I first met Urvashi Butalia at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair back some years ago, and was immediately wowed. There are few people in the world as intelligent, out-spoken, sharp, and charming as Urvashi. And her publishing house, Zubaan Books, is incredible.
Since that time, I’ve hung out with Urvashi in London, Salzberg, and Sharjah, where she called me out on a panel for being too “Euro-centric” and not talking about countries outside of the U.S. and UK where books are written, published, and sold in English. (She was right; I was shamed.)
Anyway, I was really pleased to come across this interview with Urvashi about “how her publishing project and feminist ideology have evolved” over the past ten years. Here are a few excerpts:
How have your concerns as a publisher changed over these years?
Zubaan has broadened its base, focused more keenly on translation, and on finding a younger profile of writers. As a publisher, I have been especially concerned with the issue of copyright. Although I believe copyright is important, I also see the point of people wanting free access to knowledge. I feel that publishers, especially those who are not in the business for the commerce but for political reasons, are obliged to think about how we can take this forward.
In my own role as a publisher, I am thinking of a mix of copyrighted books and creative commons, of bookstores and books for differently-abled people. We must start making audio books, for instance. As I grow older, I realize the need for books with large print. At some stage, we were keen to do books for new literates. We still haven’t given up on that.
To what extent has feminist publishing been able to address the lived realities of women at a pan-Indian level?
I am aware that by publishing in English, from Delhi, we are constrained by class, language, location, and so on. But we have made a conscious effort to bring in the voices of marginalized women. We also work with publishers of other languages. In 1989, we did a book called Shareer ki Jankari (About the Body), about women’s bodies, written by 75 women from the villages of Rajasthan who did not have the wherewithal to print it—the kind of project that feminist publishers dream of.
When these women came to us with the book, they imposed only one condition: that we would not sell it for profit. We started with a print run of 2,000, but before the copies had arrived from the printers, the women had canvassed in villages and presold 1,800 copies. Over the years, we have sold some 70,000 odd copies.
And, the most poignant quote in the whole piece:
There is also a real fear as to whether small publishing is going to be eaten up by the biggies. It’s always been my dream to prove that feminist publishing can survive, its politics intact, in the commercial marketplace. I used to be completely convinced of this, but now I am not so sure.
Again, here’s a link to Zubaan’s fiction list for those of you interested in reading some great works from Indian women writers.
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .
Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its. . .
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic is not a novel in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a collection of vignettes recorded by journalist Georges Vasseur in his diary during a month spent in the Pyrenées Mountains to treat his nervous. . .
Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and. . .
There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in Morse, My Deaf Friend— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling. . .
The Crimson Thread of Abandon is the first collection of short fiction available in English by the prolific Japanese writer and all-around avant-garde trickster Terayama Shūji, who died in 1983 at the age of 47. This collection would be important. . .