Arpita Das is the publisher and founder of Yoda Press, a pioneering publishing house in India that continues to focus on crossover and non-traditional titles. Launched in 2004, Yoda has made a remarkable presence on the Indian literary scene by breaking down barriers and burning down the social stigma associated with the LGBTQ + community. Arpita spoke to Mathrubhumi.com about her visions and the importance of queer literature.
Yoda Press has been around for 17 years. What do you think of Yoda’s growth as a publishing field over the years?
17 years is a long time. Sometimes I wonder how 17 years went by so quickly. The first eight to ten years were particularly difficult. Starting from scratch was not easy. The society around us and the conditions in which we live today are much more welcoming than 17 years ago when I started the press. At the time, it was not common for a young person to set up a publishing house. I believe there has been a significant shift in that stereotype because a lot of people are now starting publishing startups. In the beginning, it was about finding credibility. We were making books on sexuality and popular culture, lists that didn’t exist at the time. Booksellers and distributors took their time to warm us up. Once they realized that books had readers, they started to change their attitude. But it took us a considerable time to establish ourselves.
The queer community was not as accepted in society then as it is today. What was it like standing out from the crowd by breaking stereotypes and pulling out books on sexuality and transgender people during such a time?
Many of my authors participated in the initiative to file the PID which was taken to the High Court and then to the Supreme Court to decriminalize homosexuality in India. We were an integral part of the movement as it developed. The final judgment and reading of Article 377 in 2018 was a remarkable achievement. And yet, societal norms don’t change that quickly. Nonetheless, there have been remarkable changes on many fronts. What we are seeing these days are several transgender people coming forward, doing visionary things and making big changes. Trans people are finally visible to the rest of society at least according to the law of the land. However, the transgender community remains the last to benefit from societal, political and economic advances. Very often there is a huge overlap between the transgender community and other marginalized sections of society. There is still a long way to go in this regard and much of the work remains to be done.
Can you stress the importance of queer literature in today’s society?
It is as important as the literature on climate change, the economy, poverty, culture. Every book should be written with regard to the queer goal now. Each book should be tested to verify whether or not it meets this criterion. Sexuality and gender diversity should be celebrated in every book we write. There shouldn’t be one list where you put all the queer books. Every book should be a queer ally. Every piece of literature we publish now must be committed to supporting the LGBTQA + community. They are an integral part of our life. They are all us. It is a monumental task to change the whole outlook of a nation or society overnight. Legal developments are certainly still very important, but we are only the tip of the iceberg when we consider all the work that remains to be done.
How successful do you think Yoda Press was in fulfilling its mission of giving space to cross headlines?
I feel like we could have been overly ambitious with what we set out to do even though we were small and independent. All the same, we managed to make it work. If I look at it from a content perspective, we’ve been successful in showcasing and publishing quality content that has made us a publisher of change. If I look at it from a genre perspective as well, I think it broadened from when we started in 2004. Few people were talking about narrative non-fiction then and now it’s become one of the genres. most popular in India and Southeast Asia. I think both in terms of content and genre, I’m happy that we’ve made a difference and there’s been a significant speed boost from the start.
Which Yoda Press accomplishments do you treasure the most?
The quotation of five Yoda Press titles by the Supreme Court of India in its 2018 judgment which decriminalized homosexuality in the country was a huge moment for us because there is no greater justification than the highest court in the land citing his titles. Apart from that, we wrote a very important book “Israel as a Gift from the Arabs” by anthropologist Shail Mayaram. A book that talks about Israel and Palestine, how the two sides should sit down and talk to each other and how there is no other solution than that. The then vice-president, Dr Hamid Ansari, agreed to publish our book, which was a real honor for us. Another highlight of my life was the publication of “Our Lives, Our Words: Telling Aravani Lifestories” by A. Revathi, a Bangalore-based writer and activist who works for sexual minority rights. We were able to do two things with this book. First, we were able to publish the book first in Hindi and then in English. I thought it was very important that the book be available in Hindi even before it was available in English so that more people could access this book, especially members of the transgender community. . Second, we were able to organize a very nice book launch in South Delhi, at an important crossroads for the transgender community. Revathi was able to speak to a large group of transgender people at the launch. Many of our allies and people who support the transgender community were there that day. I remember my daughter who was only six at the time was also there with me. It was a real milestone because we felt like we had made a real difference. Another time was when we published a translation of Bhagat Singh’s collected writings on Revolution and Religion. It was also a defining moment.
What happened to AuthorsUpFront?
AuthorsUpFront is a self-publishing platform that I imagined and co-founded with my colleague Manish Purohit. It was launched in early 2014 and I was closely associated with it for the first four years in which Paranjoy Guha Thakurta’s book “Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis” came out. The co-authors and associates of the book received legal advice from the Ambani brothers for defamation. We also helped facilitate Rana Ayyub’s book, “Gujarat Files,” which was self-published with the help of AuthorsUpFront. But after that I got too busy with Yoda Press and also started teaching at Ashoka University. It has become difficult for me to continue working on AuF as well, but Manish continues to do so and manages it brilliantly.
Do you think Yoda Press has adapted to changes in the printing industry?
It wasn’t something that bothered us, to be honest. Maybe it’s because we’ve always been comfortable with technological change. Media and technology keep changing and always have been. The changes in the industry weren’t much of a concern because we were equipped to adapt and move forward. It was for me something that was waiting to happen and now it has finally happened. I always look at difficult times with interest because they present opportunities that we often fail to explore in the first place. I have a young team, most of them in their late twenties and early thirties, resourceful people who are very comfortable with new media.
When the pandemic struck and the lockdown took place, our income fell to zero overnight. Everything has been closed. At first it was difficult, but Yoda Press is known for its “Jugaad”. We had started running these workshops for writers in our office in 2019, so we quickly put them online. The workshops have picked up so well. They also filled the gaps that existed in the industry. We all worked from home, but these workshops helped pay my colleagues’ salaries and kept us going. The workshops are now an integral part of our operations. We continue to run workshops for authors and publishers as this is something that has helped us get back on track and has given something back to the industry.
How has social media impacted the growth of Yoda Press over the years?
There was a massive impact. I think it was in 2009 that we started our Facebook and Twitter accounts, and later also Instagram. It has really been a godsend for small presses like ours. It helps us reach our readers and has given us a lot of value. Plus, it helped us market ourselves in a way that nothing had ever done before. Social media has been a game-changer, and there’s no denying that fact.