Meet the Publishers

Pakistan has got a new publisher of English books, and she’s looking to stir things up

‘The totemic figures of traditional publishing in Pakistan haven’t looked to sustain anything other than their own relevance,’ says Shandana Minhas.

Pakistan has produced several internationally acclaimed writers in English, including two Booker Prize nominees (Mohsin Hamid, 2007 shortlist; Mohammed Hanif, longlisted in 2008). But the English language publishing scene in the country is conspicuous by the absence of presses of any repute, barring Oxford University Press Pakistan. Enter, in this space, Mongrel Books, started by Shandana Minhas, author of three novels – Tunnel Vision, Survival Tips For Lunatics, and Daddy’s Boy. Excerpts from an interview on publishing in Pakistan, Mongrel’s vision and mandate, and the way ahead:

Why did you decide to set up Mongrel Books? How has the journey been so far?
For some years now my husband Imran and I have been quietly building the life we always imagined for ourselves, in the company of books, in the service of books. Recently we have been struggling to find books we want to read on shelves in Karachi, so we just decided to take the next logical step and publish them. The journey has just started. I hope you’ll ask me again in a year and I’ll be around to answer.

Why do you think that the English language publishing scene hasn’t evolved in Pakistan? Is it because of a lack of a dedicated readership, infrastructure or even security threats?
Lack of a dedicated readership and infrastructure would be news to the retired bureaucrats, landowners, politicians, socialites and inbred memoirists whose English language offerings have been, and continue to be, published in Pakistan. Just two minutes ago the host of the country’s most watched political talk show told us that all three of the night’s guests were published writers. Between them they had written books on law, dentistry and honour killing.

They might all be good books; the point is that traditional publishing in Pakistan is as riddled with greed, nepotism, cronyism and corruption as the body politick of the wider nation. Its totemic figures, the gatekeepers to visibility, haven’t looked to sustain anything other than their own relevance. If something happens and they aren’t involved in it, they won’t tell you about it. And given the opportunity they will tear it down.

This applies to everything from state-funded cultural bodies to privately owned enterprises to media coverage, and cuts across class. They might tell you they’re not publishing English language fiction because of security threats or censorship, but the truth might be closer to self-censorship: the margins aren’t big enough and “native Pakistani” writers (like me) don’t add to their social cache.

But there might be something stirring in English language fiction publishing too, finally. A distributor in Lahore set up a dedicated imprint a couple of years ago. A big distributor in Karachi is quietly testing whether the footfall at book fairs and festivals might translate into actual sales for its own new fiction imprint. Talented young writers have organised themselves into collectives and started publishing online and in print. And one of the older, smaller presses just published a book of English short stories. By the chairman of the senate.

Almost all Pakistani authors publish or aspire to publish with major Indian publishers. How does Mongrel plan to reverse this trend? And have you managed to poach any writers from bigger publishers?
We have no aspirations to trend setting, bucking, reversal and/or spotting. Pakistani writers need to continue to find as many publishers as they can. All writers should. We’d love to do co-editions with other indie presses in the region to bring our writers to as wide a readership as possible. Maybe one day we’ll all make enough to pay our electricity bills, haina?

As for whether we have managed to poach writers from bigger publishers, poaching is such a brutal term. It makes publishing sound like a blood sport. Like we’re shooting writers in the wild for their horns (I think I just accidentally described dick lit). It seems much more placid from the other end, the writing end, which is clearly not actually the business end.

Is the bias towards being published in, and being endorsed by, the West as strong among Pakistani writers as their Indian counterparts?
Hah. You know that rasm where the groom sees the bride for the first time via a mirror? That still sums up the coalescing of self-image for a certain kind of person here.They can’t see themselves till a European or American publisher/reviewer/bartender has seen them. (If a South Asian falls in a forest and there is no white person there to see it does he still make a sound?)

On a serious note, parsing through the submissions we got for this anthology, it occurred to us that once upon a time people would merely speak with an accent, now they write with an accent too. But flirting with identities is an essential part of growing up, so I say that with a smile.

Of more concern to us as an indie press is the unfortunate tendency of potential readers to be influenced this way too. They will still buy the oft reviewed book that nobody will read in ten years over the book that a “nobody” wrote which everybody will be reading in a hundred. But that is changing too, I think, and currents in international politics will help some discover their self-esteem.

You decided to launch Mongrel with an anthology of short stories and poetry on the theme of break-ups. I don’t know about Pakistan, but in India anthologies have a very restricted readership. Is there a reason why you chose this format?
We thought it would be a good calling card in terms of letting lurking writers know the sort of work that floats our boats, and the wider world, our general approach to the business of publishing. We prefer the word counterintuitive to unintelligent.

Mongrel has been aggressively promoting the Kindle edition of the anthology across social media platforms. What’s the ebook market in the country like?
Non-existent. But it’s a good window to the rest of the world, and for the rest of the world. The writers in this first anthology – The Mongrel Book of Voices will be a series – are from nine different countries. For an indie press, and an anthology as outward looking as this one, ebooks are a great way to overcome prohibitive shipping costs till we have decided on the best way to get our physical books into grubby hands far far away too.

Will Mongrel focus on publishing full-length works of only Pakistani writers, or will you be open to writers from across the globe? And will the focus be on new voices or established writers?
We are open to writers from anywhere. We look at the work, not the nationality. That applies to new versus established too.

One of my Pakistani authors withdrew his book from a Pakistani press after he was asked to remove every single reference to a highly controversial writer from the subcontinent. How does Mongrel plan to tackle sensitive issues such as freedom of expression, blasphemy and so on?
Very carefully. Witness our refusal to engage with a question that is clearly a twitter war waiting to happen.

How many books do you plan to publish in a year? What is the size of your team?
We plan to do four books a year this first year. The team is myself and Imran Yusuf and two talented young Pakistani women who literally appeared out of nowhere to help make what we want happen. Like calls to like, I think, and we’re all subscribers to the apnimadadaap school of thought. One is our social media director and a writer and the other is a graphic designer/illustrator. We hope to publish both of them.

As an acclaimed novelist you bring skilled reading, editing and empathy to the table. How difficult has it been on the business end?
It’s kind of you to say that. Thank you. Not as difficult as it would have been if I was doing it alone. Which is the business end again?

Having published your three books with big multinational publishers like Hachette and HarperCollins India, do you intend to publish your subsequent work with your own press?
Can one be objective about one’s own work? The last two editors I have had at both Hachette and HarperCollins India made my books better, and I’m not sure I’m ready to deprive myself of borrowed wisdom. What I can say with certainty is that I want greater control over the marketing and availability of my book in my own country, and a contract that is kinder to the monkey without whom the tiny circus would not exist.

What can we expect from Mongrel in the next few years?
Good books.

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