"This is Art, Not Anthropology": Notes on Tilted Axis Press

I work in a bookshop. Which doesn’t sound glamorous, and is yet still less glamorous than it sounds. That said, working around books means you acquire a seemingly inbuilt awareness of books, authors, and publishing.

There are worse jobs.

It makes me a better reader and a better writer (and a better blogger, I guess, if I had time to write more). A friend of mine said you don’t realise how little you know about books until you work in a bookshop. And that’s true. I did a degree in English Literature and Philosophy. I’ve read 50 books a year since I was 17. Yet, when I started working in the bookshop, it seemed like I knew absolutely nothing about what people read.

Something another friend of mine said is that to gain knowledge about books you have to spend time “touching” books. This is also true. Shelving is like revision. As new books come in, you notice them, you read the blurbs, and when they come in again, you reinforce that knowledge. People come in looking for things, and they tell you about what they’re looking for. Someone names an author and, over time, you can come out with a whole stream of knowledge you didn’t really know was in there, but had just been absorbed in a weird, literary process of osmosis from just being around them. This is something that I will miss when I leave. The knowledge that I’ve gained; how close I feel to new writing and new publishing — which is of course naturally, inevitably a changing, ever-flowing tide of the new. Simply having worked this job will not set me up for life, and so when I leave I will have to be far more vigilant.

Working as a bookseller is how I came across Tilted Axis Press. I’ve been following them, with great interest, since they started, and since I started bookselling. It’s very unlikely I would have found them otherwise. They’re one of those unexpected gifts that presents itself to you, quietly and unassumingly, in the course of living your life.  

Books... coffee... desk...

Books... coffee... desk...

Started by Deborah Smith — the Man Booker International Prize-winning translator of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian — their aim is to “tilt the axis of world literature” by publishing work in translation, primarily by Asian writers and women of colour.

But they also have a distinct kind of fiction, and a distinct vision for how to publish:

“The aim for the press was a mixture of things: to publish under-represented writing, which is an intersection of original language, style, content, and often its author’s gender. To publish it properly, in a way that makes it clear that this is art, not anthropology. To spotlight the importance of translation in making cultures less dully homogeneous. To push for better rates and recognition for translators themselves. And to improve access to the UK publishing industry–we recently hired our first intern, the wonderful Sabeena, who we’re proud to be paying a proper wage. Not only are unpaid internships exploitative, they’re one of the main forces keeping UK publishing a primarily white middle-class industry, which has a direct knock-on effect on what gets published and how.” 

- Deborah Smith (conversationalreading.com)

Knowing this, they had my attention. They’re a press that share my values: towards labour, towards publishing, towards literature. They give translators space on the cover of the book, something that, when you're looking out for it, you'll notice very few publishers do, even though the labour of translation is totally essential to the book's existence. They’re a valuable resource for learning more about the issues they discuss, and for reading more of the kind of writing they champion.

Recently, I’d been making a deliberate effort to read more writing in translation, and to read more widely in general. And at the same time, it seemed that the translated fiction touted by bookshops, critics, and the canon, seemed to be of a certain kind. When I say I wanted to read writing in translation, Camus's not necessarily fulfilling what is implicit in that want. It's the kind of bias that makes maps like these — while I love Electric Literature — slightly unhelpful. When a global tour of literature overwhelmingly involves writing in English or writing aimed at the Western Gaze, it doesn't feel very complete.  I wanted to read more world literature, whatever that means. And the world doesn't tell stories in English. I wanted to read non-European works in translation and I wanted to read transgressive works in translation. Part of why I wanted to move away from English literature is to find writing that breaks the mould (or breaks what I wrongly think the mould is); to find something different. Why read books about the rest of the world if those books reinforce the same attitudes that our culture already holds towards them? Why confirm what we already think? If reading is about confirming our biases, then reading is a narcissism and masturbation. You have to go a little further afield and into not only translated fiction but also the sort of literature that actually has trouble even making it into English, for the very reasons that makes it special..

“Why read books about the rest of the world if those books reinforce the same attitudes that our culture already holds towards them? Why confirm what we already think?”

This sounds self-aggrandising and overly moralistic. So I'll tone it down. 

Tilted Axis Press were a perfect storm for what generally catches my interest, anyway. Their first book, Panty by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, was, simply put, eye-catching. The design and the cover were beautiful and enticing — and like my favourite publishers, they established an iconic and consistent design theme which makes each new publication look fantastic when placed on a bookshelf with the others. And they appealed to my materialistic urges (which stand in direct contrast to my values). I like to own things. I can’t just own one of a thing. I want to read a press from when they start, and collect everything they ever publish. And if it's a beautiful book, I have to own it. Once I have one, I must have two, so they can sit next to each other on a shelf. 

Plus, the title and concept already had me hooked: a woman enters a barren apartment in an eerie city, awaiting an unspecified operation; she finds a used pair of panties, puts them on, and then relives the sexual experiences of its former owner. It's not a concept that's remotely similar to anything I've ever come across. This is why we read. Panty is something that, once you’ve heard about it, it’s hard to stop thinking about. You wonder how that book would work; how it would be executed. So I had to read it. I just had to know.

