Interview With Urvashi Butalia: On Feminist Publishing, Diversity and Activism

Urvashi Butalia’s achievements are endless: India’s foremost feminist, author and publisher of women’s writing; co-founder of Kali For Women, India’s first feminist publishing house in 1984 with Ritu Menon; Padma Shri awardee, and Director of Zubaan Books. Here, she opens up about the challenges of running a feminist publishing house, how to balance different kinds of activism, and why alternative ways of investigating and rewriting history is so important.

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AM: As the co-founder of Kali For Women and the founder of Zubaan, it seems that publishing is in your very blood. Did you always want to go into publishing? What kind of a vision did you have when you started a publishing house that focuses exclusively on women? And how successful have you been in realizing that vision till date?

UB: I didn’t know I wanted to go into publishing. Like all young people, I was confused and looking for a job. I fell into publishing by accident and I really liked it. In fact, I kind of fell in love with it and decided that this where I wanted to stay. That was long before I started Kali For Women. But after many years in publishing, I began to feel that it was a very male-dominated profession that didn’t take into account women as workers or women as writers, nor were they interested in creating knowledge about women. So I thought that I’ll start my own publishing house. So my vision was to start a publishing house to focus on women’s writings.

AM: So as a writer, editor and publisher, are you happy with the work that you’ve done so far? What are your plans for the future?

UB: I’m very happy with the kind of work that we’ve done but our aims are quite clear. We’re here to focus on women’s writing and to bring that writing to public attention, both nationally and internationally. But we’re also here to focus on writing that is not just by mainstream western-educated English-speaking women but also provide a space for writing that is by women who are marginalized or from minorities or belonging to the lower castes. We want to provide a platform for queer women, Dalit women and women who are marginalized by caste, class, location, region, religion, gender and all sorts of things. In the future we hope that we’ll do more of that kind of work, but also find other areas to focus on and go into them with equal passion and equal commitment.

AM: Running a feminist publishing house in India must be difficult. What kind of challenges did you face and how successful were you in overcoming those?

UB: We have been around for 34 years. So obviously there is something some kind of staying power that we do have, but there are many difficulties as well. In the beginning, the first of the difficulties was just trying to convince women that what they had to say was important, that what they had to say needed to be heard and needed to be published, because more than anyone else, women themselves did not believe in their own writing. They did not believe because they had not been listened to for so long, so they felt that what they had to say was not worth saying. So we had to work with them to give them the confidence to write.

After that, there are of course difficulties of survival and of making money, because women’s books are neither potboilers nor mass market paperbacks. They are serious books and they are not a very big market, even though the market is growing. So making money to survive and publish more is a real challenge.

There is another challenge that we did not expect. Once we started to create the space for women’s books in the market, other publishers realized that there is a market and they started to move into that space. This is a good thing because it means that women have more of a choice when it comes to choosing publishers, but for us it means that we don’t have that many writers and books. Our writers can go elsewhere and we have to constantly put in effort to creating new writers.

AM: Can you talk a bit about the editing process and experience in working with women writers from diverse backgrounds? Is there a difference when editing the works of women who do not come from privileged upper caste western-educated backgrounds?

UB: The editing process is same or similar whether the woman is upper caste or lower caste. That is not to say that the women who have had the privilege of an education are natural born writers.  They are not. Their work needs to be edited also. Similarly we have to work with women who come from non-literate societies or who are not writers, but have something important to say. So there is no single process. It really depends on what they are saying and how they want to say it.

For instance, sometimes you might make a book out of interviews and transcribing those interviews and giving them a shape. Sometimes you might make a book with 5-6 writers and get each one of them to write their story and then knit it together. Sometimes you might even work with a group of 75 women who have created together a book about women’s bodies. So then, the whole notion of authorship changes because there is no one author. There’s so many of them, right?

So as a feminist publisher, the most important thing is that you have to be inclusive and inclusiveness means looking at everything. You have to be diverse and diversity doesn’t mean in terms of religion but in every possible way. You have to be culturally sensitive and you have to always be aware of the new things that are happening in feminism and try to reflect those.

AM: Your book the The Other Side Of Silence is a harrowing and heartbreaking account of how the Partition affected women and the common people. So what made you take on such a daunting project?  

UB: The Other Side Of Silence is a book of oral history that looks at how ordinary people including women were and are impacted by the Partition. I worked on that because both my parents were Partition refugees but like many others I was young when it happened.  So we grew up not hearing about our parent’s stories, but hearing only the political stories about Jinnah and Gandhi and so on.

Then in 1984 when Indira Gandhi was assassinated in Delhi, there was an orgy of revenge against the Sikhs. I began to see the impact of violence on people’s lives and many people began to talk about the Partition event. That’s when I realized how difficult it must have been, and how terrible it was that my generation of people had not listened to their parents stories at all. So I decided to explore those stories and work on them.

AM: As an activist, you’ve worked primarily in publishing and academics. What do you feel about other avenues of activism, especially about the debates and controversies surrounding social media activism, such as list-making and the policy of naming and shaming? 

UB: I think social media activism has its place and I think it’s more important these days as a lot of young people are on social media. But I don’t think it’s the only way of addressing an issue and we should remember that social media is also limited in its reach, catering to people who can access the internet and who are largely (but not only) urban. So I don’t think we should dismiss social media as it’s very important, and it has raised campaigns and a lot of awareness about issues. But I think we should also be aware that a lot of activism happens on the ground and without that, the whole thing is only a partial form of activism. So yes, we have to see both of them together.

As the Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger, this interview with Urvashi Butalia was previously published on the JLF website and can be viewed here.


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