by Lauren Eggert-Crowe
Chances are you know about Kaya Press. Perhaps you recognize the name Nicholas Wong, Lambda Literary Award winning author of Kaya Press poetry title Crevasse. Or maybe you’ve heard of Ed Lin’s books This is a Bust and Waylaid. You might have listened to that 99% Invisible podcast episode about Thomassons but didn’t know that Kaya Press reprinted Genpei Akasegawa’s book on the subject. And in 2015 you might have seen all the positive press for Sam Chanse’s hybrid tour-de-force Lydia’s Funeral Video. Over the past two decades, Kaya Press has built a catalog of fresh, innovative work and has established itself as an organization at the forefront of independent publishing.
In their own words, “Kaya Press is a group of dedicated writers, artists, readers, and lovers of books working together to publish the most challenging, thoughtful, and provocative literature being produced throughout the Asian and Pacific Island diasporas. We believe that people’s lives can be changed by literature that pushes us past expectations and out of our comfort zone. We believe in the contagious potential of creativity combined with the means of production.”
With a mission statement like that, it’s impossible not to love Kaya and hunger for their books. Looking at their catalog heightens that curiosity, teeming as it is with gorgeously designed covers. Crack one open, and the contents do not disappoint. Take, for instance, Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut’s book of poetry Magnetic Refrain, which reworks world fairy tales and myths to explore contemporary themes of identity, relationships, and gender. At this weekend’s LA Times Festival of Books, I couldn’t stop myself from snatching up three of Kaya’s books.
I met Neelanjana Banerjee last year when she and I joined other WWS colleagues for a BinderCon panel on how to build a writing community. On the panel, she offered the smart insights she had gathered from her years of being Managing Editor at Kaya as well as her other jobs in media and literary activism. This spring, I asked her a few questions over email.
How long have you been Managing Editor at Kaya Press? What does the job entail? What do you like most about the job?
I started at Kaya Press in the summer of 2012, originally as a Media and Promotions Associate — but slowly stuck my nose into all other Kaya business and became Managing Editor by the summer of 2013. As Managing Editor, I see my job as managing the day-to-day operations of the press: promoting books, managing authors and events, fundraising and development, coordinating interns and other staff, in order to remove all of these things from Publisher/Editor Sunyoung Lee’s plate so she and our amazing team of designers can collaborate with our authors to produce the best books possible.
There is so much I love about this work. I spent a lot of the last decade (the 2000s) working with Asian American media (the now defunct AsianWeek newspaper in San Francisco, along with Hyphen magazine — where I helped run an Asian American Short Story contest for several years), along with getting my own MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. I also edited an anthology of South Asian American poetry during this time. So working at Kaya Press brings together so much of what I have been interested in, invested in, thinking about, etc., since graduating from college in 2000, which is amazing.
But my favorite part of the job is definitely the daily inspiration of working with editor Sunyoung Lee, who has been the tireless champion of innovative Asian American literature behind Kaya Press for most of its nearly 25 year existence. And then, the inspiration of working with all the amazing Kaya authors. In a more practical sense, the job offers a lot of flexibility, though it is also that non-profit thing of not having official “vacation days” so I kind of feel like I never take any vacation, but also if I need to stay home with my kid for three sick days in a row or hypothetically have a K-spa self-care day on a Monday, the only person getting stressed out about it is me.
What recent Kaya Press titles are you particularly proud of/excited about?
I feel like I’ve been gushing about the recent Kaya Press titles all over the place lately, but I feel especially excited about the books that are coming out this Spring because they are the fruit of the very first Editorial Board meeting that I was part of back in 2014. Even though I joined Kaya in 2012, I didn’t become a member of our six person Editorial Board until 2014, and that and the other acquisitions work that I have done has been an incredible part of this job. I’m not an avid reader of memoir, but QM Zhang’s Accomplice to Memory, which is a hybrid memoir about a daughter investigating her father’s life through non-fiction and fiction techniques alongside archival photography and personal artifacts, was a submission that I literally could not put down. I found the craft of the writing to be beautiful, but the whole project was so beautiful and fascinating to me as the children of immigrants. I finally got to hear QM read this weekend, as she came out to LA from Amherst for the LA Times Festival of Books and it was really moving to see this book come to life.
