Since 1970, Feminist Press has made it its mission to publish marginalized voices and authors writing about issues of equality and gender identity. From the start, founder Florence Howe focused on publishing works in translation from around the world alongside feminist classics by local writers. Almost fifty years later, the press’s catalogue continues to reflect these priorities. Senior editor Lauren Rosemary Hook spoke to Sarah Moses, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, about the press’s approach to publishing in the current political climate, acquiring works from different countries, and titles in translation that readers can be on the lookout for.
Sarah Moses: How did Feminist Press get started?
Lauren Rosemary Hook: We were founded in 1970 by an English professor named Florence Howe. It was very much a reaction to the few women’s studies courses that were popping up at the time. I feel like that’s something we take for granted—women’s and gender studies—now that programs are available at every university. But I can count on only one hand how many there were across the country then, so it was a very tight-knit group. There was a lot of talk about how there weren’t many texts available by women—besides Emily Dickinson—especially in literature, and Florence was a part of this dialogue. A lot of feminist professors and activists at the time met up and Florence went away on vacation and came back and she had all these checks in her mailbox made out to the Feminist Press, and she was like, “I’m doing this?” It’s a really fascinating story.
We started off with a kids’ book but went to working with Alice Walker on a Zora Neale Hurston text, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper—you know books you read in high school, kind of old classics. And since we will be talking about translation, Florence was very globally minded—I’m talking about her in the past but she’s still alive: she’s turning 90 next year. She did a lot of works in translation: the Women Writing Africa series, among others, and was always very much travelling to book fairs. She tells me stories about how at the Frankfurt Book Fair there used to be a feminist publishing block—a block of booths of feminist publishers. I talk to people about that today and they’re like, “I’ve never heard of such a thing.” So obviously it’s forgotten history.
We’re a non-profit publisher and there are about six of us on staff. Our fiftieth anniversary will be in 2020. We do about fifteen books a year now and we’ve grown from the original mission of recovering lost literature, providing texts for women’s studies classrooms, to doing that, but also looking very much at where contemporary feminist dialogues are happening now, especially in a time of co-opted feminism, and asking what our purpose is. It’s funny, now that Trump is president, people are like, “of course we need a feminist press.” But five years ago people were really questioning why, which I think is fascinating.
SM: Can you tell me a bit about Feminist Press’s catalogue?
LH: We publish fiction, non-fiction, and children’s books. Sometimes people think we’re a university press because we’re housed in the City University of New York—we’re in the graduate centre there—but we’re a trade publisher.
Our non-fiction is always crossover—activist-academic, people with communities in need of texts, people with a platform. But we do a lot of course adoptions and we do work with a lot of professors, so we have a nice hybrid model.
I work mostly with fiction. We have a really great queer imprint that Michelle Tea curates. We started it to complicate LGBT representations beyond just coming-out narratives. Michelle Tea’s incredible, she’s just an amazing person to work with.
We also have this writing prize we started a few years ago called the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize that specifically highlights debut works by women and non-binary writers of colour and we give out $5,000 prizes, which is really exciting. So far our two winners have been immigrant women and the prize is so necessary. The first winner, YZ Chin, is from Malaysia; she won for the short story collection Though I Get Home. The second winner, Claudia D. Hernández, is from Guatemala—her book, Knitting the Fog, will be coming out in the summer of next year.
My passion is with works in translation and we’ve always done that—and I loved that about our list. But since I started working here, I thought it was something we could do more of and we could do more generously—definitely look wider in our scope, beyond France. We did a book by Violette Leduc, which is amazing—I love her—and we do a lot of Virginie Despentes’s books, which is exciting now that she’s blowing up. We have a lot of her really grunge, punk backlist—that’s something we love. But I felt we can do this and we can do more of this and we can go wider and push the boundaries of what Americans think about foreign literature. I’ve been doing that now for four years.
SM: When it comes to publishing works in translation, how do you discover authors from around the world, especially if you don’t read the language they write in?
LH: I’m lucky enough to read Spanish so my first acquisitions were Spanish language because I felt most comfortable not only in getting pitched something but being able to read it myself. But obviously I can’t just publish translations from Spanish. I work mostly with translators. I feel like they’re the best advocates. They know the works the best, besides the author, and maybe the author has passed, maybe they don’t speak English—whatever the reason is, translators are really good agents, so to speak. A lot of the projects I get pitched are from translators directly, which I think is really exciting.
