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Foregrounding women's voices

By Laxmi Murthy

Urvashi Butalia, co-founder of Kali for Women, India's first feminist publishing house, has now moved on to set up Zubaan Books. In this free-floating interview, Butalia reaffirms the need to make women's voices heard

Would you call it women's publishing or feminist publishing?

I would certainly call it feminist publishing for many reasons. First of all, the kind of publishing we are doing grew directly out of the women's movement. There was a very strong political starting point. We have been called a 'women's publishing house'. But this term could mean many other things - it could be run by women or publish books about women, but not necessarily have a progressive political agenda. For instance, a women's publishing house might publish an autobiography of Sadhvi Rithambhara, but we as a feminist publishing house would not do it. Or we would not publish Mills and Boon, for instance. There is a definite feminist base from which we start.

So the decision was that we would publish books about women but not necessarily by women. We intended to foreground women's voices, which have traditionally been marginalised in publishing, creating of knowledge and translating of knowledge. Our political agenda was very broad - we did not want to push any line. Our commitment was to reflect the debates within the women's movement, and disseminate them as far as possible.

What is it that drives the changes in women's publishing?

Since Kali started in 1984, there have been many changes in the women's movement - which has become more complex in many ways and has grown and matured. Publishing too needs to respond to these changes. This should be seen in the context of feminist publishing the world over. When the women's movement is growing, there is a need for research, knowledge, discussion and understanding - and that need is what gives rise to feminist publishing houses. But this has not happened everywhere. Publishing itself is not a very well-developed industry in Pakistan, for instance. Therefore, for small publishing houses to come out and start publishing books on women is less possible.

I look at feminist publishing centrally as a developmental activity - for social change, developing certain skills, developing certain strains of thought. This work which we are able to do in India in a somewhat economically sustainable way, is done in many other countries by NGOs and women's groups which produce a lot of material. They are not skilled in marketing, so their work does not reach out very far. Here too in India we do see a lot of material produced by women's groups. My take on feminist publishing is that it doesn't begin out of commercially setting up a publishing house that has feminist ideals. It actually exists in a much wider form within the women's movement. But if there is an institution like ours, if it is successful and sustainable, has skills, and establishes standards, we can address this need with a centrality that women's groups cannot easily do. We know the market, we know the business, and have taught ourselves to combine business with politics. We don't reject either, while women's groups would like to reject the business side of it! In that sense, we have an advantage - and do in a different way what women's groups are doing. But when I speak of it as a developmental enterprise, it is because it is committed to social change.

How is feminist publishing different?

Traditionally, women have been excluded from producing knowledge and gaining knowledge. Women's writing has been silenced and they have been denied access. Then when you set up something like this, one of the most difficult things has been to convince a woman that she has something to say. It's not like mainstream publishing where you ring up an author and offer an advance. You have to organise workshops, have meetings, you have to "mother" women authors, nurture them, spend a lot of time to encourage them. There is a way in which your publishing house becomes the property of the women's movement and women's groups - a sense of involvement, of belonging. You have to do that, otherwise you cannot publish. You have to create a feeling of trust, so that women feel that they can come to you with even half-baked ideas in the hope of producing a good manuscript at the end of it.

But it is a balancing act. So as publishing changes, as the atmosphere becomes more hospitable, as our writers are increasingly being read, it encourages a lot of women to write. And that's when you get a lot of mediocre writing, much of it from people you know, your friends, and those within the movement, who feel a sense of ownership with a feminist publishing house, and feel that they have a "right" to be published. It's a delicate balance to build trust, encourage women to write, while also maintaining standards, insisting that there is such a thing as "good writing", and that you are doing an injustice to the cause by putting out second rate stuff. People assume we are rolling in money, whereas we have to fight for every paisa unlike many women's groups who receive donor funding. And if we reject a manuscript, we are accused of being "business-minded"! These are perceptions one has to constantly combat. But nevertheless, feminist publishing can only survive and flourish with the support of the women's movement.

Otherwise?

Otherwise it will die, or it will become mainstream - which is what is happening in India now. In some ways, that is a good thing. One has to ask oneself the question: What is the logical end? When you start something to fill a lack, and then the gap begins to be filled, in some ways one has served one's purpose. It is a similar question raised about identity struggles - is the logical end the disappearance of that identity? When Kali started publishing, an author had no option. Now, there are 20 other options. Then we begin to ask - is our existence necessary, or is that purpose now served?

What has brought about this change in the scenario?

That is something we can claim credit for. When Kali started, we were asked: Why only women? The other questions were: Do women write? Do they read? Can we sustain this? Gradually, as we began to publish, became known and gained success, other publishers realised that this was a developing market. Then everyone got into it. We found that we were doing the groundwork, and then authors wanted more money, more distribution, more recognition, and so began to go to other publishers who could offer this. It might even have to do with more "acceptability" or steering clear of a more "political" label. Initially it hurt, but on reflection, it is the true purpose of our political project, and follows the logic of what we set out to do. You can't get too angry with your authors, many of whom are your friends, with a shared political trajectory in the women's movement.

What are the challenges to feminist publishing today?

It is important to function in a commercially sustainable manner. At the same time, you have to establish a reputation and quality. After five years, Kali became completely self-sufficient and continued for 14 years without any need for funding support, keeping overheads low but ensuring good quality. In order to survive, you have to set yourself standards. It's also important to be a feminist boss, to be sensitive, to try to work in non-hierarchical ways. We were nurtured on the idea of a collective, of consensus in decision-making. But you cannot put this into practice in an enterprise like this - you'll never get any decisions taken. The buck stops with you. The responsibility is actually yours. You have to learn how to deal with hierarchy, be professional and yet sensitive. It's a real challenge!

To what extent can you apply a feminist way of functioning? For instance, making visible the labour of all the people who produce a book?

Every bit of work that goes into producing a book - from the editing and typesetting to layout and printing, is crucial. Within the movement, we have learnt to value this sort of nameless "support" work. But it is not easy to translate this into publishing. What I have realised in years of publishing, is that women want credit, and are reluctant to share it.

Where do you see Zubaan going?

At Zubaan, we are trying not only to continue Kali's mission, but also work in a more broad-based way and produce more popular publications. The big change for us is that at Zubaan, we will produce books for young people - children, and young women. We want to publish books about women that will be read not only by committed academics and activists, but by a general reader. Under Zubaan, we will also publish in Hindi. We are also trying to make the publications more accessible in their language and visual appeal - more pictorial and more fun. We also want to bring out post-literacy material for women. At Kali, we had intended to train women in publishing skills, but never got around to doing it. At Zubaan, we aim to take this work forward. We are planning our first workshop now.

(Laxmi Murthy is a freelance journalist specialising in gender and development. She has been active in the women's movement for the past 18 years.)

InfoChange News & Features, December 2003