BAME breaking into publishing series: Yen Yen Lu

In this short blog series, we ask BAME creatives working within the industry to share their paths into publishing. Today we are joined by Freelancer Yen-Yen Lu.

'My first job working with books, technically, was a very brief period at a small bookshop while I was at university. After a few weeks working there, the manager sat me down and told me that they were letting me go, with the reason being that I “didn’t look like the kind of person people would buy books from”. I don’t know for sure what part of my “look” wasn’t right, whether it was my ethnicity, age, or gender and whether my thoughts and feelings about this were even justified (it could have just been a coincidence that the majority of staff were older white men, right?), but of course this comment bothered me. A lot.

A couple of years later, I was graduating university and starting an internship in book sales and marketing. The problem was not with me and my “look” after all.

I studied Creative Writing at university which, yes, is a real course that people can study at university and no, does not consist of making up stories all day. Before my third year had even started properly, I was starting to worry about finding a job after graduating. I knew I wanted to work in publishing but I also knew that it was very competitive. I started applying for all kinds of publishing jobs, work experience, and internships, paid or unpaid, and got very few responses, let alone actual interviews. Then, just after my graduation ceremony, I got an interview for a paid internship at Inpress, a sales and marketing agency for independent publishers based in Newcastle.   

I spent eight months in Newcastle working as an intern at Inpress and also getting a lot of colds. It was a small company but very close-knit and welcoming, and I feel that I learned a lot more at this internship than I would have in a large publishing house, where I probably would have easily faded into the background.

I applied for the internship through Creative Access, an organisation focused on opportunities for BAME people in creative industries. All of their internships are paid, which is rare but extremely important and it was a factor that definitely impacted my decision to apply for an internship with them. Creative Access believe in the importance of inclusivity in creative sectors – “how can the media reflect society, if society is not reflected in the media?” My thoughts on organisations like Creative Access have varied in the past: on one hand, organisations who take affirmative action are creating some really great opportunities aimed directly at people who find it more difficult otherwise to enter into certain industries; on the other hand, I’ve had so many people say to me that it’s no more than “special treatment” to the point that I start to believe it too. At the moment, however, my feeling is that until there is clear inclusivity and diversity in industries like publishing, until there is no majority of only one type of person in these industries, then of course there will be importance for organisations like Creative Access. 

After I moved back to London, I applied for a lot of jobs at larger publishing companies but I didn’t get past the interview stage. It was still a very competitive industry even though I now had a bit more experience. I kept in touch with some of the publishers from Inpress and one day, I had an email from Banipal, who publish a magazine dedicated to English translations of Arabic writings, to say that they were looking to hire someone on a freelance basis to work on marketing. I started working with them for a few days a week and found that I enjoyed freelancing – there was more freedom and flexibility to work on different areas of publishing with different publishers if I wanted to, as well as free time to work on my own projects as well, writing, proofreading, copyediting, and trying to catch a Dragonite on Pokemon Go. This year, I started working with The Emma Press as well, an independent publisher based in Birmingham who are also represented by Inpress.

I hadn’t given freelancing any serious consideration before I worked with Banipal – I thought that I would have to be much more established in the publishing world, know all the important people, join some secret societies and win a dance-off or two – but it has been a lot easier than I anticipated. The only big secret, I realised, is simply to talk to people. Most people I know in publishing are very friendly and lovely to talk to (a revelation that would have shocked nineteen year-old Yen-Yen) but I know now that if anyone says that I “don’t look like the kind of person people would buy books from”, they’re probably not people I want to work with anyway.'

The lovely Yen-Yen

The lovely Yen-Yen

Yen-Yen Lu is from London. She studied Creative Writing at Roehampton University and now works as a freelancer in publishing. You can follow her on Twitter @CastleFeather for rants about Gilmore Girls.

 

