May 4, 2020

A recent copy of The New Yorker, downloaded and read on my iPad, had this stunningly beautiful photograph of Park Avenue on a recent March morning – a long shot of the vista, laden with cherry trees in full bloom, sunlight glinting in the windows of tall buildings on either side, a column of skyscrapers disappearing towards the Pan Am building at the end of the street. There was not a living soul on it, apart from a lone pedestrian crossing the road. Covid had emptied the avenue.

The Doubleday office where I worked in 1969-70 was located on Park & 44th next to the Seagrams building designed by Mies van der Rohe. My husband Pogey’s office, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, an architecture firm, was on 54th & Park, in the Unilever building designed by Gordon Bunshaft. I would walk down from my office to meet him at the corner of 54th every day, so we could have lunch together. (The telephone operator at Doubleday never missed an opportunity to tease me: “Married for better and for worse – and for lunch, dear!”)

My heart broke when I saw that photograph, but later, I wondered what it was that filled me with sadness. Was it sorrow that this city, a throbbing dynamo that never sleeps, that represents aspiration, achievement, success, infinite opportunity, has fallen silent? Been brought to its knees by a virus? Or was I mourning my own past, my youth with all its promise?

This is the sixth week of lockdown in Delhi, and it’s been a strangely bizarre time. Streets here are deserted, too, minus the vista of Park Avenue, but we have our flowering trees in the park next to the house – the final burst of the bombax, its blood-red flowers flecking the sky, and the lesser kachnar across the way, pale pink against the white walls of the buildings. And then the flowers – dahlias, sunflowers, the second flush of roses, poppies. And, somehow, the birds sound extra loud...

I’ve enjoyed the silence, and the enforced slowness of pace has made for a kind of peacefulness. But there is so much distress all around that the peace is shortlived, as the incompetence and callousness of the response to this crisis has been as virulent as the disease. Dis-ease, Vandana would say. We are appalled. And ferociously despairing. Things are falling apart, and the Centre has self-isolated.

Among my small community of independent publishers we have tried to keep paralysing despair at bay, but it’s getting harder. We were always just managing to keep afloat, and now we’re “not waving, but drowning”, as Stevie Smith would say. What price books? Will anyone walk into a bookshop now, whose greatest attraction was that you had to squeeze past the teetering piles of books to get to the cash counter, while avoiding the next person’s toes?

May 5, 2020

At Doubleday we had in-house sales every six months – all hardbacks for ¢25, all paperbacks for ¢10. Publisher’s overstock, we were told. Warehousing was expensive, but rather than remaindering the books, the staff were given an opportunity to buy them at throwaway prices. Almost like throwing them away, but not quite. It was at Doubleday, in the late 1960s, that I learnt about building obsolescence into pricing. Bookstores returned unsold stock after six months to make shelf space for the next lot of new books being churned out by the trade presses. I wondered – if the market couldn’t absorb them, why were so many books being published?

Much later I hazarded a guess, but at the time, I was trying to research the very same market as part of the market research team at Doubleday, among the first trade publishers to set up such a division. No one took it seriously. Editorial were frankly scornful; Literary Guild, Doubleday’s book club, thought it an indulgence; finance thought it was a waste of time and money; and I wished I was where the action was – the hallowed precincts of Editorial where all the real decisions, and the real books, were made. But no publishing house in New York was hiring non-whites if the interface required dealing directly with authors. This was before Sonny Mehta hit their shores.

May 5, 2020

Some of us independents have been discussing the crisis in the book trade, made more acute as a consequence of COVID – but, actually, the malaise predates it. One of the points that keeps recurring is that of volume – the number of books one needs to publish every year in order to be viable. Should we be rationalising our publishing programme in the light of what is imminent – cash flow crunch, paper shortage, rising prices, low sales, and so on? How much can we afford to produce, to delay publication?

The same problems as those I encountered at Doubleday confront us now, only more urgently: too many books, too little shelf space; high returns; warehousing and inventory. The American model, imported into India by the MNCs, but not a model that is amendable to the kind of publishing done by small or specialised indies. We are still editorially impelled, not market-driven.

