Essential reading. Eric Hobsbawm On Nationalism, edited by Donald Sassoon, published by Hachette India . It is a collection of the eminent Marxist historian’s articles, public lectures and book reviews. Well worth reading given the surreal times we live in. Read it along with the fascinating London Review of Books documentary, “Eric Hobsbawm: The Consolations of History”.
In this documentary, Anthony Wilks traces the connections between the events of Eric Hobsbawm’s life and the history he told, from his teenage years in Germany and his communist membership, to the jazz clubs of 1950s Soho and the makings of New Labour, taking in Italian bandits, Peruvian peasant movements and the development of nationalism in the modern world, with help from the assiduous observations of MI5.
The film features contributions from Frances Stonor Saunders, Richard J. Evans, John Foot, Stefan Collini, Marlene Hobsbawm and Donald Sassoon, as well as Hobsbawm himself in extensive archive footage.
On 30 June 2020, I was in conversation with the eminent and award-winning Franco-Moroccon author, Tahar Ben Jelloun. It was to celebrate the launch of Tamil translation of Le mariage de plaisir ( A Marriage of Pleasure). The book has been translated by S. A. Vengada Soupraya Nayagar and published by Thadagam Publications. Dr Christine Cornet, French Book Office, was the moderator. The digital book launch was organised by Oxford Bookstore and French Institute in India.
This was a unique experience. I had the privilege of participating in a book launch which involved three languages — English, French and Tamil. Tahar Ben Jelloun comes across as a gentleman who is a deep thinker and an “activist” with words. Reading him is a transformative experience. Something shifts within one internally. It was memorable!
To prepare for the launch, Dr Cornet and I exchanged a few emails with the author. Tahar Ben Jelloun is fluent in French but has a tenuous hold over English. Hence he prefers to communicate in French. Whereas I am only fluent in English. Dr Cornet is profficient is bilingual. All of us were determined to have a smooth digital book launch with minimal disruptions as far as possible. Tough call! So we decided that I would send across a few questions to the author to answer. Given that the Covid19 lockdown was on, it was impossible to get the English translations of the author’s books. Fortunately, I found ebooks that coudl be read on the Kindle. Thank heavens for digital formats! I read the novel and then drafted my questions in English. These were then translated into French by the French Institute of India. This document was forwarded via email to Tahar Ben Jelloun in Paris. He spent a few days working on the replies. Once the answers were received, these were translated into English for my benefit. It was eventually decided that given the timeframe, perhaps it would be best if we focused on only five questions for the book launch. So we went “prepared” for the launch but only to a certain degree. While we were recording the programme, something magical occurred and we discussed more than the selected five questions. In fact, at a point, Tahar Ben Jelloun very graciously opted to reply in English. We discovered not only our mutual love for Mozart and Jazz musicians such as Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane etc but that we play their music in the background while immersed deeply in our creative pursuits — painting and writing. Coincidentally the conversation was recorded on Ella Fitzgerald’s death anniversary, 17 June. How perfect is that?!
Born 1944 in Fez, Morocco, Tahar Ben Jelloun is an award-winning and internationally bestselling novelist, essayist, critic and poet. Regularly shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature, he has won the Prix Goncourt and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His work has also been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. He received the rank of Officier de la Légion d’honneur in 2008. Some of his works in English translation include About My Mother (Telegram), The Happy Marriage, This Blinding Absence of Light, The Sand Child and Racism Explained to My Daughter. He won the Goncourt Prize in 1987 for La Nuit sacrée. His most recent works published by Éditions Gallimard include Le Mariage de plaisir (2016) and La Punition (2018).
Q1. Why and when did you decide to become a writer? Did the internment at the age of 18 years old have anything to do with your decision?
When I was a child, I didn’t dream of being a writer, but a filmmaker. At the same time, I wrote short stories, I illustrated them with drawings.
