PRESS ON! is a series of interviews with publishers who are pushing the boundaries of the books industry.

Comma Press is a not-for-profit publisher founded in Manchester, UK in 2002. In addition to publishing short story anthologies from around the globe, Comma Press boasts an Arabic imprint featuring writing from Africa and the Middle East. In 2016, they also founded the Northern Fiction Alliance to promote publishers and writers in the North of England on the world stage. We spoke to founder and director, Ra Page, about the myriad activities at Comma, and the collection Thirteen Months of Sunrise by Sudanese author Rania Mamoun, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette, which was recently shortlisted for the 2020 Warwick Prize for Women In Translation.

How did Comma Press originate? 

It began as a conversation with a photographer friend of mine, Sarah Eyre, about how to shift the emphasis in any one artform away from the cult of the artist (in this case the author) and further towards the content. There was a lot happening at the time in user-generated content, but this still seemed to loop back and perpetuate the cult of the artist, just one dressed up in DIY/punk clothing. Where the user-generated era ended up taking us (social media, Instagram influencers, etc.) shows just how celebrity-perpetuating the phenomenon always was. There’s nothing punk about it: Warhol was almost right, it’s not about fame for 15 minutes, it’s about the celebrity 24/7, with no content to that fame. We’re all fake celebrities right now, with fake celebrity self-obsessions, and little else.

What we wanted to create, way back when in 2003, was a way of producing, commissioning and encouraging art that traded on content only, not on the artist’s name, reputation or existing following. We experimented with a few artforms – for instance we developed a project with a software designer Deyan Raykov called ‘Bitmapping’ that invited people to collectively build narratives through photography, via a piece of early image/text messaging software Deyan wrote. But that was too cumbersome. Eventually we settled on focusing on the short story—the most anonymous of literary forms—using place and readers’ interest in cities as destinations to introduce them to new short stories and authors they hadn’t heard of before.

This eventually became the Reading the City series. From these anthologies grew single-author collections and other experiments. Theme was our solution to the problem: build books around themes, and if you maintain the quality and build a reputation around that quality, readers will come to the work without going through the cult-of-author route. We’re about the only fiction publisher that focuses like this on theme though.

What led you to launch the Arabic Imprint of Comma Press in 2007?

It wasn’t a deliberate plan to specialise in writing from this language; Comma continues to have translations coming in from dozens of other languages, and from around the world. The Arabic imprint was just a combination of factors coming together. The first was the discovery of Hassan Blasim—a previously untranslated and unpublished (in hardcopy) Iraqi author who went to Finland as a refugee—in an anthology we published in 2008 called Madinah: City Stories from the Middle East. Hassan’s story was so powerful we immediately commissioned a full book from him, The Madman of Freedom Square (2009), and a second The Iraqi Christ (2014) followed, which won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (the first Arabic winner and first short story collection to win it).

The war on Gaza in 2014 also meant we couldn’t leave that topic alone. Ten of our writers – contributors to The Book of Gaza published earlier that summer – were suddenly caught in the middle of a full-scale ‘mowing of the lawn’ as the Israeli government called it, killing more than 2100 civilians. Out of that came a lot of citizen journalism and Atef Abu Saif‘s diary of course. Later, around 2014-15, we were fortunate to be approached by two brilliant translators/editors, Raph Cormack and Max Shmookler, who proposed to edit a book of Khartoum stories, which also uncovered another great writer for us: Rania Mamoun. So all of these things brought about an ‘imprint,’ that we didn’t know we would have such a focus on at the start.

Short stories are profoundly translatable. Get them right – and there are lots of ways of doing that, of course – and they are capable of reaching and moving readers in any part of the world. There’s nothing quite like discovering a great new writer, wherever they are in the world. So that’s my primary, personal goal: to just keep discovering them.

As the publisher and editorial manager, what are your primary goals for the imprint moving forward?

To generate an audience here and in other territories, through rights-selling, for new short fiction from the Arab world and to send a message out to the writing communities in that region that there is an audience out there for them. Short stories are profoundly translatable. Get them right – and there are lots of ways of doing that, of course – and they are capable of reaching and moving readers in any part of the world. There’s nothing quite like discovering a great new writer, wherever they are in the world. So that’s my primary, personal goal: to just keep discovering them. More specifically, we’d like to extend the ‘Future Pasts’ project that has so far commissioned future-set science fiction from two Arab countries (Iraq + 100 and Palestine + 100), to new countries. Egypt + 100 would be a great anthology, for instance, stories set in 2111, a hundred years after the failed dreams of Tahrir Square. We’d also like to start commissioning and finding other genre writing from the region: crime, horror, fantasy.

For the collections and anthologies published through the imprint, are the translations solicited by Comma Press, or were the included stories already in English translation?

No, all the translations are commissioned by us, and all the texts are translated into English for the first time. We don’t publish a translation unless it’s the first appearance of that story in English.

The COVID crisis has forced many book events and sales to go online. As a nonprofit publisher, how have Comma Press and the imprint needed to adapt to this rise in demand for online availability due to the health crisis, if at all? 