Being in New York, I’ve spent the last couple of years going to as many book events as possible and just getting to know people. There’s a really tight-knit community and translator collectives are springing up. It’s just easier than ever to find these people and obviously, once you’re in everyone knows each other and they’re really friendly, which is amazing.
But, of course, I also do foreign rights here. So I go to book fairs like Frankfurt and London; I’m going to Guadalajara this year. I get to buy things but I’m also selling. Being in those environments I’ve actually contacted publishers directly so of course they’re like, “Can I show you our list.” But even agents, too. So it depends.
Really, I think that now women’s literature and feminism are trending and that people are excited by them—even internationally. But when I first started I encountered a lot of, “Why? What is this list?” It was like we wouldn’t really be taken seriously. I know since we’ve been around for so long it comes literally in waves. So now in particular people say, “We really want some more women on our list,” and I’ll get an email. Or maybe our books are sold to a Penguin Spain imprint whereas before it was just the smallest of the smallest Indie publisher. So it’s really interesting to see shifts like that.
SM: When it comes to promoting a book, how does it work when the author or both the author and translator are based overseas?
LH: It’s really hard. It really depends on the project. I think if a translator and author are based stateside, based in New York, we’re like, “Oh my God, yes!” Because it’s that much easier not only logistic wise but also to garner excitement from local booksellers. But obviously that doesn’t happen all the time.
I’m currently working on a Thai short story collection and the translator is based in Berlin and the author is based in Thailand. So we have to get creative, which I guess, as a scrappy non-profit we’re pretty good at. We really seek to collaborate with larger organizations and universities, but also festivals, like PEN World Voices and the Brooklyn Book Festival, which might be interested in certain authors and might be able to split the bill for one night’s lodging—whatever it is.
But I’m also editing a Croatian book that’s coming out in March. Croatia’s Ministry of Culture does have a grant program and it can support translation costs, but they also have a travel grant so we’re applying for that because getting the author here would be amazing. And I think they would be interested in that too since it’s her first English-language publication. So everybody wins.
Europe and even South America have these incredible federal programs a lot of the time to promote literature. Obviously, we do books from places that don’t have such support and we look elsewhere—we look to the National Endowment for the Arts. It sort of depends project to project. It also depends on the author’s availability, willingness, their schedule.
We also have a book from Uruguay coming out in November and the author, Armonía Somers, passed away in the 1990s, and the translator, Kit, is coming up from Buenos Aires and he’s going to do some events, in Boston and New York, and he’s going to act as a representative. So we do that kind of model.
SM: Would you say the experience of editing a book in translation is different from that of a title originally written in English?
LH: Yes. But I think we can qualify that even further because at Feminist Press we like to publish a lot of debut authors. We also have a lot of really great veteran authors on our list—Sarah Schulman, Michelle Tea, Bridgett Davis—people who already have their writerly voice really solidified. So I think English-language fiction can depend [on the author’s experience]. Sometimes debut authors need a bit of help and a lot of times they’re really receptive to that, and that’s really fun. With veteran authors maybe I’ll write more of a letter than go in on a line-by-line level; maybe address larger, structural concerns.
I worked with Philip Boehm on Chasing the King of Hearts—he translates from German and Polish and is an incredible man. He talks about his process of translation as kind of like tuning music—like he has to tune his thinking and his writing style to a text. I thought that was really lovely and nice. You have to really immerse yourself. So I’ll work on a text and I’ll tune it, so to speak, or bring it into deeper focus and bring that back to the translator with comments and queries. And then if there are places where I’ve overstepped—maybe I’ve smoothed it out too much, maybe that repetition is intentional, or whatever it is—then the translator can kind of bring it back. So we end up with something in the middle, if that makes sense.
SM: Would you say that you look for a translator to sort of push back when it comes to your edits?
LH: I think I want it to be a collaborative project. I don’t want them to roll over and take everything because I probably don’t know the text as well as they do. But I don’t want them to reject everything because just as they are intentional about their decisions, I’m intentional about my edits too. And those conversations, honestly, after I send the manuscript and they go through it—those conversations where we talk about the edits are the best part.
