8 Questions with Ra Page of Comma Press on Publishers Defying the Muslim Ban

Almost immediately when President Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban went into effect (since rechristened the “Travel Ban,” and since scaled back by court order), British independent publisher Comma Press had an innovative response: in 2018 they would do a full year of titles only written by authors from the banned nations.

I’ve long known Comma Press as one of the U.K.’s most daring publishers of international literature, but I was still surprised when I saw this. It was such an immediate, large-scale response, and it seemed like a huge challenge on numerous grounds (for one thing, given that we’re already in 2017, upending one’s 2018 schedule is a huge logistical hurdle). Little did I realize just how audacious Comma’s publishing plans are (read on).

For more on the why and the how behind this audacious decision—as well as some frank talk about the state of UK politics and our roles as members of the publishing community—I corresponded with Comma’s editor-in-chief, Ra Page. As eic of Comma Press, Ra has long helped oversee the entry into English of numerous important world writers, and he has long worked with writers from the Middle East and North Africa. In just one of many examples, Comma discovered the Iraqi author Hassan Blasim, now decorated with multiple international honors, published in the States by Penguin, and generally regarded as one of the most important contemporary writers from the Middle East.

Scott Esposito: Comma Press has announced that its 2018 translation titles will be exclusively by authors hailing from countries affected by Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban. Could you explain how you came to this decision and give a sense of Comma Press’s prior work with authors from these nations?

Ra Page: It was a snap decision, really. An impulse. We spent the weekend before watching all footage of all those demonstrations in airports across America. We were heartened by them almost as much as we were terrified by the ban. Come the Monday, we were in the middle of stressful deadline, and it struck us that there were more important things happening in the world than that deadline, so we took five minutes out to consider how we might respond. I proposed it to my colleague Sarah Cleave, very casually, and she just said yes, instantly. The rest followed.

There’s a lot to fear in all of the appointments, executive orders and throwaway comments issuing from the White House right now, but the travel ban has been the most symbolic so far. The resistance movement has formed around that one act, even though other executive orders will probably prove just as damaging.

Our decision is to champion, give voice to and better understand a set of nations that the White House would like is to believe are populated entirely by terrorists. Seven countries worth of “bad people.”

Prior to this decision, Comma had published a number of translation titles from the Middle East and from the Arabic in particular. Most notably, Comma was the first to publish the award-winning Iraqi author, Hassan Blasim, in any language. (Blasim has since been published in the States by Penguin, with the collection The Corpse Exhibition). Comma also publishes a series of anthologies of short stories from cities, including Madinah, The Book of Khartoum (the first anthology of translated Sudanese short stories ever published in the UK), and The Book of Gaza. This latter title came out in the summer of 2014 just days before the Israeli bombardment of the Strip started. Having been in close contact with these Gaza authors for months beforehand, Comma then became a means for their first hand reports of the bombardment to leak out into the world. Diary entries by one writer in particular, Atef Abu Saif, were sent through Comma to media outlets such as The Guardian, Slate.com, and The New York Times. Eventually all of Atef’s diary entries were published in The Drone Eats with Me (published in the States last year by Beacon Books).

A few months ago, Comma also released an anthology of specially commissioned stories from Iraqi authors, called Iraq + 100. The brief was to write a story set a century after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. What transpired turned out to be the first anthology of science fiction from Iraq ever (not that we were aware that it would be!), with some astonishing visions of Iraq, and extrapolations of the long-term consequences of 2003 – ranging from the Orwellian to the farcical (image: South Park meets ISIS). The book got an enormous amount of interest on Twitter, and we’re currently in the middle of striking a deal with a major SF publishing house to bring it out in the States.

SE: What has been the reaction to this decision?

RP: We’ve been inundated with offers of help – ranging from translators and volunteers (offering to read and proof-read manuscripts) through to fellow editors and in one case the wife of a diplomat! It’s been amazing. I think others in the UK publishing industry probably think we’re a bit barmy, but we already work in short fiction and translation both of which are very niche areas; we’re used to making life hard for ourselves.

How it will impact on the wider political conversation I don’t know. I think the idea of a cultural boycott on America is a little ambitious. But maybe we could start by not watching the Apprentice anymore? Maybe even that’s too ambitious.

SE: The UK is, of course, having its own round of right-wing, so-called populism at the moment, following the vote to leave the European Union and the election of Theresa May to Prime Minister. Anti-immigrant sentiment was clearly a part of the success of these politics, as it was here in the States. How are things right now in the UK as regards foreigners, and how do you see your own role as the publisher of a press that specializes in international writing?