When I was sent to an army disciplinary camp in July 1966, I never thought I would get out. Everything was done to mistreat us and it gave us no hope of liberation. So, I clandestinely started writing poems with lots of metaphors so I wouldn’t be punished in case they were found. Nineteen months later, in January 1968, I was released and I had little papers in my pocket on which I had written poems. It was the poet Abdelatif Laabi who published them in the magazine Souffles that he had just created with some friends. He himself was thrown in jail a few years later, where stayed for 8 years!
This was my debut as a writer.
Q2.You learned classical Arabic while learning the Quran by heart and yet you choose to write books in French. Why?
Yes, I learned the Quran without understanding it. But my father changed my birth date so that I could join my older brother at the bilingual Franco-Moroccan school. That’s where I learned the French language and I started reading a lot of the classics and also a few novels of the time like The Stranger by Camus, The Words by Sartre or Froth on the Daydream by Boris Vian. But I preferred poetry above all else.
Q3. Your books have been translated into multiple languages. At last count it was 43. Now Tamil too. Is your writing sensibility affected knowing that readers across cultures will be reading your books? Or it does not matter?
For a writer, being translated consolidates his legitimacy as a writer, he is recognized, it helps him to continue; to be more demanding with himself. It’s a source of pride, but you can’t rest on your laurels, you have to work, you have to pursue your writing with rigor. For me, each translated book is a victory against the current trend of young people reading less literature. It is true that they are solicited by easier and more attractive things.
Translation is a gift of friendship from an unknown language and culture. I am happy today to be read in Tamil, just as I was happy to be read by blind people thanks to an edition in Braille, just as I was happy and surprised to be translated into Esperanto, that language which is meant to be universal, but which remains limited to some 2000 readers.
Q4. Your preoccupation with the status of women is a recurring theme in your literature. Why? The two points of view presented by Foulane and Amina about their marriage is extraordinary. At one level it is the depiction of a marriage but it is incredible art, almost like a dance in slow motion. Did you write The Happy Marriage in reaction to the Moudawana law passed in Morocco? If so, what was the reaction to the novel in Morocco?
For me, as an observant child, everything started from the condition of the women in my family, my mother, my sister, my aunts, my cousins, etc., and then went on to the condition of the women in my family. I could not understand why the law ignored them, why one of my uncles had two wives officially and why both women accepted this situation. From childhood, I was interested in the status of women. Later, I had to fight for my mother to be treated better by my father, who didn’t see any harm in her staying at home to cook and clean. Then I discovered that it is all women in the Arab and Muslim world who live in unacceptable conditions. Wrestling has become essential for me. My first novel Harrouda is inspired by my mother and then by an old woman, a prostitute who came to beg in our neighborhood. It is a novel that denounced this condition of women not in a political and militant way, but with literature, with writing. The novel then became stronger than a social science essay. This struggle is not over. Things have changed in Morocco today; the Moudawana, that is to say the family code has changed, it has given some rights to women, but that is not enough. This change is due to the will of King Mohammed VI, a modern and progressive man.
In Morocco, people don’t read much. I never know how my books are received. In general, I tour high schools and universities and try to encourage young people to read. Let’s say my books are circulating, but illiteracy is a tragedy in Morocco where more than 35% of people cannot read and write, especially people from the countryside.
Q5. Have you tried to replicate the structure of Mozart’s Concerto for piano and orchestra No. 16 in D major, K 451? I read somewhere that you liked the composition very much. I felt that there were many similarities in your form for The Happy Marriage and K451. Something about the predictable opening of the story/concerto which develops smoothly, almost intoxicating, and then the last movement, a complete surprise, a triumph. Was this intentional? ( Aside: Here is a recording that you may have already heard. I play it often while working. Barenboim & Argerich : Mozart Sonata for Two Pianos, K.448)
This similarity comes as a surprise to me. I love Mozart’s music, which I listen to a lot. But I never associated his music to this novel. I’m also a big jazz fan. I listen to jazz when I paint, but I need silence when I write. In any case, thank you for pointing out this link, which makes me proud.
Q6. Do you think fiction is a more powerful tool to communicate with readers about commenting upon society and suggesting reform rather than a straightforward narrative non-fiction?
