Three women providing a catalyst for African literature: An interview

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SarahBelle Selig, Ashawnta Jackson and JL Powers (Photographs provided)

Jessica Powers is the owner and founder of Catalyst Press, an independent publisher in the United States that specialises in stories with an African origin. As an author, she is known as JL Powers. Jessica manages her time between Texas and California and, as often as possible, South Africa. Their Cape Town office is staffed by SarahBelle Selig. Their publicity is managed and run by Ashawnta Jackson in Brooklyn, New York. Izak de Vries spoke to them about some of the key differences between American and South African publishing, as well as their fourth annual #ReadingAfrica week that will happen from 6 – 12 December 2020.

Jessica, tell us about Catalyst Press. Why have you founded an African press in the USA?

JLP: Maybe if I had known the amount of work and money it would take, I would have been more daunted. But, a few years ago, I just began to feel excited about the possibility of bringing African literature of all genres to a North American readership – not scholarly work, which I think has some real champions, but crime novels, thrillers, literary fiction, children’s fiction and graphic novels. Although African writers have occasionally found a home in one of the established publishers in the US, no US press have had this as their major focus.

Of course, then I also recognised the need to publish those books locally as well, if they didn’t already have an African publisher. I’ve been lucky to partner with LAPA Uitgewers, both for books I’ve been able to publish and for distribution here in South Africa, and with Jive Media Africa to develop Story Press Africa, a co-publishing imprint under which we have published two graphic novels that tell the history of Shaka, the Zulu king.

And SarahBelle makes sure that the books sold in South Africa are locally printed and produced, not so?

JLP: Actually, we are helped with local South African printing and production by a wonderful woman named Christel Foord, who used to work in publishing in Cape Town and now does freelance consulting for exactly this kind of thing. But SarahBelle is really important to our work in South Africa, and, honestly, I’m jealous that she gets to do the stuff I would like to do, like attending literary events or having coffee with local authors.

SBS: Yep! We joke that I’m sort of Jessica’s “boots on the ground” here. I help out with anything from marketing our books to local press, meeting with our authors, planning book launches at local bookstores, coordinating with our (amazing!) colleagues at LAPA Uitgewers and reading local submissions. Every day is different, which I love.

uKhuluma isiZulu na?

JLP: Yebo, ngikhuluma isiZulu kancane.

I had a foreign language area studies scholarship from the US government for two years of Zulu in the US, and a Fulbright-Hays to study Zulu at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg, where I also stayed with a Zulu family in the Imbali township. Unfortunately, I only get to practise Zulu when I come to South Africa, but I have been thinking it would be good to start taking a tutorial via Zoom to get my Zulu in shape again!

En verstaan julle al ’n bietjie Afrikaans?

JLP: ’n Bietjie. ’n Baie klein bietjie. ☺ Like Zulu, I would like to speak Afrikaans much better!

Catalyst Press publishes stories from all over Africa. Your authors are men and women, black and white, cis and queer. Do you get traction in a massively competitive market?

JLP: Sales have been lower than I’d like, but critical reception has been enthusiastic. Trade and popular magazines alike have offered very positive reviews of all of our books, and we’ve won a few awards, too. We may be small, but I’m astonished at how much we’ve been able to achieve!

One of my goals through publishing is to disrupt the narrow understanding of, or narrative of, what is “African”. For me, this includes publishing writers of European and Asian descent who also are African. There really are many assumptions made about the continent. I feel lucky to be a small part of helping to change that, joining much bigger hitters like OkayAfrica and Africa in Words, or publishers like Modjaji.

Publishing in the USA and in South Africa is quite different, especially when it comes to marketing and distribution. Could you tell us a bit about how you navigate operating in both markets? For example, Catalyst recently re-released Peter Church’s crime novels Dark video and Bitter pill in both the USA and South Africa, as well as a brand new thriller from Peter called Crackerjack. But the books hit the shelves in South Africa at least a year before they were on sale in the USA. Why did you make this decision?