RP: Yep, there’s a tide of right-wing populism crashing over Europe right now. And history would suggest it’s just the inevitable consequence of a prolonged period of economic recession. When you’re in the middle of it, though, it feels like there’s more going on.

I think first, we need to remove the word “populism” from the problem. The movement that brought Obama to power was a populist one, and only became ‘non-populist’ when he failed to deliver on half of his election promises, and sank into the mire of day-to-day compromise. He was only non-populist in retrospect. What’s happening at the moment is wave of right-wing manipulation of the working class/blue-collar vote, there’s nothing particularly populist about it. Obama’s base was initially young and multi-ethnic. Why is that not populist, but the base of Brexit or Trumps’ vote – i.e. old and white – is? Yes, the current wave involves previously unelected figures, who trade on their personalities over and above their beliefs, but that’s an classic (very conscious) top-down campaign tactic, not a bottom-up grassroots decision.

To say it’s populist is to fall into the journalists’ trap of saying “there’s something in the water” right now, and to pretend to be merely reporting on that wave of feeling. It’s a construct.

For the last four years, in the UK, the BBC has been putting one man at the forefront of all their political coverage, a man who isn’t even capable of winning a seat in the British parliament despite seven attempts! A failed politician (Nigel Farage). The reason they did this is the media needed to create ‘a new type of politics’ and it was third attempt to do so. Their first attempt to create ‘a new type of politics’ was with the self-confessed holocaust denier and fascist, Nick Griffin (of the British National Party). After Griffin and his party fizzled out, they tried it with Nick Clegg, when he appeared in the first presidential-like TV debates, ahead of the 2010 general election. Again he was the voice of “a new type of politics.” Then, when his party scored fewer votes than it 5 years before, and consequently sold out to the Tories in a coalition government (and became hated for it), the BBC had to go somewhere else for their precious “new type of politics.” They went to Farage, and after four years of unprecedented coverage it finally amounted to some votes.

The reason for the unprecedented levels of exposure Farage enjoyed, for four solid years before Brexit, was not some grassroots groundswell, or something “in the water,” it was simply a consequence of the way politics is covered in the media in Britain; it takes all its cues from entertainment industry – from celebrity culture and gossip columns – and nothing from anywhere else. There are too many journalists in the world, and no one wants to step out of line, so they all chase after the same “story.” And what makes a “story” – whether in reality shows or in political news coverage – is the same set of dumb-ass archetypes: the maverick outsider, the plucky underdog; the man fighting the system (or fighting for the little guy). Even if the “system” he’s fighting against is the democratic rule of law, and the “outside” he’s hailing from is fascism.

We need to re-learn the art political coverage. Our conversations about politics need to aspire to be more than just gossip around the kings’ court. We need to talk about ideology for a change, not just scandal and outrage. The hysteria around the new president just feeds that presidency. In his world of reality shows and show business, no coverage is bad coverage, and the more we mock him, the more his supporters will love him, for being the underdog.

SE: What are things like in the UK right now post-Brexit?

RP: Well, race hate crimes have gone up. Homophobic hate crimes have soared. Islamophobia is finding its full voice. The Labour MP Jo Cox was stabbed to death on the street outside her constituency office, primarily for supporting refugee children from Syria, in the run up to the Brexit vote – an event which seemed to make no impact on the vote a few days later. This is not a happy picture is it?

I don’t think I’m qualified to comment on how “foreigners” or outsiders are viewed in the UK right now, because I’m not one of them. I can’t say. The figures tell their own, frightening story.

But perhaps all is not lost. There are a few, small crumbs of hope within the Brexit result. It was a close call, and the Leave vote was based on a profoundly misinformed and badly reported campaign. Anecdotally, there seems to be many stories of regret the morning after, coming from people who weren’t really aware of what Leave would mean. The reasons for voting Brexit in many cases were farcically misinformed. A friend’s mother said she voted Brexit “because of the traffic on the Prestwich roundabout.” Another woman on a recent televised debate, said she voted Brexit “because of straight bananas” – a myth perpetuated by the Sun newspaper in late 80s about EU edicts.

Perhaps we shouldn’t mock these individuals. But we should, at least, mock the media that has allowed the debate to leave half of the electorate behind and, for the other half, reduced it to the language of the gossip column: chasing after Bozo (Boris Johnson)’s latest, hilarious gaff, or surrounding Farage at every photo op, holding a pint of flat English beer, monopolising what it means to be an English ‘bloke’.

Perhaps we should start to question this “free news” we’re getting all the time. Someone must be benefitting from us getting it for free, right?

SE: How do you see you role, as a publisher amid these politics?

