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Hajar Press: The Indie Publisher With Anti-Racism At Its Core
Tope Olufemi , June 26th, 2021 09:44

Hajar Press is an independent political publishing house run by and for people of colour, with new books either recently published or soon to come from Sarah Lasoye, Jamal Mehmood, Heba Hayek, Yara Hawari, Cradle Community & Lola Olufemi. Tope Olufemi talks to founders, Brekhna Aftab and Farhaana Arefin

Hajar Press is the new house setting an exciting precedent for the future of print publishing. The press aims to platform writers of colour, creating space within publishing for these writers where there’s little. Founded by Brekhna Aftab and Farhaana Arefin, Hajar Press responds to the widespread commercialisation of diversity, by giving its writers room to produce transformative and urgent writing, fearlessly unpicking and critiquing systematic inequality, and encouraging readers to imagine a world beyond.

“We are political, in that we don’t take a ‘neutral’ stance on issues like Palestine, abolition, capitalism, etc.” co-founders Brekhna and Farhaana tell me. “We ask our writers, ‘What would you want to write if you could write anything you wanted?’” This boundary-less, free approach to writing means that Hajar Press has a line-up of some of the timeliest, fluid writing that the UK has to offer being published by them this year.

Jamal Mehmood provides the House’s latest offering with The Leaf of the Neem Tree, with gentle reflections on loss. It follows Fovea/Ages Ago by Sarah Lasoye, a careful, tender rumination on childhood, growth and time. Both books set the precedent for the talented writers releasing projects on Hajar later this year. Lola Olufemi, Heba Hayek, Yara Hawari, and Cradle Community are all releasing writing with the press, each their own fascinating explorations of worlds yet to exist, how to build those worlds, and the conflicts of our current state of living.

Most importantly, the press is tied incredibly close to the anti-racist struggle.

“Anti-racism is embedded in the fabric of everything Hajar publishes. The mainstream publishing industry perpetuates at best a constrained and at worst a racist imaginary. We’ve seen how successful publishers talk about diversity only when it serves the bottom line, or how free speech and publishing a ‘plurality’ of voices is invoked to publish racists or bigots instead of building trust with marginalised communities (which would mean actually doing the work to publish a plurality of voices!).”

“Hajar instead makes very clear that we are not cynically using the cloak of impartiality to publish sellable but harmful works. Instead, we want to actively engage with our communities to archive our stories and create beautiful experiments in the process.”

We caught up with the Hajar Press’s co-founders to hear about the exciting work they have in the pipeline, their aim to reject mainstream understandings of diversity, and creating a pocket for themselves within a predominantly white independent publishing scene.

What are you planning to publish this year?

Fovea / Ages Ago by Sarah Lasoye

Sarah’s collection takes primary school as its landscape, showing how those formative first experiences, with their patterns and emotional contours, are often very impactful and can stay with us in later life. We love the energy in her poetry – it’s full of sharp movement and acute insight – as well as how the work is full of reverence, for childhood, for friends, for the world around us, for artistic predecessors.

The Leaf of the Neem Tree by Jamal Mehmood

Bittersweetness makes up the very fabric of this collection – tales of migration and heritage weave into a tapestry that is soulful and quietly spiritual. There is a slow unravelling of grief and vulnerability in a work that otherwise feels quiet and still, a sort of grief that becomes magnified through time and across different continents. Yet, meditations on the mundane aspects of life give the reader gentle reassurance, and the sea is an ever-present source of catharsis.

Sambac Beneath Unlikely Skies by Heba Hayek

This is a beautiful collection of flash fiction stories, or short vignettes, reflecting on the narrator’s childhood in Gaza, Palestine, and on the echoes of these memories in adulthood, lived painfully far away from home. Heba’s writing is sensory, full, honest and brilliantly deft – traces of the past subtly mirror or layer over the present, and behind the longing and chaotic devastation is an overarching, comforting sense that everything fits together.

The Stone House by Yara Hawari

Yara has a distinctive style of writing that is quite striking: thoroughly measured, almost laconic, darkly humorous and deeply chilling. This novel not only tells the story of a family surviving trauma, but it also provides a careful and rigorous history of Palestine. The perspectives of three characters – a grandmother, a mother and a son – piece together the dystopian horror of settler-colonialism and the risks people will take to reclaim their homes.

