vivid that it seems the action is happening in front of one’s eyes.

Jane Harris Sugar Money Faber & Faber, London, 2017, rpt 2018. Pb. pp. 452 Rs 499 

*As I was writing this blog post news came in that US Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13 from the Bible often used to defend slavery while defending his government’s policy of separating immigrant families.

15 June 2018 

 

“Sexographies” by Gabriela Wiener

According to the  biography posted online renowned Peruvian journalist Gabriela Wiener (Lima, 1975) is author of the collections of crônicas Sexografías, Nueve Lunas, and Mozart, la iguana con priapismo y otras historias. Her work also includes the poetry collection Ejercicios para el endurecimiento del espíritu. Her latest book is Llamada perdida (2014). She writes regularly for the newspapers El Pais(Spain) and La República (Perú). She also writes for several magazines of America and Europe, such as Etiqueta Negra (Perú), Anfibia (Argentina), Il corriere della Sera (Italy), S. XXI (France), and Virginia Quarterly Review (United States). In Madrid, she worked as editor of the Spanish edition of Marie Claire. She left the magazine in 2014 to work on her first novel.

Restless Books will be publishing Sexographies in May 2018. It has been translated from the Spanish by Jennifer Adcock and Lucy Greaves. This is a form of reportage that is like none other. A collection of brutal essays written in the first person that are impossible to classify in any genre. The writing breaks all known norms. It is perhaps preferable to say that the focus of every essay determines the style of writing whether it is  “infiltrating the most dangerous Peruvian prison, participating in sexual exchanges in swingers clubs, traveling the dark paths of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris in the company of transvestites and prostitutes, undergoing a complicated process of egg donation in Spain, and participating in a ritual of ayahuasca ingestion in the Amazon jungle“. A truer book blurb was never written when Sexographies is described as “an eye-opening, kamikaze journey across the contours of the human body and mind”.

Included in Sexographies is Gabriela Wiener’s profile of Isabel Allende. It is a brilliantly illuminating conversation-cum-profile of an older woman writer. Isabel Allende is almost venerated by the younger one, Gabriela Wiener, and yet they are able to understand each other as individuals, women, and writers. They meet on International Women’s Day. Gabriela Wiener notes that “Bolano called her an escribidora — a prolific and bad writer. Making fun of Isabel Allende isn’t a sign of intelligence, it’s part of Latin American literary folklore.” She goes on to observe that “The novelist, after all, is a traditional woman who was brought up to be a good girl, and who worked to free herself through literature.” Meanwhile Isabel Allende acknowledges that she has a fair amount of criticism hurled at her but she takes it in her stride as she takes her success. She realises she is often under the critical scanner for the simple fact “I sell books.” Isabel Allende’s life’s philosophy is to strike a balance between frivolity and depth; she says “Since then I haven’t stopped being feminine, sexy, and a feminist. It can be done.”

Here is an excerpt from the essay “Isabel Allende Will Keep Writing from the Hereafter”published with the permission of Restless Books. ( Publication date: May 15, 2018. Contact Nathan Rostron, Editor and Marketing Director: nathan@restlessbooks.com )

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Allende is an easy target for the canonizers of novels. It’s possible that not many of her critics are willing to admit that the virulence of their attacks are based on prejudice: she’s an upper- class woman who used to write a feminist column for a fashion magazine in the 1970s. At the age of forty, without any academic training, she started publishing novels, made autobiographical fiction her signature, and her books started flying off supermarket shelves. In a world where the stupidest things tend to be the most popular, sales of fifty million copies can only arouse suspicion.

But put yourself in her shoes: try having the surname Allende in Chile, going into exile, getting divorced, bringing up children, dedicating yourself to journalism, and writing novels. She was part of a generation of Latin American women who juggled all these things at once, and yet managed to triumph under the long shadow of the Boom—a movement that didn’t really contain a single woman writer, only incredibly loving wives who kept everything nice and comfortable so that their husbands could finish their books and win that Nobel Prize.

Try writing from the bottom tip of the American continent about emotions and sex instead of tunnels and labyrinths. Now try to sustain a literary career over three decades with unwavering success. Try, moreover, to produce as many well-written novels as she has. Because Isabel Allende’s books are well-written: there is a voice and an imagination. Isabel Allende builds her stories around simplicity. She occasionally succumbs to cheapness, lace, and frills, but her expression is founded on the richness of family stories, everyday comedy and drama, and the intimate knowledge of a feminine universe, as in The House of the Spirits. In Eva Luna or The Infinite Plan, being colloquial and inventive makes her prose even more personal and confessional. Her books reveal history through memory and reclaim sex so that it belongs to the home and not to poets of the body. In Paula, perhaps the best of her books, she describes a man’s suffering in the presence of his comatose daughter’s body. In it, the consciousness of being human reaches levels that Allende’s language cannot match.

We know the outcome of Allende’s adventure: few have built such a solid relationship with their readers, a relationship based on something mysterious and addictive that they find in her pages and which defies any logic outside itself. Isabel Allende isn’t Virginia Woolf, she’s not Clarice Lispector, and she’s not Alice Munro; but neither is she a bestseller à la Dan Brown with his simple-minded esoteric vision of the crime novel. And yet he isn’t criticized half as often as she is.

