Publisher Profile: In Conversation with Kaya Press

"We push boundaries by putting these books out there."

Kaya Press was founded in 1994, and has established itself as a premier publisher of Asian and Pacific Islander diasporic writers in the United States. Its diverse list of titles includes experimental poetry, noir fiction, film memoir, avant-garde art, performance pieces, “lost” novels, and everything in between. Kaya and its authors have been the recipients of numerous awards, including the Gregory Kolovakas Prize for Outstanding New Literary Press, the American Book Award, the Association for Asian American Studies Book Award, the PEN Beyond Margins Open Book Prize, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Award, and their books have become cornerstone texts in American Studies and Asian American Studies curricula at universities throughout the country. I spoke with Publisher Sunyoung Lee via email.


Alexis Almeida: Can you tell me about Kaya’s origins? I’ve read that it was originally intended to house a journal of Korean literature-in-translation, and that the press has been through many transformations.

Sunyoung Lee: Kaya was founded by Kim Soo Kyung, a writer and a publisher based in Korea, who originally was interested in publishing Korean lit in translation. She met up with writer Walter K. Lew, who convinced her to publish a broader list of Asian diasporic lit—and to move beyond putting out a journal format to putting out actual books. The transformations that Kaya has gone through have been largely due to staffing and funding. The start up funding from Kim Soo Kyung ended in 1997, whereupon all funding for salaries abruptly ended, though I continued to work at Kaya with Juliana Koo, Kaya’s original managing editor. Probably the most difficult time for Kaya was the period where I became the sole volunteer staff person at Kaya after Julie went to graduate school. Luckily, we had enough forward momentum to stay afloat because of the great organizational groundwork that Julie had put into place, but it was a huge challenge to keep up—to continue publishing books, keeping our books in print, etc. We managed to keep our heads above water, but there were a couple of moments when it was a bit touch and go. More recently, however, working with Neelanjana Banerjee, our managing editor, and our new publicist, Cathy Che—not to mention our graduate student assistant, Heidi Hong, and the numerous, talented undergraduate interns whom we work with here  (happy to give a list of all of their names! Anita Chen, Maggie Deagon, Jamaal Armstrong, among others)—has made all of the difference in getting Kaya Press really humming again. Not only are we putting on more events and publishing more titles than ever before, we’re also working on a couple of new series of titles (and planning a few more), including one on Japanese lit in translation, and another on Korean literature in translation, both of which will be launched in 2017. So there’s a way in which we’ve finally circled back around to our original founding impulse!

AA: What has your move from New York to LA been like? Can you tell me about your affiliation with the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity at USC, and your relationship with the greater LA community?

SL: From New York—at least back in the 90s, at least for myself—Los Angeles was not just beyond the pool of light being generated by the city itself, it was past the curve of the earth—past the horizon. So it was never a place I ever really ever thought about, much less imagined Kaya moving to.

Because we started in the 1990s, we had a very strong sense of creating culture as we went—desktop publishing had just started to make possible the world of indie publishing that we now see flourishing around us, and there was a lot of excitement and new ideas and people trying to figure out how to making this indie publishing thing work.

The feeling was a lot like the feeling of riding my bike (my primary mode of transportation in those days) through midtown Manhattan—you’re out in the world, completely self-powered, moving between lanes of packed traffic in the shadow of these enormously tall buildings. It’s a weirdly wonderful feeling—you feel acutely your smallness and insignificance, yet all of that looming institutional weight can’t prevent you from making your way to wherever you need to be. That’s what it felt like to be doing indie publishing at that time. It was hard not to feel like a pioneer.

Ditto with regards to working the Asian diasporic focus—unlike out on the West Coast, where there was a more of a cohesive sense of history and critical mass and activism around Asian American-ness, in New York, being Asian American and really trying to make an impact as an Asian diasporic press required a different kind of wiliness—a different set of survival skills, if you will. There was definitely an active, thriving community of Asian American artists, but it wasn’t as entrenched and institutional as it was out west, from what I could tell at least. Which meant that you spent more time trying to break new ground—to get to the table—than you did navigating pre-existing social and cultural hierarchies—or figuring out how to position yourself at the table.