Yes, fiction has a more effective power for information or statistics. During the confinement here in Paris, it was Albert Camus’ The Plague that was most commissioned and read. TV was overwhelming us with often contradictory information. A novel allows the reader to identify with the main character. Literature and especially poetry will save the world. In the long term, especially in these times when cruel, stupid and inhuman leaders rule in many countries. Against their violence, against their vulgarity, we oppose poetry, music, art in general.
Q7. Do you think the function of an artist is to be provocative?
An artist is not a petit bourgeois in his slippers. An artist is an agitator, an impediment to letting mediocrity and vulgarity spread. Some people make a system out of provocation, I am for provocation that awakens consciences, but not all the time in provocation. It is necessary to go beyond and to create, to give to see and to love. You don’t need to be sorted, but you don’t need to be provocative either. Beauty is a formidable weapon. Look at a painting by Turner or Picasso, Goya or Rembrandt, there is such strength, such beauty, that the man who looks at it comes out of it changed by so much emotion. Look at Giacometti’s sculptures, they’re enough on their own, no need for a sociological discourse on human distress, on stripping.
Q8. As a writer who has won many prestigious awards, what is it that you seek in promising young writers while judging their oeuvre for The Prix Goncourt?
When I read the novels submitted for the Prix Goncourt, I look for a writing style above all, a style, a universe, an originality. That’s very rare. It’s always hard to find a great writer. You look, you read, and sometimes you get a surprise, an astonishment. And there, you get joy.
Q9. You are a remarkable educator wherein you are able to address children and adolescents about racism and terrorism: India is a young country, today what subject animates you and what message would you like to convey to Indian youth?
The subjects that motivate me revolve around the human condition, around the abandoned, around injustice. There is no literature that is kind, gentle and without drama; Happiness has no use for literature, but as Jean Genet said “behind every work there is a drama”. Literature disturbs, challenges certaines, clichés, prejudices. It makes a mess of a petty, hopeless order.
To Indian youth, I say, don’t be seduced by appearance, by the fascination of social networks, by addiction to objects that reduce your will power and endanger your intelligence. We must use these means but not become slaves to them. To do this, read, read, read and read.
Q10. You are one of the most translated contemporary French-language authors in the world. In India, French is the second most taught foreign language, what is the future for the Francophonie?
France has long since abandoned the struggle for the Francophonie. The Presidents of the republic talk about it, at the same time they lower subsidies of the French institutes in the world. Today, French is defended by “foreigners”, by Africans, by Arabs, by lovers of this language all over the world. France does little or nothing to keep its language alive and lets English take more and more space.
Q11. What next?
What more can I say? Poetry will save the world. Beauty will save the world. Audacity, creation, art in all its forms will give back to humanity its soul and its strength.
The East Was Readis an anthology of essays on the impacts of socialist culture in various parts of the Third World. Wang Chaohua and Pankaj Mishra recall with fondness the meaning of these books for their very different lives in China and in India respectively. Deepa Bhasthi goes on an emotional journey into the library of her grandfather, a communist intellectual. Rossen Djagalov writes a short history of Progress Publishers. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o talks about how he wrote Petals Of Blood in Yalta on the sidelines of the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association in 1973. Sumayya Kassamali writes about Faiz in Beirut, giving us a sense of the cultural worlds that drew in both the Soviet Union and the Third World Project. Across the Third World, people grew up reading inexpensive beautifully-produced books from the Soviet Union — children’s books, classics of world literature, books on science and mathematics, works of Marxist theory. One such prominent publisher responsible for producing beautiful books, many in translation, was Progress Publishers. The following extracts from the essay have been reproduced with the permission of the publisher.
