H.E. Harinder Sidhu Posts

Visiting International Publisher’s delegation, Sydney ( 29 April – 5 May 2019)

From 29 April – 5 May 2019 I was invited by the Australian government and the Australia Council for the Arts as a member of the Visiting International Publishers (VIPs) delegation. It is an annual event organized by the Australian government to coincide with the Sydney Writers Festival. The delegation consists of prominent publishing professionals from across the world, most of whom are associated with well-established publishing firms and agencies. Those interested have to apply for the programme.

It is approximately a week-long event with the intention of giving the visiting delegates a bird’s eye-view of Australian publishing. During the trip, the visitors are taken to various publishing houses, bookstores and interactions are set up with prominent authors and publishing professionals. Two days of the trip are set aside for most of the visiting publishers in the delegation for B2B meetings with Australian publishers. The idea being that for most of the local publishers it is not easy to go abroad for meetings but it is preferable to go to Sydney. It is such a well-managed event by the Australia Council for the Arts where every delegate has a customized programme while certain events such as visits to publishing houses and literary receptions are open to all.

B2B meetings

It is the extraordinary understanding of the Australian publishing landscape that makes this trip so precious. Australia is not an easy continent to reach as it requires many hours of travel from any part of the world. Australia is a very rich and diverse nation with the First Nations people, the descendants of the colonisers and of migrant communities. This makes for a fascinatingly diverse mix of languages, faiths and cultures to be represented through its literature. A statistic that I heard while in Sydney was that now more than 30% of the population does not have English as its first language. These are some of the factors that contribute to making the robust Australian publishing industry. Unfortunately much of the local literature is not easily available across the world as the rights are inevitably linked with Commonwealth Rights. This effectively means that the global sale of the bulk of Australian literature is usually decided by the UK publishers who either represent or license the Australian titles. Of course this does not include well-known writers like Markus Zusak, Richard Flanagan, (now) Coetzee, Alex Miller, Kate Grenville, Charlotte Wood, Aaron Blabey, Andy Griffiths etc. And there are plenty more to add.

We were taken to visit a Gleebooks bookstore where award-winning writers Charlotte Wood and Morris Gleitzman addressed our delegation. They shared their experiences about publishing locally and then taking their works overseas. Gleebooks has a wonderful display of books but they also have a second-hand section where I was fortunate to pick up a 1970s yellow Penguin paperback history of Jonathan Cape.  

Gleebooks Bookstore
Charlotte Wood
Morris Gleitzman

Books in Australia have GST, making them quite expensive to procure. Yet, it was amazing to watch how the tables stacked high with books at the Sydney Writers Festival bookstore disappearing rapidly. An incredible sight was to witness a table piled with multiple columns of first-time author Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universeon the opening night of the literary festival. A day later when he had won a record four Australian Book Industry Awards and the overall Book of the Year crown with his smash hit coming-of-age novel, there were hardly any copies of the novel left on the table! Astounding! Price was no bar. The magic wrought by a literary prize had done its trick. Notched up magnificent sales for the author.

It is fascinating to witness how diverse Australian publishing is in terms of the lists that were showcased in each publishing meeting. There are distinct lists with emphasis on creating titles before the holidays and looking specifically at Christmas sales. While the big multi-national publishers like HarperCollins Australia and Hachette Australia exist with an impressive stable of authors and illustrators, it is equally important to note the presence of many indie and university publishers. Some of the university presses have been in existence for decades. Unlike rest of the world where such presses would be associated with only academic publishing, the Australian university presses have distinct trade lists catering to a general reading public. These lists consist of very distinct local voices that are representative of their society. For instance, there is some literature now being publishing looking specifically at the Stolen Generation. This refers to the time when aboriginal children were removed by governments, churches and welfare bodies to be brought up in institutions, fostered out or adopted by white families. But it is the indie presses and literary magazines that are representing the diversity which exists in Australia today. Perhaps, as happens with such initiatives worldwide, there is the enthusiasm to make available a wider range of stories as well as nurture local literary talent. So there are magazines for literary prose and others for poetry. There is literature representing the immigrants who are now Australians and see Australia as home while being acutely aware of their or their parent’s country of origin. In fact, at the Sydney Writers Festival, the Western Sydney Literacy Movement launched Sweatshop Women, their first-ever collection of short stories, essays and poems developed exclusively by women of colour from Western Sydney. It was a privilege to witness this launch as was evident by the exuberance of the contributors on stage. The range of writings in the issue are worth looking at too!

