Proactive author aims to encourage Nepali writers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 August, 2011, 12:00am

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All he wanted was a decent book. So starts the story of Allen Lane who, on a platform at Exeter train station in 1935, was unable to find anything worth reading. His disappointment at the range of books available led him to found a company. The imprint was Penguin.

A similar impulse drove Sushma Joshi. After her return to Nepal from Brown University in 1997, Joshi found the market for English literature there to be similarly disappointing. And she was outraged that several of Nepal's most prominent booksellers had gone from publishing to pirating their own authors. 'These bookstore owners were not professional publishers, but booksellers who had access to a printing press. Therefore the quality of printing and editing was very poor. Also, the bookstores didn't pay their authors sometimes. Consequently, the field of literature suffered - discouraging other young people from becoming writers.'

Joshi, who earned postgraduate degrees in anthropology and English literature, and also studied at the New York Film Academy, co-edited a collection of short stories by Nepali writers in 2008. Titled New Nepal, New Voices, it was published by a mainstream Indian publisher in an initial print run of 1,000 copies. However, although the book was supposed to have been sold on the subcontinent only, the publisher sold copies on the internet and overseas.

By this time, Sushma had completed her own short story collection and, after her experience with the Indian publisher, decided to go with a new Nepali imprint. 'Unfortunately these young men also turned out to be cut from the same cloth - not only did they keep selling the books in massive numbers, but they claimed it wasn't selling at all. Also, regrettably, they inserted major errors that didn't exist before - I had worked with a professional editor from Little and Brown. It was a thoroughly edited manuscript, but strange and obvious errors were added.'

When she asked the publishers to stop printing further copies of the book, they sued her for defamation and embroiled her in a legal battle for several months. Twice burnt, Sushma decided to launch her own publishing house, Sansar Media, in Kathmandu last year.

'I realised that if I wanted to print and promote my own book professionally, I'd have to do it myself. I also wanted a new publishing model that would change the literary culture in Nepal - one that would pay fair royalties to authors. Young people do not want to become writers in Nepal because it's clear the publishing institutions in Nepal would never give them a fair share. I also want to use profits to encourage writing by young female authors - in the hope that the books they write will be read widely by women and children in rural Nepal, boosting literacy rates.'

Her book of short stories, End of the World, was long-listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. The collection of eight stories is set in contemporary Nepali society. 'I wrote it over 12 years, from 1993, when I wrote my first story, to 2005, when I wrote the last. Nepal is rich in stories waiting to be told.'

The tradition of writing and publishing in English is nascent in Nepal. Just two writers of Nepali origin come to mind: Manjushree Thapa and Samrat Upadhyaya. However, Nepal is a country in flux. Since the restoration of democracy in 1990, the old hierarchies and feudal systems have been dissolving. End of the World reflects the private dramas of individual lives against a changing political and social landscape.

Waiting for Rain is a short story set in a village outside the capital city of Kathmandu that was besieged by the Maoist rebels for decades. It deals with an election tainted by the buying and selling of votes. And power is defined anew in a changed political system.

Another short story, which gives the collection its title, chronicles Nepali attitudes. Nepal is the only Hindu kingdom in the world and its official religion is Hinduism. Steeped in ancient superstitions and a deep fatalism, the 'end of the world' is regularly predicted as citizens grapple with change.

End of the World is available in Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore. However, out of fear of piracy, it has not been distributed in Nepal or India. Joshi finds herself in a curious situation as a publisher being unable to sell in her own country for fear of copyright violations.

While her themes are predominantly Nepali, her influences are eclectic, ranging from Sanskrit slokas to British literature to contemporary American writing. She plans to publish 10 titles through Sansar in the coming year.

Before she became a publisher, Joshi was also a filmmaker. Her first effort was a documentary about a village in Nepal which lacked its own supply of drinking water and how it overcame that challenge. Her next documentary focuses on Nepalis living in Myanmar.

'As a filmmaker, I want to show deep and intimate stories from the very heart of Nepal that don't usually get told,' Joshi says. 'Film can reveal many things in a few seconds that a book cannot. On the other hand, books hold worlds inside them that films cannot reveal. Perhaps I want the two fields to develop simultaneously so they can both reveal the richness of life lived in a way that is not possible with just one medium.'