As an heir to the nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia’s literature-centrism, the Soviet state, down to its very bureaucracy, believed in literature’s capacity to change society and made an enormous investment in literacy campaigns and the wide accessibility of literature through publishing houses, bookstores, libraries, and public readings. As a testimony to that belief, by the time the USSR ceased to exist, its Writers’ Union had approximately 10,000 members, that is, 10,000 professional writers who could live off their literary work—a number probably never matched in history, before or after. It was not only a matter of financing: through street names and monuments, school curricula and press reports about writers, the state helped to institutionalize the idea of the intelligentsia as the spokesperson of the people. It also helped to cement the idea that literature is an authoritative source of values. And yet from the second half of the 1920s onward, Stalinism also did much to compromise that ideal by increasingly using literature instrumentally, censoring it to better reflect its talking points, and otherwise controlling it.
(p. 81 – 83)
Progress’s origins could be found in the utopian visions of the
immediate post-Revolutionary period. In the realm of literature, one of the main
generators of these was Maxim Gorky, who proposed a World Literature publishing
house that would translate all foreign literatures into Russian, Russian literature
into all the major languages of the world, and finally, all of the above in to the
languages of the Soviet Union. An economically devastated and politically isolated
Civil War era Russia, however, was not a place where such visions could be realized.
A World Literature publishing house did appear between 1919 and 1924, focused only
on one part of Gorky’s vision: the translation of world classics into Russian. While
it offered much-needed employment to Petersburg writers as translators and editors,
paper shortages, organizational difficulties, and lack of funding ultimately meant
that most of their translations remained unpublished.
With time, however, the resources at the disposal of the Soviet
state grew and elements of these early visions began to be realized even if compromised
to one degree or another by the growing Stalinist stratification. Founded in 1931,
a Moscow-based literary magazine with issues in several languages, Literature of the World Revolution (renamed
in the beginning of the Popular Front period to International
Literature) may have been the most visible structure
of Soviet literary internationalism. Yet more significant, especially as far as
non-Soviet readers were concerned, was the establishment that same year in Moscow
of the Publishing Cooperative of Foreign Workers (ITIR), Progress’s predecessor,
which translated books into foreign languages.By
that time, there were already several other foreign-language newspapers in the city:
the Polish Tribuna Radzecka, the French Journal de Moscou, the English Moscow News as well as The Communist International, which was publishing issues in German, English, French, Spanish,
and Chinese. Besides, the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCE)
was already translating and printing the works of Lenin and other political literature
in different languages.
ITIR drew its translators and editors from both polyglot Soviet citizens with foreign experience and political refugees, often with Comintern connections. Indeed, its staff reflected the composition of Moscow’s foreign community and its shifts: from the influx of Spanish refugees in the late 1930s to their retirement or departures for Mexico, Cuba, or Spain in the 1960s and ’70s, from the return of the Moscow-based East European exiles to their countries in themid-1940s to the increasing numbers of non-Western subjects in post-Stalin-era Moscow such as the main translator of nineteenth-century Russian literature in Hindi—Madan Lal Madhu (1925–2014).
(p. 83 – 84)
In the history of publishing, there has probably never been a press so linguistically ambitious. In its first year (1931), it published in 10 West European (English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Spanish, and Portuguese), seven East European (Serbo-Croatian, Czech, Bulgarian, Romanian, Hungarian, Polish, and Lithuanian), and five Asian languages(Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Persian, and Turkish). And while the first post-Second World War decade saw the emergence of an Afro-Arab (Arabic, Amhara, Yoruba, Hausa, Swahili) and Indian (Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, and Telugu) sections, it was in the post-Stalin era that non-Western languages came to dominate the overall publishing plans. Over the course of the1960s alone, the number of ‘Eastern’ languages doubled, from15 to 28. By 1980, the Indian section was producing more titles than the English one, which had led the publishing house since its foundation. (Throughout this period, books in the colonial languages—English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese—were also being sent to Africa, Asia, and Latin America by ITIR’s distributor, Mezhkniga.) By the time it came to an end in 1991, Progress was a behemoth publishing yearly close to 2,000 new titles with a print run approaching 30 million copies.
It was publishing in foreign languages, however, that accounted
for the vast majority of Progress’s output. Many around the world fondly remember
Progress’s cheap, high quality editions of otherwise unavailable Marxist literature.
