Interview

 

Interview with Arpita Das: On Yoda Press, Alternatives to the Mainstream, Intersectionality, and Chaotic Commissions

by Anjali Alappat

Arpita Das is in a celebratory mood, and rightfully so. Yoda Press, the independent publishing house that she co-founded, is turning 20 this year. And now that her literary brainchild is old enough to vote (with some spare change), she’s looking back with the hard-won wisdom of someone who took the road less travelled and stayed true to it. It’s clear that it hasn’t always been an easy path, and that some of these lessons were tough, but the evolution of Yoda Press speaks for itself.

Today, the independent publishing house is synonymous with experimental formats and intersectional storytelling. Their catalogue is an expansive one, featuring everything from historical non-fiction to queer memoirs and graphic novels. Yoda Press is unabashedly political, and is best-known for platforming non-mainstream perspectives. Some of their notable titles include Between Memory and Forgetting: Massacre and the Modi Years in Gujarat by Harsh Mander, Gabbilam: A Dalit Epic by Gurram Jashuva, and Shaheen Bagh: A Graphic Recollection by Ita Mehrotra.

Their impact is undeniable. When Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was struck down in 2018, decriminalising homosexuality in India, two Yoda Press publications, including two anthologies, Law like Love: Queer Perspectives on Law edited by Arvind Narrain and Alok Gupta and Because I Have a Voice: Queer Politics in India edited by Arvind Narrain were cited in the judgement.

Yoda Press was born out of a deep love for books and storytelling. The daughter of two voracious readers, Arpita speaks fondly of literary discussions around the dining table, which cemented her love for stories, history, and widening her horizons.

I sat down with her to discuss her passion for publishing, history, and telling intersectional stories. We chatted about her milestone projects, the one that got away, and what Yoda Press has in store for us in 2024. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

Can you tell me about your journey in publishing? How did you get started in this industry?

To begin with, both my parents were involved in the book industry. My mother taught at Miranda House for a year and then joined NCERT. A large part of her life was focused on getting those textbooks written. Some she wrote herself, and some she commissioned experts in the field to write. My father’s focus was on marketing, especially exporting Indian books. His pet project was to try and move away from the whole idea of ‘Indology sells in the west’ to sharing Indian books on sciences and social sciences with the Global South. He made a lot of trips to African countries and to the Middle East. A lot of this used to be discussed at the dinner table. My parents talked about writing, the making of books, why knowledge dissemination is important, why it ought to be done, and how it’s being done. And of course we had a house full of books.

While I was doing my Bachelors (History honours at St. Stephens College, Delhi), I felt the need to earn some pocket money. So I did what I knew best, I went to the offices of people I vaguely knew and met whichever editors I could. I told them that I was studying History at St. Stephens—everyone took St. Stephens seriously, it had cultural capital—and told them I wanted to proofread. I proofread a lot during my undergraduate years for various publishing houses. It was such an amazing learning experience, and very few editors begin that way. I think that’s when I realised how much having an eye for detail matters. After my undergraduate degree, I did my Masters at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and started my PhD before realising academia wasn’t for me. I came back to India and became a copy editor at HarperCollins. That’s how it all began.

The editor-in-chief and founder-publisher of Yoda Press, Arpita Das is celebrating 20 years of being in independent publishing.

How does climate change affect population migration, socio-economic factors, and more? Living with the Weather (2023), edited by Piya Srinivasan, explores the often undiscussed aspects of the climate disaster.

I moved into academic publishing after that. I was with SAGE publications and then with Oxford University Press. I wanted to commission books on sexuality and urbanism and other less mainstream topics, but wasn’t allowed to do that. My managers at the time didn’t have a nuanced understanding of these emerging spaces. I started getting more and more interested in narrative nonfiction as a genre. It’s very successful in India today. At that time it was very popular in the West, but not here.

At the time, there was a clear divide between academic writing and biographies and memoirs, and that was it for nonfiction. Which is why one day I made the crazy decision to start my own press which focused on narrative nonfiction. I was deeply miserable with how things were going in the office and sometimes that gives you the motivation you need. I started spending my evenings planning, meeting people, making notes, and reading. It took a year and a half before I could actually announce the first couple of books.

When you began Yoda Press, you clearly had a vision. Do you think that vision has evolved and changed over the last two decades, and how?

It has in many ways, as it has to. If everything around me is evolving, and I’m not allowing change, I should get out of the business, frankly. Evolution is the only way independents can keep themselves relevant. Across the world, independent publishers, presses, and editors will often champion a particular kind of book or genre of writing and then the big names pick it up and it becomes a success. It happened with feminist writing, queer writing, and so many other things. So that makes it vital for us to keep evolving. And not in an imitative manner. A lot of us try to keep our ears to the ground to really sense what’s bubbling underneath, and then we take a risk. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But that has to keep happening, it’s very important.

A lot of us try to keep our ears to the ground to really sense what’s bubbling underneath, and then we take a risk. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But that has to keep happening, it’s very important.

