As part of Why Are We Still Here?, a series of 12 blogs written by women around the world to mark International Women’s Day, Urvashi Butalia, founder of India’s Zubaan Books, reflects on the changing landscape of feminist publishing and its relevance today.
I write this after I’ve just come back from a long and satisfying day at Delhi’s annual book fair. I’ve spent all day talking to people about the books we publish – feminist books, by women, about women – and listening to them talk about what those books mean to them.
It was a little over 31 years ago that we set up the first feminist publishing house in India – Kali. Two decades into its life, Kali transformed into the house I now run, Zubaan, which means tongue, voice, language, speech. In the years since we began, the world of literature and writing in India has been transformed by women writers who have brought not only new stories, but also new, radical perspectives and new knowledge. In 1984, when we began, the works of women writers could perhaps be counted on the fingers of a few hands. Today, they populate the world of writing and have made it their own.
But what does that mean for us? Are we now redundant? Is our “success” then our death? Is feminist publishing no longer necessary? Should we pack our bags and retire? Every day this question comes back to me in one form or another, and every day the answer is a resounding No. Although it’s true that the situation has changed since we began in the eighties, there is still so much to do.
When you set out to change the world – in essence what feminists and women activists set out to do all those years ago – things don’t change in one fell swoop, or indeed even in a few decades. And change is never linear. For every victory we have won for the women’s movement in India – and there have been many – there have been new challenges that have presented themselves.
Take the world of publishing for example. When we began to publish women, no one was doing so, or hardly at all. Now lots of people are. And yet, the issue is what they are publishing, and how diverse and inclusive they are. In a country like India women do not speak with one voice, and there are huge differences between those who are rich, poor, urban, rural, upper class, lower caste, and so on – differences that are to do with economics, with geography, with hierarchies, with social mores and with privilege.
Our initial crop of writers was mostly educated, upper class women. But we soon realised the need for feminist publishers to go further than that, which often meant publishing writers who were not “real” writers, who hadn’t been trained, but who had something to say. And then including voices that could speak, but perhaps not write. And then looking at minority voices, and the voices of transgender people, and even the voices of men who wanted to speak about women. And then connecting to other forms of politics, because you can’t be looking only at women whilst not looking at others who face oppression.
This is what makes feminist publishing so exciting – the continuing discovery of new voices and new stories. This is also why the answer to questions about our ‘redundance’ is always a No.
Urvashi Butalia is a writer and publisher. Co-founder of India’s first feminist publishing house, Kali for Women, she is now the director of Zubaan Books. Her works include Speaking Peace: Women’s Voices from Kashmir and The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India.