In addition to the classics of Marxism and Leninism, the other three areas Progress
published in were politics, textbooks & illustrated materials, and fiction.
Fiction emerged as a distinct field of the publishing house only gradually, as the
classics of Marxism-Leninism and contemporary political studies had initially been
the main focus of ITIR’s work. Over the course of the 1930s, however, some of the
publishing house’s more distinguished translators such as Alice Oran, George Rui,
Maximilian Schick, Hilda Angarova, Jose Vento, Angel Errais, Margaret Amrome, Ivy
Litvinova (Soviet foreign minister Maxim Litvinov’s wife) began to translate the
classics of Russian and early Soviet literature into foreign languages. Slowly,
over the post-war era, the literature section became the largest of Progress’s four
thematic sections, reaching in 1981 a volume of 404 titles. The following year,
1982, it evolved into an independent publishing house, Raduga (Rainbow). By that
point, the editorial choices for texts to be translated could easily veer away from
the safe classics to include more debatable contemporary Soviet literature such
as Valentin Rasputin and Chinghiz Aitmatov’s novels. There has never been another
publishing house worldwide that could compete with its ability to popularize Russian
and Soviet literature abroad, or more generally, any publishing attempt of such
scale to create a direct translation link between two non-Western literatures, bypassing
the monopolies of London, Paris and New York. And yet, together with all other Soviet
projects for world literature, this one has been largely forgotten, except maybe
for the occasional volume in public libraries and private collections.
Maria Khotimsky, ‘World Literature, Soviet Style: A
Forgotten Episode in the History of the Idea’, Ab Imperio, vol. 2013,
no. 3, 2013, pp. 119–154.
For more on Moscow’s cosmopolitanism
of the 1930s, see Katerina Clark, Moscow,
the Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Evolution of Soviet
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.
Sujatha Gidla’s memoir Ants Among Elephants and Baburao Bagul’s When I Hid My Caste are some of the recent publications of Dalit literature published. Interestingly the writers come from different parts of India and different religions but because they share the same “caste” of being a Dalit, their experiences of life and anguish at the shocking social injustice they have witnessed is similar.
Sujatha Gidla’s memoir was launched in USA in 2017 to great critical acclaim for being an unusual piece of writing documenting the horrors of Indian society even in contemporary India. Although Sujatha Gidla has been living in New York for many years and yet the searing pain at the injustices faced at being an “untouchable” or a Dalit in India are unforgettable. Her memoir about her family who despite being Christians faced social ostracism. Once she left for America she was eager to know more about her origins and began to record the testimonies of her family particularly her uncle Satyam. There is an extremely powerful moment in the book when she quotes her uncle, Satyam, remembering an incident soon after Indian Independence was achieved. ‘A short, chubby dark boy …had a strange question for Satyam, one that Satyam had no answer to: “Do you think this independence is for people like you and me?” It is a question that remains to be answered many decades after Independence was achieved. ( Read an extract published in the Literary Hub)
When I Hid My Caste by Baburao Bagul (translated by Jerry Pinto) is a collection of short stories that were previously published in the Marathi literary magazine Navyug. The editor of Navyug Shirish Pai “confesses in her introduction to the Marathi edition of the book that she used to experience joy mixed with fear in anticipation of a Bagul story. The joy came from knowing it would be a good piece of fiction; the fear came from not knowing what the content would be.” This collection of very powerful and unnerving short stories are disturbing to read in English that one cannot help but wonder how powerful must they be in Marathi where possibly even the dialects used are evident. Four stories stand out — “Prisoner of Darkness”, “Streetwalker”, “Revolt” and “When I Hid My Caste” —- that hopefully will be anthologised in other volumes focused on Indian literature.
