Sexuality and gender diversity should be celebrated in every book: Arpita Das
Arpita Das is the publisher and founder of Yoda Press, a trailblazing publishing house in India that continues to set the limelight on crossover and non-mainstream titles. Started in 2004, Yoda has made a remarkable presence in the Indian literary scene by crushing barriers and burning down the social stigma associated with the LGBTQ+ community. Arpita talked to Mathrubhumi.com about her visions and the significance of queer literature.
Yoda Press has been going strong for 17 years. What are your thoughts about the growth of Yoda as a publishing realm over the years?
17 years sounds like a long time. Sometimes, I wonder how 17 years have passed by so quickly. The first eight to ten years were quite hard in particular. To start from scratch was not an easy thing. The society around us and the conditions that we live in presently are much more welcoming than 17 years ago when I started the press. Back then, it was not common for a young person to start a publishing house. I believe that there has been a significant change in that stereotype because a lot of people are initiating publishing startups now. In the beginning, it was all about finding credibility. We were doing books about sexuality and popular culture, lists that did not exist then. Booksellers and distributors took their time to warm up to us. Once they realised that the books had readers, they started changing their attitude. But it did take us a considerable amount of time to establish ourselves.
The queer community was not accepted in society back then as much as it is at present times. What was it like standing out from others by breaking stereotypes and bringing out books on sexuality and transgender people during such a period?
Many of my authors were part of the initiative to file the PIL that was taken to the High Court and then to the Supreme Court to decriminalise homosexuality in India. We were very much a part of the movement as it was developing. The final judgement and the reading down of Section 377 in 2018 was a remarkable feat. And yet, societal norms do not change so quickly. All the same, there have been remarkable changes on many fronts. What we see these days is several transgender people coming forward, doing visionary things, and effecting important change. Trans folks are finally visible to the rest of society at least as per the law of the land. The transgender community however remains the last to benefit from any societal, political and economic advancements. Very often there is a huge overlap between the transgender community and other marginalised sections of society. There is still a lot of ground to be covered in that aspect and a huge part of the work still remains to be done.
Can you highlight the importance of queer literature in the current society?
It is as important as literature on climate change, economy, poverty, culture. Every book must be written with regard to the queer lens now. Every book should be tested to check whether it passes muster in that criterion or not. Sexuality and gender diversity should be celebrated in every book we write. There shouldn't be just one list where you put all the queer books. Every book should be a queer ally. Every piece of literature that we publish now must pledge its support to the LGBTQA+ community. They are an inalienable part of our lives. They are all of us. It is a monumental task to change the entire outlook of a nation or a society overnight. Legal changes remain very important, of course, but we are at just the tip of the iceberg when we consider all the work that remains to be done.
How much do you think Yoda Press has succeeded in fulfilling its mission to give space to crossover titles?
I feel as though we might have been excessively ambitious with what we set out to do even though we were small and independent. All the same, we have managed to make it work. If I look at it from the point of view of content, we managed to accentuate and publish quality content that established us as a change-enabling publishing company. If I look at it from the point of view of genres also, I think it has widened compared to when we started in 2004. Not many people were talking about narrative nonfiction then and now it has become one of the most popular genres in India and South Asia. I think both in terms of content and genre, I'm satisfied that we made a difference and that there has been a significant gain in momentum from when we started.
What are the achievements of Yoda Press that you cherish the most?
The citation of five Yoda Press titles by the Supreme Court of India during its judgement in 2018 that decriminalised homosexuality in the country was a huge moment for us because there is no greater vindication than the highest court of the land citing one's titles. Apart from that, we did a very important book 'Israel as a Gift of the Arabs' by anthropologist, Shail Mayaram. A book talking about Israel and Palestine, how both sides need to sit down and talk to each other and how there is no solution other than that. The Vice-President at that time, Dr Hamid Ansari, agreed to release our book, which was a real honour for us. Another major highpoint in my life was when we published 'Our Lives, Our Words: Telling Aravani Lifestories' by A. Revathi, a Bangalore-based writer and activist working for the rights of sexual minorities. We were able to do two things with that book. One, we were able to publish the book first in Hindi and then English. I felt that it was very important that the book be available in Hindi even before it was available in English so that a lot more people could access that book, especially the members of the transgender community. Two, we were able to organise a very nice book launch in South Delhi, at an important hub for the transgender community. Revathi was able to speak to a large group of transgender people during the launch. Many of our allies and people who support the transgender community were there that day. I remember that my daughter who was just six years old back then was also there with me. That was a real milestone because it felt like we had made a real difference. Another such time was when we published a translation of the collected writings of Bhagat Singh on Revolution and Religion. That too was a landmark moment.
What happened to AuthorsUpFront?
AuthorsUpFront is a self-publishing platform that I conjured up and co-founded with my colleague Manish Purohit. It was launched in early 2014 and I was closely associated with it in the first four years during which time Paranjoy Guha Thakurta's book 'Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis' came out. The co-authors and associates of the book were served a legal notice by the Ambani brothers claiming defamation. We also helped facilitate Rana Ayyub's book, 'Gujarat Files' which was self-published with the help of AuthorsUpFront. But after that, I got much too busy with Yoda Press and I also started teaching at Ashoka University. It became tough for me to keep working on AuF as well, but Manish is still carrying on with it and running it brilliantly.
Do you feel that Yoda Press has adapted to the changes in the print industry?
That is not something that has bothered us, to be honest. Perhaps it's because we have always been comfortable with changes in technology. Media and technology keep changing and that's the way it has always been. The changes in the industry were not much of a concern because we were equipped to adapt and to move forward. This for me was something that was waiting to happen and now it has finally happened. I always look at tough times with interest as they bring opportunities that we often fail to explore in the first place. I have a young team, most of them in their late 20s and early 30s, resourceful individuals who are very comfortable with new media.
When the pandemic struck and the lockdown happened, our revenues dropped to zero overnight. Everything was shut down. Initially, it was tough, but Yoda Press is known for its 'Jugaad'. We had started doing these workshops for editors in our office in 2019. So, we quickly brought them online. The workshops picked up in such a great way. They also filled the gaps that were there in the industry. We all worked from home, but those workshops helped to pay the salaries of my colleagues and kept us going. Workshops have now become an integral part of our functioning. We continue to hold workshops for authors and editors, as it is something that helped to put us back on track, and gave something back to the industry.
How much impact has social media had on the growth of Yoda Press over the years?
There has been a massive impact. I think it was in 2009 we started our Facebook and Twitter accounts, and later Instagram as well. It has really been a boon for small presses like ours. It helps us to reach out to our readers and has given us a lot of value. Moreover, it helped to put us out there in a way that nothing had ever done before. Social media has been a game-changer, and there is no denying that fact.