literary awards

What winning the Goethe Medal means for feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia

The publisher of Zubaan Books is nowhere near done with her work.

Urvashi Butalia, renowned Indian feminist, author and publisher, will be presented with this year’s Goethe Medal on August 28 at the annual Goethe Institue Awards in Weimar, Germany. She wins this honour along with Lebanese author Emily Nasrallah and Russian journalist, historian and translator, Dr Irina Scherbakowa. The award is given to those who show exceptional competence in the German language as well as exceptional contribution to international cultural exchanges.

In 1984, Butalia and Ritu Menon started India’s first feminist publishing house, Kali for Women, with a sense of urgency about bringing women’s voices into the male-dominated world of Indian literature. After they parted ways in 2003, Butalia established Zubaan Books, which publishes, among other things, autobiographies and histories of people whose narratives still remain largely invisible in Indian publishing.

In 1998, Butalia wrote the award-winning book The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India which compiled oral histories of the Partition at a time when very little had been recorded about the experiences of individuals.

In an interview with Scroll.in, Butalia explained what the Goethe medal means for her, what she’s reading at the moment, and how growing older has changed the way she approaches her politics. Excerpts from the interview:

You are one of the most well-known people in Indian publishing as well as in the feminist movement. Now you have won the Goethe Medal. What does an honour like that mean for you today?
I’m delighted to have been honoured with the Goethe Medal. It’s important to me because it’s named after a writer I admire and have studied, because it comes from the Goethe Institutes worldwide with whom we’ve worked closely for many years, and because it recognises work with women – that’s the most precious. We’re in the 21st century, it’s difficult enough even now, despite many changes and despite women having won many battles, to make women’s voices heard, to ensure that women are seen.

For example, Delhi has at least 20-30 panel discussions every other day on literature. Do a scan of these for a week or two and you will find (a) many many more male speakers, (b) lots of panels with only male speakers and if you’ll find women at all, they’ll be the elite, English-speaking women. I don’t want to be saying something like this in this day and age, but it is the unfortunate truth.

The other thing that’s important to me is this: you know awards are great, they recognise the work you do, but it’s the nature of awards by and large to honour a person, a single individual. But the work they recognise is never the product of a single individual, it’s always that of a larger group. I know that any “achievements” that are being recognised are not mine alone, but are because of the work of all my colleagues, past and present, who’ve been part of this enterprise and without whom we would have been nowhere, and also we are where we are because of the women’s movement in India, it’s the movement that gave birth to us and that sustains us.

It’s been almost 20 years since The Other Side of Silence was published. Did you foresee the kind of impact it has had?
You know, I’m a publisher, and I know about which books succeed in the market and which not, I’m realistic about books. I would have expected Silence to sell maybe 2000 copies. I have been constantly surprised by how it goes on, today 20 years later it is still in print and the publishers are issuing a new edition with a new introduction. It’s been translated into many languages – for me that’s most important – Hindi, Marathi, Urdu, Malayalam, Tamil, Assamese! I’m happy about that, which author would not be?

But I also think it came at a time when there was very little work that focused on the human histories of Partition, and at a time when universities and schools were open to studying different histories, so it made some kind of headway there. Also it was a moment when the kind of polarisation we see on lines of religion today was just beginning to take place, and people were keen to understand some of its histories which lie in the Partition experience.

And then there were the survivors, some of them were getting old, and they were wanting to speak – this is something that has grown over the years as more and more people have come out with their stories. And I suppose it was one of the first such books – not the first but one of the first. But what’s significant to me is that in the last two decades so much new work on Partition has come out, and this isn’t only in writing, but also in art, music, food, cinema, archives, museums...many silences still remain, and some of those will be really difficult to break, I’m not even sure we should break them, but the opening up of these histories is now unstoppable.

What are some of the books you’re proudest of putting out into the world?
You should never ask this question of a publisher, especially a feminist publisher! I’m proud of every single book we’ve published, because I believe each one has something important to say. I’m proud that many big names in literature today were first published by us and it was only then that bigger publishers picked them up. But yes, there are some books we have done which are the kind of books feminist publishers dream about.

When we set up, we set up in opposition to the domination of the world of knowledge and writing by men. Women were invisible in this world and our task was to make them visible. But you cannot just pride yourself that you are working against the grain, without questioning the assumptions that allow you to set yourself apart.