For example, we started bringing out books about mental health in 2016-2017. I must’ve done research for about a year on the subject beforehand. I found that the corpus that students were consulting all came from the USA or UK. That’s a big sign for me that there’s a gap in the market. So then I have to consider: is it something that we have enough readers for? Do we have the necessary author pool? Once I was satisfied, I began approaching people and asking them to write for us. A few years later, the pandemic struck, and these books did so well during that time that I felt vindicated. It was a crying shame that we hadn’t had many books on mental health until then except in very rarified and scholarly spaces.

Yaari (2023), an anthology recently published by Yoda Press, focuses on friendship through a feminist and queer lens.

Evolution is an ongoing thing. We don’t stop reflecting once we pick a genre to focus on. For example, with our sexuality series which featured LGBTQ writing, we had to ask ourselves what we were going to do next after 2018 (after section 377 was struck down). A lot of the authors we published before that started being signed by other publishing houses. But also, we wanted our narrative to change. We actually took a hiatus for a year or more before we brought out the next lot of LGBTQ books. We wanted it to be very clear that we will engage in discussions on queer writing but we won’t catalogue some of our publications as ‘queer writing’ and the rest as ‘other’. We had been publishing queer writing systematically since 2005, and in 2018 it was time to say all our writing was queer affirmative. We will not publish something that is not. That changed the kind of books we were looking for.

You’ve mentioned intersectionality before while discussing Yoda Press. What does that mean to you? And how does that evolve with your readership?

When we started, I knew that we were going to be compared to Permanent Black, Zubaan, or Kali for Women, etc, but I used to always say that the difference is that in my head, we were always publishing for young people. And now, with Gen Z finally beginning to buy their own books, it’s the best readership we’ve ever had. I think that our team feels more relevant now than ever before. Those moments of collective imposter syndrome we experience are diminishing.

From the beginning, we have done the kind of publishing that was intersectional. Which is why a lot of people, in the first ten years, used to say snarky things like “you don’t have one focus, why don’t you have one focus? Zubaan is doing feminist writing, Navayana is doing anti-caste writing, so what’s your deal?”

It was very difficult for us to articulate our intentions, we only knew what we were looking for and what we weren’t. But we knew that we weren’t looking for just one genre. We were keen to develop new ideas, and we have always wanted to publish work that is alternative to the mainstream. I didn’t find the word ‘intersectional’ until much later. It’s very possible that I learnt it from young readers who have told me that our work is intersectional, but now I know this is what we were trying to do.

Also, there’s so many points of connection. When you do feminist writing, how can you not talk about climate change? How can you not touch on economics? I know that Zubaan is also replete with those examples and so is Kali for Women. A narrative that has developed that feminist publishing is only for women. I think that’s an example of reductive thinking. Like the idea that Navayana and Stree-Samya only do anti-caste writing. That’s not true. They use caste as a starting point, but they look at many other things. The mainstream likes to be reductive, to see things in silos. For us at Yoda Press, we realised that we needed to think more chaotically to produce the books that most represent reality in South Asia. If I’m doing a book on urbanism in Mumbai, am I going to leave out queerness? Or caste? Or poverty? Or broker corruption? I can’t. It all comes together. To me, life is intersectionality, and that’s what we try to represent.

You’ve published a lot of different kinds of stories—from graphic novels, queer memoirs, feminist anthologies to political non-fiction. What kind of stories are you drawn to personally, and how does that influence what projects Yoda Press takes on?

It does influence our list of books a lot. Because for the longest time I was the only one commissioning books. Now I have another team member who commissions as well, so her interests will also start being reflected in what we take on.

We have published some fiction, and we publish a couple of books of poetry every year because I can’t imagine political publishing without poetry. But I think the genre I’m most drawn to is narrative nonfiction. It blows my mind even now. And I also love graphic novels. These are two things that are of enduring interest to me. I feel like there’s so much we can do with these two mediums. Outside of those two genres, I try my best to live ‘the personal is political’ on a daily basis. I don’t buy it when people say that the personal is outside of the political and vice-versa. I wholeheartedly believe that the family is the first unit of the state. So, I like books that reflect that concept, and engage with it. It could be a mental health book, a queer identity book, it could even be a Brahmin woman from Nagercoil’s memoir—all of that immediately interests me.

Yoda Press, in collaboration with SAGE, published a collection of essays about day-to-day lived experiences of caste edited by Perumal Murugan in 2023.

I feel like there’s so much more one needs to do to normalise the idea that the family is the first unit of the state and that the patriarchy has its most comfortable resting grounds there. The state, population, and industry live off it. They thrive off how comfortable we make patriarchy and capitalism in our homes. The patriarchy, capitalism, and caste go hand-in-hand in our homes. The only thing one can do, even if it’s not hugely impactful to anyone outside your bubble, is push back. And that has to be a daily effort and reflection. You cannot compromise, which means I must also tell my children the truth. You can’t make it untrue for your children by giving them a different picture. I love books that have the guts to do this, regardless of genre.