JLP: Well, publishing in South Africa is a much faster process than in the USA, where we need lead times of a year or more for publicity. It’s remarkable to me how lickety-split the process is in South Africa, by comparison. In the US, I announce books, and then work with my distributor here for catalogues and presenting to sales reps, and then, at least a full six months before the books are released, we start sending review copies out. In South Africa, this all seems to happen the same month a book is released, and I’m fortunate, firstly, that LAPA works with me to help get attention for these books, and also now that SarahBelle is here locally to promote the books.

I think one of the interesting things about what we do is the need to market the book not just in North America, but in South Africa, too, and Ashawnta is a key player in making this happen digitally. I don’t know how she does it, but she keeps her finger on the pulse of the literary world across the African continent as well as in North America.

I’ve been blown away by the passion and dedication that people in the South African book world demonstrate day after day.

SarahBelle, you used to work in New York publishing before moving to Cape Town. Now that you’ve seen both worlds, what do you spot as some fundamental differences between the American and South African book industries?

SBS: Well, in regard to size, it’s chalk and cheese. Just thinking about sheer numbers – of publishers, of authors, of events, even of average print runs and how many copies mean good sales – the US is mammoth in comparison. That makes competition fierce, and publishers have to take into account a lot more than just the quality of the book when deciding whether or not to bid, including things like an author’s existing social media following, how much of a “hot topic” the book is – that sort of thing. There’s another big difference: the process of actually getting your book in the door and getting a deal signed. It’s rare for people to approach publishers through an agent in South Africa (in fact, I’m really aware of only one or two agents operating here), but in the States, it’s practically a necessity. And it’s not uncommon in the US to have several publishers bidding for a big-name author’s book in a sort of literary duel. That’s fun to watch.

I’ve been blown away by the passion and dedication that people in the South African book world demonstrate day after day. The books produced here and their authors are treated with such care and attention, and because the industry is so small and there’s not much money in it (alas!), people are genuinely in it for the love of the written word. Like I said, it’s a small book world here, and I can pretty much identify most publishers, booksellers and critics by name, which makes it feel a lot less like business and a whole lot more like family.

Most South Africans think of Bridget Jones’s diary when we want to understand publishing in New York. Is that an accurate portrayal?

SBS: Well, I don’t own a miniskirt and Jessica doesn’t look at all like Hugh Grant, but besides that, it’s spot on! Just kidding. It’s not at all like the movie, but you’re not alone in that assumption! When I started in publishing, I had many doe-eyed dreams about being nestled with my nose in a book all day and going to hoity-toity events with bestselling authors. But people forget the fact that the book business is just that: a business. It’s a lot of Excel sheets and elbow grease, and it’s slow-going a lot of the time, but at the end of the day, that magic – the kind you see in the movies, the romantic side of literature which is the reason we’re all in this industry in the first place – that is certainly real. Jessica, what would you say?

JLP: The funny thing is that the book and movie are set in the world of London publishing! I don’t know exactly what publishing is like in New York, but I do think there are many more events and a lot more drinking. My version of that world looks like working in bed a lot, which is what I’m doing at the moment while answering these questions. Thank goodness for laptops! They let me work wherever I need to be.

Come on, Ashawnta, you are there. Give us the low-down!

AJ: I don’t actually have much experience with the New York publishing world. My first job that could have in any way been described as being in publishing was as part of the editorial team for an academic journal. And I think we can safely assume that there won’t be any books-turned-movies about that. Glamorous it is not. But I think the biggest thing I took away from it, and something that I’d tell anyone wanting to get into this work, is that publishing doesn’t mean just one thing. Maybe there is some real-ish version of Bridget Jones somewhere, but publishing, like writing, can mean so many things – big companies, literary journals, academic presses, indies like Catalyst, and everything in between. There are many ways to love books and writing, and just as many ways to make that all, or part, of your professional life.

Catalyst Press is a women-owned, women-run institution. Is that common in the USA? What does this environment offer your press, and your readers?