The weird thing is that Los Angeles feels pioneering in the same way—even though it’s perched on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, and home to some of the most extensive Asian and Asian American populations in the country. My first instinct was to link this to a quality of the landscape. Sesshu Foster, one of our authors, once told me (paraphrasing someone else, I believe) that if New York is the first draft of an American city, then Los Angeles is the final draft. That way of understanding the two cities has been knocking around in my head since I first heard it—so in some ways it’s become the reality that I’ve come to expect—but it also does makes cognitive sense of my actual experiences. New York’s lack of space has resulted in buildings being built higher and higher—which in turn inevitably implies—or rather, enacts—hierarchy. Los Angeles’ sprawl means that everything is spread out horizontally—there’s space for different kinds of cultural production, it doesn’t all have to happen on top of one another. So there’s some freedom that comes from having more space—but that sense of space is existential as well as physical.

All of which means that it’s easier to find your own voice, to figure out what it is that you want to do and to get really good at it, without being shoehorned into some weirdly competitive, survival of the fittest mode. (I was recently talking with a poet who decided to move from New York who said that whenever she would go to a party with poets in NYC they would always be talking about trying to get fellowships, who’s been published where. That’s the kind of feeling that you inevitably get caught up in when there are a huge number of talented people piled up on top of one another—lots of thrashing about and competition.) Here in Los Angeles, the vibe is different—those who are super competitive can continue to be that way. But there’s also space for thinking up completely different kinds of interactions and collaborations. We’re not automatically dependent on currying favor with pre-existing institutions—we’re free to create our own. And everything doesn’t have to be a struggle to the death over scant resources. There’s room for generosity. That kind of space makes it possible to innovate, to experiment. There’s less density, less frisson perhaps—you do generally have to figure out how to get to different goings-on, and this mostly involves driving—but there’s more freedom.

All of which to say is that it’s been great moving from New York to Los Angeles—not least because of the ways in which moving from one place to another really does force you to reconsider a bunch of conscious and unconscious presumptions.

It’s been wonderful being housed at the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity. USC provides us with office space and graduate student support, as well as a small amount of funding.

AA: How did you decide on the name “Kaya”?

SL: Kaya was named after a Korean kingdom that was particularly known for its cultural production. The name was already in place when I joined, I didn’t come up with it. But it’s a great name! Lots of meanings in other languages—something probably about the elemental sound of it—it’s such a basic combination of consonant and vowel sounds! We also managed to get our website, early, which has been a boon (though we are actually a non-profit)… Various people have actually offered us significant amounts of money to give up the website url! And this was back in the 2000s…

AA: In addition to publishing new Asian and Pacific Island diasporic writers, you also publish a lot of re-prints. What are you looking for when considering manuscripts? Do you receive a lot of works-in-translation in your submission pool?

SL: We haven’t necessarily gotten a ton of translated works—though the ones that we’ve done are significant. The title that fits both categories—it’s a reprint AND a work-in-translation—is Lament in the Night, a collection of two novellas by the writer Nagahara Shoson, which was originally published in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo (right on First Street!) in 1925—in Japanese! So the first thing I thought when I heard of this project was, wow, back in the 1920s, there was enough of a Japanese-language literary community to support book publishers! In Japanese! How come we don’t know about this? Then, when I read the works themselves, I was blown away by the writer’s voice. Shoson was someone who was trying to make it as a writer while slaving away at menial jobs during the day. He worked as a gardener, and as a day laborer—and would go home and try to finish his novel. And his is just one voice among many. And his ambitions for his work were huge—he wasn’t interested in writing commercial fiction, he was interested in literary modernism, he was reading (and translating) Knut Hamsun and Tolstoy.  So he writes what we call “proto-noir”—encounters in the seamy underbelly of immigrant life in Los Angeles. I could go on and on about the book.

But, to answer your questions, we’re always looking for manuscripts that are somehow transformative, that will completely change the way that you’ve thought about the kinds of experiences people have, the ways in which they look at things, . This can be through form—hybrid texts, for example Amarnath Ravva’s American Canyon, which is a non-fiction/photographic/video stills meditation on pilgrimage, family, and erasure—or through content, like Shoson’s book, which introduces a world (through translation!) that had previously been completely obscured and/or forgotten. We’ve also been trying to push the boundaries of how to present materials that are typically not found in book form—for example, performances. For Sam Chanse’s Lydia’s Funeral Video, we used drawings, a flip book, and additional commentary that we called a “counterpoint narrative” to provide a fuller

Another example of this is the book And China Has Hands—another reprint, but this time not a translation. This book was originally published in 1937, and was written by HT Tsiang, a sui generis Chinese American writer and actor who self-published a series of experimental and otherwise genre bending books, hand selling them at lefty worker cafeterias and events. This particular book takes on the story of a Chinese laundry man and a mixed race Chinese and African American wannabe actress—both living and working in New York Chinatown of the 1930s. What are the chances that you’d be able to find a sympathetic portrait of a mixed race woman from that time period? Or a sympathetic description of the life and struggles of a Chinese laundryman? Stories like these explode expectations and presumptions. Those are the kinds of works that we are attracted to.

