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Ritu Menon, founder of publishers Women Unlimited, a stalwart of women’s publishing, has been writing a diary during the lockdown from Delhi, an insightful and moving account peppered with anecdotes and cameos of publishing professionals and writers across the world. Address Book was born when she was flipping through her addresses of publishers and writers one day. The diary entries are effectively a memoir of Menon’s decades in feminist publishing, and a record of the world she sees around her. In this excerpt, she talks about the founding of an alliance of international independent publishers, offers a delightful anecdote about Qurratulain Haider’s meeting with her Italian translator, talks about the experience of co-publishing with the oldest feminist press in the world, publishing a book by an anonymous Iraqi blogger, and more.
June 5, 2020
Paris is the headquarters of the International Alliance of Independent Publishers, of which Women Unlimited is a member. It was set up by a group of French Jewish intellectuals in the early 2000s as a counter to the rapid corporatisation of the publishing industry, worldwide. The Alliance has a clear left-of-centre orientation, and an equally clear bias in favour of independent presses – independent of government, corporate, or institutional control and affiliation. Its professed objective is to support and further what it articulates as biblio-diversity – it believes that diversity in book publishing is as crucial to the production of knowledge as biodiversity is to the environment and to plant species. What must be resisted at all costs is what Vandana [Shiva] calls “monocultures of the mind”.
Etienne Galliand and Thierry Quinqueton at the Alliance identified five major language areas from which to invite member publishers – French, English, Spanish, Arabic and Chinese. (The Chinese network is more or less defunct as no publisher is really independent in China.) This Alliance is the only one of its kind in the world that I know of, and includes many of the most interesting and courageous small independents in all five languages.
The most politically vibrant – and most fun-loving! – of them are the Latin Americans; I was delighted when, earlier this year, four of them (from Chile, Peru, Argentina and Colombia) decided to collectively translate and publish Vandana’s Oneness vs. the 1% into Spanish, for their respective markets. It was a remarkable act of solidarity, and not at all unusual in the Alliance. This collaborative, rather than competitive, spirit is more evident in languages other than English, which because of its dominance and dispersal across the world, carries some of its old arrogance even into associations like this one. I have to say, though, that the English language publishers in this network are free of that, for the most part. And, in any case, they are quickly disabused of any such tendency by the spirited Latinos!
It’s funny how the Corona virus and the catastrophe that has followed has borne out so much of what Vandana has been saying for years, about genetic engineering, hybrid seeds, pesticides and herbicides, and the rapacity of Big Agribusiness and Big Pharma. The demand for her books has grown significantly, and in the last one month, we have signed contracts for them in the US, Thailand, Slovenia, and Turkey, the last three for the first time. A little glow of happiness in otherwise dark days.
June 16, 2020
Day 83 of the lockdown, and the scenario gets grimmer by the hour. Not being able to predict something as unprecedented as this virus is one thing, but the sheer incompetence and criminal neglect of the central and most state governments, Delhi included, is unforgivable. It’s clear that they have tossed the ball into individual citizens’ courts, to win or lose as they will. All of them, politicians and administrators, deserve nothing but contempt, and I hope they are punished for their venality in a way that is commensurate with their callousness.
Nothing is anywhere near being either normal or safe. We have been opening the office for only one day a week, but even that may stop, as everyone is nervous about the soaring cases. I don’t know how the other independents are faring, but sense in them a sort of fearful hope that things will settle down. I doubt it myself. We continue to work in as uninterrupted a way as we can, but it is quite unsatisfactory. Also frustrating, because it is such a protracted business. Sunetra Gupta, the epidemiologist at Oxford (and our author, whose novel, So Good in Black we published in 2010) who has been working on viruses for ages, says the thing about COVID is that so little is known about it. She herself is devising a study to see exactly how dangerous it is.
June 20, 2020
Every now and then Barbara (at New Directions) sends me a little gift box of books that she thinks I will enjoy reading, and that she herself likes very much and is proud to have published. A couple of years ago she gave me Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone, about what has been called “the central moral question of our times”, the refugee crisis across the world. In the novel, a retired professor of philosophy in Germany comes up against the plight of African refugees in his city, and is forced to reckon with Germany’s own history regarding migrants. A wonderfully prescient and compassionate book.
Barbara co-published two of our titles, QurratulainHyder’s River of Fire and Fireflies in the Mist, her acknowledgement of their importance in the list of major literary works in translation published by New Directions. In my view, New Directions is probably the finest literary imprint in the world in English, and has a truly committed bunch of editors at its helm.
A book that I have been reading recently is another one that Barbara sent, Muriel Spark’s Loitering With Intent, a sparkling send-up of what its protagonist, Fleur, calls the “grubby edge of the literary world”. The novel is set in 1950, exactly halfway through the twentieth century, and Fleur declares with aplomb (as did Miss Jean Brodie in her prime), “How wonderful to be an artist and a woman in the twentieth century!”