"Indigenous Feminisms", ablenormativity, & women who escape

Indigenous Species is narrated by an abducted young woman taken on a riverboat. Amongst what we glean of her, we know she is indigenous to Indonesia, a vastly diverse country with hundreds of languages and cultures, but altogether being decimated environmentally. Anger, resistance, and mourning are voiced by the anonymous narrator, along with the urge to protect nature and cultures, and this is deeply intertwined with the power she is denied and trying to reclaim as a captive.
    Indigenous Species shows that feminisms are not equal--the lipstick in Iowa made of Indonesian rainforest, on one page, shows how femininity and women's empowerment in one part of the world often comes unthinkingly at great cost to women elsewhere, and how the global supply chain encourages this lack of awareness. As an art book, further, it shows that sighted feminisms in particular are privileged over non-sighted feminisms, as the absence of Braille is noted on every left-hand page, with the word “Braille” in that language. Indeed, calling one version of the book—the one without Braille—“the sighted version” was very intentional, as we sighted people so rarely recognise ourselves as such.
    I’d like to think the book also subtly questions what "indigenous feminisms" mean, focussing not on labels but on the affective experience of emotional response to environmental loss, and the ability for that emotion to contain within it any number of feminisms (always plural). What makes someone “indigenous”? In what contexts do we use the word—in Britain, is it used to exclude “migrant women” and refugees from the right to human dignity? Is it used to denote “native” in a way that’s derogatory? Is it all about how you feel about where you come from, and the different meanings of “coming from” a place?


    The journey of Indigenous Species’ narrator, on a river, parallels the existential crises we all face as humans living in the anthropocene, where the very survival of our planet and our species is under threat from climate change, and we are all on a river we didn’t sign up for, hoping for an ending that provides a landing place for future generations. Amidst all this, women, LGBTQI, religious minorities and other communities, especially from the Global South, are trying to emphasise that no one can say they are speaking on behalf of us as “voiceless”—we have always existed and always stated our claims. The issue is who gets a platform in the fight for gender parity as indelibly linked to environmental survival. The decimation of women’s lands and indigenous women’s knowledge matters, and it’s a crisis with many struggling to protect rainforests, coral reefs, and innumerable habitats for humanity’s sake. When countless natural medicines from the rainforests are decimated, destroying the possibility of widespread cures for illness, it is humanity's crisis. When mines cause widespread mercury poisoning, affecting communities across riverine lands, it’s humanity’s crisis. When girls can’t go to school because of forest fire haze, that killed over 100,000 people in Indonesia alone last year, it is humanity’s crisis.
    In my writing and artwork, I tend to mess with the notion of endings. Once asked, ”Why do the women in your stories always have happy endings?”, I’ve wondered if isn't it more realistic to portray brutal ends, society as it is for women, society as it ends women’s narratives prematurely and often violently. For years, I’ve been grappling with this notion of “escape”, of feminist narratives where safety ends up uncertain, or taken away. We can’t escape what’s happening to our one and only planet. We need to build narratives and a sense of urgency, to recognise that we too are on a river, that there is a dire need to preserve indigenous knowledge systems and ecosystems, and that as with the heroine on a precarious boat, it is up to us to save ourselves.

by Khairani Barokka

Arabic's Magical Formulas: Interview with Francisca Mcneill

At ITA, the latest crop of mentees were announced for the Writers Centre Norwich's annual literary translation mentorships. In the last of our series of interviews with the recepients, our publisher, Deborah Smith interviewed up and coming translation star Francisca Mcneill.

What's your connection to the language you'll be translating from? Are there any other languages you know, or have even tried translating from?

I didn’t start out with a connection to Arabic – it was a bet. I’d never heard it before, didn’t know anything about it, didn’t know anything about the Arab World; I was more into Scandinavian languages and Italian. And I always watched German TV, on top of the American, British and Dutch TV I grew up with, so those were the languages I really liked playing with. But I always got excited about language learning – all my friends knew about it because I’d constantly bother them with stuff in different languages and I’d send them letters with sentences I’d made up and stuff. So one day a friend of mine said, “I bet you can’t learn Arabic”. It was the first and last language-learning bet I ever took. I did it without knowing in the slightest what I was in for: up to that point I had looked at languages as something to write with, to express yourself with, to have fun with. But some time into learning Arabic, after I’d decided to study it formally, I realized that this “language” is not just a language: it’s a wealth of magical formulas, a mystery that cloaks a huge empire, and the amount of knowledge that can be found in this language is just astonishing. I completely changed my direction in life when I started studying it: I went from wanting to become a musician to wanting to become a translator. The other languages I’ve tried translating from, in a literary capacity, are mainly Russian and German, but I’ve also translated some stuff I’m hoping will be published somewhere at some point, for example Manifestation by Swedish writer Vio Szabo (published by Mix Förlag) – a bitter short story about one person’s gender transformation in a Swedish activist “commune”. I’ve learned how to read several other languages, and I do use those for commercial translation, but I think it might be better to reserve my literary skills for those languages whose literatures have really influenced my life. I’m still dreaming of getting to translate some Flemish and Swahili literature some day, as well.

What's the appeal of literary translation, and how did you fall into it? What's your path been like so far?