May 7, 2020

Even though Doubleday was the first trade publisher to set up a market research department, editorial intuition was trusted over statistical figures and projections. So, whileI was beavering away in the office reference room, combing through the Book Review Digest to see whether Doubleday should publish first novelists, senior editor Betty Prashker had signed up Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics. Another editor had acquired Ishmael Reed, and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. They didn’t wait for market research to tell them that the next wave would be made up of Black and feminist writers. They had their ears to the ground.

That ground was positively heaving with creative and political energy – in the arts, in social and students’ movements, in dance and music. Vietnam, the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, Students for a Democratic Society at Columbia, with Mark Rudd and Tom Hayden (later famous as Jane Fonda’s husband). As a student of Urban Planning at Columbia, where SDS was most active in the School of Architecture, Pogey was part of their demand to admit underprivileged students from Morningside Heights, a predominantly Black neighbourhood that bordered Columbia.

Allan Ginsberg was experimenting with “Happenings”, peeling hundreds of oranges on the New Jersey turnpike and releasing their fragrance into the air; Nam June Paik and Meredith Monk were using computers even then, in their video art; and we saw one of Twyla Tharp’s earliest dance creations in Central Park, with no music, just the dancers moving in space and time as the sun set, their bodies sculpted against the sky.

Gloria Steinem and a few others started the cult magazine, New York, that was brash and bold, rushing in where others feared to tread, and took up issues that the old stalwarts baulked at. It was Steinem’s launching pad for Ms magazine. That photograph in the New Yorker set off a wave of nostalgia in me for a time that was rich with promise in almost every sphere of life, and it felt like we were at its nerve centre, charged by it in a way that I would only ever experience again twenty years later.

Doubleday was bought by Bertelsmann in the mid-Nineties, changed hands again, and is now part of the group that owns Knopf, Vintage, etc. Is it part of Penguin Random House? I can’t keep up with all the to-ing and fro-ing and mergers and acquisitions. But, of course, I had left the publishing house many years earlier to return to India, and to a completely different publishing environment.

May 9, 2020

I didn’t have much to do with the US for the next 20-and-odd years, not until my daughter went to study there in 1992, and several years after we started Kali in 1984. England, or rather London, and Europe were more frequent destinations, and it was there, via the International Feminist Book Fairs held in London, Oslo, Montreal, Barcelona, that I met a number of wonderful feminist publishers, booksellers, designers, writers, reviewers, librarians, from across the world. They published many of [he most remarkable writers and books for the next couple of decades. For all of us, the personal, the political, and the professional came together in the most exciting, challenging and creative ways.

In my address book of those decades, from the mid-Eighties to around the early 2000s, lies the story of feminist publishing and of publishing for social change, whether by feminist or other progressive presses, from the north and the south. Carole Spedding, one of the first few names in my London addresses, was the moving spirit behind the Feminist Book Fairs for the decade that they were held, from 1984-1994. Two women, Carole and Helen, organised the first one in London, at Covent Garden, and it was probably the most inspiring, the most political and the most fun, of all the fairs, conferences, conventions, meetings, that I have ever participated in.

Maybe because it was the first such. Maybe because I never thought I would see and hear Toni Cade Bambara, in flesh and blood. Or Listen to Ellen Kuzwayo’s serene, yet powerful, telling of resistance and victory in Soweto. Maybe it was because I interviewed Alifa Rifat, met Nawal Saadawi, heard Gert Brandenburg, and was introduced to Tsitsi Dangarembga and Ama Ata Aidoo… or maybe it was because I realised what it meant to be publishing and writing in the metropolitan North, to be featured in TimeOut and The Guardian, to be covered by the BBC, to be at the centre of opinion-making, among the change-makers. And definitely because at that first feminist book fair I saw the kind of internationalism and solidarity among publishers that I hadn’t thought possible.

Yesterday, Urvashi emailed me to say that Zed had been bought by, or had merged with, Bloomsbury. In my address book are Roger Zwanenberg (the initial of whose surname yielded the name of the publishing company) and Robert Molteno, the two South Africans who started Zed in 1977 as the voice of the Global South (it was called Third World then), with a clear political and editorial vision. Progressive, socialist, non-sectarian, not quite feminist, but definitely egalitarian.