Well, Fleur is likely Muriel Spark herself, and Loitering is a scintillating aside on the enterprise of autobiography and memoir, and on the ever-green question of whether art imitates life or vice versa. Fleur/Muriel obviously don’t attempt an answer to that, but by artfully juxtaposing Fleur’s novel-writing and her “doctoring” of the memoirs of members of the Autobiography Association, she does wonder who actually provides the raw material for storytelling – the novelist or the memoirist. A delightfully subversive perspective!
(Now, you may think that I have only been reading a selection of western women, but that is not the case. I’ve also read [Michael] Ondaatje’s Warlight, a most beautiful book; Ian McEwan’s A Child in Time, his haunting evocation of time and childhood; Pankaj Mishra’s The Age of Anger, which establishes his wide-ranging reading alright, but my goodness, does it ramble – needed editing, in my view; Sudhanva Deshpande’s HallaBol!, his life of Safdar Hashmi, an interesting experiment in a kind of ventriloquism; and am currently reading Suraj Yengde’s Caste Matters. But, with the exception of Sudhu, I have no connection with any of them as a publisher, so haven’t dwelt on them in the same way.)
Barbara and New Directions have published close to 20 of Muriel Spark’s books, and she recounted a lovely story about going to meet Ms Spark in Tuscany (where she lived with her female lover) and persuading her to give them the book she was then working on. Don’t recall now which one, but perhaps it was Curriculum Vitae.
When we published River of Fire in 1998, the Pakistani-British writer Aamer Hussein gave it a wonderful review in TLS, comparing Hyder to Garcia Marquez, but much to my surprise and disappointment, it has never had a UK publisher. It’s been published in Italian and Norwegian, we have even had an enquiry from a Chinese publisher, but not from England. Which is why Barbara’s decision to publish not one, but two, of Hyder’s novels, is testimony to her editorial and literary sensibility.
The really interesting story, however, is the one about the Italian edition, published by NeriPozza, in Milan. One day, I received an email from a Vincenzo Mingiardi, to say that he had been commissioned by NeriPozza to translate River of Fire, but would like to meet the author before he did so – would this be possible? Well, yes, in theory, but how – didn’t he live in Italy? Oh, said he, that is not a problem, because he would be in Delhi shortly, on a visit to his khanqah in Shahjehanabad. Curiouser and curiouser.
It turned out that Vincenzo is a Sufi, had converted to Islam a long time back, and visits his khanqah for a couple of weeks every couple of years. This time, he would be coming from Bombay, where he had been invited by Greg[ory David Roberts], whose blockbuster novel, Shantaram, he had just finished translating. More about that shortly.
Now, how to tell Vincenzo that Aini Apa was notorious for never meeting people she didn’t know, especially translators, and that on the rare occasion that she did, could be quite caustic and unwelcoming? Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained, so I called her. ”Bilkul nahin,” she said, why should she meet any Italian who wanted to translate her? “Tumh mil lo,” she ordered.
He’s not just any old translator, I said, he’s converted to Islam and is learning Urdu, and… “Nahin,” she repeated. So I pulled out my trump card and told her he was a practising Sufi and that he belonged to a particular silsila (I forget which now) that I was sure she was familiar with. That did it. Aini Apa was extremely knowledgeable about Sufism and the various silsilas that existed in India, so her curiosity was aroused. But – a short meeting, she warned, ”Tumh bhi aana, aur usko saath le jaana, baadmein”.
Vincenzo met her, he went on his own – and spent the whole day with her! Every time he got up to leave she detained him with yet another point of discussion, and before he knew it, it was late evening. He came over to the house afterwards, and said he couldn’t recall when he had last spent such an interesting day. More interesting than with Shantaram’s author? I teased.
He laughed heartily, then regaled me with stories about his meeting with Greg. He was put up at the Taj Hotel, all expenses paid. Greg informed him that he had signed a contract for a film based on his book, and specified that his character would be played by Johnny Depp. Then Vincenzo, just to be provocative, asked him what he thought of Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City. “Ha!” responded Greg, “Suketu only writes about Bombay’s sewage – I have Bombay’s sewage in my veins!”
In 2017 we were in Parma, where Vincenzo lives, and I wanted to give him a copy of Aini Apa’s Chandni Begum, which we had just published. It was during Ramzan and he was fasting on the day we went there, but he treated us to a lovely lunch, and then showed us around the town, in a way that only those who love their cities can. Vincenzo is one of the loveliest people I know – gentle, erudite, and full of warmth. No surprise, really, that Aini Apa got on with him.