SM: I agree. As a translator, I’ve learned a lot from those conversations. There’s so much that goes into the process from both sides so it’s interesting to hear the editor’s point of view.
LH: It’s like a set of fresh eyes. Also, it’s almost helpful if I don’t know the original language. I have this isolation—the translator has so much knowledge of things between the lines, so much background informing them about word decisions. For me, it might be: “what’s going on here?” And then maybe we have to work on it because something is not coming across. I think it can be really helpful. It’s like a big puzzle.
Another aspect is whether or not you have the author involved. I’ve had some really interesting experiences where the author not only speaks English but contributes or informs or adds. I had a book, The Iliac Crest, translated by Sarah Booker, where the author Cristina Rivera Garza added in some things for the English edition, which I think is really cool. She actually emailed me recently asking for those additions because they’re reprinting it in Mexico in Spanish and she wants them included in the Spanish.
But it’s also, what is this work in English? Is it the same book? Is it a different work? What is its purpose? I’m kind of thinking about these things with the author. Especially if time has gone past—a lot of times we’re not publishing a book that was just published in Mexico last year, maybe it was twenty years ago and things are resonating differently. So talking about that too: What does it mean that this book is coming out in English now?
SM: Could you share a few titles in translation that you’re excited about?
LH: This fall we have that book from Uruguay I mentioned called The Naked Woman by Armonía Somers. She was a Uruguayan feminist and professor and this is her first full-length work to be published in English—she’s had a couple stories in anthologies over the years. It’s like The Awakening on steroids. It’s an incredible book. I think fans of Clarice Lispector, Djuna Barnes will really enjoy it. Lots of really crazy, surreal things happen. It packs quite a punch.
In March, we have a short story collection called Mars by Asja Bakic. Jennifer Zoble is translating that for us from the Croatian. It’s a really playful, fun book. Asja is a younger feminist and an awesome person. She has this blog and her author picture is of her wearing a Darth Vader helmet. We have a lot of sci-fi fans on staff and we’ve published some sci-fi and speculative fiction over the years for sure, but we’ve been wanting something a little newer. I wouldn’t say Mars is a sci-fi book; Asja kind of takes these fantasies and sci-fi tropes and twists them on their head in various feminist ways.
SM: What do you look for when it comes to acquiring new titles to publish in translation?
LH: My first acquisition was a book from Argentina called August, by Romina Paula and translated by Jennifer Croft. I think a lot of Americans, if they think of Argentine literature, they think of the Dirty War. We’re always talking about why a book is feminist, but then we think politically too about what a book means. For me, this book is a beautiful millennial take on grief and loss with a really singular voice that has a lot of universal resonance and a lot of nineties nostalgia. Things that Americans wouldn’t exactly connect with Argentina—which they should, right? We’re not stuck in the seventies.
So I think with my acquisitions in general, what I’ve been trying to really work on over the years here as an editor is to publish books from as many different countries as possible. We had a book published earlier this year that was from Equatorial Guinea. That was the first book by a woman from the country ever to be translated into English and it was also a queer book. Obviously, we want to put out a lot of LGBT literature, especially in translation. But also within these countries, how to not exotify and how to not “other”. Basically what we do with the rest of our list: How can we complicate things and add nuance and really just forge empathy in publishing these works? That’s kind of our revolution as a publisher. All these walls are being put up, there’s a lot of hate in the world, and we’re all about how humans can connect and literature, in my opinion, is the best bridge and that’s what we’re trying to do.
Lauren Rosemary Hook is senior editor at the Feminist Press, where she also oversees production and foreign rights. She seeks to continue Florence Howe’s long legacy of publishing diverse international works by women and has acquired award-winning fiction titles in translation from Equatorial Guinea, Thailand, Poland, Uruguay, Mexico, and Bosnia, among others.
Sarah Moses is a writer and translator. Her work has appeared in various print and online journals and anthologies, including Brick and Bogotá 39 (Oneworld, 2018). Sarah’s co- translation of Ariana Harwicz’s novel Die, My Love (Charco Press, 2017) was recently longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.
Read more about Feminist Press and its titles on the Asymptote blog: