Last fall, Odd Books came out with an anthology called A Song for Syria: Art , Poems, Stories, Songs, and Interviews of Syrian Artistes. In the book, the Kolkata, India-based publisher brought together work by internationally acclaimed Syrian writers and artists, including poet Rasha Omran, short-story writer Mustafa Taj Aldeen Almusa, and cartoonist Hani Abbas.
Odd Books editor Sreemanti Sengupta answered a few questions about the collection for ArabLit.
First, how did the idea for this collection come about, and when did you start working on it? Can you tell us a little about Odd Books and its mission or vision, and how this book fits into it?
Sreemanti Sengupta: I started working on A Song for Syria in 2019 — it has been a long, tedious process with very few resources and the pandemic stalling everything, especially the presses in Kolkata (India) for two years. My partner being a journalist, I cannot escape news as such. Sometimes the unpleasantness of mutilation, rapes, murders, and organized killings run like a leitmotif in my life. However, I cannot claim I am good at understanding the details of what is what – who is killing who, which faction is what, how many political parties, the blunt and bare numbers… So this book was not a reaction to details, but an idea that evolved from a basic humane reaction. I just wanted to understand what these people are thinking, how are they surviving, are their dreams dead yet, are their children playing in the ruins, and is there anything beyond the shellings and the smoke popular media is showing us about Syria? I am unapologetically a romantic, and a poet — so I believed that the language of pain and suffering is universal — this gave me the courage to imagine a book that challenges oppression, not with more opinions and debates, but simply, with a song from the soul of this war-torn country. The language of art, poetry, and films will always thrive when people are helpless spectators to overwhelming destruction. Where there is so much repressed, there will be so very much to say!
Odd Books is the print publication wing of The Odd Magazine (www.theoddmagazine.com). The magazine started from a blog in 2012. This was a year that was especially harsh on me. I had experienced deaths, heartbreaks, and seen blood and the scent of sickness very early on in life. I figured I had to do something to stay sane and not give up — so I started a blog for misfits and the odd ones out. The Odd Magazines and Odd Books is a platform for people like me. By “me” I mean, people who can’t belong however hard they try. These are people neglected as children, bullied heavily at school, and almost given up in college. These are people who are different in thoughts, body types, sexuality, appearance, and most importantly, they have been discriminated against because they don’t “fit in” are “not normal” and will be not allowed into the populist society how much ever they want to.
A Song for Syria easily fits in with the #StayOdd moniker I have been using. Speaking/writing/painting in unconventional formats or expressing an unpopular opinions takes courage, and often a lot of silencing of that rational little person sitting in your brain, who’s been conditioned to be careful because of past trauma and experiences. I cannot be a revolutionary, so I made a book.
Why “A Song for Syria” and “Sing with Syria”? Why did you decide on a musical umbrella for this collection?
SS: You sing before you speak, you paint before you write. Syria is speaking and singing and painting in the way they are because they have been pushed to the wall. If you are thrown in jail with no writing material and come across anything that can be used to write, you would write/draw that which is of utmost importance to you — and that needs to be recognized. A “song” has not been used purely in the music (genre) sense, but more as a “cry” or a voice that is rising above the smoke and bloodshed. “Sing with . . . ” is of course to encourage people to add their verse to this journey — to recognize, celebrate and relate to the collective suffering of humanity.
How did you go about reading & selecting works for the anthology? What criteria did you use for selecting works? It must have been a massive effort to reach out to authors, translators, and publishers of places where some of the works had previously appeared.
SS: Luckily I have special people in my life like Snigdhendu Bhattacharya, my partner, and Riccardo Bella who is a theatre artist and activist who lives in Milano, Italy. These two wonderful people have been the guardian angels for this book. Riccardo helped us with reaching the initial contacts, after which we accumulated leads from them, and it went on from there. We had to read, Facetime, and navigate time zones, and sometimes felt like giving up. We crowdfunded and pulled through and made wonderful friends who support the cause, are refugees fleeing their beloved homeland (Syria), coming out of jail sentences extending up to 16 years, and often continuing to raise their voices from wherever they have taken asylum. A definitive problem with this exercise has been languages — Italian, Arabic, English, and so on. We had to assiduously search for well-translated work (to English) which meant that we potentially had to leave out a lot of good stuff. Selecting and editing were perhaps easier than collecting them because of my editorial experience with the webzine. Funds often posed a problem, and again, a lot of people helped us out. We are basically a one-woman team with overwhelming dreams — I do it for love, and most often I can’t afford it.
You have also created a website, https://www.asongforsyria.com. Why did you decide you wanted to extend the book with a complete website?
SS: In one word – accessibility. I handmade the website and went for a paid domain, to ensure people see/read/experience the book, because physical copies will not reach everywhere. International posting from India is unreliable and heavily checked at the customs. The first series of Odd Books reached people with the envelopes cut, often without the books — I couldn’t risk that. With the website, and also a Kindle version on Amazon, I hoped it has the widest reach and people do sing with Syria.
What has the reception been like in Kolkata and beyond? How do you see the relationship between Kolkatan readers and Syrian literature?
SS: Reception in Kolkata has been as I expected — pleasing, but not overwhelming. Kolkata has strong cultural roots: the Kolkata Book Fair, the theatre culture, the Little Magazine platforms, the music, people bantering on art and politics for hours in dingy tea stalls in mid-summer heat – this place throbs with Tagore coming out of every home, irrespective of how they look from the outside. However, I did not expect the Syrian cause to be regarded as anything “unique” or worth paying special attention to here. For one, there’s the language — the language of choice and culture is Bengali/Bangla. Serious English literature, that too, from the small press tradition has not made significant inroads here. Also, practically, people are much more involved with localized news, injustices, trials, and tribulations, of which we have more than enough — a book on Syrian literature may be a hard sell here. I mean, it would be great at intellectual discussions and theorizing — but that was never my intention!
Also read: A review of the collection in The Wire
Book launch event: Odd Books is organizing a virtual book launch and discussion that will feature many of those anthologized in the book. It’s set for April 29 on Facebook Live, at 22:30 (IST) and 19:00 (EU).
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Cultures deemed odd do find outlets with publishers of odd books. So refreshing to see such an interview with an interesting publisher who defies market imperatives to bring out worthy products.
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