RP: I could get all misty-eyed and tell you that writing, reading and publishing are all acts of resistance; and that we’re all in the business of offering alternatives, resisting the ones being sold to us. And there’s an element of truth in this. The purpose of literature is indeed to increase sales resistance, to equip us as human beings with the means to look beyond one account of events – the one being “sold” to us – and infer or imagine alternatives.

But everyone who’s scared of what’s going on right now, in all walks of life, will be thinking how they too can resist, professionally or otherwise. But, as a publisher at least, I have to be honest. Symbolic gestures like this might not be enough. Just as posting amusing memes of Trump or May on social media might not be enough. Eventually, we’ll have to put down our pens, our phones, our tablets, and try something else.

SE: I agree that it’s essential for members of the artistic community to be politically active—I mean in terms of engaging directly in politics as citizens, and not necessarily as writers, artists, editors, booksellers, etc. We’ve seen a lot of that here since the inauguration of Trump, with thousands of political action groups springing up across the nation, massive protests, enormous amounts of pressure being put on Congressional representatives, and unprecedented donations to groups directly fighting Trump’s agenda. That said, I also feel like it’s up to us to find ways to develop our own responses as a literary community, be it through publishing initiatives like yours, events highlighting groups and nations that are being discriminated against, or even simply just trying to get more people to read and pay attention. In those terms, do you see responses to Farage and May coming together in the UK?

RP: Writers (and most people in the arts community) are generally very good at displaying political outrage among their like-minded friends, especially on social media. But if it isn’t accompanied by any action, it’s hard to distinguish it from opportunistic “value signalling.” It’s a harsh criticism, but everyone in the arts community has to stand up and defend themselves against this accusation. There are lots of small, promising things happening at a grass roots level – reader and bookshop initiatives that parallel what’s been happening in the States (for instance, book club initiatives like this one); and publishers are responding with their commissions too (two random sets of examples, here and here).

But we’ve barely started when it comes to the bigger challenges. We need to stop being complacent or even ambiguous about where literature and the arts stand in relation to politics. If we carry on pretending that art somehow stands aloof from ideology – that a single, isolated piece of art can exist outside of its political context – then we’re reducing all art to merely the product of patronage; a set of ornaments for rich people to spend their money on, signifiers of wealth and class to separate art’s owners from those who can’t afford it.

If art is to be any more than this pathetic, class-signifying ornament, it must be conscious of political context, aware of the undercurrents and dominant narratives at any one moment; it must actively push against these, to redress the dominant narratives being ‘sold’ to us, and to swim upstream. To quote Corbyn recently, “If you’re neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Readers have to start questioning literature in the same way a Chomskyite might question a piece of media coverage: Who benefits from me buying into this narrative? What is this story trying to get me to do? If the answer is merely “To feel good about myself for having read it,” or “To line my nest with this and other products like it – to affirm my identity as this or that sort of cultured person” then the art has failed, and this failure should be exposed.

If a story can be enjoyed by an ignorant nationalist – a Trump fan or a Farage supporter – without bringing them into any kind of greater awareness of the world beyond their blinkers, then it’s failed as piece of art; it belongs with the rest of the “narrative-machine” out there, whose narratives are “sold to us” – to make us blame others, act conservatively, carry on lining our identity-nests, etc. If a story doesn’t take us further out into the world than we’re used to going, then the story-teller has failed in a key part of his or her duty, and should be called out for it. Escapism isn’t enough. Entertainment isn’t enough (Sorry, La La Land). They both offer as much succor to the ignorant as they do the informed. They’re neutral, they go with the flow.

Instead publishers, writers, producers, filmmakers – all have a responsibility to fight back.

After all, things like Brexit and Trump are the logical consequences of isolationism – of us all retreating into our bubbles – be these bubbles of nationalism and national nostalgia, or echo-chambers of like-minded friends. Writers, artists, and producers of art all have a dytu now: to grab people kicking and screaming out of their bubbles and to dump them in front of the strangers (including population groups that have become strangers, even in their own countries).

SE: As you’ve noted, Comma Press has long been involved with world literature, and its work with authors from these seven countries greatly predates the Muslim Ban. What kinds of unique challenges are present with projects like Iraq + 100 or The Book of Khartoum, and do you expect those challenges to escalate as politics becomes more nativist? Can you see any potential advantages that the changing political climate might present to a press like Comma going forward?

RP: There are many challenges, or rather pressures and expectations, when translating from these countries – coming from within and without. From without: there is the expectation that these authors should write about what we, as Westerners, already know of their culture, and that they confirm and speak to our existing perceptions of them; when actually the good writers shouldn’t be remotely interested in how we, in the West, currently perceive them.

