Finding New Directions in New York

‘They’re a small, independent publisher and they publish a lot of experimental foreign literature,’ is my feeble answer to the somewhat questioning, blank look I’ve become accustomed to (from most people I’ve met in Kolkata or New York), whenever I mention the name of New Directions to anyone who wants to know what I’ve been doing in the last four months.

And, as was just implied, that’s hardly an exhaustive introduction. But bearing in mind the malleable nature of ‘introductions’ which can be as exhaustive or inexhaustive as one pleases, I will conveniently excuse myself at this point, and not even attempt at being exhaustive (which could indeed propel boredom and kill intrigue). But what I will attempt is a delayed snapshot of New Directions, as I indeed forgot to carry my bulky Canon camera to the office on time. I will attempt to create a candid photograph with my words, which will hopefully give a befitting glimpse of the phenomenon that is New Directions (or ND), and my time with them—just like a suggestive image, which seeks to evoke much more than what it captures within its frame.

New Directions

. . . is liberating. Because it is liberated (and you get a sense of that as soon as you walk into the office—the presence of an informal, personal, touch—the little balcony and its stunning 19th-floor-downtown-Manhattan-sunsets being the first point of interest in the little ND tour, and as I soon realised, also the highlight). James Laughlin, the legendary, tall and charismatic founder—whose handsome face greets you from a portrait a few steps down the corridor—was advised by Ezra Pound to do ‘something useful’ with his life—and he did just that. He created a landmark—something so special in the history of American publishing that it still deserves to be called New Directions, not just when it was literally new.

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This sense of the ‘new’ or the freshness that characterises ND is largely, according to me, because of this: they still seem to only publish what they truly love.

Stuff that deserves to be out there—beyond the comfortable confines of the notebooks of those special writers who are often just content with the sublime and euphoric union of their pens with paper (because I am told that sometimes the act of writing itself can be so satisfying that you don’t give a damn about what next). One of those special individuals, according to me, was the French writer Albertine Sarrazin, whose Astragal, a new lead title of ND’s, is a beautiful, lyrical creation of touching simplicity and honesty based on her life, which I was lucky to proofread and help promote. And interestingly, it was the American punk rock star (and ND author) Patti Smith, who recommended it to them, and even wrote the introduction, it being one of her favourite books. And yes, I did get to see her in the office the day she came to autograph her memoirs, picked one by one, from a sculptured block of gorgeous Woolgathering books stacked by me in Barbara’s (ND President) stunning office.

Such are the aesthetics of ND. Combined with Alvin Lustig’s classic, and Rodrigo Corral’s contemporary book cover art, New Directions books are nothing short of pieces of art in themselves. Perhaps this is why they are so generous with them, missing no opportunity of giving them away as gifts (secretly, I think, a way of seeking pleasure for every individual at ND, by showing off the books they’ve worked upon), almost as if they are priceless, and the price tag only a trifling formality when absolutely necessary.

This passion proved to be contagious, and I began to look forward to every Monday, not just my first. Delightful surprises such as the annual Cherry Festival were welcome interruptions to hard work, where cherries picked from the tree in the office balcony were baked into a beautiful, delicious pie by Laurie (Executive Vice President), and devoured by all of us after we tried to keep up with Laurie singing the Japanese cherry blossom song. But the biggest of all interruptions during my time there, the autumn of 2012, was of course, Sandy. Which meant: the facade of the building next to ND’s came off, revealing the interiors just like a life-sized doll house; all public transport shut for a good few days; downtown Manhattan partly flooded; no work for a week. Not fun.

But unlike here, things did not end with a storm. The fun before and after more than made up for it.

P.S. Proofing digital files of titles being converted to ebooks, editing website content were some of my other everyday tasks at ND. Writing about Gandhi, Diwali, P. Lal and Qurratulain Hyder’s Fireflies in the Mist for the ND blog gave me some explicit space for creativity. And Leonid Tsypkin was a fantastic new Russian discovery for me at ND—highly recommended.

P.P.S. Well, yes I did take some pictures. But I did not lie about not carrying my bulky camera—these are all taken from my phone, in and around ND.

Amrita Saraogi

(Seagull School of Publishing Batch 2012)

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A Peek at the Editor’s Desk: With Urvashi Butalia and Anita Roy

Meeting Urvashi Butalia

Where there is a will, there is a way. After hearing about Urvashi Bhutalia’s life thus far, these were the words that first popped in my mind. A dedicated women’s rights activist, having the vision and the zeal to work towards it. In the 1980s, she saw a huge gap in the publishing world—books by women, about women’s rights and the like were not published. It was very interesting and inspiring to hear about how she came up with the idea of Kali for Women and convinced academics and authors to write about the women’s movement. One of their earliest books, which took years to be written and compiled, is now one of the most used texts about the women’s movement.