What’s the sell-by date of a popular writer after the publication of their last hit? At this women-only conference I’ve heard names I hadn’t heard for years: Laura Esquivel and Ángeles Mastretta, for example. And the first thing I thought was “they’re still alive?” Yesterday I saw Mastretta, the author of commercial bombshells such as Tear This Heart Out and Lovesick, gliding down the corridors of the Palacio de Bellas Artes with her dramatic cheekbones, her carefully coiffed hair, and her fragile movements, and it was like stepping back into the eighties. On Wikipedia, I discover that she’s carried on publishing books. In the last two decades of the twentieth century, the books of these three women were labeled “women’s literature,” a kind of derivation of “true literature” with sugary, sentimental additives of which Allende is the highest-profile proponent. Following its initial golden years, “women’s literature” seems to have fallen out of favor, and Allende alone has remained a bestseller. After the success of Like Water for Chocolate, Esquivel took refuge in a mansion in the outskirts of Mexico City, tried out being a member of parliament, and now facilitates workshops and publishes books in the style of 12 Steps to Happiness. Years after that enormous cocoa feast, Allende wrote her own book about sex and cocaine: Aphrodite, a book where cooking recipes lead to love (also known as the kind of book that immediately banishes you from the annals of literature with a capital L).

Gabriela Wiener Sexographies ( translated by Lucy Greaves and Jennifer Adcock) Restless Books, Brooklyn, 2018. Pb. pp. 

2 May 2018 

 

 

Interview with Ishaan Jajodia, co-founder Bombaykala Books

While conversing with Kiran Manral I discovered that her new book is to be published by a fledgling publishing house called Bombaykala. They sounded passionate about their publishing programme. On 16 Sept 2017, The Hindu had profiled them. I was curious to know more. So I emailed Ishaan Jajodia. Here are excerpts of an interview with him. 

L-R, Raj Chabbria (Business Development), Kabeer Khurana (Design Head), Mrinalini Harchandrai (editor-at-large), Ishaan Jajodia (commissioning editor and jack of all trades), Tanay Punjabi (Logistics Director)

Bombaykala has published three books of poetry within six months of publishing. It started with Ek Chotisi Dibiya, a book of Hindi poetry, and then published When Home Is An Idea by Rochelle D’Silva. In December 2017, they launched Mrinalini Harchandrai’s A Bombay In My Beat. They are constantly trying to get the word out to more and more poets about publishing opportunities in the landscape.

Kabeer and Ishaan have known each other for a long time. Turns out, when they were around seven or eight, Kabeer’s mom taught them animation. Ishaan reconnected with Kabeer in early 2016 through a friend, and they worked on The Mumbai Art Collective together, a non-profit venture dedicated towards promoting and preserving the art of Bombay. Tanay was also part of this.

Kabeer and Tanay went to school together between Grade 1 and 10, and Kabeer and Raj went to school together in Grade 11 and 12. Kabeer and Ishaan worked on a film, Religion for Dummies, that Ishaan produced along with Kabeer’s father, and that Kabeer directed. Raj was an Assistant Director on the shoot, and also helped with casting. It was a quirky, avant-garde stop motion film (view online here). 

Ishaan met Mrinalini initially because Bombaykala was interested in publishing her book of jazz poetry, A Bombay In My Beat.  They landed up publishing her book, by the way! The team really enjoyed working with her, and she seemed to be the right fit as the team expanded at Bombaykala Books. “She’s really passionate and knows exactly what goes where. She handles poetry (or anything to do with literature) with such poise and grace. Mrinalini is curating a series of anthologies and commissioning a slew of books for Bombaykala Books. She’s also got great experience in dealing with the genre we call creative nonfiction now in her many years as a magazine editor.” What Ishaan also likes about Mrinalini’s poetic practice is that it is innovation that is not built on provocation. Provocation is the staple of avant-gardists throughout, from Hugo Ball’s poetry of nonsense to José Clemente Orozco’s The Epic of American Civilization. This is similar to what Ishaan want for Bombaykala Books- “for us to change, without unnecessary provocation, and in a manner that is decidedly less brash and more systematic. It requires a certain personality and demeanour to do that, one that is far less based off sentimentality and knee-jerk reactions, and more focused on a developed and more heightened sense of working and writing.”

How and why did you establish Bombaykala Books?

Bombaykala Books came out of a desire to read more of what I wanted to read. I was unhappy with the current publishing landscape, and the way that commercial pressures shaped the way that publishers looked at books. I’m a bibliophile, not a writer, so it was never about finding an outlet for my own work. There are more forms of capital than just financial capital for a publisher- human, social, symbolic, and intellectual, if we are to take the model that is found in Merchants of Culture (John B. Thompson). Another impetus for the course we’re taking is a class I took while at college on the History of the Book, by Prof. Alexandra Halasz. It opened up a whole new world, a new way of thinking.

Another thing that I found missing was an initiative to create a literature around the city. While efforts to immortalize the city have been in progress since we can remember our art and cinema, I felt that we needed to be more conscious of the city we live in. I identify more closely as someone who’s lived in Bombay all my life. That facet of the Indian ‘identity’ is one that I became more conscious off as I grew up, and that’s another reason why Bombaykala Books came into being. 