The Sydney Writers Festival is currently spread across some venues in the city while their regular venue is being renovated. There is such an exciting mix of speakers, a wide range of topics being discussed or being able to watch Richard Flanagan in conversation with Jenny Erpenbeck or even Roanna Gonsalves in conversation with Fatima Bhutto are treats. In fact, many of these conversations are available as podcasts on the festival website. A good literature festival is synonymous with sparkling, thought-provoking conversations, and this festival is definitely amongst the top-rated litfests. It began with the stupendous opening address by writers Max Porter, Meg Wolitzer and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. There were unexpected moments of joy of meeting literary stalwarts like Booker winner George Sanders, interviewer and curator Paul Holdengraber and other writers like Omid Tofighian, Alexander Chee, Max Porter etc.

L-R: George Saunders, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Paul Holdengraber
Omid Tofghian, translator of Behrouz Boochani’s “No Friend but the Mountains”

A significant moment of the trip was to attend a dinner hosted in my honour by the Australian Council for the Arts to meet an energetic, creative, bunch of writers, filmmakers, poets, playwrights, and novelists who were mostly of South Asian origin. It was one of those very thrilling moments to discover that there were like-minded individuals equally enthused with publishing as I was. There were so many stories to share and familiarise oneself with regarding Australian literature. The one strong memory I have of all those many months ago was the electrifying energy around the dinner table while all of us chatted. The interaction around the dinner table that night confirmed was that the definition of “Australian literature” is far more diverse than what is made visible globally. And it is precisely through such active engagements by the Australia Council for the Arts that these very clear distinctions in literary trends are made visible.

During the short and intense trip to Sydney I met some very interesting people and was fortunate to be able to interview some of them for my blog. For instance, literary scout Rebecca Servadio and Susan van Metre, Executive Editorial Director, Walker Books. I also met librettist Tammy Brennan who was bringing her international production Daughters Opera to Delhi from 3- 5 January 2020. We ended up collaborating on the programme.

Tammy Brennan

Later I was invited by the Australian Council for the Arts to address the visiting Australian delegation on “The Art of Interview”.  The delegation was visiting India in Jan 2020 to attend various literature festivals. The delegates included sports journalist Gideon Haigh, writer and academic, Roanna Gonsalves, performance poet Manal Younus, poet Mindy Gill and literary festival director and artist Jessica Alice. It was an exciting and slightly daunting thought to be invited to address such eminent and experienced interviewers themselves but the evening went off swimmingly well. We were able to discuss the nature of interviewing in the modern age, how to use technology, is it helpful or intrusive, how to manage the tenor of a conversation, what is the nature of a public interview — is it like a theatre performance or a genuine interest in knowing the person, how does the written interview differ from the spoken interview, how much is enough to reveal in an interview, how much research is required to conduct an interview etc. Later in the evening we were joined by poet, writer and 2020 International Booker Prize jury member, Jeet Thayil.

L-R: Roanna Gonsalves, Gideon Haigh, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Manal Younus, Mindy Gill, Jeet Thayil. Front row: Jessica Alice and Nithya Nagarajan

The visit to Australia was a transformative experience. Suddenly a lot of pieces in the puzzle regarding the business of publishing in Australia became crystal clear. For facilitating this trip and actively encouraging me to visit their country I have am ever so grateful to the Australian High Commission in India, especially to the High Commissioner, H.E. Harinder Sidhu. In recent years the High Commissioner and her team in India and the Australia Council for the Arts have been actively promoting bilateral cultural ties between the two countries. Here is hoping that in future there will be more opportunities to make Australian literature available in India and vice versa.