June 26, 2020
We published with two or three other publishers in Italy, apart from NeriPozza, including Feltrinelli, Longanesi and Marcos y Marcos, but none of them was feminist. In fact, curiously, Italy didn’t really have a feminist press, as such, in the way that the UK, France, Spain, Germany, even Finland, did, despite a vibrant women’s movement, one of the most active in Europe.
These days, I can count the number of feminist publishers in the world on the fingers of one hand (more or less) when earlier, in the 1980s and 1990s there were more than two dozen, together with feminist bookshops (not a single one of the originals around any more), magazines, reviewing periodicals, librarians, typesetters, designers, printers, even – all part of the Women in Print movement, all reinforcing each other’s work. Among the very few that exist, the ones we work most with are the Feminist Press in New York, and Spinifex in Australia.
Florence Howe, together with fellow academics, set up The Feminist Press in 1970s, in Baltimore, and it is the oldest feminist publisher in the world. Fifty years old this year, still autonomous, although affiliated with the City University of New York, a public university. Fiercely political, and forward looking, the press pioneered the publication of Black women’s writing, introducing White America to writers like Zora Neal Hurston, Tillie Olsen, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and others, who would later become household names.
Florence pioneered other projects, too, among them the path-breaking Women Writing in India, in two volumes, followed by Women Writing in Africa, both seminal works, both commissioned by the Press. It would only have been fitting that the two Women Writing in India volumes be published by us at Kali (in 1991 & 1993 respectively) but its editors were adamant that it be published by a university press. So much for feminist solidarity and feminist politics! Florence was most unhappy about this, wasn’t at all keen to work with OUP on the book (was infuriated, in fact, that their promotional material for it implied that it was an OUP original), but was unable to prevail.
We published many other books with the Press, however, including our short story anthologies and Esther David’s Shalom India Housing Society; I wrote an Afterword for their edition of Shashi Deshpande’s A Matter of Time, and Florence has always been a good friend. A friend of India, too, for she published other Indian writers, including Meena Alexander and Shashi Deshpande, as well as the Bangladeshis—Rounaq and Roshan Jahan.
Her autobiography, A Life in Motion, is a fascinating account of a woman whose personal, political and publishing lives came together, mindfully and seamlessly. It is also a record of the kind of publishing that The Feminist Press did, what Florence always called Publishing for Social Change.
July 3, 2020
Among the London addresses in my book is Haifa Zangana’s, the Iraqi writer whose memoir, Dreaming of Baghdad, we published in 2012. It is a book I am really proud of, even if it did not originate with us – it came to us from The Feminist Press in New York.
Haifa was a revolutionary activist in Iraq in the 1970s, imprisoned and tortured by Saddam Hussein for being a communist, and against the Baath regime. The Iraqi Communist Party attracted many of the brightest students in the country in the 1970s, and had its base in Kurdistan. It was the main opposition to the Baath Party for a while, till some in its senior leadership were co-opted by Saddam into joining the government under the so-called National Front. Many younger members of the ICP, Haifa among them, could never be sure when they would be informed upon and picked up by the police.
“I wrote this book in tiny instalments, over eight years,” she says “when I had persistent nightmares about my past…at a time when I wasn’t able to deal with memories of what had happened to me in prison.” The prison was Abu Ghraib, infamous as a torture chamber long before the Americans used it as such. It was where the revolutionary youth of Iraq were thrown when they resisted Sadaam and opposed the Baath Party. Haifa wrote her memoir to break the silence around torture, to find words that would communicate the shame, the guilt and the humiliation she experienced. Thirty years later she still woke up at 2:00 am, “the time when they used to lead me out of my cell for interrogation”.
Haifa’s book “reads, sounds, and feels like drops of merciful rain,” says Hamid Dabashi (professor of comparative literature at Columbia University) and he is right. Dreaming of Baghdad is, at once, a testimonial and an act of redemption. She lives in permanent exile in London, as one of the conditions of her release from Abu Ghraib was that she could never return to Iraq.
Haifa picked me up from the station when I reached Cricklewood and drove me to her home, where she had invited other Iraqi women “to meet my publisher from India” over a sumptuous high tea – Iraqi style – and to hear about the women’s movement in India. Haifa and her friends are a support group for Iraqis in exile or asylum in Britain, and also for their families left behind in Iraq.
She herself, with a few others, has been documenting the effects of the deployment of depleted uranium by the US in Fallujah, where they believe widespread devastation has taken place. She’s also been working on what she says used to be an active café culture in Baghdad, the hub for a range of politically charged activities and expression. That culture has been more or less destroyed, first by the American invasion, and now with its fallout – a protracted and violent Shia-Sunni face-off.
Listening to these determinedly resilient women recounting their experiences and their lives, I felt rather foolish talking about the “struggles” of Indian women which, real as they are, seemed minor in comparison. Although the evening was actually quite jovial, with plenty of laughter (contributed mostly by Haifa’s charming husband) a line from her book kept running through my head: “Is sadness the first and last resting place?”