What is the focus?

The focus is to create a literature around a city, but also to publish stories that pique our interest. I’m looking for stories that are authentic, and in some way, have a go at the epistemological roots of what we know. To that end, I’ve published collections of war poetry from a former consular officer for Bosnia during the Yugoslav wars, who saw what was happen first hand. Tomorrow It Will All Run Backwards is the story of war told through poetry, which makes for far more emotive reading than, let’s say, AJP Taylor, who’s as close as we get to great writing in History.

How many founders are there?

There are three- Kabeer Khurana, Tanay Punjabi, and me. Kabeer handles all the design work, Tanay the operations, and me the editorial work. Additionally, we have Raj Chhabria, who, although not a founder, takes care of Business Development and Marketing, and is a partner along with the three of us.

Who edits your books?

I do, and now Mrinalini Harchandrai does as well. She’s our new Editor-at-Large.

What are your plans for the next few years?

We want to publish a book a fortnight this year without diluting quality of any kind. I think that’s the most important part. We’re also exploring other ways to bring books to readers- audio books, multimedia expansions. I think at this point in time, planning wise the sky is the limit, but only time will tell what we can do.

Now that Mrinalini and I are both commissioning, there should be a lot more diversity in the approach to books, yielding some interesting stuff.

 How do you source manuscripts and distribute your books?

We have an open channel of submissions available via our website. People can simply go ahead and email us their work after going through the submission guidelines. We’ve been talking with agents here and there too.

In terms of distribution- we do Amazon Kindle for all our e-books. We also have an international distributor for the USA, UK, EU, Canada, and Australia, catering to the needs of our international clientele.

How many languages do you publish in?

Hindi and English for now.

Who are your authors? 

Queenie Sukhadia, Vishakha Sharma Dubey, Rochelle D’Silva, Michael Brett, Mrinalini Harchandrai, Kiran Manral, Joe and Brenda Rodrigues, Pragya Bhagat, Ramneek Singh, Mamta Chitnis Sen, Stalin Dayanand, Sreemay Rath, Anushka Gupta, Andrew Rooney, Ranjit Dahiya, Sundeep Narwani and Ishita Mehra, Mallika Iyer, Gouri Nilakantan

 Why did you decide to publish poetry apart from mainstream literature?

For me it was never an either-or situation. We launched Bombaykala Books with a book of Hindi poetry, Ek Chotisi Dibiya, and a set of short stories that works as a novel, A City of Sungazers. I’ve never looked at poetry as anything lesser than or different to mainstream literature. It is ultimately a form of literature, one that tells stories in a way that can be as visceral (or more) than “mainstream literature.”

Will you explore translations as well?

Certainly. We’re working with Dr. Jitendra Pandey to expand our repertoire of Hindi translations.

Do you publish in digital and print formats or only print?

We do digital and print.

5 February 2018 

Interview with Randa Abdel-Fattah, The Mint ( 18 Nov 2017)

My interview with the fabulous Australian writer Randa Abdel-Fattah was published in The Mint on 18 Nov 2017. 

Randa Abdel-Fattah’s debut novel, Does My Head Look Big In This? (2005), is narrated in first person by a teenager, Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim, who lives in a trendy suburb of Melbourne. Her parents were born in Bethlehem, studied medicine in Monash University and became Australian citizens. Her father Mohamed is under the “misguided delusion” that he is still young and cool and drives a metallic-red convertible blasting Italian opera or Palestinian folk songs from his car stereo system. Her mother, Jamila, is a dentist who is obsessive about cleanliness and is loud and energetic. The novel is about Amal’s decision to don a hijab as “I feel like my passion and conviction in Islam are bursting inside me and I want to prove to myself that I’m strong enough to wear a badge of my faith”. Her parents are concerned about the reaction it will elicit in public, not least being called a “nappy head”.

It’s a tremendous coming-of-age novel written immediately post 9/11, which has now been re-released in India, given its relevance in our times. The Australia-based, 38-year-old author’s next novel, themed on immigration, The Lines We Cross, will be published in January 2018 by Scholastic India. Edited excerpts from an email interview:

What prompted you to write this book—a chick lit with a twist on religious expression and the importance of choice?

When I wrote Does My Head Look Big In This? and was searching for an agent, I spoke to one agent at length, explaining the basic plot of the novel. After my pitch, she had the audacity to joke: “Is there an honour killing in it?” This was the stock standard narrative space for the Muslim novel and that kind of lazy, dehumanizing genre of writing about Muslim women was what fired me up in the first place to want to write something that challenged such tropes. I wanted to offer readers a feisty, free-spirited adolescent Muslim girl speaking on her own terms and, importantly, delivering a story written by a Muslim female.

It is believed that debut novels tend to be autobiographical. Would it be an accurate statement to make with regard to ‘Does My Head Look Big In This?’ Or is it an amalgamation of stories you have heard as a human rights lawyer?

