Saturday, March 23, 2024

[Link] How One Group of Global South Writers is Decolonizing Literature

by Pritika Pradhan

During the pandemic lockdown, writer and editor Bhakti Shringarpure, like many people, found herself seeking to rebuild connections online. At the time, she was living in Nairobi, Kenya, as a Fulbright scholar, and Covid-19 struck at the exact moment when her monthly literary salons had begun to pick up. Continuing the work of organizing book talks and literary gatherings, as she had for a decade as the editor of WARSCAPES magazine, now seemed impossible. However, by attending a weekly Zoom film club with friends, Shringarpure realized it was possible to have lively intellectual conversations online, across different time zones.

Isolation soon gave way to a new sense of community. “Mainstream publishing swallows independent and small presses, and with bookstores and similar spaces shut during the pandemic, it felt like an urgent moment for building community around books that may never see the light of day,” Shringarpure said in an email. Together with longtime friend and collaborator, Suchitra Vijayan, founder of The Polis Project and author of Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of India, Shringarpure established the Radical Books Collective, an online community dedicated to organizing book clubs on politically progressive books.

Today, a year later, Radical Books Collective is a fast-growing initiative with an international audience of general readers, academics, intellectuals, and book lovers. As its name suggests, “radical” books are the primary focus: fiction and nonfiction by authors and presses whose progressive, left-leaning politics and engagement with difficult topics such as police abolition, climate justice, feminism, and migration, are often hard to market to mainstream publishers and media outlets.

The format of the book club meetings is unique and suitably egalitarian: an hour-long discussion on the book is followed by a meeting with the author, whom readers can engage in conversation. Writers featured on RBC include Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah, Amitav Ghosh, Monique Truong, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, and Mohamedou Ould Slahi. An upcoming series titled Reading African Women will feature LA Times Book Prize winner Véronique Tadjo, Nigerian-American novelist Chinelo Okparanta, and Kenyan poet and novelist Khadija Abdalla Bajaber.

“Organizations like the Radical Book Collective offer an alternative literary space for like-minded authors and readers to find each other and to share ways of thinking differently.”

“Our format succeeds because it is amazing to bring books and writers together in events and podcasts, to think about these collectively as radical in different ways, support small publishers, highlight translation and ignored corners of exciting creative production, and have smart people chat with writers,” Meg Arenberg, RBC’s managing editor, said, “This is the way one shifts the conversation.”

The impetus to shift the conversation in publishing towards greater diversity has long preceded the pandemic. Despite commercial presses publishing more writers of color, LGBTQ writers, and writers from other historically marginalized communities, the inclusion of diverse literary voices in mainstream publishing remains a work in progress. The Black Lives Matter protests resulted in increased scrutiny of the publishing industry, which highlighted the persistent, systemic imbalances and prejudices faced by writers and publishing professionals from racial, sexual, and other minorities, such as the racial disparities in pay revealed via the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe.

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