The patriarchy, capitalism, and caste go hand-in-hand in our homes. The only thing one can do, even if it's not hugely impactful to anyone outside your bubble, is push back.

Could you tell me about some of your milestone projects?

In 2013, we published This Side That Side: Restorying Partition edited and curated by the brilliant Vishwajyoti Ghosh. It was about three years in the making. He ran workshops with graphic artists and storytellers in Dhaka and Lahore. And when the book came out, we launched it here and at the Dhaka Lit Fest. He and my editors went to Lahore to launch it there. It was monumental and felt like we had put together something that was going to last a very long time.

In the same year, when the transgender community was recognised by the Supreme Court, in a landmark judgement, one of our books,With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India (2006) by Gayatri Reddy, was cited in it. In 2018, when Section 377 was struck down, I started getting calls that day saying two of our titles were cited in the judgement. Before that, when the Delhi High Court first struck it down, three of our titles were in that judgement. It was such a landmark moment because things were never going to go back to the way they were. And that day, I really felt, paisa nahi banaya tho kya hua? This was huge, this was legacy. It was enough, more than enough.

Because I Have a Voice: Queer Politics in India (2005) was one of the Yoda Press titles mentioned in the Supreme Court judgement that struck down Section 377.

Another significant moment was when, Shaheen Bagh: A Graphic Recollection (2021), a graphic novel about the protests at Shaheen Bagh came out. We managed to publish it on the anniversary of the first Shaheen Bagh anti-CAA protests. It was very hard to do, because it was in the middle of the pandemic. We didn’t have the money to print because there had been no sales. Whatever money we had, we’d used to pay the advance to the author. We told people if they pre-ordered, we could print. And then the deluge began. We had something like 500 pre-orders within the month. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it meant that we could print a 1000 copies.

What kind of projects would you like to explore in the future?

I definitely want to do more graphic books. There’s so much left to be done in that space. The essay genre really interests me as well. I’d like to mix and match essays with graphic elements. I think that people who are interested in the free flowing essay would also be interested in the graphic narrative.

What do you think is under-represented in the Indian literary landscape? Not just in terms of stories being told, but mediums as well?

A couple of things come to mind. I’ve started writing a column for Publishing Perspectives and I recently wrote a column about translations from Indian languages to English in nonfiction. I think that is hugely underrepresented. The genres I talk about in the column—essays, satire, cultural writing, social writing—there’s so much ignorance about nonfiction writing in regional languages. It’s quite startling. Thankfully there are people—more powerful than I am—who focus on it. But there still needs to be a narrative about why this is exciting and important. If you’re saying that narrative nonfiction is the most popular genre in India today, then why aren’t we looking for the same in regional languages? At Yoda Press, we have published some nonfiction translations over the years like a collection of essays on caste edited by Perumal Murugan and B.M. Zuhara’s memoir on growing up as a Mappila girl in Kerala, and we hope to do more. 

The other thing I’m excited about are the convergences between mediums like text and screen. Not just movies and shows, I want to explore animations, short films, podcasts and audio, and gaming. There’s never been more interest in these convergences, and a lot of incredible stories already exist in English and other Indian languages, which aren’t being sourced by people who work in these mediums. A lot of people will say that this isn’t publishing. But if you look at the history of publishing, it was never meant to be restricted to one medium.

In hindsight, what are projects you wish you had worked on? Any regrets that you want to dissect a little?

One was Rana Ayyub’s book, Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up. At the time, my (then) business partner and I had just set up a self-publishing platform, called AuthorsUpFront, which had very successfully enabled Paranjoy Guha Thakurta to self-publish his book called Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis (it became a bestseller, and also prompted the Ambani brothers to send both him and us legal notices!). Rana got in touch with us, and so we worked with her on Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up. She had approached Penguin and HarperCollins first, but they wanted a lawyer to look at the manuscript. They did show it to their lawyers, in fact, who naturally responded that publishing the book as is would pose huge problems. I thought about asking her if Yoda Press could publish it, but she had decided to do it on her own, and I realised that it was a matter of principle for her. I still feel I passed up an incredible opportunity. That’s the one I regret, don’t think there are any others. 

Is there anything that you’re working on right now that you’d like to discuss?

I’m the editor for the South Asia series at Melbourne University Publishing (MUP). We’ve signed up for a new book by a wonderful editor called Manisha Sobhrajani. She’s spent a couple of years recording stories of Kashmiri women, and perhaps for the first time the collection will also include stories from women residing in Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh, and the parts of Kashmir under Pakistani governance. It’s centred around the idea of azaadi. I’m so excited about it. I just finished editing the manuscript and sent it off to MUP. The book will be published all over the world, which I feel is safer. That way I know that the book will definitely come out world over. Yoda Press will publish it in India. You don’t see a lot of books about what Kashmiri women go through in that beleaguered area. They also talk about a lot of things, not just azaadi in terms of politics, but azaadi in terms of their gender and bodies. I have goosebumps from just talking about it. Editing that manuscript has been one of the most illuminating and humbling experiences. It really gave me perspective.