I actually wrote the first draft when I was a teenager, 15 years old, and it was, at that time, very autobiographical. I was “coming of age” during the first Gulf War (1990-91), at a time when suddenly being Muslim and Arab was no longer an identity description but an accusation. Not only was I dealing with the demonization in the media and political discourse of my Muslim and Arab heritage, but I was also dealing with gendered stereotypes which reduced Muslim women to oppressed and passive victims of faith and culture. That made me want to speak back, and for me writing has always been craft and activism. I returned to the manuscript post 9/11, and realized that the story was even more urgent. So I rewrote the first draft.

How did you decide upon creating the narrator as an Australian-Muslim-Palestinian teen? Did it take some effort to get the nuances right?

That part was easy. I drew on my own life, my experiences navigating multiple identities. The nuance was basically my own lived experience so it was never difficult to do!

It has been 12 years since this book was first published. What are the reactions that you get? Have these changed over time?

It amazes and humbles me that all these years later I still have people reaching out to me about the book to tell me that it was transformative in terms of their understanding of Muslims/Islam. Of all my novels, this has been my most popular work, taught in schools, staged as a play in the US, and currently being adapted into a feature film. My Muslim readers around the world tell me that the novel validates their experiences and empowers them to embrace their faith choices. For the majority of my readers—who are, in fact, not Muslims—I am told that the book has changed their perceptions about Muslims, particularly Muslim women who wear the veil. I still have girls contact me to say they read my book and were inspired to wear hijab or that it gave them that final edge of confidence to go through with their decision. The most touching feedback I’ve received was from a teacher in Canada who told me that on Christmas Eve, an elderly, non-Muslim man was handing out free copies of my book to people passing by a main shopping precinct because, he said, he felt it promoted a message of peace and harmony. It was one of the most beautiful and heart-warming stories I had ever heard.

The issues the book raised immediately after 9/11, about identity, race, immigrants, Islamophobia, are still relevant. Has this book been pivotal in opening conversations about faith, feminism, identity politics and social justice with teenagers?

Indeed it has. When I visit schools and writer festivals, these are the exact topics I address with students, talking to them about how writing can be such a powerful medium for speaking back to injustice, racism, sexism, and how they too can use their writing to navigate these issues.

Has this book been accessed by people across cultures and religions rather than being bracketed as a Muslim book?

Oh yes, definitely. In fact, the majority of my readers are not Muslim. So many of the people who write to me say that the book has helped them through their own identity, family and friendship challenges, and not necessarily from a Muslim perspective.

Does My Head Look Big In This?: By Randa Abdel-Fattah, Scholastic, 353 pages, Rs350.

Does My Head Look Big In This?: By Randa Abdel-Fattah, Scholastic, 353 pages, Rs350.
23 January 2018 

Scholastic India Session on reading, Times of India LitFest, New Delhi ( 26 Nov 2017)

On Sunday 26 November 2017, I moderated the ‘SCHOLASTIC INDIA SESSION’, a conversation on young adult fiction with Shantanu Duttagupta, Scholastic India and Arti Sonthalia at the Times of India LitFest, Delhi (#TLFDelhi). The conversation began with Arti Sonthalia introducing her fabulous chapter book, Hungry to Read.  The story revolves around a reading competition in Grade 3 with the aim of inculcating the love of reading amongst the students. The prize of a night stay in school to use the telescope to watch the night sky is what every student dreams of! The delicious way in which Arti makes it more than a dull story about a competition. Read it!

Using Hungry to Read as a springboard, the conversation expanded to reading levels, tools for measuring reading such as lexile and numbers at the back of books, reading for young adults, reading as a lifelong skill particularly in this information age where content is the oil of twenty-first century!

Watch the conversation:

28 November 2017 

Interview with Sugata Ghosh on OUP India’s Indian Language Publishing programme

I interviewed Sugata Ghosh, Director, Global Academic Publishing, Oxford University Press on their newly launched Indian Languages Publishing Programme.

Please tell me more newly launched Indian Language Publishing programme? Who is the target audience — academics or general readers? How many titles / year will you consider publishing? 

The Indian Languages Publishing Programme was initiated with OUP’s desire to expand its product offerings to an audience whose primary language is not English. OUP’s existence in India as an established academic press spans more than 100 years. In this long span of its existence it has published a pool of formidable authors and widely acclaimed academic and knowledge-based resources. Our only limitation in a diverse country such as ourselves was language –– though we have been doing the dictionaries and in other Indian languages. In a glocalized world however, limiting ourselves is not an option. As readers change, so should publishers. The increasing demand for resources in Indian languages is not so new; the changing economic and socio-political climate has long been the harbinger of this change. Today we are only heeding its call by beginning publications in these languages. In the first phase of the programme, we have shortlisted two major Indian languages Hindi and Bengali, and a basket of our classics for translation into Hindi and Bengali. We aim to hit the market with 12 such titles by January of 2018. Our target is around 15-20 titles per year to begin with.

Does this imply it is a separate editorial team? Will you have in-house translators? Over time will the list expand to include contemporary stories from regional languages?