6 Feb 2020

“Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns” by John Zubrzycki

Historian John Zubrzycki’s latest  book Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns is a rich historical account of the history of magicians in the Indian sub-continent. It is a history going back as far as the Harappan civilisations, to the Mohenjodaro seals, through the time of the Mughals, British India till the present day. It is years of research spent in libraries across continents, interviewing people, meeting magicians and wading through archives that has enabled John Zubrzycki to put together this seminal volume. It may lack the lightness of touch as many contemporary narrative non-fiction books now have but Jadoowallahs more than makes up for it by the vast amounts of information it presents. What is truly commendable is how the author has delved through research material to create a narrative that is empathetic to the community of

H.E. Harinder Sidhu

magicians as a whole ( irrespective of their religious beliefs) and as far as possible the narrative is presented based on the empirical evidence he has garnered. This is an incredible feat to achieve given how witness accounts, historical documentation or even official documents from a particular period of history will always be biased and/or influenced by other pressing factors of the time. So to tease out and create a balanced narrative highlighting stories of individuals as well as historical incidents that create the fascinating landscape of magicians in the subcontinent. Zubrzycki is extremely familiar with India, who apart from knowing Hindi, has worked in the

(L-R) H.E. Harinder Sidhu, Rajeev Sethi and John Zubrzycki

country as a foreign correspondent, diplomat and tour guide.

On Tuesday, 18 September 2018, the six-month long Australia Fest was launched in India.  There are more than 75 events planned across 20 cities with over 25 projects involved. The commencement of the festival was with the official launch of Jadoowallahs at the Australian High Commissioner, H.E. Harinder Sidhu’s, residence in the presence of Rajeev Sethi, Chairman and Founder, Asian Heritage Foundation as the Chief Guest. The evening also included performances by Australian and Indian magicians Adam Mada and Raj Kumar, respectively, followed by

Adam Mada, magician, with hotelier Aman Nath whom he had called upon from the audience to assist with a magic trick.

a performance on the lawns by another magician. It was befitting that Rajeev Sethi had been invited as the Chief Guest given his experience with the Festivals of India and his many decades of work spent working in the cultural sector. He spoke exceedingly well giving a historical perspective on how he too has met jadoowallahs who did incredible tricks but even decades ago it was a dying art. Today few magicians exist but with a diminished repertoire of tricks given the vast cultural heritage they inherited. He emphasised how as someone interested in the preservation of India’s cultural heritage and its artisans, he along with many other eminent people like the Late Kamladevi Chattopadhyay and Pupul Jayakar set up Sarthi to help artisans in need. Later he also helped establish Bhule Bisere Kalakar which worked with the rehabiliation of artisans relocated to Katputhli colony at the time of the Emergency.

Raj Kumar, Indian magician, performing the basket trick.

Sadly, last year the artisans were evicted from this land last year too, as it was sold by the government to a builder for commercial development, of which a small portion has been allocated to

John Zubrzycki speaking about Motilal Nehru

create “vertical slums” for the displaced people. The reason why Rajeev Sethi mentioned his long association with the artisans was that the magicians and jugglers of whom John Zubrzycki speaks of eloquently have always been considered an integral part of the artisan community. In fact many of these practising illusionists were considered to be beggars as they would perform their tricks by the roadside or at crossroads while begging for alms. It was only in early August 2018 that due to a petition filed by activist Harsh Mander that an archaic law, “Prevention of Begging Act” was upturned. ( “Begging is not a crime, Delhi High Court rules“, Reuters, 9 August 2018). Rajeev Sethi rightly concluded his speech by lauding the author for being one of the magicians biradri, community, as John Zubrzycki speaks of the magical tricks but never gives the magicians secrets away.

The evening concluded with a brief presentation by John Zubrzycki about the research he had done for this book and shared a few anecdotes that have been recounted in the book as well. One of these fabulous anecdotes was that of Motilal Nehru, father of the first prime minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru, petitioning the Protector of Emigrants in Bombay to send “a party of Indians consisting of musicians, acrobats and artisans to the ensuing Paris Exhibition [1900].” What followed was an extraordinary sequence of events where Lord Curzon had to rule whether a” a jadoowallah’s tricks constituted manual labour because they were executed by sleight of hand” or were performers. If they were deemed as manual labourers then under the Emigration Act of 1883 that prohibited emigration of Indias to specified countries. This Act was tightened after an outbreak of plague in Bombay in 1896. In 1897, the Epidemic Diseases Act (No.3) was passed leading to “a ban of all native residents leaving India through Bombay Presidency”. Pressure from mercantile groups eased the rules somewhat to permit the severe disruption of labour to Uganda and Kenya to be resumed but the ban stayed for all of Europe and England. ( Read more in Chapter 10 of the book.)

It was a memorable book launch but it is the book that will leave its mark for many years to come with its enthralling account of jadoowallahs in the sub-continent.

To buy:

Hardcover

Kindle

19 Sept 2018

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

*****

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