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Editors of South Asian Literary Zines & Mags

by Nabina Das


T.S. Eliot said, “Some editors are failed writers…”. I’m deliberately leaving the quote incomplete. I’ll go so far as to argue that even ordinary readers edit in their heads. Traditional editors loom large on the literary scene, and their role as gatekeepers is still seen with some reverence as well as consternation. With the expansion of cyber literary forums, literary zines, e-books, and the social media, I looked around to find a bevy of smart eager editors (who are writers too) steering zines as well as print journals that don’t always cater to the mainstream. The editorial practices of these people are not too different from their traditional counterparts. In fact, they overlap in many respects. What stands out is that a lot of these editors are themselves writers, they are often young, and it is really for the love of the words, not the business, that these literary creatures have taken upon themselves the arduous task of editing.

The South Asian cyber space is getting crowded with literary zines of various hues. Some of the zines are novices in the field, while others enjoy a sacred scholarly space usually accorded to print publications. Decidedly, most of these editors are not Eliot’s failed writers. In fact, we have increasing instances of well-established poets, novelists, and essayists taking up the reins of an editor. Their writerly and editorial lives seem to co-exist fine. As a peer review member of the online international journal The Four Quarters Magazine published from northeastern India, my attention naturally turns to the editorial practices of my counterparts.

Rahul Soni, who is associated with Asymptote and Almost island, is mainly a translator, although his own writing is scintillating. To the question whether the writer inside aids or obstructs the editor in him, Soni is more concerned about the reverse: does the editor aid or obstruct the writer in him? “Either way, the big danger is becoming calcified into certain ways of thinking about writing, what a text should or should not be doing,” he says. Involved with translations from Indian languages, he feels the selection criteria are simple -- it should be well translated, and it should add to our ideas about literature in that language, and hopefully, literature in general.

Soni’s ideas about editing remind me of a quote from the Internet that a friend guided me to: “A good editor is like tinsel to a Christmas Tree...they add the perfect amount of sparkle without being gaudy.” Although I later found out the author was popular romance writer Bobbi Romans, the comparison rings true to me.

Sumana Roy looks after the non-fiction section of the Northeast Review , an up-and-coming magazine from the northeast, the region that allegedly gets step-motherly treatment from the rest of India. She also curates the “Tin Trunk” section of NER. This is theme based, and she usually commissions poems, essays, photo-essays, short films, and artwork. As a writer who is quite active on social media, she finds a whole lot of submissions from Facebook “friends.”

“My reaction has been to treat each submission as a text without a name,” says Roy. “While every assessment is bound to be subjective and dependent on the reading tastes and agenda of an editor, we choose to publish work that fits in with the publishing manifesto of the Northeast Review, its ethics, and its aesthetics.”

On the subject of rejecting work Roy says, “A ‘no’ is not necessarily a comment on the quality of the work, but a result of our publishing agenda at that time.”

Kulpreet Yadav edits creative nonfiction and artwork for Open Road Review, but likes to keep track of other genres such as short fiction and poetry. He writes a short editorial that is published with each quarterly issue. He is as fussy an editor as he is a writer. His selection criteria for ORR includes, “Words that poke, teach, reason and stay put in the mind for a long time.” He asks writers to, “Show us places we haven’t heard of, people we thought didn’t exist, misery or excess in any form, living or dead, that hurts.”

The countercultural trend is not one that exists solely in the realm of zines. There are print magazines that are non-mainstream and more counterculture-leaning, and they walk the same arc as their cyber counterparts.

This is why I was delighted to come across SATHI , a Kathmandu-based quarterly magazine published in English and Nepali and founded in 1982, presenting contemporary and classical Nepali literature. The main intent behind publishing an English edition of SATHI, a tradition that began in 2003, is to promote Nepali arts and literature to the world through translation, an initiation that boasts of being the first of its kind in Nepal. Although the print journal doesn’t yet have an online edition, the magazine’s presence on the Nepalese literary scene prompted me to ask editor Jayant Sharma a few questions about the evaluation process.

“There are many criteria that come into practice; however, the magazine mainly focuses on giving space to works that justifies the qualitative excellence of Nepali arts and literature, something that are based on realistic approach towards various strata of society and life and those that can vocalize in bringing social changes,” says Sharma.