We currently do not have any extra resource helping us with the programme. We plan to have new editorial members for both the languages, they will be on board by next year, depending on how well the programme takes off. We do not plan to have in-house translators. We are only working with freelancers and individuals and plan to do so in the future. We might collaborate with other publishers to help seek translators and develop the translation programme further. We have no plans of expanding into fiction at the moment. We are sticking to non-fiction, academic, and general interest titles.

The first phase is of course translation heavy as we begin to establish ourselves in the market, however, there are new acquisitions currently underway for the coming years. As the programme develops, a healthy mix of translations and new books in Indian languages will be made available in both print and digital formats. While beginning with these two languages were accessible, given our resources, our long-term plan is to venture into new Indian languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Marathi etc. For now we are  taking one step at a time to build this programme with the mature languages. When the time comes to include new languages, we will do so.

Our core audience remain the same as our English language books, mostly students, teachers, scholars, researchers, civil society activists, think tanks, as well as general readers. While researching the market for Hindi and Bengali books, we realized that reading habits differ from one to the other. While the Hindi heartland is more inclined towards reading books that are lucidly written around a given issue, free from academic jargon, Bengali readers are more accustomed to reading academic titles spanning multiple disciplines.

Our publication lists will be tailor made to suit its respective audience. To customise specific language lists we will select titles for each market on the basis of the theme of the book, its appeal to readers in the respective language, style of translation, etc. Also, as our books start selling from next calendar year, we will begin accumulating and analyzing appropriate sales data. This data will help us understand what we are doing right and what not – in some ways at least. We will accordingly make decisions on the titles we are doing for each group.

However, we are always ready to experiment and jazz things up a little if the need be. It is in the themes, topics, subjects etc. of the books we will publish and the forms with which we will experiment.

What is the focus of the Oxford Global Languages project and how long has it been running?

The Oxford Global Languages (OGL) project aims to build lexical resources for 100 of the world’s languages and make them available online. The OGL programme targets learners of all age groups. In short, it is a digital dictionary of diverse languages. OGL is part of OUP’s core publication programme –   the programme aims to build lexical resources for 100 of the world’s languages and make them available wildly, digitally. It includes curating large quantities of quality lexical information for a wide range of languages in a single, linked repository for use by speakers, learners, and developers. This project began in 2014 and launched its first two language sites, isiZulu and Northern Sotho, in 2015, followed by Malay, Urdu, Setswana, Indonesian, Romanian, Latvian, Hindi, and Swahili. Many more will be added over the next few years.

How are these two programmes linked as well as maintain their distinct identities?

The global languages programme is aimed at building large lexical repositories for diverse language speakers across the world. Our programme will feed into this programme by helping coin new terms and as well as borrow terms from the resources that would have already been developed and stored in these repositories by experts in different languages. The two programmes thus seamlessly merge into each other as they together help develop a given language. We expect that these two projects would also help multiple stakeholders, for instance, translators, new authors, students, researchers, speakers, etc. in constantly enriching their reading and writing skills.

 

The new terms will be initially in Hindi and Bengali (such as say post-modern, ecology etc. ) that are being coined by translators or new authors, over time with frequent use, will get incorporated in dictionaries such as OGL as well as borrow terms from the resources. Similarly, terms that will be developed by OGL could be borrowed by translators or new authors in their works.

OUP India for many years ran a very successful translations programme that published regional language authors in to English such as Karukku and then the monographs (?). How will this newly launched programme be any different? What are the learnings from the previous programme which are going to be incorporated into this new launch?

The existing translations programme from Indian Languages to English was aimed at enriching the English speaking and reading world with the diversity in our regional literature. This programme translates works of fiction and non-fiction from diverse languages to English and it has been immensely successful in creatively rethinking our societies through exceptional works of regional and folk literature.  We will not create any new imprint, all books in all languages will be included under the Oxford banner.

The Indian languages publishing programme does not aim to publish fiction or poetry at all. It will only publish non-fiction/academic works both in translation and new works in Indian languages. Our core and traditional strength has been — academic, nonfiction and general reads titles, also a bit of translations into English. This is a mandate that we follow in every part of the Press, globally – and we do not see any change during the immediate future. We will definitely do books on Film studies, yet again only non-fiction titles.

The take away from the earlier programme is that translations are always tricky business. Translations of academic titles are tricky for multiple reasons, including:

  • Unlike English, formal writing styles for Hindi and Bengali are still being developed.
  • Lack of terms for new concepts in Indian Languages.
  • Essence of the original is at times lost in translation, retaining authenticity is tricky.

It is true that some things are always lost in translation, there is no way around it. We are trying to compensate this loss by rigorously reviewing our manuscripts by external peer reviewers —- scholars, academics, researchers, journalists, translators, who are well versed in English and Hindi or English and Bengali, with background knowledge in the disciplines of the books they are reviewing.

Such reviews are helping us develop the language further, making it lucid, readable, and accessible. Similarly, for the new books that we plan to publish under the Indian languages programme will be reviewed for their academic authenticity, clarity in expressions etc.

How many languages are you launching it in? What is to be the focus — academic, trade and children or is will OUP stick to the niche area of academic titles?

As already mentioned earlier, we are beginning with two languages, Hindi and Bengali. The focus will be serious non-fiction and academic. We are breaking the boundaries of our usual core competencies and planning to attract readers that fall outside it as well.