Zed was a cooperative, run collectively, and everyone was paid the same. Also in my address book are Margaret Ling, Anna Gourlay Paul Westlake and Farouk Sohawon, all with Zed, whom we dealt with in the many years that we sold and bought books from them. It’s where Urvashi worked before we started Kali.

Where would we have been in our early years if Zed and The Women’s Press, but especially Zed, hadn’t bought the rights to so many of our titles and introduced our authors to their readers? This was solidarity, yes, but also good business for them and us. A guiding principle at Zed was to publish writers from the region or the country that was the subject of the book, rather than continue the trend of western scholars, journalists, commentators writing about Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Our editorial policy was the same, presenting a feminist perspective from an experience of our reality and context, grounded in empirical research.

I felt unutterably sad reading Urvashi’s mail, wondering whether this was what the fate of independent publishing would be in other parts of the world, and whether we would survive the virus. I kept remembering Paul’s unbounded enthusiasm for, and curiosity about, everything, about his introducing us to the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF), which we participated in thrice, the last time in 1996, when we took six Indian women publishers along! In those days European, and especially Scandinavian, donors supported such initiatives, especially if they originated in the global South, and this one visit was supported by the Dutch agency, Hivos, one of the most enlightened in their mandate, especially on media.

On a Post-It on the last page of my Address Book is a little note from Paul Brickhill, co-organisers of ZIBF (with Trish Mbanga), with the name of a writer whose book he said I must read – Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun. I didn’t know it then, but 15 years later, I would go on to invite Ahdaf to India to read and speak about her work, and we have been good friends ever since. Ahdaf was my introduction to Palestine and to the many wonderful Palestinian writers we published over the years, including Raja Shehadeh, Mourid Barghouti, Susan Abulhawa, Suad Amiry, Adania Shibli….

But it was Suad whom we published first, whose blisteringly funny Sharon and My Mother-in-law was sent to me by Maria Nadotti, Anna’s sister, in Milan. Maria had translated Sharon into Italian and it was published by Feltrinelli. Would I like to publish it in India? YESS! I would love to! But, alas, Feltrinelli sold world English language rights to Bloomsbury, so that was that. All Suad’s subsequent books were published by us, however, and she remains our strongest link with Palestine.

I thought about Zed’s scruffy offices on Caledonian Street, which were similar to the seemingly equally disorganised office of the Women’s Press on Great Sutton Street, all buzzing with energy and the thrill of discovery – new writers, new voices, cutting edge perspectives.

The Women’s Press, in particular, with Ros de Lanerolle at its head, was unusual – it was started by an Arab, Naim Atallah, who owned the well-known shop, Asprey’s, and was also the owner of the publishing house Quartet – which featured Arab writers in translation – and of Third World Quarterly, a unique literary/cultural periodical, edited by a young British Indian, Maya Jaggi.

After the First Feminist Book Fair in 1984, Carole Spedding joined The Women’s Press to start their Young Adult imprint, Live Wire. I remember thinking how clever their logo was – a live wire, to go with the iron which was the logo of the Women’s Press. Even more inspired was the design for their book spines, a series of black diagonals on a white ground, instantly identified on bookshelves.

The Women’s Press published many of the feminist greats – Ellen Kuzwayo, Alice Walker, Susan Griffin, Gisela Eckhardt, Suniti Namjoshi, Toni Cade Bombara, Joan Riley. They also published two anthologies of short stories by Indian women that we brought out – Truth Tales and In Other Words.

Neither Quartet nor The Women’s Press exists any longer, and now even Zed may no longer be the Zed we knew.

May 13, 2020

These days I have been re-reading Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, first published in 1933, and I wonder whether we would call it a feminist classic today. A lesbian couple, Jewish and American, respectively, in male-dominated Paris – clearly an odd pair. Yet they lived together openly, and even though Stein would probably have snorted at the description, her writing was nothing if not a repudiation of male-ordained literary convention. The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas is womanist (if not feminist) writing at its most inventive and rebellious best. It should have been reissued by The Women’s Press or by Virago, but they weren’t around in the mid-1960s when Penguin walked away with it.