Other books that are coming up in this series of reprints are translations of devotional poetry written in the early 20th century by Lalbihari Sharma, a coolie working on the plantations of Demerera in Guyana; and Song of Ariran, the account of the life of Kim San, a Korean anti-colonialist freedom fighter who ended up becoming a soldier in Mao’s Red Army. These are stories that defy categorization—they reveal through their very specificity and craft the depth and the.

AA: It seems that innovation is very important to Kaya. How do you see yourselves pushing the boundaries of people’s understanding of the Asian and Pacific Island diasporas through your titles?

SL: We push boundaries by putting these books out there.

AA: Can you talk a bit about #LitinColor, the campaign you launched with Tia Chucha Press and Writ Large Press?

SL: It’s so obvious that it almost feels like an affront to intelligence to have to talk about it, but there’s a problem with diversity in publishing.

It’s obvious, everyone knows about it, but it’s also easy, as readers to ignore this—I mean, if reviewers don’t seem to care, and mainstream publishers don’t seem to care, etc. etc. It’s easy enough to not even notice if a year has gone by and you’ve read 98 percent white writers. And then it’s easy enough to think that because books by white writers are getting all of the attention and recognition, that those are the only books that are worthy of attention—and that any ideas or topics that fall outside of a white perspective are marginal at best. It’s easy enough to think that anyone who wants to focus on Asian diasporic writers must only be publishing for Asian diasporic readers. All of these things.

So the whole idea behind Lit in Color was to try to figure out some way of celebrating writers of color as being actually at the very center of our imaginations instead of at the margins. Because the truth of the matter is, these writers have been inspiring us for generations now—they’re lodged deeply in our minds and memories already. It’s not a question of representation, it’s a question of recognition.

AA: What can you tell me about your production process? I really love your book design!

SL: We have from the beginning felt that the design of a book was absolutely critical to our job as a publisher. I was once told that a well-designed book cover should prompt a person to go across a room to pick it up—and that’s the ideal that we always keep striving towards. Because we are a print publisher, we also want our books to make sense as physical objects—so that even if a digital version of a given book exists, the materiality of the printed book, the quality of the paper, the thoughtfulness of the design, will be a source of pleasure. And again, referencing that idea of materiality, we generally, as a design aesthetic, prefer designs that somehow point to the labor that has gone into the design—some sign of the animating intelligence behind the process.  As for the process itself, we’re lucky to have a great roster of designers with whom we work, including Chez Bryan Ong from spoon + fork studios, Jason Bacasa, Sean Deyoe, and, most recently, Nneka Bennett. We were also super excited to have a chance to work again with Yuko Uchikawa, who was our very first designer at Kaya, on the reprint edition of Rolling the R’s. Luckily, all of these designers, in addition to being incredibly talented, are also excited about the process of making books, which means that they’re open to ideas like putting flipbooks in a title (as in Lydia’s Funeral Video by Sam Chanse) or incorporating massive amounts of illustrative details (Migritude by Shailja Patel), or even attending to small touches such as printing on the inside covers or on chapter openings. These are all small touches, but they add up to a very clear picture of how important these books are to us as a publisher—something that is hopefully conveyed to our readers as well.

AA: Are there any forthcoming titles or events you are particularly excited about? What’s next for you guys?

SL: We are publishing a slew of books that we’re excited about—in truth that there are no titles that we’re publishing that we’re NOT excited about! This spring, we’ll be publishing a 20th anniversary reprint of Rolling the R’s, one of the first titles that Kaya ever published, and still our bestselling title. We’re also publishing And China Has Hands, the title I mentioned earlier that was originally published in 1937 and that follows the struggles of a Chinese laundryman in New York Chinatown and the half Black and half Chinese woman whom he falls in love with. Beyond that, we’re publishing a new novel by Kazim Ali that’s written as a quartet, with voices coming in and out a la a musical score; So Many Olympic Exertions, an experimental hybrid (fragmentary, with aphorisms, non-fiction, and fiction) non-novel (non-vel?) about sports, failure, graduate school, and suicide; Accomplice to Memory, author Q.M. Zhang’s evocation of the lost memories of her father; Stolen Oranges, a fictionalized correspondence between Cervantes and the Emperor of China by Max Yeh; a novel about Koreans living in China by Woon-young Cheon, Farewell, Circus, translated by Michelle Ha and Jinim Park. Just to name a few!


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