In the same editorial cycle, I came across Hari Alluri’s poetry, and it took my breath away with its completely familiar and completely new sense of language. I think it does something that is incredible, which is that is holds up a mirror that allows me to see and recognize myself as a person of color, as an immigrant, but also sends ripples and holograms and magic into the mirror that refracts all those identity thoughts into something much larger than myself. So, The Flayed City is just a stunning collection of poetry that I am so glad that Kaya has put out in the world, especially at this time. Not to mention, the amazing cover design by Kenny Srivijittakar and general book design by Nneka Bennett. And also, Hari has become a really good friend in the process of working on the book over the last few years, which is such a dope way to become friends with someone!
Also, I curated Kazim Ali into a Kaya event several years ago, though we had known each other in the writing world before that — and that led us to talking to him about what Kaya might be able to publish. Kazim is, like, THE most prolific writer I know and he first brought up some translations to us, and then was like, actually I have this manuscript that I wrote a long time ago that no one has ever wanted to publish because it is a string quartet in novel form, and we were like: We’ll do it! So, The Secret Room is that and designer Jason Bacasa did an incredible job imagining this handwritten text into published book form, complete with a created font based on his own father’s handwriting. I could go on but I will stop now …
What qualities are you looking for in a great manuscript?
Sunyoung always says that we are looking for this quality in a manuscript that makes the top of your head literally come off — and that is this innovation element that we are particularly interested in. It is hard sometimes to explain exactly what we are looking for, I think, but then when we find a Kaya Press book, it seems to have all the qualities. I think there is a level of craft and innovation that are working seamlessly together so it doesn’t seem that the writer is forcing the writing into something hybrid — that’s important.
You recently started Other Books LA, which is so rad! What is your vision for the space / what makes it a unique bookstore?
Kaya Press is a collaborator in this space with the folks at Seite Books (Adam Bernales and Denice Mena), who are amazing booksellers and have had a bookstore in East Los Angeles for like seven years, and have been selling and collecting books and art online even before that, so increasingly, I see our partnership in the space as a way to support and drive folks to come see them.
Kaya has always been interested in having a storefront space, and so we are still figuring out what we want that to mean for us physically — since we are housed in the American Studies and Ethnicity Department at USC, where we have office space. But events and programming and engaging in the LA literary community have been a major part of what Kaya has been about since we came to LA in 2011, so in that way, it gives us an amazing way to have a location to do that. Since we opened in the Fall, we’ve had an incredible line-up of events and workshops and hope to continue that. Folks should definitely come check it out just to experience the great selection of books!
You’re a writer as well as an editor. Care to share any strategies for making time for your own writing on top of your editing responsibilities?
Geez, I am just sticking my head up after a semi-brutal Spring of events and travel for Kaya and with Other Books, and as I explained earlier — my job is more of that sense of being the public face of Kaya, or at least is has been lately especially; and events and travel inspire you // drain you in a different way than I think deep editing work inspires you // drains you. I haven’t been super successful at finding time for my creative work lately, even though I have a really amazing group of writers I check in with weekly. I keep trying to create some sacred writing time in my week, and think that may be able to happen when things aren’t so busy.
Neelanjana Banerjee is the Managing Editor of Kaya Press. Her poetry, stories, and essays have appeared in Prairie Schooner, PANK Magazine, World Literature Today, Nimrod and more. She is the co-editor of the award-winning Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry (University of Arkansas Press), and Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes and Shifts of Los Angeles (Tia Chucha Press). She teaches fiction workshops with Writing Workshops Los Angeles. She lives in El Sereno with her husband, son, and dog.