Alternate Canons and Conversations: An Interview with Radical Books Collective

By Winnu Das

The written word is a powerful tool, but to start a book club with the ambition to take on the power structures of the world is still a leap of faith. But in 2021, that’s exactly why a group of scholars and writers came together to start the Radical Books Collective.

It began as an online book club, where anyone could sign up. The Radical Books Collective aims to educate and generate conversation around ‘radical’ books, defined in their 2022 manifesto as books that “expose structures of oppression and stimulate our imaginations to advance transformative futures.”

The Radical Books Collective was co-founded by Bhakti Shringarpure (left), a writer and associate professor at the University of Connecticut, and Suchitra Vijayan (right), a writer, lawyer, and founder of the Polis Project. 

Their events focus primarily on books from Africa and Asia, written by non-white, non-male authors, that highlight voices that are ignored by the mainstream discourse in Western countries like the USA, where many of the members are based. Two years in, the book club continues to hold regular online sessions. They now also host podcasts and masterclasses, which anyone can sign up for.

I had the pleasure of talking to Bhakti, the creative director of Radical Books Collective, about the work they do, and what the Collective’s future plans are. With two decades of experience in academia under her belt, she is a consummate educator. Her expertise is in African literature, conflict, and decolonisation. She has edited the recently released Insurgent Feminisms: Writing War, an anthology of 10 years of women’s writing on war, and Decolonize Drag by Kareem Khubchandani.

Bhakti had been running Warscapes, a successful indie online magazine that published various forms of work about current conflicts, for a decade when she co-founded Radical Books Collective in 2021. Having watched the online publishing space get slowly taken over by the algorithms of big giants like Google and Amazon, she was ready for a change. Bhakti shared that with the political climate of Modi, Trump and “just the blinding assault of these types of opinions”, she felt a need for spaces where she could connect with like-minded people.

“We were all locked into a pandemic, but at the same time, the desire for community, to be heard and feel connected was becoming stronger” she said. Inspired by the amount of fun she was having in an online film club with friends, she decided to channel that energy into a book club. Gathering together people she had collaborated with in the past, she started the Radical Books Collective.

Building an Alternative Canon

They began with four newly published books on progressive subjects from non-mainstream publishers. The books included fiction and non-fiction, stories from the Sahara to India’s vast borders, spanning varied themes such as hipsters and slavery. With roughly 25 people attending each session and the authors themselves taking questions, “the first book clubs were electric!”, in Bhakti’s words. The Collective was immediately inundated with requests from publishers wanting their books to be showcased.

Radical Books Collective was very inspired by the phrase, “canon building is empire building” from Toni Morrison’s lecture Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature. To put it simply, some books are lauded by academia and mainstream media as ‘canon’, as the ones you must read, the ones that capture the best thoughts and creative expressions of a particular community.

Other books, and the people whose stories they tell, are left out of the mainstream narrative. By consciously bringing attention to the books that are left out, the Collective is testing whether this logic works in reverse. Bhakti explains, “If we can build an alternative canon of radical books, perhaps we too can gain cultural and political power, and subvert existing structures.”

This lack of attention given to non-mainstream writing was also the impetus behind BookRising, their podcast about books, publishing, and writing. It was named by Meg Arenberg, a writer, scholar, and Swahili-English translator who is part of the Collective, and rhymes with uprising. “It’s corny, we know,” Bhakti says. “But that’s the idea, books rising up to help us.” There are various series within BookRising such as Trailblazing African Feminists and Radical Publishing Futures, hosted by Bhakti and Meg respectively. To shed light on books they consider foundational, the Collective also runs masterclasses called Radical Foundations.

Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon, Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi, and Annihilation of Caste by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar are some of the books covered in Radical Foundations, a series of masterclasses on foundational radical books.

Some of the books that Bhakti would include in an ‘alternative canon’ are Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, Memory for Forgetfulness by Mahmoud Darwish, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment by Assia Djebar, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center by bell hooks, Men in the Sun and Other Stories by Ghassan Kanafani, and Unthinking Eurocentrism by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam.

While Bhakti anchors the Collective, several other people bring their expertise to the table. Suchitra is a constant sounding board. Bhakti and Meg often collaborate on topics related to East African literature as that is their common area of expertise. Amrita Ghosh, assistant professor of South Asian Literature at the University of Central Florida, hosts Mehfil, the latest series in BookRising, focused on South Asian art and culture with episodes on topics ranging from translation to ghosts and films.

Left: Amrita Ghosh, host of Mehfil. Right: Bhakti Shringarpure and Meg Arenberg, an integral part of the Collective. 

Greg Pierrot, associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut at Stamford, brings his expertise on Black studies to the table. Aruni Kashyap, a writer and translator working in English and Assamese, and Michael Busch, a writer and editor, also host events. Preetika Nanda is in charge of social media and design. Various members of the team host sessions of the book club. The advisory board is also an active part of the conversations that shape the Collective’s activities.