The first task for us was to unpack the category “woman” – when we spoke of women writers, did we mean only urban, educated, middle class, articulate women? Or did we have a responsibility beyond the city, beyond the English language (for we publish in English), did we have a responsibility to the women who were marginalised by caste, by religion, by location, by economic status, by language and so on. We made a conscious effort. This often means publishing books that are not “sexy”, that the marketing people will wonder about, and that are not easy to sell. Stories of taxi drivers, stories of domestic workers…

We’ve published some books that have become classics in feminist studies – a collection of essays called Recasting Women (published in 1989 and still in print), a book on the Indian women’s movement called The History of Doing (published in 1993 and still in print), a book on the Dalit women’s movement in Maharashtra called We Also Made History, a book on the notion of Brahmanical Patriarchy called Rewriting History, a book on the Kunan Poshpora rape case called Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora...

But there are three books that have changed the way I think of books. A visual book called Shareer ki Jaankari, written by a group of women from Rajasthan. Seventy-five women wrote this book and one of the conditions they imposed on us when they gave us the book was that the names of all 75 should appear on the cover. This upturned all my received notions about authorship for I had always learned that authorship is an individual thing, you can have two authors, or three, but 75? This book – we have never sold a single copy through a bookstore, every copy goes to village women or to NGOs, and till now we have done more than 70-80,000 copies.

The other book was Baby Halder’s autobiographical book, a hard-hitting account of what it means to be poor, female and to live in an abusive marriage. This book, called A Life Less Ordinary, has been a transformative experience for many many poor women, and Baby herself has become an inspiration.

You’ve been part of the feminist movement for decades. How have the changing times affected your politics?
If anything, I am more than ever convinced that the feminist movement in India is the only movement that has retained an openness, a self-questioning and an ability to learn. I think feminists of my generation, and there are many of us, have grown in our understanding, we’ve questioned many of our own assumptions, we’ve seen many changes around us, but we all agree that feminism gives our lives meaning, and that gives us the energy to go on.

Have I become less militant? Yes perhaps age does that to you. But that’s not because I reject militant feminism, I think it has a place, but because I have chosen to work in other ways. Have I become more balanced? Perhaps, except that I don’t think I was ever unbalanced, nor – even though we may have thrown shoes at people who refused to accept that women had been violated in x or y place – were my colleagues.

I think you change with age, you change as the issues you are confronted with become more complex and more intertwined, but your core beliefs don’t go away. One of the things I’ve learnt over the years is how, even within feminism, there will be a continuous process of questioning of what may be seen as the “mainstream” feminist position by other groups – as is happening now with Dalit feminist groups who are questioning what they see a mainstream feminism’s refusal to recognise and acknowledge their complicity in caste discrimination – and we have to recognise this questioning as an integral part of our learning process.

What are you reading at the moment? What are some books you’ve enjoyed recently?
Of late I’ve been reading a lot of the books we’ve published -– you know as editor you read but you don’t really read because you are reading with an editorial eye and not a reader’s eye. So I’ve been reading our books and thinking, wow, we do some really good books! I shan’t mention these though, because I’m a well brought-up feminist and will not brag.

I’m just rereading the old wonderful collection Women Writing in India (two volumes), I go back to it continually, I’m rereading Tamas in Hindi because I picked it up in a bookstore, I’m reading the autobiograpy of Hindi writer Ramnika Gupta because I’m interested in autobiography, I’m reading Vishwayjyoti Ghosh’s graphic novel, Delhi Calm which I should have read ages ago, I’m reading Sharmila Rege’s edited collection of Ambedkar’s writings, Against the Madness of Manu.

What would you say to young writers working on historical and political subjects?
I’d say great, please do more of this. I don’t think age is a necessity for any kind of writing, and the approach of the young to history and politics is something we need to learn from. This will also open up our understanding of these subjects because otherwise it tends to remain very hidebound and fixed. I’d only say that while working on these or any other subjects, it’s important to question what you see and go beyond, else you will never see what the mainstream so effectively hides.

What do you have planned for the near future?

Lots. I live with a constant sense of incompleteness, a constant feeling that there is so much more to do. I’ve learnt to recognise this as a desirable state of being. I hope it never leaves me.

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