We invited Haifa to India in 2013, together with Jean Said (Edward Said’s sister) and the Lebanese writer, HodaBarakat, all three in some form of exile: Haifa in London; Hoda in Paris; Jean in Beirut, in almost-exile from Palestine. The sense of being out of place was palpable in all of them, but less so, I thought, in Hoda, whose Tiller of Waters (which we published, also in 2012) is the most enigmatic of all their writing. Haifa’s, unsurprisingly, was the most poignant, and when she recalled the cosmopolitanism that characterised the Baghdad of her childhood and youth, the sadness that suffused her face was heartbreaking.
But Haifa was not the first Iraqi writer we published; that would be Riverbend, a young woman whose real identity remains anonymous, and whose blogs, anthologised as Baghdad Burning, we published in 2007. All that is known of her is that she was in her mid-twenties in 2003, when the US invaded Iraq on the pretext of destroying Sadaam Hussein’s (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction; she began writing her “Girl Blog from Iraq” to document what was happening in, and to, her city. Riverbend had a job in computers in an Iraqi database/software company as a programmer, and was confined to her home during the siege. She wrote:
“I wish every person who emails me, supporting the war, safe behind their computer, secure in their narrow mind and fixed views, could actually come and experience the war, live…The frontline is our homes… the ‘collateral damage’ are our friends and families.”
Ahdaf wrote the Foreword to Riverbend’s book (although I hadn’t met Ahdaf then), probably the only non-journalisitic, day-by-day report of the invasion at the time; it won the Lettres Ulysses Award in 2005.
People wondered whether Riverbend was a “fake” identity, a westerner masquerading as an Iraqi. Gloria at The Feminist Press (from whom we bought the rights) said James Ridgeway, who brought them the manuscript, confirmed that she was indeed real, but that the Press never communicated with her directly. However, Marion Boyars, who published Riverbend in England, told me that she had had her bonafides authenticated.
Two, or perhaps less, years after her book was published, Riverbend and her family disappeared, and no one knew where they had taken refuge. Some said Damascus.
Five years later we published a second collection of blogs by another young woman, Laila Al Haddad, whose book, Gaza Mama, is her account of being trapped in Gaza during Israel’s siege of 2011. Laila blogged to tell her two sons in the US how she was and what she observed while the siege was on, and she also reported from the field for Al Jazeera.
Riverbend’s and Laila’s blogging was qualitatively different from most other blogs that are written, for they wrote under duress, and with a clear personal-political perspective. They documented what they experienced themselves, and in Riverbend’s case, as a record of how her city was being systematically dismantled.
Dreaming of Baghdad, Gaza Mama and Tiller of Waters were part of a series of books that we published under the rubric Arabesque, which featured writing from West Asia, fiction and non-fiction, either in original English or in translation from Arabic. Mostly by women, but not only, it began in 2010, and the first few titles were by Palestinians, an attempt on my part to first, introduce readers in India to the rich literature being written by them under Occupation or in exile – there are more Palestinians outside Palestine than inside; and second, as an act of solidarity with a country that has suffered the brazen takeover of their land by Israel and been subjected to the kind of oppression and indignity that are unconscionable, and a moral outrage. I remember Suad Amiry telling me, “You know, Ritu, the Israelis they say ‘Peace, peace, peace,’ but they take land, land, land.”
The world has been suffering from Palestine fatigue for some time now, betrayed by the Arab nations and besieged by Israel. Suad calls this her country’s menopausal moment, and in her book, Menopausal Palestine (which we published in 2010) she writes about the intertwined journey of Palestine, and of those Palestinian women who were politically active through the 1990s, right up to the Oslo Accord, and who are now experiencing the lost vitality of both, the PLO and their own resistance to Occupation. We invited Suad to India – probably the first Palestininan writer to visit three cities – to talk about her book, and she returned again and again, each time when another of her books was published by us.
Suad became our link to Palestine, and she also introduced us to other Palestinian writers whom we published over the years – Susan Abulhawa, Laila Al-Haddad, AdaniaShibli, Raja Shehadeh, Sharif Elmusa, Mourid Barghouti…
Mourid. Disillusioned with the PLO and in self-imposed exile in Cairo. Mourid, who wrote:
“I rubbed the leaf of the orange in my hands
As I had been told to do
So that I could smell its scent
But before my hand could reach my nose
I had lost my home and become a refugee”
Mourid returned to Palestine, 33 years after he had left, with his son, Tamim, and wrote I Saw Ramallah, a lyrical and deeply moving account, that haunts and disturbs you each time you return to it. Later he wrote I Was Born Here, I Was Born There, his attempt to come to terms with the fact that he could never return to Palestine to live.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.