Panty and  One Hundred Shadows,  both of which were kindly sent to me by Tilted Axis. Small presses are also among the most generous.

Panty and One Hundred Shadows, both of which were kindly sent to me by Tilted Axis. Small presses are also among the most generous.

I read it in about two days. And it wasn’t what I had expected, even though I thought I had no expectations. I came away feeling strangely cold — and I mean that as a compliment. It made me feel uneasy. The prose was sparse and isolating. It makes you feel how she feels; embodying her as she embodies the former owner of the apartment (and the panty). But then it switches to a richer style, rendering a truly unapologetic expression of female desire that you don’t really see that much of, so plainly, in capital-E, capital-L, English Literature at all.

Here, reading experience seems primary. As it should be. So much writing over-intellectualises and also very much tells the story rather than letting the story happen to you. It got across how certain things feel without really stating or explaining them. The grief involved in motherhood; the weird anonymity of the urban landscape; the strange, fluid perspectives we inhabit and that inhabit us; disassociation, sickness and trauma. There was no plot, but it wasn’t a book I would forget about because of the way it made me feel. And if art isn’t about evoking an emotional reaction, I’m not sure that I know what art is.

“And if art isn’t about evoking an emotional reaction, I’m not sure that I know what art is.”

One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun, reminded me of Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami, in that it had the same gentle, quirky prose that made it fairly easy reading — and again, I mean this as a compliment. It was the second book published by Tilted Axis (but it was actually the first book I started with — I saved Panty as my choice for book and wine club). It’s a slight, soft novel about a romantic friendship between two repair shop workers in Seoul, South Korea. It’s a story about two people, more or less. How they found each other, and how they cope together.

And coping has become an essential part of their existence, because coping affirms their existence, which has slunk under the radar of society's machinations for so long, under different circumstances both protecting and endangering them. Their “slum” has been scheduled for demolition, and the inhabitants’ shadows have begun to rise, moving around of their own accord. This unusual, inconsequential magical realism, for some reason, really did it for me. It just added a sense of unease to everything, and was a fable-like detail which coloured how their community see the world. 

Like a lot of Panty, it meditates on the visibility of poverty, which is particularly poignant for literature coming out of the seemingly ultra-modern state of South Korea. In Panty, the narrator spends her time observing a homeless family outside her flat, making assumptions about their states of mind and their happiness from a position of privilege. It's an attitude framed to be seen as distasteful and shallow. But it’s the attitude that tourists and the rich espouse, and we do, too, in our worst moments —  and casually, unassumingly, in every day life, in myriads of tiny ways. We either ignore or oggle. In One Hundred Shadows, Eungyo says

“I wonder if they call this kind of place a slum, because if you called it someone’s home or their livelihood that it would make things awkward when it comes to tearing it down.”

And later in the novel,

“For instance, is it really so natural and inevitable for an old woman to eke out a living by scavenging cardboard boxes? Is that part of the essence of human life? Is dying like that down to the individual, nothing to do with anyone else? And if it’s not natural and inevitable, just sufficiently common to be accepted as such, isn’t that futility even worse than if it were simply the essence of life?”

A delicate, calm story about not-a-whole-lot is, actually, kind of revolutionary. Sometimes, we only talk about poverty in a way that merely belittles and patronises, and, as such, are disrespectful to the agency of the poor. The discourse is either one of two, it seems: 1. The Poor are so disparagingly poor that they deserve Our Pity, for We know what is best for them, and musn’t their lives be so devoid of pleasure, happiness, and meaning?; or 2. If they do have many of the same pleasures, emotions, stories and forms of agency as we do, can they really be so poor? If not, we should disregard their poverty and their personhood, and should treat them as deliberately deceptive and malicious.

Because the characters in One Hundred Shadows are so obviously neither, as most people in poverty are. They are forgotten, and thus the story is very small-scale: it’s only really about them. No one else is involved much. The sort of people that don’t fit into our standard categories and standard narratives cannot exist, we suppose. 

“Are we ghosts? we wondered. Who could tell, this late at night. We might be ghosts seeking others of our kind, walking under a pale moon.”

Those are the kind of simple, seductive sentences that keep me up at night, you know?

Something I’ve noticed in all of Tilted Axis’ publications so far is kind of hard to the describe. I’d like to say it’s a postmodern, industrial setting. The ominous sense of an ethereal, neon-lined urban landscape. The looming spectre of pollution. In Panty, the earth feels unearthly. Her apartment is at the top of a tower of flats which appears strangely deserted. The apartment itself is padlocked and the lights do not work. The city is a lonely metropolis, at once both heaving and seemingly uninhabited. In One Hundred Shadows, they live literally in the midst of industrial capitalism’s cast-offs. Between markets inhabiting blocks known only by their assigned letters, with the natural world sufficiently distant to be accessible only by car. While it draws a stark contrast, it’s still infected by the presence of humans:

“Each island, a sparse, dream-like smattering on the vast sea, bore a tall electricity pylon. Like objects seen in a rear-view mirror, the islands and their towers seemed nearer than they were in reality, fading away little by little and leaving me utterly rapt, wondering where the electric current went when it passed beyond the sea. [...] Whenever I see this kind of scene, I always end up thinking that humans are truly strange creatures. [...] In any case, a scene like this comforts me because it feels set apart from anything human.”

