Interview by Joy Hawley
Kaya Press is a Los Angeles-based publisher of poetry and prose from Asian and Pacific Islander diasporas. Over the course of nearly 20 years, Kaya Press has remained committed to publishing books which represent a wide range of perspectives and cultural backgrounds. Recent titles from the press include the experimental, quasi-satiric portrait of 1920s New York, The Hanging on Union Square and Shailja Patel’s Migritude, which blends memoir and political history to explore migration, colonization and womens’ lives. The press’s association with the University of Southern California (USC) offers students the chance to participate in the press’s work, and has enabled Kaya to grow its readership in one of the most diverse US cities.
We spoke with Kaya’s publisher and editor, Sunyoung Lee, about the press and their projects:
PP: In a sentence or two, what kind of books does Kaya publish?
Lee: Kaya Press publishes the highest quality literature (fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, film, performance) from the Asian and Pacific Islander diasporas, including translations and the recovery of important and overlooked works. We are proud to present books that feature unique voices; new and alternative perspectives; accomplished experimental writing; and beautiful, thoughtful book design.
PP: How did you first get involved with the press?
Lee: I was initially hired as an assistant editor in a staff of just three. I had different freelancing jobs at the time, including fact checking at the Village Voice and community organizing at a NY-based group called at the time the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, but when I started working at Kaya, I decided to focus all of my energies on publishing. I’ve always thought of publishing as my political work – that is, my way of trying to effect change. I’ve always believed — in large part through personal experience — that books (and art or culture in general) can change people’s lives. They can make them see the world in new and different ways, get them to think about things differently.
PP: Kaya puts on very creative events – whether a stroll to Bruce Lee’s grave, or inviting readers to compile and bind their own anthologies. Does this creative approach exemplify Kaya’s philosophy?
Lee: Again, I think the critical thing about Kaya is that we are very much engaged in the creative potential of others. Our goal is to encourage that potential through books – the quality of literature we publish, the range of experiences and voices that we present, but also by trying in small ways to disrupt presumptions about the ways people think about books, what impact they can have, how it brings people together, what the purpose of a reading is, what it means to participate in a book festival. Although we need to keep our press going financially and organizationally, and have managed to do so throughout the decades (next year will be our 20th anniversary) the driving force behind what’s kept us around for this long is the conviction that books – and in fact acts of imagination in all forms — can really transform people’s lives. But to do that, you sometimes have to do the unexpected — stir things up, change things around, get people to participate in the process.
We want people to read one of our books and feel as if they have license to do something even better. For the books that we publish to inspire other people to write other books is the best compliment we could hope for.
PP: If so, how do you get readers to interact with books in the same intuitive, playful way as a literary walk?
Lee: I might be old-fashioned in saying this, but I’ve always considered reading to be a personal act — an interaction between a reader and a book (although I suppose, with the advent of ebooks and the possibility of sharing comments etc, that relationship might open up a bit). That’s the seductiveness of reading — that intimacy. The best that we can do is to publish books that are challenging, thought-provoking, painstakingly designed and edited, and get them into the hands of readers.
PP: Kaya just marked its 3rd year at USC. How was the transition to a new city and to becoming a university-based press?
Lee: Los Angeles is a phenomenal city in which to situate a publishing company. Its sprawl is precisely what makes it so fertile – instead of having to think hierarchically or competitively, we can think creatively. There’s room for all kinds of new ideas and practices to flourish. That’s what I love about this city – it’s capaciousness. Every part of the world is represented here, and there’s room to spread out and experiment. So we’ve taken to Los Angeles like a fish to water.
PP: How has the affiliation with USC helped the press’s publishing work?
Lee: Our institutional affiliation has been enormously helpful in this respect as well. We have office space at USC, and are affiliated with their highly regarded American Studies and Ethnicity Department. We’ve also worked closely with several other programs, including the Japanese American National Museum. We also helped create a USC student group called Kaya Students for Independent Publishing, which seeks to give undergraduate and graduate students an inside look into the processes of publishing. We’ve been very lucky to have received competitively awarded grants through the university’s Visions and Voices program, which seeks to link their students with phenomenal cultural experiences. This has made it possible for us to stage events on a much larger scale than we had ever previously done – whether by bringing in some of our international authors, or experimenting with new ways of connecting audiences to poetry through music. In April 2014, we will be bringing in 8-10 poets and musicians from across the South Asian diaspora to collaborate on a massive concert/reading called Mehfil Massive. These events have been instrumental in bringing Kaya to a bigger stage. Most importantly, the office space and the institutional support has made it possible for us to start thinking more expansively, so that instead of thinking merely in terms of survival, we can now begin thinking about how to build out.
PP: What have you learned from collaborating with other small presses in Southern California at events such as the Lit Lounge?
Lee: We have really enjoyed the process of collaborating with other presses in Los Angeles, not least because it gives us an opportunity to bounce ideas off of one another and get a real feel for the new ways that people are beginning to think about publishing and literature in general. We want to be an advocate for independent literary presses in the city and in the country in a way that reflects the diversity and mixture that is in fact the future of the US.
PP: Are there any new initiatives Kaya is currently working on?
Lee: Yes, we are very much interested in publishing a series of Asian Latin American works in translation. The same patterns of immigration that brought Asians of all varieties to the US also brought them to the other parts of the Americas – and there are a number of really amazing writers out there, both current and deceased, whom English-readers have never had access to before.
PP: How can readers get involved in Kaya’s work?
Lee: We are always eager to engage our readers and audiences – again, towards the greater goal of getting them to rethink presumptions – be they about publishing or about events and readings. In terms of getting readers more involved in the creative processes behind the book, that’s something that we’re always trying to do – and trying to figure out ways of doing – so it’s an ever evolving process. But definitely the Indie Lit Lounge at the LA Times Festival of Books and the ways in which we try to put together events is a large part of that. There are also always opportunities for volunteering. And one of the most important ways people can get involved is by donating to Kaya Press. We are a non-profit press, so the donation is tax-deductible!
PP: How does Kaya reach readers beyond LA or the States? Are you looking to grow your readership abroad?
Lee: We haven’t as of yet done too much outreach outside of the United States.The opportunities provided to us by USC have made it possible for us to begin the process of reaching out again. We are also very eager to start thinking about possible collaborations with translations of Asian and Pacific Island diasporic writers from Europe. From the very beginning we’ve focused on the idea of diasporas – i.e. not just Asian Americans, but Asian Australians, Asian Africans, Pacific Islanders, etc. That kind of cross-cultural mixing has been happening forever, but not necessarily in ways that have been encouraged, fostered, or translated. So one of our main objectives is to see how better to reach those audiences, but also to find out what we can bring back with us to Kaya. We’re also looking forward to learning about what’s going on in indie lit circles in other countries, finding authors and books to bring to Kaya, and of course, getting our own work out in front of an international audience!