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I hope I don’t win the award; I hope Mazin Lateef Ali wins. I could not accept an award knowing that a fellow publisher is suffering

Mehr Husain speaks to Fiza Kazmi about being shortlisted for the IPA Prix Voltaire award.
Updated 23 May, 2023 03:25pm

FIZA KAZMI: How did you feel when you heard you had been nominated for the 2023 IPA Prix Voltaire Award?
MEHR HUSAIN: It was quite shocking. I felt nauseous, more for Pakistan than for myself. If you do good work and work together as an industry look at what can be achieved. However, I hope I don’t win the award; I hope Mazin Lateef Ali, the Iraqi publisher who was abducted in 2020, wins. I could not accept an award knowing that a fellow publisher is suffering. I am honoured to be nominated among such people, being the only woman and first-ever Pakistani author. I kept thinking people would say, “She is a foreign agent, here to corrupt our society.” But people were genuinely happy and sharing the news.

FK: How were you nominated?
MH: My friend Nadia Rashid would often say I was doing such good work and should put myself out there and it was she who nominated me.

FK: On what basis was Zuka Books shortlisted?
MH: Firstly, because when Pulwama happened, several Pakistani authors, including myself, lost book deals to India. My grouse with the state is that they don’t want us to work with India because of human rights violations, but what are they doing to help us? Nothing. This was the first time someone from the publishing world actually stood up – and that was the first thing Prix Voltaire liked. They asked for evidence [of my having spoken out], and I showed them my articles and social media posts; everything was out there in the public domain. Secondly, when I went into publishing, what I discovered broke my heart. Authors don’t get royalties, there is a printer’s mafia, bookshops are exploitative. I argued with everyone; from the Pakistan Academy of Letters to fellow publishers and printers. I kept asking, “What are you all doing?” Thirdly, we have published work that addresses issues that are considered taboo in our society. Our first book, Pakistan: A Fashionable History, was the first-ever book on the creation of the local fashion industry. It talks about a part of our history that has been conveniently swept under the rug. We published Pakistan’s first non-fiction book of poetry, The Burning Champa, which dealt with mental health and body dysmorphia. There was also Grey Matter, a graphic novel about what happens when a marriage breaks down. We published an anthology called Letters To My Inner Child, in collaboration with the Desi Collective. We have published books that are very different from what you would expect from any Pakistani author. Prix Voltaire recognised all this. We do not do commercial work and every book is a specific project. I look at the topic and its appeal. The idea is to have zero waste; I do not have a single extra copy of any book. My focus is on sustainability and changing the business model in Pakistan.

FK: Was it difficult to set up a publishing house in Pakistan?
MH: It has been extremely lonely. It was just me and my two small children. I have to acknowledge Musharraf Farooqi for his advice on the paperwork involved. I had to learn things like types of paper, grammage, the printing process, off-set, digital, inks, all by myself, as well as the economies of scale – which don’t really exist in Pakistan – from stocking to distribution to marketing. At the printer’s, men were staring and going, “Why are you here? You don’t belong here.” They hate you because they think this is their space. It doesn’t matter how modestly you dress (I wore a chaadar), it is seen as cultural disruption; that this is an area where women don’t belong. Also there is so much piracy and it is upheld by the publishing houses as well. So we were setting a new standard; that there will be repercussions if something happens. It is not an easy conversation when you are surrounded by 50 to 100 men. The biggest challenge was holding the distributors and the bookstores to account.

FK: Will the nomination help Zuka Books?
MH: The positive development is that IPA Prix Voltaire is keen on continuing to work with me on further projects. I would like to do more work that is considered daring. I keep getting asked, “What if something happens to you?” My answer is that I can only hope someone else in Pakistan will pick up the mantle, and that the international community will extend their support to other publishers in Pakistan by letting them know they are here to help us move the industry forward.

FK: Zuka Books partnered with the Ananke Women in Literature Festival. How was that experience?
MH: Ananke is a digital platform based in Dubai, and has participants from Pakistan, India, Europe, the US, Morocco, Singapore, North Africa, and the Middle East. It is a global literature festival, especially for women associated with the written word. The conversations go beyond the clichés. They are about how our work is consistently categorised as chick lit. For me, the point is to challenge these assumptions. Ananke is very collective; all the writers and publishers get to have a say and that is very encouraging.

FK: What is the next for Zuka Books?
MH: I have started a literary podcast, ZUKAST, and I plan to put it on Spotify as well. I thought to myself, there are so many publishers out there; what if we took their conversations to the public? The response was great and people loved it. I want to create an app where local authors can publish their work, similar to Apple Books. You can subscribe at a minimal fee, upload your book and it is available to anyone who has the app. I am still working on the financial aspect of it because I am adamant that authors are paid for their work.

Subsequent to this interview, the 2023 IPA Prix Voltaire Award was conferred on Mazin Lateef Ali.