Paris. In my address book are Antoinette Fouque and Florence Prudhomme of Editions des Femmes, a press that blazed a trail in France not only for the books it published, but also for being in the forefront of MLF, the movement for the liberation of women which, in Fouque’s words, came into being “on the heels of May 1968.” She said, “May 1968 was first and foremost an effervescence, an oral explosion, a cry, for me,” a cry from the body, a body “so harshly put down by the society of the 1960s, so violently repressed by the masters of contemporary thought, by those who at the time, were modern.”

Fouque was a psychoanalyst, wheelchair bound because of a motor neuron disability, who co-founded des Femmes. It was, and remains, one of the most elegant and chic-est feminist presses that I know. Their office in the rue Mezières, in the 6th arrondissment, was spare, minimal. Everything was white. Walls, tables, chairs. The furniture was stunningly modern, the flowers in the vases on tables were almost sculptural, and all their book covers were a blinding white, with green trim and typography. No images.

It was an all-women office – like all feminist presses – and all the women were thin, chic Parisiennes. And they had a beautifully appointed bookshop-cum-art gallery around the corner from their office! They were certainly the envy of all the feminist publishers I knew. Sitting across that minimalist table in their office, discussing Ismat Chughtai’sThe Veil and Other Stories with Florence Prudhomme, I felt like a country hick on my first visit to a city.

On and off over the next few years, they published another couple of our fiction titles, but the press began to acquire a kind of notoriety among feminist publishers for reasons I never fully understood. They – or rather Fouque – were autocratic. They displayed no solidarity with women in general. They were not quite kosher in their dealings. We had less and less to do with them, and started published much more with Picquier and Actes Sud, in fact, and then, out of the blue in 2019, they popped up again, asking for French rights to Vandana Shiva’s Oneness vs the 1%. I had no idea they were still around, and had simply assumed that they, too, like all the feminist presses we knew in Europe, had closed shop.

I can’t recall now whether I ever met Antoinette Fouque, but an image of her in her wheelchair keeps recurring in mind. Anyway, I picked up her slim book to read again – Women: the Pioneer of Democracy – and remembered why des Femmes fell into such disrepute. They claimed complete copyright and ownership of the name, Movement de Liberation des Femmes, and took other women’s groups who used it as a generic term to court. Shock and outrage greeted this arrogant act, and the press was in the doghouse for a long time after.

Still, Fouque was a major figure, along with the other French feminists of her time – Monique Wittig, Christine Delphy, Hélene Cixous, Luce Irigaray – and had an interesting, though contentious, take on male-female relations, and on psychoanalysis. I agree with her, though, when she says, “Equality is the basis for difference, or rather, its impetus: it is the motor of future differences…it is the visible part of differences. Consciousness without the unconscious is only an illusion of intelligence, and equality without difference is a ruinous theoretical delusion.”

Equality must mean the right to be different from, rather than only the right to be equal to.

May 14, 2020

My thoughts keep returning to Zed and Bloomsbury. Is this our fate, us small independents – mergers with or takeovers by either large independents or corporates? Is this the only sustainable option? What about autonomy? Covid has brought us to a crisis on many fronts, no doubt, and it has also foregrounded the question of survival for many of us. For some time I have been mulling over the question of continuity for Women Unlimited, wondering how to make the transition to leaving, and then – transition to what? Where can we go? Who will have us?

Well, any number of publishers might be happy to take on our list, but then what? We will disappear. Authors and books might remain, but the perspective and the politics we bring to our publishing will no longer be considered necessary.

Will Zed, for instance, keep its profile? Look what happened to Virago after it was taken over by Jonathan Cape. And to Pandora when it was absorbed by Routledge. To IndiaInk when it joined Roli Books…The more philosophically inclined say that everything has a life-cycle and if this is the way the wheel turns, so be it. Give in – give up? – gracefully.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.