How One Group of Global South Writers is Decolonizing Literature
Pritika Pradhan on The Radical Books Collective
During the pandemic lockdown, writer and editor Bhakti Shringarpure, like many people, found herself seeking to rebuild connections online. At the time, she was living in Nairobi, Kenya, as a Fulbright scholar, and Covid-19 struck at the exact moment when her monthly literary salons had begun to pick up. Continuing the work of organizing book talks and literary gatherings, as she had for a decade as the editor of WARSCAPES magazine, now seemed impossible. However, by attending a weekly Zoom film club with friends, Shringarpure realized it was possible to have lively intellectual conversations online, across different time zones.
Isolation soon gave way to a new sense of community. “Mainstream publishing swallows independent and small presses, and with bookstores and similar spaces shut during the pandemic, it felt like an urgent moment for building community around books that may never see the light of day,” Shringarpure said in an email. Together with longtime friend and collaborator, Suchitra Vijayan, founder of The Polis Project and author of Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of India, Shringarpure established the Radical Books Collective, an online community dedicated to organizing book clubs on politically progressive books.
Today, a year later, Radical Books Collective is a fast-growing initiative with an international audience of general readers, academics, intellectuals, and book lovers. As its name suggests, “radical” books are the primary focus: fiction and nonfiction by authors and presses whose progressive, left-leaning politics and engagement with difficult topics such as police abolition, climate justice, feminism, and migration, are often hard to market to mainstream publishers and media outlets.
The format of the book club meetings is unique and suitably egalitarian: an hour-long discussion on the book is followed by a meeting with the author, whom readers can engage in conversation. Writers featured on RBC include Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah, Amitav Ghosh, Monique Truong, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, and Mohamedou Ould Slahi. An upcoming series titled Reading African Women will feature LA Times Book Prize winner Véronique Tadjo, Nigerian-American novelist Chinelo Okparanta, and Kenyan poet and novelist Khadija Abdalla Bajaber.
“Our format succeeds because it is amazing to bring books and writers together in events and podcasts, to think about these collectively as radical in different ways, support small publishers, highlight translation and ignored corners of exciting creative production, and have smart people chat with writers,” Meg Arenberg, RBC’s managing editor, said, “This is the way one shifts the conversation.”
The impetus to shift the conversation in publishing towards greater diversity has long preceded the pandemic. Despite commercial presses publishing more writers of color, LGBTQ writers, and writers from other historically marginalized communities, the inclusion of diverse literary voices in mainstream publishing remains a work in progress. The Black Lives Matter protests resulted in increased scrutiny of the publishing industry, which highlighted the persistent, systemic imbalances and prejudices faced by writers and publishing professionals from racial, sexual, and other minorities, such as the racial disparities in pay revealed via the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe.
Writing in The New York Times in December 2020, Richard Jean So and Gus Wezerek found that approximately 95 percent of the English-language fiction books published between 1950 and 2018 by the “Big Five” publishers (now the “Big Four”: Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster) were by white authors. The relative homogeneity among authors is connected to that of publishing executives, editors, and other publishing professionals, with 76 percent of publishing professionals identifying as White/Caucasian, 81 percent as heterosexual, and 89 percent as non-disabled, according to the 2019 Lee and Low Diversity Baseline Survey.
While recognizing recent gains in diversity, Shringarpure emphasizes the enduring and widespread homogeneity in publishing: “Without doubt, we’ve seen an increased awareness around diversity in publishing, with more Black, brown and queer writers being published than before. But the outpouring of stories during the #PublishingPaidMe discussion, and the enduring statistics showing that publishing industry employees, top leadership positions, and published authors remain overwhelmingly White, reveal that the problem is far from resolved.”
Today, the conversation on inclusiveness in publishing is increasingly curated by book clubs led by celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon, who often promote books by writers of color. However, their focus on relatively accessible works from larger commercial presses can result in choices that conform to preconceived notions about marginalized communities—the controversial Oprah’s Book Club pick American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins being a prominent example.
This focus also leaves fewer alternatives for writers whose radical perspectives and formal experimentalism are unlikely to find mass audiences. Shringarpure cites the case of Zanzibari writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose 2021 Nobel Prize award caused a “crisis among Western publishers, readers and critics” due to his relative obscurity: “[Gurnah’s] novels were not as widely available because he did not fit the kind of African writers that the publishing industry has been anointing. His writing is dense and the worlds he creates are historically and psychologically complex.”
To combat this situation, Bhakti Shringarpure defines RBC’s mission to choose “books which require a discussion and dissection of difficult and niche topics of progressive nature,” often by writers who experienced difficulties with mainstream publishers due to their experimental style or niche themes. Ugandan novelist Jennifer Makumbi describes how her epic novel Kintu (2014), which explores Ugandan history and myth from pre-colonial times to the present, was rejected by Western publishers who did not believe that “Western readers could read and understand books that are not addressed to them”; it was only picked up after being published by the independent Nairobi-based Kwani Trust and embraced by readers and reviewers on the African continent.