I do love taking on other people’s voices when I translate, and trying to catch all the little nuances, references and hidden meanings that exist in literary texts. The challenge of literary translation is not only to render all those things correctly and stylishly, but to discover them in the first place. It’s an exercise in understanding, and I’ve found that trying to translate a story makes my understanding of it that much deeper. That makes literary translation a bit like a treasure hunt. But I didn’t “fall” into literary translation – it was a conscious choice, and I think that might be the same for a lot of people, because making a name for yourself in publishing is hard. You have to really persevere to be able to even translate one book for one publishing house once in your life, so only a very lucky few accidentally end up being full-time literary translators. So I think my path is fairly straightforward and similar to that of a lot of aspiring literary translators. I knew a few languages, studied translation at university, found out what types of things translators do, and started doing all those things. I’m not special. But I think literary translation is. Literary translation is an art form, and that’s a draw for me because I feel like art is the highest thing we can strive for in our society. What appeals to me about it as well is the fact that stories stay with people. Storytelling in general, including as part of other creative outlets besides books, has such a huge effect on the world. Stories can create our entire realities (just look at the stories Donald Trump tells himself). A translator has the hallowed job of introducing new ways of thinking, new knowledge, to new audiences. What’s not to like about that?

Do you have a favourite author whose work you'd love to translate? What kind of writing appeals to you? As well as your aesthetic preferences, are there any other issues - gender, social class etc - that would make you keen to translate a particular author?

For the Writers’ Centre Norwich Emerging Translators Mentorship I am focusing on works by Jordanian/Egyptian writer Ghalib Halasa. I’ve been studying his writing for so long it’s become like a pipe dream to publish any of his works in translation, but I am hoping that this mentorship will change that. It was actually his translations that introduced me to his writing: I did my MA thesis on the Arabic translation of one of my favourite books – one of my teenage bibles – The Catcher in the Rye (by J.D. Salinger). Ghalib Halasa was the person behind that translation, and naturally I got curious as to what else he had done. He is dead, but not to worry, because I have been holding séances with his spirit to make sure he is happy for me to promote his works... The type of writing I normally go for is actually pretty antiquated in comparison with Ghalib Halasa’s. Whereas he was a very controversial figure who was always pushing boundaries, the other writers I’ve drawn inspiration from were very much accepted by their contemporaries. I tend to read things from way, way back, and I’m definitely more about story than style. I’ve read nearly everything by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, for example, and the authors who have influenced me most are probably him, William Faulkner, H.P. Lovecraft, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson - and those last two are known better for their essays. Even Dostoyevsky wasn’t exactly known for his wonderful style. But in the past few years I have come to realize that the canon consists mainly of white, male, Christian, dead authors, and obviously the movement around that now means it is a great time to start enriching our writing with some fresh perspectives. So if I could choose a literary project I would have to go for something that plays with ingrained, one-sided perceptions – that would interest me. I can’t think of any specific author that I would like to put forward; maybe Vio Szabo, although I’m not sure they published anything this last while. Maybe others across the world who write about transgender issues. I’ve always had a huge respect for the drag community, for example, which I think is another community that gets left out in mainstream literature. RuPaul of Arabia, anyone?

 Aside from literary translation, what do you do?

Too much stuff, to be honest. I’m always busy with something language-related. Right now I’m writing a thesis as part of a Leverhulme-trust funded, full-time Linguistics PhD that’s part of the project Morphosyntactic Variation in Bantu: Contact, typology and change with Professor Lutz Marten, Dr Hannah Gibson and Dr Rozenn Guérois as well as others at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, University of London) and other universities. At the same time I’m doing this WCN mentorship and an editorial internship at London media company White Label Productions. I’ve also been responsible for the Translation Society at SOAS, which I founded in 2014, but I’m hoping to pass on the torch very soon (volunteer applications welcome!). On top of that I do freelance translation work for some clients from Russia, Germany and the Benelux, Sweden, the US and the UK, and I recently founded a company called BOOM Linguistics, which promotes creative language work and creative translators. When I get a free moment I usually play guitar, go to concerts, stand-up comedy shows and films, or just explore a bit on my motorbike (although it’s no cakewalk driving in London). I travel a lot, too, mostly to see friends and family, but this year has been pretty good for tourism as well: I visited Kazakhstan and St. Petersburg (Russia) for the first time, and I’m about to go to Sicily.

