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Saturday, September 18, 2021

‘In a globalised world, we should be allowed to publish what we want regardless of where we are situated’: Ottaway Award 2021 winner Naveen Kishore

Publisher of Seagull Books on winning the award that recognises exceptional individual effort in promoting international literature and shaping one of India’s best-known independent publishing houses

Written by Paromita Chakrabarti | New Delhi |
September 10, 2021 1:46:28 pm
Naveen Kishore, Seagull Books, 2021 Ottaway Award, international literaturePublisher of Seagull Books, Naveen Kishore at his book store in Kolkata. (Express photo by Partha Paul)

In June 1982, when Kolkata-based Naveen Kishore decided to venture into publishing from theatre almost overnight, he compensated what he lacked in experience with foresight. In the nearly four decades since, his vision has led Seagull Books to establish itself as one of the country’s finest independent publishing houses, with a multicultural approach to the arts. Among the first publishing houses to focus on translations, Seagull’s author list boasts of award-winning writers such as Herta Müller, Jean-Paul Sartre, László Krasznahorkai, Mahasweta Devi, Roland Barthes, KG Subramanyan, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, among others. Kishore has won this year’s Ottaway Award, which recognises extraordinary individual contribution in promoting international literature in English translation. The award ceremony will be held in New York on September 30.

The annual award, given by international magazine Words Without Borders, has, among its past winners, literary translator Edith Grossman, Sara Bershtel, publisher of Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, Carol Brown Janeway of Alfred A. Knopf, among others.

In this interview, Kishore speaks of the early years of Seagull Books, its new imprint and publishing after the pandemic:

Congratulations on the award! I’d like to use this opportunity to take you back to the time nearly four decades ago, when you set up Seagull Books. What was the translation scene like and what were some of the difficulties you faced in those early years?

We were too full of exhilaration and discovery — of the process of translation and the sense that our country is stitched into being through a variety of languages. We started to translate plays from the Indian languages into English, not so as to perform in English but more as a ‘link’, so that theatre persons could go back to the original language and translate into their own regional one. This enriched the theatre practice across the country. Yes, it was difficult to translate, find the right translators, and editors who would whet the translations, working closely with living playwrights and in-house editors. It was also not easy trying to get these newly published books into the hands of buyers. But we did it. And we did it before the internet!

Naveen Kishore, Seagull Books, 2021 Ottaway Award, international literature The Seagull space in Kolkata. (Photo: Naveen Kishore)

With its recognition by mainstream literary awards and its presence on publishing lists, do you feel that translation in India has finally come of age?

I have never understood this ‘coming of age’. It sounds almost like coming to a halt. Each age, era, time has its own unique problems and opportunities. The thing to understand is ‘intent’. A publisher needs to have the intent, the rest falls into place. Awards have their own place, but it is less about awards and more about sustained content. Sustainability is not always about money. It is about content and what you choose to bring into the world. We grew up with literature from so many languages from across the world being available on Calcutta’s footpaths. Then came the grand disappearance — things changed for many reasons and translated literature disappeared. Now, it is very visible and there are publishers who have wonderful translated lists that thrive.

Tell us about your new imprint, Quilombola, that will focus on sub-Saharan African and French-speaking Afro-European literature.

Quilombola is a Brazilian word for the inhabitant of a maroon — a runaway slave — community. The choice of this appellation is a tribute to those who stood up against oppression through the history of mankind. However, there is more in this reference: it speaks both about freedom regained and about all the creative gestures that stemmed from that conquest. For those who had broken their chains, the quilombo was a place of re-appropriation and reinvention of oneself.

It is by inviting writers and readers to practice marronnage — ‘running away from slavery’ — of thought, to shift their way of thinking, that Quilombola stands out. The list is a space from which resonate insubordinate, inventive, provocative and unexpected voices. Although focusing on Sub-Saharan African and French-speaking Afropean — that is, Afro-European — expressions, we wish to welcome minority points of view from other places.

Naveen Kishore, Seagull Books, 2021 Ottaway Award, international literature A title published by Naveen Kishore. (Photo: Naveen Kishore)

The important thing here from the publishing point of view is that a series like this would normally have originated in France because both the series editor, Leonora Miano, and all the writers write in French! We, as Seagull, would have, in those circumstances, ended up buying English language rights. Instead, the series originates with Seagull. We own all language rights. We sell the French texts to the French publishers as we do to various other European and world languages. We ourselves translate and publish the English editions. This ‘upsetting’ of the status quo is worth understanding because it is linked to who gets to publish what and from which geographical location. To put it bluntly, we have erased boundaries of language and location more as an intuitive act because opportunities presented themselves than any particular motivation. The idea is that in a globalised world, we should be allowed to publish what we want regardless of where we are situated.

How do you see the pandemic reshaping the Indian publishing scene, including how independent publishing houses will operate in the coming years?

There is no one size fits all response or solution. We are still in the midst of this vast fracturing of our book world, despite spikes in online sales, e-books and other direct-to-buyer strategies being practiced. Independent publishers have always had to survive against the odds. Now, with this pandemic that may never actually transform into a ‘post-pandemic’ in a hurry, all of us are trying different ways of surviving. We are in the throes of the storm. Strategies will emerge when we look back, not now. For now, it is one day at a time. One small example: we are now trying to battle the uncertainties of shipping from say, India into the US or Australia. Unlike before, there are currently no guarantees of time. So we are printing in these different countries in varying quantities based on requirement to avoid shipping to and fro. This is already different.

Naveen Kishore, Seagull Books, 2021 Ottaway Award, international literature A title published by Naveen Kishore. (Photo: Naveen Kishore)

For nearly four decades, Seagull has been a trailblazer in the way it has facilitated reading works in translation. What lies ahead?

Not sure about trailblazer — all we did was survive with interesting, even intuitive content! The rest is for others to judge. What lies ahead is this: next year we turn 40. We are busy curating a special imprint called ‘Seagull at 40’ — 40 special books by as many wonderful writers from our circle of affection. No noisy fire-crackers or self-congratulatory events, just a quiet salute to the word. You may also look out for Seagull Audiobooks.

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