RBC thus highlights works by smaller, independent publishers from around the world, whose low marketing and promotion budgets “simply cannot compete with big presses and big book clubs who tend to bombard the market with free books, author appearances, book tours, and internet marketing,” Shringarpure said. Translated works, such as Véronique Tadjo’s novel In the Company of Men (originally published in French as En compagne des hommes) are also a priority; one of RBC’s Advisory Board members, Jill Schoolman, is the publisher of the Brooklyn-based Archipelago Books, which only publishes translated works. Shringarpure aims to create an alternative and inclusive space for readers to discuss and debate nuanced and thought-provoking works, and the societal and cultural issues they raise: “I want to nudge book clubs back into an educational and communal space, which is free, inclusive and open to all. RBC pushes back against mainstream, corporate publishing by challenging us to read deeply, differently, collectively.”
Key to creating this alternative space is the diffusive medium of the internet, which enables RBC to bring together readers who might otherwise have little to no access to literary spaces. RBC’s book club moderators use a friendly and gentle approach to break barriers between authors and readers in an informal environment. In March 2022, I attended a meeting on Amitav Ghosh’s The Nutmeg’s Curse, a challenging nonfiction book that connects the climate crisis, colonization, and capitalism. I was heartened to see the diversity of the participants—not only academics and writers, but also students and professionals from different walks of life, who enthusiastically engaged with the author on his research.
RBC also fosters progressive conversations through the BookRising podcast, which runs two series simultaneously: while Shringarpure interviews established African women writers such as Tsitsi Dangarembga and Maaza Mengiste, who share their struggles in finding agents, editors, and reviewers, Meg Arenberg spearheads the Radical Publishing Futures series, featuring lesser known yet paradigm-changing independent publishers such as Seagull Books in Kolkata, India, and Mkuki na Nyota in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Those conversations form the core of RBC’s objective to decolonize mainstream publishing. Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books describes the obstacles he faced in purchasing the rights to print and market books worldwide from the publishers of US and British authors; as an Indian publisher, he was restricted to purchasing only the regional rights: “We’ve always been told by the English-speaking West that, ‘Hey India! You buy from us. Take what you want, but for your borders.’”
His outfit set up Seagull Books London Limited in the UK to procure world rights from Western publishers. Similarly, Jennifer Makumbi describes the enduring colonial paradigm in Western publishing: “Because of the production processes, Africans were just producing the novel the way we produced cotton and coffee. We handed over this raw material to the British and they edited and processed it, and then they published it.” To break this paradigm, she aims to, and encourages writers to, reach out to worldwide audiences, including in India and the Caribbean.
Participating writers and publishers credit the moderators’ commitment and guidance for facilitating nuanced conversations on issues of authorship and publication before a global audience. Firoze Manji, founder of Québec-based Daraja Press, praised RBC for “encouraging debate, conversation, discussion and celebration of the work of diverse writers from across the world. I don’t think I know of any other entity that does this with such intimate appreciation about the topics that they consider.” Amanda Crocker, managing editor of the radical Toronto press Between the Lines, said, “Without the big advertising budgets or market domination that Big Book has, independent radical publishers have to work harder to connect their authors with readers. Organizations like the Radical Book Collective offer an alternative literary space for like-minded authors and readers to find each other and to share ways of thinking differently.”
The challenge to get people to read deeply is exacerbated in an era where it is easier, and more gratifying to some people, to tweet about books than to spend time reading them. However, the dedication of the collective’s community of readers continues to inspire: Shringarpure frequently finds that readers “enjoy diverse, exciting and innovative writing,” if it is made accessible to them. Having the writer participate and explain their motivations and challenges also encourages readers to engage with books they might consider as outside their comfort zones.
Originally from Mumbai, India, Shringarpure completed her PhD in Comparative Literature at The Graduate Center at the City University of New York and is an Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Connecticut. Witnessing the events of 9/11, and the subsequent rise in overt racism and xenophobia in the US, as a graduate student motivated her to examine the effect of war and colonialism on contemporary societies in her scholarly monograph Cold War Assemblages: Decolonization to Digital and for WARSCAPES magazine.
As a specialist in African literatures, Shringarpure witnessed the disproportionate, interlinked power of editors, agents, and reviewers in mainstream publishing, which compresses the diverse literatures of the continent’s 54 countries into the single category of African literature, and which “cannot accommodate anything that is foreign to the industry’s perception of the Western reader.” Her edited series, Decolonize That! Handbooks for the Revolutionary Overthrow of Embedded Colonial Ideas (OR Books), is designed to disseminate the concept of decolonization from the academic milieu to the public sphere.
Today, Shringarpure is on a mission to decolonize publishing and literary circuits more broadly. Future plans include embodying RBC’s online community through a hybrid format of in-person and online events—including a festival on radical books—and reaching out to vulnerable communities, such as senior citizens and prison education programs. Shringarpure also received a grant from the University of Connecticut called Radical Books for Transformative Futures, to engage RBC infrastructure to construct syllabi that incorporate a radical book, with appropriate teaching modules; she hopes to eventually implement such pedagogical programs in high schools and universities. RBC’s community of writers, readers, and publishers express confidence in this vision. “Bhakti and Suchitra are magnets for writers and activists who are forging paths toward radical change,” Schoolman said. “It is inspiring to be involved with such a vital group of visionaries. And we’ve only just begun.”