Naveen Kishore is the founder and director of Seagull Books, a Calcutta-based publishing house that specializes in English translations of authors such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Thomas Bernhard, Imre Kertész, Yves Bonnefoy, Peter Handke, Mahasweta Devi, and Mo Yan. Kishore and I had an epistolary conversation while he was travelling between the U.S., the U.K., and India, and often it felt like I was talking with a spiritual teacher rather than a book publisher. —R.R.
Tweed’s: Seagull makes beautiful books. The cover art is beautiful, the cloth-bound hardcovers are beautiful, even the thick, heavy pages are beautiful—as wonderful to touch as they are to smell. What role do aesthetics play in your vision of publishing?
Naveen Kishore: I think the first thing worth mentioning is that everything Seagull has ever done and has been doing since March 5th, 1972—when publishing was still ten years into the future—has been about what we in hindsight call “aesthetics.” Our life in the theater we later chose to document into books, or film, or art, which we showed well before it became popular in India. Or fashionable. Or lucrative. Or, for that matter, articulate, as in theoretically and aesthetically something that people began to aspire to understand, view, acquire, write about.
I started to make a living as a theater lighting designer way back in the early seventies. Self-taught. There was no other way if a) you didn’t have the money for the only drama school in the country and b) had to support a family from age sixteen.
The books began in 1982. In a publishing environment that was dismal, to say the least. Not in terms of the hunger to read or the numbers that spoke English, and therefore formed a vast market in India, but in terms of the word you selected, “aesthetics.” Printing. Design. Paper. Binding. Everything from our country was suspect.
Also remember I had come into publishing overnight. With no experience. Except the theater and a sense of design. Not just graphic but of content. This was important. To be able to decide what you wish to publish is very vital for a publisher, especially one without money or staying power other than an ability to take risks. To gamble. I was lucky that I fell into the hands of an amazing printer-editor of the older tradition of letterpress. Seagull’s first books are exclusively letterpress. So yes, I did straddle the change in technologies. I decided very early on that I would use the best paper, design, binding, and block-making for my books. This was seen as foolhardy on one hand, because it meant expense, and grudgingly admired on the other by the publishing community. Because the books came out looking good. And the content matched. The idea. The thought. The material that was given this book-form was itself of a very high standard.
So from the very beginning the aesthetics of both content and form were in place. Not out of a formal learning or strategy or vision. No. Just plain intuition and a desire to make things look good.
Many years later, when we decided to set up Seagull Books London Limited and play First World publishers, the aesthetics were second nature, or second skin if you prefer.
Another thing—and then I will stop—is that it’s you, the reader/beholder of the books, who has to find a core of the aesthetic within you and see that the books we make resonate with it. And I think that’s what makes one warm to them.
Tweed’s: Due to Seagull’s large German list, you were awarded the Goethe Medal in 2013. In your acceptance speech, you said: “I live hand in hand or hand in glove, and therefore complicitly, with ‘the uncertain’ and ‘the intangible.’ With the opposite of ‘structure.’ I am aware that I also live in a time that does not lend credence to that feeling at the pit of your belly often referred to as the ‘gut.’ Instinct is frowned upon, even in the arts.”
To me, it seems you’re saying true creativity can’t be monetized, because no one would invest in “the uncertain” and “the intangible.” You can’t offer a business plan based on that feeling in “the pit of your belly.” Yet art is instinct. How do you correlate these two seemingly opposing perspectives, as a publisher and an artist?
Naveen Kishore: Ah Randy . . . that’s what you are talking about. I am merely putting how I feel and how I respond to the intuitive in “visual” terms. The hand and glove imagery suggests magic. And theater. And mystery. And confusion in the eyes of the beholder. Magic is good when it works. Magic is even better when it makes it appear as if it’s working and the world gets an illusion of how amazingly successful you are and therefore you must have some secret method since clearly the serious nature of your work doesn’t look like it’s a great business! Look at what you have written. Your heart and poetry are in the right place but you are still using terms that the world of business sees as their lexicon. Shed it.
No one ever invested money into Seagull. Nor did I ask or, if you like, expect anyone to do so. There is no business plan, except the belief that in the truly long run it will all even out if you persist. Here the word persist is not simply about romantic grit. It means you use all the means that are possible to make the “business of books” work. How? By juggling. Borrowing. Seeking like-minded people the world over and persuading them to your cause. I am suggesting that there is no reason for idealism to be an embarrassing way of life. This is how we are. We are prone to the temptation of a fine idea. One that doesn’t bear up to the number crunching or rationally planned business models. But it is inspiring.
So what do you do? You pay the price. Like you do for your personal survival. The personal and the apparently professional are actually one and the same in the kind of publishing we wish to see happen. No safety nets. So I don’t actually have to correlate what you see as two opposing perspectives. Remember I only have one ever-changing and evolving perspective that unfolds from day to day. You who look at the way I work are the reader/viewer/decider of what it must mean. You need a slot to come to terms with this way of being to feel comfortable. Or to simply articulate to a bunch of your readers what we could be about. Not sure I can help tie it up neatly enough. The excitement is in the loose ends. The rest is logistics.