So for Tilted Axis’ third book, Indigenous Species by Khairani Barokka, the environmental consequences of colonialism and racism, and how they intersect, seems an appropriate continuation. It uses trauma to the body, abduction, mutilation and slavery, as a poetic metaphor for not only how native populations have been treated by colonisers, but also for how the natural resources of those countries have been exploited. And, rightly so, she holds the modern world to blame for its inevitable complicity in violence through capitalist means of production:

“I am of the same blood as the sanctioned mess of invasion

That was Javanese transmigration,
And I shampoo my hair with oil crafted
From dead-end social experiments
And gargantuan-scale domestication of hectares
Cemeteries of growth

Like bonfires of so many canines made lame.”

Indigenous Species is poetry but it’s also art. Quoting, here, feels wrong — because in the book, word and visual art are conjoined. Tilted Axis also print a sight-impaired edition, which includes braille and tactile, embossed artwork. The sighted copy still includes an unembossed word, “Braille”, in braille on each page, attempting to make us constantly aware of the inaccessibility of most literature to those with visual-impairment. Its presence reminds us of its gaping absence in most other settings where we encounter literature. Tilted Axis' casual inclusiveness is an example of how little it can take to shake up how the world experiences stories.

The Sad Part Was by Prabda Yoon is the most recent Tilted Axis publication I have read, and it is, even more so than the others, a testament to the realisation of their project. Prabda Yoon’s collection is one of very few books by modern Thai writers to ever make it into English. That alone, is reason enough to publish it, and to question why this is even the case. Moreover, Mui Poopoksakul’s translation is a masterpiece. Yoon is constantly playful and witty, using wordplay and expressive punctuation, puns and turns of phrase — the sort of stuff that usually struggles to make it across the language barrier. Furthermore, his tone and style are the beating heart of his prose. His voice is so distinctive. To translate the sense of Yoon’s style so deftly shows that Tilted Axis has achieved what all good translation sets out to do: accurately translate the sense and spirit of fiction, rather than just the text. Yoon's voice — and it is a complicated, shape-shifting, pun-making one at that — can transcend the page to reach readers who cannot speak his language. Which is kind of the point of writing, I guess. 

And The Sad Part Was is just a delight to read. They’re the sort of stories that have you finishing the final sentence with a huge, stupid grin splitting across your face — an electric buzz in the back of your brain, sending out signals of pure joy. They have a satisfying composition and form, which like the best of Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales, come together to form one perfect, whole object by the final words. They feature ridiculous, surreal narrators, meta-fictional twists and direct references by characters to the author himself, in a Breakfast of Champions-style evocation of the Author-God. In one, two gigantic, neon letters “N” and “O” collapse onto an apartment block, interrupting an extra-marital affair and killing an anonymous roof-dweller. In another, groups of friends meet up regularly for “crying parties”. Each one is an idea I wish I had thought of first. 

In each, however, there’s a sense of the comic and the surreal, but also of abandonment, loneliness, and how meaninglessness creeps through the metropolis. Each narrator seems to be asking, either directly or implicitly: why do I exist and what am I doing? In the first story, the narrator recalls his mother:

I want to tell you right now that your father and I are sorry. What you’re thinking is true. We had no right to give birth to you without asking.

And later,

"I should point out that when I’m not thinking about work, no light bulb ever appears above my head. This must mean that my brain is otherwise dark and cloudy — it just blindly feels its way around and lets random thoughts wander. [...] The fear is, if the light’s too bright, it might illuminate a shockingly hollow space.”

So I guess I have begun to feel a weird, personal investment in Tilted AxisLike, somehow, I've watched them growing up. I think they're a truly singular publisher, with an attention to detail and a clarity of vision that is both admirable, and necessary in the publishing world. It's been fun keeping my eye on them for the last year and I’m probably going to watch them continue on, fondly, as though in some way I have any personal stake in their work. But, I sort of do have a stake. They’ve helped me expand my reading and my knowledge of other cultures, my appreciation for translation and translators, and the daunting task of hunting for the best writing — to push the biases of readers further away from the mainstream. Publishing what is obscure, unknown and unfamiliar writing to English-speaking eyes is not a huge money spinner. But it's the quiet, necessary work of shifting the balance away from the known.

“Tong-Jai concluded that answering in accordance with the opinion of the majority was a requisite for getting by in life.

But answering in accordance to one’s own beliefs was a requisite for sleeping soundly at night.”
— The Sad Part Was, Prabda Yoon

In the meantime, my to-read pile currently includes others books in translation, such as The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami (kindly sent to me by Portobello), Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, among others. Tilted Axis have recently published The Impossible Fairytale by Han Yujoo, and are soon to publish another book by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, Abandon — both of which I am hoping to read soon. But I've been paying special attention to Tilted Axis for a while, so it's time to lay off the pressure, at least for the time being. There's so much to read out there and I don't ever want to be tied down.