It is an Indian publisher, Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books, Kolkata, who holds world rights to at least one, if not two of Mo Yan’s books. In an interview with Vaiju Naravane, Mr. Kishore explains how he came to recognise the immense talent of Mo Yan before the rest of the world woke up to him:
Can you tell us how you acquired the world rights for some of Mo Yan’s works.
It happened way back in 2005. The Italians have a very important literary award called the Nonino Prize. That year the two “outsiders” were Mahashweta Devi, who I was accompanying, and Mo Yan. That was when we first met although I had known his writing for some time. When Tariq Ali began doing the Communism series for Seagull Books 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he needed writers in Communist or former Communist countries. For China, I thought Mo Yan would be the best person. So I sent him the pictures I had taken in Italy and it was then that he wrote the 30,000-word text for that series, called Change (Bain in Chinese) which we acquired by paying € 2,500. Later, as our relationship grew, I told him I’d like to publish everything he wrote and I kept persisting through his daughter Xiao Xiao and through his translator Howard Goldblatt who had by then become a dear friend. Howard got very excited when Sishiyi Pao came up. It was then called 41 Bombs because [of] how it translates as bombs, shrapnel etc. So we commissioned this and got the world English rights because by then he had got himself an agent and we were happy with world English and e-book rights. Then he did Frog and we asked for that — just a few weeks before he tied up with Andrew Wylie who is now his agent. And then the Nobel Prize was announced. So now I don’t know what happens. As his publisher in English the option should be given to us but whether that happens now I do not know.
Does that jeopardise in any way the world rights you already own? Will you have to give them up?
No, no. At least I don’t think so. We’ve been negotiating and giving priority to his usual publishers.
What is Mo Yan like as a person?
There must be more than one Mo Yan! The person I met was quiet, alert, full of sharp humour. There is the Mo Yan who writes these books — politically aware. Someone who knows his country from the bottom up and who could simply and sincerely say as he does in Change: “A glorious death is better than a demeaned existence.” He is comic in the true sense of the term, a fabulist, not afraid of the epic proportions of his worldview. Mo Yan’s writing is like a sharp needle that pierces the veins to draw blood. Like all great writers he has the ability of speaking in many different voices, often simultaneously. And his characters sometimes give the impression they are creating Mo Yan, not the other way around.
Could you describe Seagull and your choice of books and authors? It is an eclectic publishing house in India with several cinema and play scripts (including Satyajit Ray and Tarkowski), little-known but important French, German and Russian authors.
I would call Seagull a handloom effort, akin to a cottage industry. Instinctive, often improvised, definitely personal and very often highly risky. Producing books with small print runs and highly esoteric subject areas is best performed by like-minded, zealous devotees of the craft, fiercely independent and sensitive to the needs of their authors. Money is definitely not the driving motive. One of Seagull’s specific aims is documenting theatre, cinema and fine art — a niche market. We publish books in literary fiction, philosophy, politics, cultural studies, cinema, contemporary issues of human concern, free expression and human rights.