We have delivered more events online and archived those events on our YouTube Channel, so they can be watched later on. We’ve repurposed old video content and re-streamed it, building watch-parties and writing exercises around them. We’ve moved all our creative writing courses online, and we’ve been working to promote our eBook catalogue through discounts and promotions. We’ve also been regularly asking our authors and translators to read their work on video, and have been putting this free content on our Youtube channel. Events are TBC, but there’s an existing panel discussion that can be watched here. There’s also the Comma Press Podcast, which continues and features two episodes on Arabic science fiction in Series 2, episodes 2 and 3.

Nayrouz Qarmout’s The Sea Cloak (translated by Perween Richards) and Rania Mamoun’s Thirteen Months of Sunrise (translated by Elisabeth Jaquette) are the first single-author collections that the imprint has published by women writers, both in 2019. What is an aspect of the authors’ styles or content that first drew you to publish both of these collections? 

With Rania Mamoun it was the story “Passing” which we first published in The Book of Khartoum. The story was so short and yet so moving. It describes a woman sitting at her father’s death bed, praying and reflecting. There was something extraordinarily honest and open about it, as well as a beautiful lyricism. Her whole collection is a series of very short glimpses into life in Sudan, witnessing things like poverty and homelessness, but also offering similarly fleeting glances of hope, tenderness and affection. These are all terribly generic nouns, I know. But it was coming from a place that felt very far away—the sort of place we only witness through the dehumanising lens of the news. Her writing is the opposite of that.

With Nayrouz Qarmout it was similar, listening to a ‘lived experience’ perspective on a place we only know as a war zone or a war target. There’s something very sobering about her writing. It makes you realise you live in a safe news bubble, where everything is kept at a safe distance by being categorised as news. You don’t actually engage with it when it’s news. It’s just something that happens elsewhere.

*

An excerpt from the story “Passing” from Thirteen Months of Sunrise by Rania Mamoun, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (2019)

The cracks in the walls are stained with the scent of you, mixed with particles of dust. It seeps into me, the air in the room is flooded with it. I look around, trying to find the source. It fills me, engulfs me. I stretch out my hand to take it in my palm, for it to touch me, for me to touch you through it, to touch your tender palm, your face, your hand. I feel you close to me… so close. I feel you near me, within me, inside of me. If I reach out, I think, I might collide with you.

Your scent opens channels of memory, it invades me without warning, like armies of ants stinging me fiercely, chaotically: on my eyes, my skin, in my pores, my blood, even my ears, as they pick up the vibrations of your voice drawing closer. I’m flooded with memories: I feel the warmth of your embrace; the warmth of the bed where as a child I slept beside you instead of Mother; you coming home from your errands, me sticking to you like glue. Mother tried to separate me from you, but I didn’t listen. ‘He’s going on a trip tomorrow,’ she’d tell me, and I’d say: ‘But he’ll come back.’

Now that I’m grown, that you have left, that I have surrendered to a loss so hard to abide, I can’t give the same answer, or even be so sure.

Your scent fills every inch of space. It pulls me out of a whirlpool of memory, tosses me into another, wider and deeper, and the feeling that you are close to me swells. You sip your tea from the big mug we kept – how you loved your tea – and then listen to the radio, lying on your back with one leg crossed over the other. You rifle through your satchel of memories, and call me over to read one. Sometimes your shadow deceives me, as you wash before prayer. I remember how happy you were when we moved to the house next to the mosque, where the call to prayer was so loud it beat in our hearts and shook our bodies, and you said, ‘Nothing makes me happier than being near the mosque, could we wish for a better neighbour?’

*

What was it like to work with the translator Elisabeth Jacquette on Thirteen Months of Sunrise

Working with Lissie Jaquette was great. She had worked on previous pieces of writing by Rania, so she was already familiar with the tone and voice. She’s extremely well connected to both the Arab literary translation world, and also the literary translation scene in the US, being the executive director of the American Literary Translators Association and one of the core members of Cedilla & Co, a new New York-based collective for literary translators. So having her on board, not just for her literary skills but her ability to advocate for Arabic literature and story-telling generally, was great.

What other women writers do you hope to publish as part of the Comma Press Arabic Imprint in the future?

I’d love to publish more by the Palestinian author Rawan Yaghi – she has a short piece in Palestine + 100. She’s an extraordinary young talent, waiting to explode. I also love the work of the Iraqi writer Anoud – she writes directly into English and has a debut collection with us next year. I’m a fan of a lot of Egyptian writers too: Eman Abdelrahim, Nahla Karam and Hend Ja’far. The Palestinian Maya Abu al-Hayat is fantastic also.

What’s next for Comma Press and the Arabic Imprint in particular?

Our forthcoming translation of Hassan Blasim’s debut novel God 99 comes out this December. The Book of Ramallah, edited by Maya Abu Al-Hayat comes out at the start of next year. Anoud’s first collection of short stories is due out at the end of next year. There’s also some Arabic contributions to a global anthology we’re producing called The American Way (about the history of US foreign policy since 1945), including new stories by Saleem Haddad, Hassan Blasim, Talal Abu Sharwish, Najwa Bin Shatwan.


Text by Cassandra Bertolini