‘Address Book: A Publishing Memoir in the time of COVID’ review: Championing women in print

The publishing industry was already struggling to acquire more readers when the pandemic struck. The small community of independent publishers was hit particularly hard and most have been trying to keep “paralysing despair” at bay as Ritu Menon writes in her slim candid narrative, Address Book: A Publishing Memoir in the time of COVID.

Menon, who co-founded Kali for Women, India’s first feminist press in 1983, is founder-director of Women Unlimited, an associate of KfW. Weeks after the March 2020 lockdown began, Menon started to write a diary. Though she enjoyed the silence and the “enforced slowness of pace,” the distress all around shook her to the core. She found the response to COVID-19 as virulent as the disease: “Things are falling apart, and the Centre has self-isolated.”

Discovery of writers

As she looks back at her career, including a stint at Doubleday in New York, we get a glimpse of the whole process of feminist publishing, from writers to editors, and readers who are at the centre of it all. It was at Doubleday, for instance, that she learnt about “building obsolescence into pricing.” One of the points that kept recurring in her circle was that of volume, the “the number of books one needs to publish every year in order to be viable.” The problems confronting all ‘indies’, as she calls small publishers, are that there are “too many books, too little shelf space; high returns, warehousing and inventory.”

Once Kali for Women was launched and through the international feminist book fairs, Menon had the chance of meeting a host of publishers, designers, booksellers, writers, librarians, opening up her world in the most charming way possible. Tucked between the covers are superb anecdotes — she found, for instance, a Post-It on the last page of an old address book, where Paul Brickhill, co-organiser of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair, had written a little note about a book that she must read, In the Eye of the Sun by Ahdaf Soueif. Years later Menon would invite Ahdaf to India who would introduce her to several Palestinian writers for publishing their work including Raja Shehadeh, Mourid Barghouti, Suad Amiry and so forth.

Lunch with Taslima

She writes about one of her oldest friends, Simone Manceau who translated Shashi Deshpande, Radhika Jha, Kunal Basu, Amit Chaudhuri, Neel Mukherjee and Bulbul Sharma into French as also the Pakistani writer Feryal Ali Gauhar, whose novel on Afghanistan, No Space for Further Burials, was published in 2007. She recalls in detail how a centenary edition of Attia Hosain’s work was put together. Menon writes about a lunch Taslima Nasreen cooked for her in exile in Delhi: “It’s my birthday and I wanted to cook for my friends. It was what I used to do in Dhaka.” In Menon’s possession are prized books including a signed copy of Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War.

She narrates fascinating tales about her experience of working with the two stalwarts of Urdu literature Qurratulain Hyder and Ismat Chugtai. How for instance a reluctant Aini Apa (Qurratulain Hyder) finally agreed to meet her Italian translator because he was a practising Sufi; or the delightful surprise of receiving a royalty cheque for $2491 from New Directions publishers for River of Fire; and Ismat Apa readily agreeing to have her stories published in English.

Menon’s memoir, encapsulating her career as publisher and writer, recording stories of women and their movements, is a testament to Vandana Shiva’s belief that ‘monocultures of the mind’ must be resisted at all cost.

Address Book: A Publishing Memoir in the time of COVID; Ritu Menon, Women Unlimited, ₹300.

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 5:14:17 PM |

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