“The ‘collective’ of Radical Books Collective is real,” Bhakti says. “People will say, don’t get into business with your friends, with your husbands and wives. But I think that’s exactly what needs to happen, because as soon as you separate all those parts of yourself, there is a dissonance.” Bhakti’s partner, Michael Bronner, is always available for advice and help. She has ‘a gossip WhatsApp group’ with Aruni, Suchitra, Amrita and Greg but Bhakti says, “Radical Books stuff always comes out of it.”

The Collective is also part of a network of platforms working towards more diverse, and radical reading and publishing that are supportive of each other such as Africa is a Country, ArabLit Quarterly, Brittle Paper and the Adabiyat Book Club, among others. In fact, the Collective’s manifesto is hosted on the website of Africa is a Country, and its own website features a growing list of these bookstores, publishers, and platforms.

Building New Bridges

Through the book club, the Collective aims to be a space where people can learn together and hold discussions, and find entry points into reading books that they might not have otherwise. To ensure that their events are accessible to as many people as possible, they largely avoid jargon-filled academic writing.

The book club discussing Gravel Heart by 2021 Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah (top left corner). Gurnah’s win came as a surprise to many in the West.

With so many members of the Collective being scholars, they are also invested in breaking the silos within academia. As Bhakti says, “Political science doesn’t want to talk to literature, literature doesn’t want to talk to sociology. Then nobody wants to talk to science because we’re all stressed by science.”

For Bhakti, the book clubs and events have been helpful to engage with subjects that she is otherwise unlikely to explore. “It’s always about building new bridges,” she says. “I learned so much, so the hope is that it happens for more people. And I think it does.”

While academic writing is not easy for most people to read, the flipside is revolutionary ideas like black feminism or decolonisation being diluted on social media or commodified by the corporate world. While Bhakti recognises the value of these ideas reaching a larger audience, the Collective aims to fill the concurrent and currently unmet need for a deeper and more nuanced dialogue.

This is slow work. Bhakti says, “Radical Books Collective has grown slowly because reading, analysis and discussion are slow. There is no linear way to gather the impact. But you have to believe that education, discussion, and analysis are important tools in the world today; to believe in teaching—to take that role seriously.”

It is a challenge to get people to read outside their comfort zone and to generate interest around books that haven’t been hyped by the mainstream media. Bhakti says, “Some of our successes with big name authors perturb me because we don’t get the same engagement if an author or book is lesser known. Striking a balance between growing as an initiative but also being counter-cultural is a challenge.”

When, on occasion, only a dozen people show up to a book club, Bhakti finds herself thinking “Oh, I guess this book is not doing very well. But then you’re exhilarated after those 12 people talk, because coming together over a book always works. And that’s just wild, you know?”

The Collective has engaged with divisive subjects like decolonisation, the conflict in Palestine, feminism, race, and caste. By definition, radical positions are not easily or widely accepted. Perhaps, it is unsurprising then that members of the Collective, both individually and as a group, preemptively claim the mantle of being ‘killjoys’.

Drawing on writer and feminist scholar Sara Ahmed’s definition, Bhakti explains that a killjoy is “an uncompromising and interruptive person who does not smile and allow microaggressions, racist, sexist or problematic comments to just pass by. She always intervenes and tries to correct even though it kills the peace and joy of the social or cultural occasion.”

When I asked Bhakti about being labelled a killjoy, her response was immediate and vehement: “I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. I would love to be just loved—wouldn’t we all? It’s very stressful. There are days when I totally let up.” She worries that her constant criticality is overly shaping her teenage son. “I just want him to not worry sometimes, you know? But then also, how not to worry? Whether it’s on social media, in your own home spaces or social spaces, it’s unavoidable.

“We’ve had an outstanding feminist history of women who have paved the way for us to engage with unpopular sentiments and constant everyday dissent. Sara Ahmed gave many people the courage to embrace the term ‘killjoy’. There was a great book by Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo called Our Sister Killjoy where Sissie, the main character, is termed a killjoy everywhere she goes. Because she critiques, analyses, and is not afraid to be angry.

“It’s a very taxing role, but that’s where community and like-minded people come in. A killjoy cannot exist in a vacuum. You need a communal space in which you can vent about the displeasures of killjoydom.”

New avenues for community building have opened up after the covid-19 pandemic. Bhakti shares, “Operating online is wonderful and easy, but a concrete sense of space, neighbourhood, and in-person interaction are human needs. We have to try to build those social and political spheres. We have activist leanings and want to create spaces for resistance, and these have to happen in person.” Suchitra and Bhakti are planning to host sessions of the book clubs, and perhaps even a one-day book festival in New York.

Over the past two years, Radical Books Collective has shone a spotlight on many brilliant books, independent publishers, and overlooked authors. Their YouTube channel now features over 100 videos of their events. And slowly, one podcast and book club meeting at a time, through the efforts of the Collective, an alternate canon is taking shape.