The talented Francisca Mcneill

The talented Francisca Mcneill

Francisca Mcneill is a translator and linguist currently based in London, England. Her professional interests include languages of the less powerful, literature challenging normalized thinking, and cross-overs between different forms of art, including interactive media and music. Her growing arsenal of literary languages includes Arabic, German, Russian, Swedish and French. She is currently investigating languages of the Kilimanjaro area (Tanzania and Kenya) as part of a doctoral research project at SOAS University of London. Get in touch with her at instagram or twitter @linguafrancisca.

 

Introducing Indigenous Species

In December 2016, we launched our first poetry book, Indigenous Species by Khairani Barokka. Indigenous is not your usual poetry book, though. It's a jagged, hard-hitting narrative poem about a young girl's abduction in the Indonesian jungle, featuring brilliant glitch-inspired artwork, and was conceived as a sight-impaired-accessible art book, with a braille translation and tactile artwork. We at TAP are immensely proud of this book, so we thought we'd share Khairani's inspiration for creating it.

indig book 1.jpg

"In 2013, in Jakarta, I wrote a poem that seemed to propel itself onto the page. The idea I had in mind was to craft an accessible spoken word performance, involving subtitles and video art projections. What poured out onto the page encapsulated all the fury, dismay, and deep sadness that wells up when I encounter news stories on Indonesia’s oceans, air or indigenous peoples. Stories of pollution and indiscriminate destruction; of shortsightedness, irresponsibility, and implicit disrespect; of circumstances which no human being should ever have to experience. 

[T]he destruction continues year by year, through the fires and forced relocations used to clear the way for new factories and plantations, through the seas of rubbish that surround our 17,000-plus islands, and through the deadly smog which killed nearly one hundred thousand Indonesians last year alone, and many thousands abroad. 

Because of course, this is not just Indonesia’s story. At this ominous stage of climate change, all of our futures are tied to that of the orangutans in Kalimantan, of the hundreds of indigenous cultures spread across the islands, of kids in Jakarta whose days are spent laughing and singing amidst automobile fumes. We live in a world where what we ingest, peruse in bookstores, slather on and wash off, are all direct products of unsustainable forestry systems, where the crises of ecosystems may not enter the consciousness of those who consume their fruits on a daily basis. We are all just trying to live a good life, and for many of us that entails access to products, whether “budget” or “luxury”, that are tapped from jungles we’ve never even been close to. 

So out came Indigenous Species, first performed in 2013, as a spoken word poem at Melbourne's Emerging Writers’ Festival. And then, one day, I found myself at a residency in Malaysia, a place of quiet and calm. Trees outside my window, holding the city at arm’s length. Thinking about the jungle, I remembered this poem, and found that the images I’d imagined for the original production were still there inside my head. Longer story short, it became a proposal for a book, one where these images would be a tactile experience, existing alongside text—and also alongside Braille.

The last thing this book is meant to be is an act of charity. As a disabled person myself, but one who accesses two-dimensional text and images with ease (thanks to glasses and contacts), I am an outsider who in no way intends to “voice for the voices of the voiceless”, or to imply that blind and visually-impaired people are not long-standing advocates for their own community. This community includes several friends and colleagues to whom I am hugely indebted for educating me. I am also in favour of at least understanding the social model of disability, where “disabled” is not the opposite of “unable” but “enabled”, and that many disabilities are societal and societally exacerbated. The Braille-and-tactile form of this book is an effort to emphasize one form of such discrimination, which persists in the publishing industry. Its contents, however, were created in a haze of anger and bewilderment at what has been happening in my own and other countries. If you’re sighted and are reading the “flat”, non-Braille, non-tactile version, you’ll notice the word “Braille” (in Braille) on every other page. This is an attempt to invert what scholar Georgina Kleege alerts us to in her article “Visible Braille/ Invisible Blindness”—the usual visibility of Braille in public places for the benefit of sighted people. I believe this corresponds to the usual lack of Braille in literature meant for sighted people, which can mask publishing’s discrimination. Thus Indigenous Species attempts to make the absence of Braille visible and felt in its sighted-reader version, just as sight-impaired or blind readers feel its absence in every two-dimensional book."

The lovely Khairani with Indigenous Species

The lovely Khairani with Indigenous Species

To really experience the brilliance of both the poem and the author, you need to see Khairani perform it - and you can catch her at these upcoming events:

Sat, Feb 18: Reading with a Q and A on Indigenous Species at Verve Poetry Festival, Waterstones Birmingham, 1.15-2.30PM.

Wed, Feb 22: Reading and discussion on Currently and Emotion with Sophie Collins, University of Liverpool.

Mar 10: Discussion on centring women in the arts and publishing, as part of the Southbank Centre's Women of the World Festival in London.