Running a publishing house with such strong political views is not always easy, she says. But she rose above the hardships and managed to build a successful publishing house which brings out around 30 titles every year. There were many decisions that had to be taken, some went wrong, some really worked out well. The way she spoke made it all seem so simple, but when you start analysing the hardships and struggles she has had to face, it makes you realise that nothing is simple.

Hearing about her experience made it seem that the publishing world in India is somewhat like a close-knit family. Yes there is competition between them but they are also looking out for each other.

She spoke about how she is working towards making the books published by them travel to other countries and the challenges faced while doing that. Her first trip to the Frankfurt Bookfair had been with just two books in tow. But still she went and this enthusiasm and drive got her to where she is today.

She has accomplished so much and yet she comes across as a simple and modest lady. She not only runs the publishing house but also writes and edits. Urvashi gives a lot of credit to her team of people working in the organisation. The publishing house runs because they all believe in the cause and are all working towards achieving the same goal.

Urvashi herself seems ageless. Spending the morning listening to her talk about her journey thus far inspired all of us. Her energy and passion was evident in everything she said. It was overall a great and very informative session.

Vedika Jatia

 

A Week with Urvashi Butalia and Anita Roy

Last week at Seagull School of Publishing we welcomed sessions with Ms. Urvashi Butalia (author, publisher, editor.) and Anita Roy (editor, Young Zubaan). Ms Butalia took us through the ins and outs of the publishing world and gave us a front-line view of what she has done and seen as part of Kali for women and with Zubaan.

She discussed the editing of non-fiction works and the challenges that lie therein. Today the impression, among readers, remains that the style, where non-fiction is concerned is dry—this is simply not the case. There is a blurred edge between fiction and non-fiction . . . a grey area where resides well-researched books without references and fast-paced narratives with footnotes. Deciding which category to place a book in (fiction/non-fiction), can be a difficult task. A publisher/editor must learn to look at all the components the book is built on; and when required, must guide the author in the necessary direction. Using an example from her own experience, Ms Butalia explained how and why she assisted an author in adapting a work of fiction into non-fiction. Such a change in style demands considerable time and effort from the author and the editor; it’s not taken lightly. However after considering all the documentary support that the author had gathered, Ms Butalia saw the potential of it as a work of non-fiction and helped the author move in that direction.

We found invaluable insight into an author’s mind and motivations as Ms.Butalia described her own experience writing The Other Side of Silence—what led her to write it and how it came about.

Throughout the week we looked at various excerpts from books, manuscripts—discussing the various editorial conflicts we came across and how to troubleshoot such issues. We also discussed the considerable analysis that goes into the publishing of a book. No matter how great the content, the publisher must look at a variety of factors like finances, the state of the market, etc. We examined all those factors in detail and the roles of all those involved in the publishing process.

The topic of the day, during Ms Butalia and Anita Roy’s joint session was, editing works of fiction. They shared with us thoughts on what makes a work of fiction work and a few tips every fiction editor should ‘be in the know of’. The readers come to expect a certain narrative and structure from fiction and one of the duties the editor is entrusted with is to ensure that the readers aren’t disappointed. If the reader doesn’t return, the books will remain on the shelves; and if they remain there long enough they get pulped!

The last class, led by Anita Roy, was on editing books for children. She presented us with, what was stylistically, content-wise, and lengthwise suitable for different age groups. We also discussed how a variety of factors, ideological, spiritual, political can affect an editor while working on a children’s book. Keeping in mind a variety of these considerations as well as ensuring authenticity in the content seems to require much forethought and insight, on the part of the editor. For example, when choosing illustrations we must maintain equal representation when considering issues of gender, caste, colour, creed, etc, while ensuring the absence of stereotypes—a tall order.

The talk then turned to the literature that shaped our childhood—the British influence on our reading material is apparent. British literature has worked itself into all our lives. However, we inhabit a world where we cannot be represented only by the cultural past of a bygone era. We must move forward and look to Indian authors constructing in our contemporary context. Also, our diverse, cross-cultural, multilingual society needs fairer representation in our children’s books which is difficult because Indians don’t buy locally when it comes to children’s literature, believing that Indian writing is inferior to the Enid Blytons’ and the Ruskin Bonds’ of the world—a concept we must help eradicate.

One thing that I have taken away from my time among these wonderful minds is that there comes a tremendous satisfaction from what they do. Ratification does not always come in the form of sales but in the form of a well-produced book—a laborious, demanding task, but it comes with its own reward—pride and satisfaction in creation.

Antara Guha