As an academic publisher whose business model relies considerably upon peer review, will such a rigorous process also be instituted for this project?

Yes of course, we plan to stick to our professionalism and ethical way of doing business. Language no bar. Quality is our top most priority and from our experiences in the English language programme, we understand and appreciate the value of peer reviews. The time and effort that goes into developing each manuscript in such a way is worthwhile.

How will OUP India create a demand for these titles as you are venturing into a territory that is not easily identified by readers and institutions with OUP’s mandate?

OUP as an academic press and publisher of quality knowledge resources is well identified by students, researchers, scholars, teachers across the length and the breadth of the country. Not only our academic books but our school and higher education books are frequently refereed to and stand out in quality from the rest. To say the least, we are a household name in the country. Also, we already cater to a group of readers whose primary language is not English by publishing classic texts such as those by Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, Veena Das, Austin Granville, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Ramachandra Guha to name a few, which are used by students and teachers and readers across disciplines. Indian language editions of these rare classics are not easily available and students end up either reading from summary notes made by teachers or poorly done translations. Therefore an audience for our books already exists, we only need fill the gap by doing what we do best, publish quality content.

Our plans for attracting new readers have also already been discussed above. There does not exist much resources, academic and otherwise in Indian languages, as publishers we should be encouraging new authors to read and write in their native languages. We hope that our enthusiasm for this programme will also enthuse our stakeholders, mostly readers, writers, thinkers, learners, distributors. Our aim through this programme is to create new and diverse public spheres and reach out to as many readers as possible in its wake.

Will these books only be offered in print or will there also be a digital version available too?

Digital versions of our books will also be made available along with print versions and we are ensuring that we are able to launch the two simultaneously – to start with in Hindi.

If  you are making classical texts from the regional languages available in English will OUP India also encourage translations from its English list into the local languages? If so, how will these projects be funded or will also these be fostered by OUP?

Our programme involves translating English titles into Hindi and Bengali within the programme. We also have plans to translate from Hindi and Bengali to English thereby ensuring that there exists a free flow of thoughts and knowledge between languages. We also hope that as we establish this translation programme, we are able to encourage close associations with groups of individual experts, institutions, and organization to develop a network of people enriched in the art of translation, such that our native languages are not lost to oblivion. We aspire to give diverse languages a new lease of life in the long-term.

Will you explore co-publishing arrangements with local publishers to drive this programme?

We are open to ideas and appropriate opportunities – that fit our quality aspirations, as well as the mission of the Press.

To maintain a quality and a standard in the translations will OUP consider empanelling translators whose skills will be upgraded regularly or will you commission work depending on the nature of every book?

We empanel translators based on their subject and language competencies and these are constantly developed in the process of translation itself with the help of continuous reviews.

What are your expectations of this project? How will you measure the success of this new project?

We expect this project to enrich readers, writers, speakers, and learners of diverse languages in our country. We also hope for it to become as successful as our English language publication and to be recognized as formidable publishers of quality books across languages and disciplines. The long-term plan is to grow and develop in these languages simultaneously with our own growth as a truly global and diverse publisher.  We believe that success for such programmes can be measured in the publishing world by the kind of impact we have on our users and readers. If we inspire new and existing readership and help grow interest in good and quality content, we think we will have succeeded.

24 Oct 2017 

Inaugural list of Oxford Global Languages titles in Bengali and Hindi ( 2017)

I interviewed Sugata Ghose, Director, Global Academic Publishing, OUP India about the new Indian Languages Publishing Programme.

According to him ” the new Indian Languages Publishing Programme  was initiated with OUP’s desire to expand its product offerings to an audience whose primary language is not English. OUP’s existence in India as an established academic press spans more than 100 years. In this long span of its existence it has published a pool of formidable authors and widely acclaimed academic and knowledge-based resources. Our only limitation in a diverse country such as ourselves was language. In a glocalized world however, limiting ourselves is not an option. As readers change, so should publishers. The increasing demand for resources in Indian languages is not so new; the changing economic and socio-political climate has long been the harbinger of this change. Today we are only heeding its call by beginning publications in these languages.

In the first phase of the programme, we have shortlisted two major Indian languages Hindi and Bengali, and a basket of our classics for translation into Hindi and Bengali.”

These include:

Bengali

  1. Sabhyatar Swarup o Bharotiyo Jatiyotabadi Chintadhara (Talking Back: The Idea of Civilization in the Indian Nationalist Discourse) by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya
  2. Karagare Nehrura (When Stone Walls Cry: The Nehrus in Prison) by Mushirul Hasan
  3. Sadhinatar Pothe: Ouponibeshik Bharote Bondira (Roads to Freedom: Prisoners in Colonial India) by Mushirul Hasan
  4. Gonotontro O Tar Protishthansomuho (Democracy and Its Institutions) by Andre Beteille
  5. Bharoter Uttor-purbo shimante Samrajyer Gorapotton 1790-1840: Abohawa, Banijya, Shashontantra (Founding an Empire on India’s North-Eastern Frontiers 1790-1840: Climate, Commerce, Polity) by Gunnel Cederlof
  6. Kaal: Itihasher Rupak—Prachin Bharat (Time as a Metaphor of History: Early India) by Romila Thapar
  7. Banglay Sondhikhhon: Itihasher Dhara, 1920-1947 (The Defining Moments in Bengal, 1920-1947) by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya
  8. Shoda Thako Anonde…Shantiniketane by Dipankar Roy