Sujatha Gidla’s memoir attracted worldwide acclaim quickly becoming of those “must read” books featuring on many reading lists. Undoubtedly it raises some very sharp issues that continue to plague Indian society where casteism unfortunately still prevails yet Ant Among Elephants is not half as gracefully written as some other notable Dalit memoirs. For instance Y. B. Satyanarayana’s My Father Baliah, Bama’s Karukku or even Daya Pawar’s Baluta. But of the books discussed so far the recently released When I Hid My Caste stands out for the grittiness of storytelling evident even in the English translation where interestingly the sub-castes of Dalits are mentioned. There are graphic details of the violence and the horror that the Dalits continue to experience. It is hard to distinguish reality from fiction for many of the stories included in the volume seem to resonate the news published regularly in the media about regular atrocities against Dalits.
These are books that are valuable additions to the landscape of Dalit literature that is fortunately becoming richer and richer with every passing year as newer translations or original writings in English are being made available for a larger audience.
The Lifted Browis 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.
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.
( My review article on Vasudhendra’s fantastic short story collection, Mohanaswamy, was published in Bookwitty.)
Recently translated into English, Mohanaswamy, by the Kannada-language author Vasudhendra, is a collection of short stories that revolve around the central character, Mohanaswamy, who is gay.
Vasudhendra, who has published more than 12 books on a variety of subjects with impressive print runs of 12-18,000, had never before written openly about homosexuality. Mohanaswamy is his first collection of gay stories, which, he admits, was a courageous act that he undertook while tackling depression. It took him more than three years to write, but turned out to be therapeutic. He said, “I am very happy these days that I wrote Mohanaswamy. It was a kind of liberation for me. No other book has given me such joy.”
Over five years ago, Desha Kala, the Kannada literary magazine edited by noted writer Vivek Shanbhag, ran a 6,500-word story titled “Mohanaswamy” by an author whose pseudonym was ‘Shanmukha S’. In an article that appeared in the Hindustan Times, Shanbhag says the story was fascinating, and not because it spoke of gay love. “The central aspect of ‘love and longing’ was well beyond the social and anatomical construct in the story. Its emotional energy was very high because it was deeply autobiographical,” he said. Several years later Shanmukha S revealed himself to be Vasudhendra.
Vasudhendra quit working as a software professional to become a full time writer. He also founded a publishing house called Chanda Pustaka which has developed a formidable reputation for encouraging new writing in Kannada. So far, Chanda Pustaka has published more than 70 books garnering more than 100 literary prizes, including the National Academy of Letters Sahitya Akademi award, in the process.
Mohanaswamy is a young man from a village in Karanataka who has been considered a misfit since his childhood when he preferred playing with his sister and her friends than with boys his age. The stories are not arranged chronologically but roughly cover the lifespan of Mohanswamy from early adolescence to middle age.
The collection opens with a heartrending story, ‘The Gordian Knot’. Mohanswamy has been living with Karthik for five years when he discovers unexpectedly that Karthik is getting married to a woman and moving to another city. Another powerful story is, “Bed Bug” which explores the challenges of being gender fluid and the devastating consequences of trying to live one’s true identity in a firmly patriarchal world. When the protagonist, Shankar Gowda, a childhood friend of Mohanaswamy’s, disappears from his village, it transpires that Shankar was a victim of an honor killing carried out by his father and brothers. The title does not hint at the tragedy to come but when the story ends it’s easy to draw a parallel with the discomfort a bed bug causes and the similar effect Shankar’s presence has on his family. The story is even more powerful when one discovers that the character is based on a real-life classmate of Vasudhendra’s. The anguish a gay Indian male lives is once again illustrated when Mohanaswamy, while struggling to come to terms with his own sexuality in college, hardly ever discusses homosexuality with other students. He chooses not to reveal his true self, fearing “that would give rise to unnecessary doubts in his friends’ minds. So when gay sex did come up in their conversations, he would pass a snide remark as a defence mechanism.”
Story after story addresses a different challenge of being gay while living in a conservative, patriarchal society such as India. It is worthwhile to note that the Delhi High Court, in 2009, decriminalized homosexuality between consenting adults, to the joy of the LGBTQ community. Ironically, on December 11, 2013, the day the original Kannada edition of Mohanaswamy was published, the Supreme Court overturned the previous judgement of the Delhi High Court, leaving the matter of amending or repealing the Act to the Parliament. It has yet to be resolved.