From within: there are all kinds of pressures like the weight of expectation when representing a cultural, or indeed a language and its literature, on an international scale. It’s so rare that a writer from Iraq, say, gets translated and published in English – so rare there’s an expectation that he or she should show the language and the culture in its “best light.” This is hard, because for one thing, a country like Iraq isn’t exactly in its best light right now; and for a second, when it comes to Arabic (the predominant language in 6 of the banned countries), the language is itself sometimes the primary method through which ordinary people are oppressed.

But for a language to truly grow, it must be dirtied, broken, contaminated, muddied, or dragged into interactions with the outside. When Arabic writers do this, however, as Blasim does, they generally get a lot of flak, most often from people who don’t care about the language at all.

As for how the challenges will change . . . I think the situations around censorship on the ground are improving in some places (Iraq and Syria for instance, as the secret police have other battles to fight). In places like Yemen and Syria, the biggest problem is getting access to writers (or writers having any time to safely write at all) while a war is still raging (I should also say the same for West Sudan/Darfur, and also for Libya). You can’t really imagine it getting any worse than it is now for these places.

From a publishing point of view, the problem of movement is the biggest challenge, and it will get worse for as long as Trump is in power, and for as long as Brexit is read as proof of some “groundswell” of anti-immigration nationalism (which it isn’t).

Many of Comma’s writers can’t get out of their countries (or into the UK) as it is. Comma has struggled to get authors out of Sudan and Iraq before. We also work a lot with Palestinian authors, in particular writers from Gaza, and we’ve had many events in the UK in the past where some, or all, of the authors have failed to get permits to leave the Strip (either failing to get permission to travel across Israel to the airport in Amman, as the Egyptian border is almost permanently closed, or failing to get a visa to enter Britain for the tour). This will only get worse. Arabic artists from across the Middle East and Africa will find visas to enter the UK harder and harder to come by. It’s already extremely hard. For years, the UK Border Agency has seen itself as some kind of extension of tabloid racism. Their systems have xenophobia and particularly Islamophobia hard-wired into them; they’re brilliantly designed to “appear” to be asking impartial (if ridiculous) questions, whilst in effect they trip up and block exactly the right race and creed of people – namely those that the readers of The Daily Mail, The Express and The Sun think should be blocked: Muslims. If you’ve ever tried to get an Arab artist out of Palestine or Iraq, you’ll know Britain has had its own effective Muslim ban for years – it’s just a lot more subtle, and under the radar. For instance, Comma had its first visa application to bring Hassan Blasim to the UK from Finland rejected by the British Embassy in Helsinki because his letter of invitation from various literature festivals weren’t signed in blue ink (being signed in black ink, the British Embassy said it was a photocopy and therefore invalid). Britain’s a bit smarter in the way it pulls up its racist drawbridge.

So with writers unable to travel (to the States or the UK), the book will increasingly be the only way we get to hear from life on the ground in these countries. So people should get used to attending literature events where the author speaks to you via a pre-recorded video message; we should get used to asking questions of glitchy Skype images of authors projected onto the walls of bookshops. This will probably be the best we’ll get.

SE: Lastly, can you offer us any previews of the titles and/or authors you’ll be working with to put together this year of Muslim Ban authors?

The first title in this series will be a fast-turnaround publication: an anthology of seven short stories by authors from each of the seven “travel banned” countries, written specially in response to Trump’s ban. Titled simply Banthology – it will ask writers to respond to one or more of the issues exposed by the ban: the experience of being treated like a second class citizen (and a terrorist) when travelling at the best of times; the emotional and political consequences a ban like this could have; what the world might look like if bans like this become normalized, or an on-going reality. Most importantly the book will offer perspectives from ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives in countries that the White House regards as populated entirely by terrorists.

The full list of participants hasn’t been confirmed yet, but they will include Rania Mamoun (Sudan), who first appeared in The Book of Khartoum; and Anoud (Iraq), who first appeared in Iraq + 100. (We plan to have a full list of all seven authors by the end of this month.) Comma plans to publish Banthology within the period of the original 90-day ban. We also plan to simultaneously co-publish this title with a U.S. publisher (to be announced shortly).

Then, next year, we plan to publish up to four, full collections by writers originally showcased in Banthology. These will most likely include Rania Mamoun’s Thirteen Months of Sunrise (translated by Elisabeth Jaquette) and Anoud’s Kahramana, as well as a second anthology of science fiction from Iraq, and anthologies from specific cities around the region, including Basra and Tehran. (I’m also half-tempted to commission a series of superhero origin stories, from “banned country” perspectives . . . but I’m yet to persuade the rest of the team about this one. :) )

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Awesome interview. Can’t wait to hear Ra at Wordtheatre’s writers’ salon in the Peak District this evening. Thank you


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