Hindi

  1. Bharat ki Videsh Niti: Punravlokan evum Sambhavnaye (India’s Foreign Policy: Retrospect and Prospect) by Sumit Ganguly
  2. Bharat ka Sanvidhan, Oxford Bharat Sankshipt Parichay (The Indian Constitution, Oxford India Short Introductions) by Madhav Khosla
  3. Yeh Darakti Zameen: Bharat ka Paryawaraniya Itihaas (This Fissured land: An Ecological History of India) by Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha
  4. Itihaas, Kaal, aur Adikalin Bharat: Krishna Bharadwaj Smarak Byakhyan (Time as a Metaphor of History: Early India) by Romila Thapar

24 Oct 2017 

“The Lioness in Winter: Writing an Old Woman’s Life”

Ann Burack-Weiss’s The Lioness in Winter: Writing an Old Woman’s Life is a slim volume where she explores through women writer’s prose what it means to them getting old. For decades she herself has been a social work practitioner who focused from day one of her career on the caregiving of the elderly. It was unusual when she chose this vocation in the 1960s but four decades later it is not. ” I became a social worker with the aged because I was afraid for my life.” It gives her a perspective and an understanding in a particular phase of a woman’s life when she is inevitably relegated to grandparent duties whereas continuity theory states that as people age they do not change their patterns of thought or action but continue to approach life in the same way as they always have.

Ann Burack-Weiss has been fascinated with the memoir/ autobiography or the essentials of life-writing experience. It encompasses a range of forms such as the transcribed interview, dictation, journal, letter and auto-fiction. According to her since the 1960s feminist scholars have been explored the woman’s “agency” ( the ability to speak and act on her own behalf) or the lack thereof. “They note that, through the ages, most of the writing about women, in fiction and nonfiction, has been by men, and that the male lens inevitably leads to distortion.” But as she discovers that many of her quoted authors in the book — Colette, Fisher, Sarton, Florida Scott-Maxwell– had published compelling life writing well before the editors determined what was worthy of inclusion in their collections. “The only possible explanation for their exclusion is that the editors themselves had little interest in what the old women had to say.”

The writers included in this book are categorised according to arbitrary time divisions:

1862-1909 (Fin de Siecle) — Colette, Simone de Beauvoir, M.F.K. Fisher, Anai Nin, Florida Scott-Maxwell, Eudora Welty, Edith Wharton

1910-1929 (Progressive Era) — Diana Athill, Maya Angelou, Marguerite Duras, Marilyn French, Doris Grumbach, Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Madeline L’Engle, Gerda Lerner, Doris Lessing, Adrienne Rich, May Sarton

1930-1943 (Great Depression- World War II) — Isabel Allende, Mary Catherine Bateson, Joan Didion, Margaret Drabble, Annie Ernaux, Vivian Gornick, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Edna O’Brien, Mary Oliver, Marge Piercy, Anne Ropihe, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Alix Kates Shulman

1944-1960 (Baby Boomers) — Diane Ackerman, Alison Bechdel, Terry Castle, Mary Gordon, Kay Redfield Jamison, Nancy Mairs, Nancy K. Miller, Alice Walker

It is interesting Ann Burack-Weiss chooses to quote Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize for Literature ( 2002) acceptance speech where Morrison focuses on “word-work” and being an old woman. Toni Morrison’s last novel God Help the Child ( 2015) which began life as a memoir but transformed into a slim novel explores these very themes. It reflects upon the cycle of life from the perspective of an older writer. What truly struck me at the end of 2015 was that none of the “Best of 2015” lists included this novel even though it was “Toni Morrison”. Perhaps old age is too stark a reminder of one’s mortality.

It is a slim volume but gives one much to think about.

Ann Burack-Weiss The Lioness in Winter: Writing an Old Woman’s Life Columbia University Press, New York, 2015. Pb. pp.190 

27 Sept 2017 

 

Interview: Kamila Shamsie on her Bold and Heart-Breaking New Novel, “Home Fire”

My interview with Man Booker Prize 2017 longlisted writer Kamila Shamsie has been published in Bookwitty on 29 August 2017. Here is

Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel Home Fire was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017 within days of its release. Home Fire explores the complicated relationship Isma has with her younger twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz. It is also a modern retelling of Antigone in which Isma, whose mother has died, works hard to raise her brother and sister. When they reach adulthood, Isma leaves for the US to study at university while her brother, Parvaiz, who has unfortunately become radicalised in Britain, leaves to join ISIS, following in the footsteps of their jihadist father. Aneeka, meanwhile, is torn between her love for her older sister and her twin. The idea of two sisters where one is conventional, bordering on timid but keeps the home fire burning while the other leaves home and enters the world of men with far reaching consequences has been encapsulated in myths and legends. There is Antigone and her sister Ismene from the Greek myth, and Mary and Martha in the New Testament. The Sophoclean chorus giving a background and a perspective on the “tricky” position British Muslims occupy is provided by the character of a Muslim MP and Home Secretary, Karamat Lone, and his son, Eamonn.