JLP: I’d love to hear SarahBelle’s and Ashawnta’s responses to this! For me, I think it’s helpful to have two amazing women – Ashawnta and SarahBelle – put so much of themselves into the press. It feels like they’ve taken a great deal of ownership of their work and of the press, and it feels to me that they both feel like it belongs to them, not just to me, and I appreciate that. I appreciate that there is a genuine collaboration and sisterhood about the work we do, and it’s not just a job. There is no way Catalyst would be what it is without them, so I’m very grateful! We also have another freelance worker, Jill, who helps to copy-edit, and her work is likewise invaluable to me!

SBS: Oh, man, I could go on for days about this. I love our team, and I feel genuinely lifted up by both Jessica and Ashawnta. We’re all writers by craft, and it’s so common to wake up to emails from them saying, “Hey, check out this cool call for articles; you should submit that essay you’ve been working on!” or to have them just check in and see how I’m doing both personally and professionally. As I’m still new to the freelancing world, that’s pretty fantastic, and I certainly feel like I’ve landed with my “bum in the butter”, for lack of a better phrase. In regard to the press, I think there’s something really special about women publishing women. We publish many African women and female-driven books, and the energy in that collaboration – between the author, Jessica’s editorial direction, Ashawnta’s marketing work, Jill’s copy-editing and me popping in wherever I can – is consistently producing narratives that all women (and men!) will identify as raw, real and oh-so necessary.

AJ: This is a great question. As for “women-owned, women-run” institutions, it’s not particularly common. We looked into it for a grant we applied for recently, and I believe the number was around 40% in the US, and that’s across all businesses, not just publishing. That’s not great. And we know that there are reasons for that which have nothing to do with desire or willpower or talent. All that said, every business like Catalyst is special not just because it’s overcoming some of the more societal weights, but because it encourages someone else to do it, too. When we talk about tangible ways that industries can change from within – types of leadership, the way you build a team, the products you choose to put out – these are all real ways to create change. In publishing, for example, it’s easy to talk about how and why it doesn’t always reflect our world, whether that be gender or race or any number of things, but the way you actually change that is by changing it. So, when SarahBelle talks about the types of books we’re publishing, and how we’ve made an impact with so many of our women-authored books, I think that’s a tangible change. When Jessica talks about how we’ve created a team that feels empowered to try new things, and that it truly isn’t like many other presses, I think that’s a tangible change. Is that because there are so many women here? Maybe – I don’t know. Each of us, in some way or another, has probably hit a barrier (whether we knew it was there or not) at some time in our lives because we’re women. So, each of us may feel some small responsibility to help lower, or outright remove, the barriers for someone else. I also think the environment, specifically at Catalyst, works because we’re friends in addition to being colleagues. We want to see each other win. I’ve known Jessica for many, many years (I tried to count, but got tired. Jessica, are we old?!), and I think our friendship is one of the things that help us be honest with each other about the work. SarahBelle has only added to that dynamic. We have a very good team here.

Jessica, you are a literary agent as well, and you fly all over the world to promote books – when there is no COVID-19 around. How do Europe and the UK view your books and authors from Africa? What are these readers looking for in African literature?

JLP: Well, I would hesitate to call myself a literary agent! I do work very hard to sell foreign-language rights to books I publish, and I have tried to represent a few books for other publishers, such as LAPA, as well. I’ve been successful in selling audio rights to quite a few books, and the children’s books have also received a lot of attention. I think there’s still a perception that African literature is sort of highbrow and “literary”, so to speak, and there’s a disconnect for some in realising that Africans also write sci-fi, crime novels, romance, etc. But that is changing, and that is part of the drive behind #ReadingAfrica: for readers to celebrate the amazing diversity of books written by Africans.

How are big-time African authors, like Ben Okri or Chinua Achebe, received in the USA? Or South African authors like Zakes Mda?