Mohanaswamy is a remarkably bold debut collection not only for writing explicit scenes of gay sex in India but also for a wise commentary via fiction of how homosexuals are perceived and treated in India. There is a quiet dignity in the tenor without a shrill activist voice. The arrangement of the stories with the carefully selected titles is admirable in marking the life of Mohanaswamy from adolescence to middle age, repeatedly facing social ostracization, his exploration for love, and coming to terms with the transition from lust to companionship. Mohanaswamy is an extraordinary collection of fiction which will hopefully travel far especially if it helps speak to parents of the LGBTQ community and farther.
On 23 April 2016 Vivek Shanbhag and I were invited by Namita Gokhale, co-director, Jaipur Literature Festival to be in conversation at the Apeejay Languages Festival 2016, Oxford Bookstore, Connaught Place, New Delhi. We were to discuss his recently translated novel from Kannada to English, Ghachar Ghochar, as part of the topic, “Kannada, Konkani, English: Memories, Texts and Distances”. Before we began the discussion I read out a note contextualising the conversation. I realised that Vivek Shanbhag and I had spent a while chatting a few days earlier and would happily fall into a chat easily. Hence the note which was passed by Vivek Shanbhag too. With his permission I am publishing it here.
Kannada, Konkani, English: Memories, Texts and Distances
Vivek Shanbhag is a noted writer, editor and translator. For seven years while holding a busy day job he edited a literary journal of Kannada writing called Desh Kala. It was phenomenal in the impact it had in discovering new writers. It is probably the only contemporary journal in an Indian regional language that continues to be talked about in English and now edited excerpts of it are to be published.
Although he has been a name in Kannada and other literary circles for a while, few probably know his mother tongue is Konkani. A language that can be written in five different scripts –Devanagari, Roman, Kannada, Malayalam, and Persian. (Now it is the Devnagari script that is accepted officially by state governments. )Yet Vivek Shanbhag chooses to write in Kannada. And he is not alone in this comfortable oscillation between mother tongue and the language of professional writing. I gather from him it is common practice among the Kannada, Marathi, Telugu writers. For instance, one of the finest Marathi short story writers G. A. Kulkarni was a Kannadiga; Girish Karnad’s mother tongue is Konkani but he writes in Kannada and the list goes on.
Earlier this year the English translation of Vivek’s fine novella Ghachar Ghochar was published by HarperCollins India. It has been translated by Srinath Perur. It was the only translated text from an Indian regional language included in the special edition of Granta on India ( 2015) edited by Ian Jack. “Ghachar Ghochar” is a nonsensical phrase yet the story is an impressively crafted vignette of a middle class family in Karnataka. Peppered with sufficient local characteristics for it to be representative of a Kannadiga family with universal issues such as socio-eco mobility & status of women. It is no wonder that this novella has caught the English readers by storm.
When you read Ghachar Ghochar it reads like the finest example of world literature. By world literature I mean translations of literary fiction from various cultures. It reads smoothly in the destination language of English but translation purists tell me exasperatedly that it does not retain the “flavour” of the original Kannada text.
One last point. I believe that “cultures” are not necessarily defined by political boundaries but geo-political formations. Under the British this region fell under the Bombay and Madras presidencies. Today it is bordered by the Arabian Sea, Goa, Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Kannada is the official language of Karnataka and spoken by about 66.26% of the people as of 2001. Other linguistic minorities in the state are Urdu (10.54%), Telugu (7.03%), Tamil (3.57%), Marathi (3.6%), Tulu (3.0%), Hindi (2.56%), Konkani (1.46%), Malayalam (1.33%) and Kodava Takk (0.3%).
With this note Vivek and I launched into our conversation. It touched upon various aspects of translation, Kannada literature, how is Kannada literature defined, the significance of literary awards, the process of translation, etc.