A guest post by Anindita Mukherjee
Hello, I am Anindita Mukherjee, a PhD intern, the fifth to join the cohort of doctoral students who have worked at University of Alberta Press. I completed my Master of Arts in English from Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi) and Bachelor of Arts degree from Presidency University (Kolkata) before coming to Edmonton for my PhD.
I began the PhD program in the Department of English and Film Studies in Fall 2022. I work on the interface between literature and philosophy. The broad strokes of my research touch Literature, Philosophy, Thought, and Art of the Twentieth Century. For my dissertation I am working on the Philosophy of Lament in the Aftermath of Catastrophes.
My tryst with literature began in early childhood. I was acquainted with mythological stories from Indian epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata by my grandparents. Growing up in the suburbs, the oral tradition of fables, proverbs, folk tales, and limericks became the horizon of my world. The life histories of my grandparents, who were born before Indian Independence in 1947, have been foundational in shaping my academic interests. My grandmother was a witness to the Bengal Famine of 1943, and the graphic details of men, women, and children asking for rice gruel to satiate their hunger left a deep impression on me. As a farmer in a coal mining region, my grandfather recounted the “generosity” of the Britishers who threw loaves of bread and biscuits to the “ill-fed” illiterate children of the colonies. The ghosts of these stories lingered throughout my academic training and continues to temper my interaction with Literature. Before I received rigorous academic training in Philosophy, the philosophical embers were splintered in the act of listening to my mother, who read aloud thoughtful exegesis (ভাবসম্প্রসারণ) of poetry and prose in Bengali. Somehow I picked up the cadence and rhythm of these words, and since then they have been the lens through which I engage with the world.
In my undergraduate years in Kolkata, I lived in a 120-year old house in College Square, which runs parallel to College Street or Boi Para (Book Town). It is considered the world’s largest second-hand book market. Looking back, I realize that I literally became a conscious reader in that street, buying, reading, returning, and exchanging already-read books for unread ones. For me, Boi Para shares the anatomy of Jorge Luis Borges’s “Aleph” which is a point in space that encompasses all other spaces. It is a point in my intellectual landscape that tapered towards everything I did or am doing now. Besides the content, the physical structure of the book–its smell, shape, print, colour, typeface–engendered my interest in the intellectual histories of books. Since joining UAlberta Press, I have started taking book history and manuscript preservation techniques even more seriously. I have attended workshops to learn about them in the University’s Bruce Peel Special Collections which houses a world-class collection of rare and archival materials.
As a writer, I write primarily out of a natural instinct to keep a record of my thoughts. I wrote extensively and shared my work with my peers, and that was the end. I never imagined that any of my writing would see the light of day. The world of publishing was alien to me and I looked up with reverence to poets and writers, knowing that the process requires dedication and hard work. I attached an enormous aura to the life and works of a writer.
When my first chapbook, Nothing and Variations, was selected and published by Hawakal Publishers as part of their pursuit of finding Young Indian voices of 2022, I felt unsheathed. All that I had written, all that I let out of my bones, blood, and breath was cracked open. It was then that I learnt it is one thing to write and another to feel confident enough to share the vulnerabilities of a writer. In my head, I am still searching for what it means to “be” a writer, besides writing.
Now, having experienced publishing from the outside, from the point of a writer, working in the Press is offering the opportunity to learn about the industry from within. Reflecting on my interaction with various departments of the Press, and getting acquainted with its workings, I hope to share these insights with writers who, like me, are beginning to navigate the publishing market.
In a roundtable conversation at the 2023 Book Publishers Association of Alberta Annual Conference, I shared my thoughts on the developmental support we can provide as a community of young writers. It took me some time to learn besides honing our craft, it is crucial to understand the audience and how to reach them. As the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska writes in the essay “How To (and How Not To) Write Poetry”:
But if you want to become a decent cobbler, it’s not enough to enthuse over human feet. You have to know your leather, your tools, pick the right pattern, and so forth. . . . It holds true for artistic creation too.
Besides “artistic creation,” Szymborska’s words stand true for the world of publishing too.
For now, my aim is to develop and share resources with other writers, especially the young writers who are deliberating how to “put things out” into the world. I feel privileged to have my Press colleagues offering advice on books, people, communities, writing practices, and publishing resources. I know I will learn more in the next two years and I am excited to share the learnings with those around me.