Most of these journals or zines have a presence on Facebook. Roy has used Facebook (and occasionally Twitter) to advertise calls for submissions, especially for the “Tin Trunk.” Roy has also found Facebook most useful in getting in touch with amateur photographers for photo-essays.

Soni says he has no strategy for Facebook. “I'm actually very bad at this. Doing it well is much, much harder work than it seems -- you can't do it half-assed, or just self-promote. It will only work if you're actively involved and engaged with your social networks in various ways besides plugging your mag/work etc.”

It will sound outrageous for the modern times, but William Faulkner is attributed the following: “Only Southerners have taken horsewhips and pistols to editors about the treatment or maltreatment of their manuscript.” Is it because of the latent fear of metaphorical horsewhips and guns that Yadav finds saying ‘no’ to be difficult? “I know rejection is part and parcel of a writer’s journey,” Yadav says. “I try to word the rejection mails well. I take time to put it as mildly as I can, sometimes even providing feedback about what would work better if the writer chose to submit again.” As for publicity and special strategy on the social media, his involvement is extensive: “… we have a Facebook page that has over 2,000 subscribers. Haven’t tried Twitter much though.”  Yadav and his co-editor Shanti Perez share their quarterly issues, blog updates, and mentions in the media etc., with the journal’s subscribers.

Roy is a writer too, a prolific essayist at that. But whether or not the two roles clash is a question she debates often.

“I’m not very sure – or perhaps ‘conscious’ would be the right word – of the writer in me when I edit. I work as a reader, a greedy reader, who’s working hard to assist the writer in the kind of writing she’d like to read at leisure.”

For Yadav, being a writer is a big plus. “I get an opportunity to study the submissions both as a student and as a critic. It helps in decision making,” Yadav says. While the subcontinent is seeing a sudden spurt in lit zines, Yadav feels undoubtedly web publishing is the future.

“It is quicker, has a wider reach, and is cost effective. Clearly it makes more business sense.”

He sees the steadily growing book market in the Indian subcontinent during the last decade and a half as one of the main reasons behind the spurt in literary ezines.

“The readers have started to pick books from fancy books stores at malls, new age airports, refurbished bus stops, and railway stations etc.”

While Yadav feels that the “top selling” writers are mediocre, the readers find such writing easy to relate with. The phenomenon has fueled the desire of many to take up writing as a career.

For Sharma of SATHI, the guidelines are clear-cut. If the submissions don't fit the boundary, they are refused, but in words that don’t upset too much. As far as the relationship between writer and editor is concerned, ending the conversation on a positive note without hurting the writers in them is the goal.

SATHI’s presence on social media is very recent. Sharma feels that frequent status updates have helped in collecting more likes, while sharing the magazine in like-minded groups has increased not only the reader-base, but also sales.

Sharma is very clear in his mind that editing is both technical and creative. Since writing is also a creative art, he believes that his experience as a writer will definitely help in making his editing more polished.

Is it not too absurd to wonder if the stigma against web publications is on the wane, given the proliferation of literary sites on the World Wide Web? Sharma feels the growth in the publication of lit zines is definitely a very welcoming phenomenon to watch, and that webzines are fostering day by day because of the quick publication process, cost-effective method, easy marketing, and broader access – all good things.

Choosing to characterize the stigma against web publications as distrust, Sharma does think that the feeling is on the wane. According to him what one really should look at is how many of the zines are able to achieve longevity and maintain quality. “I'm guessing they'll be very few.”

Yadav and Perez of ORR try to remain cognizant of the quality of what goes in an issue, how wide the issue’s reach is, and reader participation/feedback.

“Our webmaster keeps track of the number of people who are visiting us, their age, geographical locations, etc. The feedback they provide helps us to make course corrections,” Yadav says. “I think Open Road Review will keep evolving in years to come. In that sense, we are a dynamic entity. The pride of the editors is directly proportional to the success of the journal.”

The mainstream media is a vehicle that can facilitate a larger interface with readers, these editors feel.

Open Road Review has been written about in The Hindu and Book Link, a monthly newspaper that covers the Indian publishing industry,” Yadav says.

According to Sharma from Nepal, “We are sadly the representative of third world ideologies, and being part of the so-called underdog reality, it seems obvious for our publication not to come out professionally. This is irrespective of the myth that there are no good writers coming out of this region.”