( Updated: Kamila Shamsie won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 on 6 June 2018. Earlier on 3 May 2018 she wrote for the Guardian on “predicting the rise of Sajid Javid“, the newly appointed British Home Secretary.)

Following, are excerpts of an interview with Kamila Shamsie.

Did you start by wanting to re-work Antigone or was it something about contemporary politics that made you think of Antigone as a channel for your novel? Did you have Sophocles’ Antigone in mind or the Antigone myth in general?

The novel came about because Jatinder Verma, who runs the Tara Arts Theatre in London, suggested that I adapt a play for his theatre. He was the one to suggest that Sophocles’ Antigone might work well within a contemporary context. Once I re-read the play, I quickly knew the way the contemporary world could work with that ancient story, and eventually I also knew that I wanted to write it as a novel, not a play. Jatinder was very nice about it.

The impact of politics on individuals recurs in all your novels. Is it possible to pinpoint what triggered the story of Home Fire?

I started to think about it in 2014. At the time, the Islamic State had recently declared their so-called Caliphate, and you were starting to hear stories of young British men going to Syria to join them. So there was that story. But there was also the story of the British government’s response, which was to want to strip those British men of their citizenship. I was interested in both sides of the story – and of what it meant for the family members whose sons and brothers made these terrible choices.

The distress of the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 and its long-lasting impact on subsequent generations has also recurred in your fiction. Has its power faded or increased for you as a means of understanding contemporary politics?

I suppose it depends which bit of contemporary politics I’m looking at. It wasn’t in any way in my mind when I was writing Home Fire—though I did think about the Empire, and what it meant when the colonizers had to accept the colonized as equal citizens within Britain—have they ever really been able to do it?

Immigrants and race identity are critical to you. You have written about these matters in your non-fiction work. What do you hope the impact will be by writing about them in a novel?

I don’t know that race identity is particularly critical to me, actually. I would say structural imbalances of power interest me; sometimes that takes the form of sexism, sometimes racism, sometimes other forms of discrimination.

I don’t write novels with the hope that they’ll have an impact in ‘real life’, I write them to explore things that are of interest to me. I hope they’ll be of interest to other people. Mostly I hope they’ll work as novels.

Yet another recurrent aspect of your novels is twins. Why do you use twins as a literary device?

Well, it’s been seventeen years since one book with twins, Salt and Saffron, and another, Home Fire, so I’m not sure it’s particularly recurrent. Or perhaps I just see the twins functioning so differently in both books that I don’t find much connection between the two. Salt and Saffron was much lighter in tone; the twins in there were part of mythical, fantastical stories or were involved in stories of mistaken identity etc. With Home Fire I used the twinness of Aneeka and Parvaiz both to create a sense of their extreme closeness and their separateness from their elder sister, Isma.

Where did your research for this book take you? What did you regret not being able to incorporate?

Compared to the last couple of books this one felt quite ‘research lite’—a lot of the contemporary politics was already in my head, and much of the book was set in Massachusetts and London, both places I’ve lived in and know. Though I did do some wandering through the Preston Road neighbourhood of London and spoke to people there to help me create the Pasha family. The section that involved the most research was life in Raqqa under the Islamic State, for which I relied on documentaries, news reports, interviews, illustrations etc. that I found online. The research all followed the needs of the novel, in quite a streamlined way, so I don’t think there was anything I wanted to incorporate and didn’t.

John McCormack’s song, Keep the home fires burning, was hugely popular during World War I, why did you choose as the title Home Fire and not Home Fires for your book?

Fire, not Fires, simply because there was both a TV series and another novel already out there with the name Home Fires. But actually, once I’d decided on ‘Fire’ I realized I preferred it because it moved away from the WWI song, and I didn’t want people assuming it was a First World War novel.

The title plays on the two meanings of Home Fire: it can mean welcome and warmth, as in ‘keep the home fires burning’ or it can mean a house on fire. I wanted both those meanings in there since this is a novel that has within it both intimacy/love and conflagration.

The title plays on the two meanings of Home Fire: it can mean welcome and warmth, as in ‘keep the home fires burning’ or it can mean a house on fire. I wanted both those meanings in there since this is a novel that has within it both intimacy/love and conflagration.

In Home Fire you have once again used multiple first person narrators. Why?

I suppose it goes back to that John Berger line: never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.

I’ve long been interested in the different way the same moment or person or idea can look to different people. Here we all are, enclosed in our own minds and personalities but also constantly interacting with each other, trying to understand each other. In Home Fire the ways in which people do and don’t know each other is crucial to the novel. Multiple narrators seemed the best way to explore that.

As a writer, do you think of yourself as belonging to a British, Pakistani or even British Muslim Fiction literary tradition? Or is it a bit of all? If you do think of yourself as belonging to any category does it help you create your fiction or not?

As a writer I think of myself as a writer. It’s the work of critics and academics and people who organize their bookshelves by categories to decide what label to affix to me.

30 August 2017