Interview: Comma Press

IN CONVERSATION WITH… Comma Press – the featured publisher whose publishing planet we visited in issue one. Zoe Turner, Publicity and Outreach officer at Comma Press, kindly agreed to talk to us about what goes on at Comma. This hard-working, powerful press with a small team of five are quite impressive. They know their stuff. They care deeply about their work. Hereโ€™s Zoe answering all of our questionsโ€ฆ

Why collections? Why short stories and translated fiction?

Our founding publisher, Ra Page, argues that the short story form lends itself especially well to translated fiction: it is compact and transportable, can traverse borders and be pulled out on busy commutes or in the few minutes a reader might have to themselves. Short stories take away what might be daunting about entering a new worldview, a new set of experiences or a new language. We also believe that short stories, because they “never have a hero” (to quote Frank O’Connor) give voices to characters often on the margins. In this sense, publishing short stories is an attempt to democratise literature, to make sure voices and characters aren’t excluded from the narratives we tell ourselves. Comma believes British publishing is missing out on something in its neglect of the short story, and to make up for it we are currently the most prolific hardcopy publisher of short stories in the country.

How do you go about selecting stories for an author collection like M. John Harrisonโ€™s Settling the World?

For a retrospective collection such as Settling the World, by an author with such a large backlist of short stories, we worked closely with M. John to decide which ones should be included to tell the larger story of his life’s work in the short form and how we could best represent his body of work from over the years. This also involved manually scanning a lot of old texts that were no longer saved anywhere digitally. 

What are some of your favourite titles that have been published during your time with Comma Press and why?

I loved working on Thirteen Months of Sunrise, a debut collection of short stories by Sudanese author Rania Mamoun, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette. Rania’s stories border on poetry at times, and the collection allows us to see Sudan through her eyes as a mother, a lover, a daughter and a writer… it’s such intimate work. Another one of my favourites was Palestine +100: it was so exciting working on this anthology, as it’s the first collection of Science-Fiction from Palestine to be published and asks writers from Palestine to reimagine their country 100 years after the Nakba catastrophe. It’s a ground-breaking concept, one that taught me a lot about the history and experience of Palestinians, and it was an honour to work on getting these stories out to new audiences. 

Between Refugee Tales and your City in Fiction series, your collections are incredibly powerful and often global. What’s it like working on stories and with authors on an international scale?

It’s incredible and hugely rewarding to know that you’re bringing stories across countries and languages, and sometimes from locations such as detention centres and refugee camps, often challenging perceptions that are generated by the media in the West. It can be a challenge, however, when we want to showcase these works at events or to generate publicity. Language can be a barrier in these situations, as translators and interpreters are still not perceived as key in these practices and I think English speaking authors are still prioritised at UK events and in radio and newspaper interviews. We’ve also had issues flying authors over for events, such as Palestinian author Nayrouz Qarmout, who faced visa rejections trying to get to Edinburgh Literature Festival from Gaza. 

Comma seems to have adapted masterfully to 2020. What’s on the horizon for 2021?

Thank you! We announced the first half of our 2021 list last week, before we finished for Christmas on the 21st, which includes several new Reading the City collections and some new extensions of our History-into-Fiction series that will look at the effects of American foreign policy and the concept of the Superhero in the context of folk heroes of British protest history. We’re also very pleased with how the online adaptation of our events, courses and conferences have gone, and so we’ll be planning for more of these as the need for them may continue. 

Our thanks go to Zoe Turner for speaking to us. Comma are doing great things and we have no doubt they will continue to deliver in 2021 and beyond. We’re eager to see all the action.