He laments the bureaucratic impediments that seem to bury literature. “Hence, to make us heard, SATHI is a small step.” Moreover, in a country like Nepal, which has witnessed the rise and fall of many establishments and has been in a state of political turmoil, Sharma feels that literature has not been able to come out in the global arena. At the same time, it is a matter of pride to be involved in this Herculean task as a means of making the world a good place to live.

SATHI has also received literary honors and awards in Nepal. Many schools and colleges discuss the content of SATHI as a part of their academic activities. Perhaps this shows how the editor’s subjectivity transcends the immediate scope of the literary fare and transforms into the reader’s joyful scrutiny.

This rings true with what author Junot Díaz, also fiction editor for Boston Review, said recently in The Daily Beast: “In the end all of us are subjective when it comes to what we’re reading for. As an editor you try to expand that, become a little bit wider, because you’re publishing for a readership larger than yourself.”

The Internet has been around for a long time but webzines in South Asia are increasing in number and popularity only now. Regarding whether the stigma against web publications is on the wane, Roy feels it might be too early to tell.

“I’ve observed how common literary interests and shared aptitudes lead to the formation of Facebook reading and writing groups. For many of such groups, the webzine perhaps seems to be a natural extension.”

Although not quite comfortable with the term ‘stigma’, Roy is aware of the hierarchy that operates between print and online publications, and thinks the divide will gradually disappear, with print exclusive magazines and journals gradually becoming irrelevant.

“Many ‘Facebook poets’, as I pointed out in a recent essay for Himal Southasian, have a strong fan following, their popularity nowhere less than those of writers of published books. So, that hierarchy will be subverted, I hope.”

Regarding making an impact in the mainstream, Soni is clear about his priorities: “No compromises on quality, that's the only way.” Does mainstream endorsement count? Not always. It depends. Perhaps for a certain kind of magazine -- but for a magazine that sets itself up
against the mainstream, “that would be death.” Soni believes ultimately though, if you're honest and uncompromising, “it doesn't matter… your audience will find you, and that's enough.”

That reminds me again of Díaz’s words: “In the end what I’m looking for, which I think is what everyone looks for, is something that sings. More technically, something that is aesthetically beautiful and that challenges people’s sense of the form, and of the world that they live in. We all want to be arrested, to walk away turning over a good piece of fiction in our head. That’s my guide.”

For Yadav, the ethical prerequisites of his editorial role are simply punctuality, consistency in quality, and impartiality.

But all this comes with quaint pitfalls. Incidentally, a writer took a lot of initial interest in Yadav and Perez’s magazine to finally drop the red hot question: how much money are the editors making?

“I said zilch. But he didn’t believe me.” The writer doesn’t respond to Yadav’s messages anymore.

Roy’s colleagues, NER editor Uddipana Goswami, and fiction and poetry editor Aruni Kashyap, are writers from Assam. The magazine therefore, provides a unique space for original and translated writing from India’s northeast and literature from marginalized societies which the mainstream media usually does not have space for.

“It’s that shared aspiration that keeps us alive as a team,” says Roy. The magazine has been mentioned in essays on the subject of literary magazines in India such as The Mint and The Hindu, both Indian newspapers. “I’m not sure if it mattered – I hope it gave us a few new readers.”

And the quest continues. The tinsel to the Christmas tree often turns golden.

Nabina Das, an MFA (Poetry) from Rutgers University, US, and an MA (Linguistics) from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, has a debut poetry collection Blue Vessel and a novel Footprints in the Bajra, which was longlisted in the prestigious Indian prize "Vodafone Crossword Book Award 2011". Her poetry collection Into the Migrant City is forthcoming soon. Nabina’s poetry and prose have been published in several international journals and anthologies, and she is in the peer review committee of The Four Quarters Magazine literary journal published from Northeast India. Winner of several writing residencies and fellowships, Nabina has won prizes in major Indian poetry contests and has worked in journalism and media for about 10 years. Trained in Indian classical music, she has performed in radio/TV programs and performed in street theater. Nabina blogs at http://nabinadas13.wordpress.com/ when not writing, teaches creative writing classes and workshops, and dabbles in unschooled art on paper and broken objects.