JLP: Well, I think they are received very well! But the real problem is that people think, “Oh, I’ve read Ben Okri” or “I’ve read Chimamanda Adichie,” therefore, “I’ve read every African writer I need to read.” The big names are worthy of their big names, but Africa is a very big continent, and there are thousands of worthy writers whose books readers can enjoy. But it’s really great when we see writers like Ben Okri recognised, because hopefully it will also lead people to read other amazing writers with less recognisable names, like Yewande Omotoso or Ahmed Ismail Yusuf, to name two authors we’ve been lucky enough to publish.

Catalyst started #ReadingAfrica four years ago, and this is a week-long online event where readers, publishers and authors are encouraged to share what they are reading from the African continent. It is a little like an online literary festival, am I correct?

JLP: That’s a great way to put it. It’s a big party where books and Africa are the focus, and the location is online. Everybody is welcome! And this year, we’re hosting two virtual events that we’re really excited about, which definitely gives it more of a festival vibe, so we hope many people will tune in.

And is #ReadingAfrica open to all publishers, book clubs, authors and readers who are #ReadingAfrica?

JLP: Absolutely! We want everybody to join in! The more, the merrier.

We’re just helping it lay down roots, but we hope that someday publishers, authors and readers around the world will be celebrating #ReadingAfrica week, even if they’ve never heard of us!

What do you have in store for #ReadingAfrica in 2020, and what do you hope to see from the event in the years to come?

SBS: This year’s campaign has already been getting some attention online, which is great news. Bookshop posted a reading list, and we’ve had many people reach out saying they’ll be participating. The campaign has grown every year since we started, and now that we’ve added in the two virtual events (our kick-off event on 6 December and our African crime panel on 9 December), we’re expecting this year to be the biggest yet.

We hope this campaign will eventually extend far beyond Catalyst and have a life of its own. We’re just helping it lay down roots, but we hope that someday publishers, authors and readers around the world will be celebrating #ReadingAfrica week, even if they’ve never heard of us! If we can help facilitate more African authors getting the attention they deserve, then that’s a huge win in my book.

What is new and exciting in the Catalyst Press Catalogue in 2021?

JLP: Well, we’re very excited to announce that we will be the publisher of the next Short Story Day Africa anthology, Disruption; we will be the publisher outside of South Africa. We are also excited to be publishing both of Siphiwe Ndlovu’s novels in North America, and the English-language version of Hannes Barnard’s Halley’s Comet. There is also another Niki Daly Lolo “early reader” (the term is important for marketing, but doesn’t do justice to the delight with which Niki presents Lolo to young readers everywhere). Sifiso Mzobe’s successful Young blood is finally coming to North America. Our cover designer, Karen Vermeulen, has authored and illustrated a graphic novel memoir about life as a single professional woman in Cape Town, and we’re excited to bring that out! Also, another graphic novel, translated from the French: Madame Livingstone, illustrated by the Congolese artist Barly Baruti. So many good things!

Finally: Jessica, you are an author of many African stories. And, SarahBelle, you are studying creative writing. Ashawnta, you write articles and essays. What should we be expecting from you all in the near future?

JLP: I’ve been working on the script for a graphic novel memoir about growing up on the US-Mexico border. I’m looking for a publisher! Publishing has put a lot of my writing on the back burner, but I hope to get going again in 2021.

SBS: I’m getting started on a fiction novel as we speak (or, at least, I’m mulling over ideas in my head and hoping they eventually show themselves on paper) to complete the second year of my MFA in creative writing at the University of Cape Town. Being in the literary environment through my work for Catalyst has been a good kick in the rear to get started, and I hope to have it wrapped up by next Christmas. And, hopefully, another piece or two for World Literature Today, where I contributed a few times this year.

AJ: I write about many things, but the pieces I have the most fun with are about music and music history, particularly those that focus on black American history/culture. I have some ideas floating around, so we’ll see whether 2021 finds any of them in print.

See also:

Press Release: #ReadingAfrica #OokInAfrikaans

Press release: Join us for two special events during #ReadingAfrica

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