Brick by Brick: How We Build a World Without Prisons by Cradle Community

This is an accessible introduction to prison abolition, written for anyone impacted by state violence and capitalism – not just seasoned activists. It’s hugely collaborative, drawing on the collective knowledge and experiences of many people organising across different movements for justice, like housing, climate change, feminism and migration. Cradle honours and shares examples of abolitionist work being done in the UK context, as well as in the Global South, demonstrating very powerfully how all of our struggles for liberation are interconnected.

Experiments in Imagining Otherwise by Lola Olufemi

For Lola, every turn against this world towards another is also a turning back to face the histories that precede us. People call books groundbreaking all the time, but when we read Lola’s proposal, we sensed the radical potentiality in every line. Lola builds upon the collective work of black feminists and community organising to present radical literature as a living body of work. Formally ambitious and politically arousing, this is a book that invites us to experiment with the possibility of imagining otherwise.

How did you go about recruiting the selection of writers you are currently publishing?

We’re both so proud to be publishing each one of our six 2021 authors. We feel that they all embody the values of Hajar, and their writing harnesses the spirit of freedom we’re trying to encourage. Early last year, we started reaching out to writers whose work we were interested in, introducing our project and values, and asking what they would write if they could write anything – the only guide being a general min and max word count. Some were writers whose work we’d heard at live poetry readings; some we knew from activist networks; some were known for nonfiction writing and journalism but wanted to foray into fiction. It was so exciting to start developing ideas with people, albeit kind of weird having all these crucial conversations during lockdown – there were a lot of Zooms!

This has been a tough year, but working with our writers has been truly inspirational. All of our writers have such a vivid political understanding of the world, but they take that understanding and experience and show that things don’t have to be this way. We feel so lucky to be working with writers who are carving out a new world with their words. We’ve had wonderful conversations with them, and sharing stories with each other has been cathartic. We hope we can create spaces where others can have those conversations too, because they have been healing. That’s what we want Hajar to be about: carving out new worlds and creating healing spaces for people of colour.

Do you feel there is an urgency to platform newer writers of colour, if so, why?

Absolutely. Most of our writers are publishing their first books with us. We want to give a platform to new (which doesn’t need to mean young) writers, but also to writers who may have published before but want to experiment with different forms of writing. We aim to build long relationships with writers at all stages in their careers, to help them to develop their work over their lives and give them space to keep trying new things.

Most publishers aren’t keen to ‘take risks’, particularly in times like these when it’s mainly backlists and bigger names driving sales. A shift to buying books through online retailers also means that readers are less ‘spontaneous’ in selecting works, browsing to find what they are looking for specifically, or choosing books based on algorithms. For this reason, it’s important that publishers give a lot of attention to newer writers, help them develop their craft and put energy into marketing and publicising their books in creative ways. 

It’s also important that we don’t do the classic publishing thing of putting newer writers in restrictive boxes, asking them to write books about oppressive parents, or salacious memoirs just because they’re POC. Newer writers should be given the space to write about what they want!

Where do you see the press in the coming years?

Our dream for Hajar is to connect with readers and writers, to open up a sense of possibility – politically and creatively – for people of colour. In the future, we would love to grow our community of subscribers and start exciting reading groups and conversations around our books. We’re also looking forward to collaborations with other comrades and groups, like our friends at Maslaha and Shubbak. And we can’t wait to publish more beautiful, revolutionary writing. We’ve recently launched a short story competition as part of MFest, open to unpublished Muslim writers of colour. In an industry known for its hierarchies and exclusivity, initiatives like this give marginalised writers the opportunity and platform to develop their work.

We’re also both very committed to making Hajar sustainable, to building something that will last. To do that we know we have to be attentive to our capacity and resources, so that we don’t overstretch ourselves and can continue giving each of our authors the attention and care they deserve. This year we’ve been working for Hajar for free, but thanks to the overwhelming support we received from our communities through last year’s crowdfunder, we do have enough money to be able to publish our first list of books. We’re not sure yet how we’re going to raise the funds for our 2022 list, so unfortunately a lot of what we do will depend on funding. 

As long as we can continue publishing works that archive our stories and experiment with possibilities of radically changing the world, while looking after each other, we’ll consider Hajar to be a success.

Fovea/Ages Ago by Sarah Lasoye and he Leaf of the Neem Tree by Jamal Mehmood are both published by Hajar Press