Take the Leap: An Interview With Transit Books
It’s always exciting when a small, independent press seems to emerge fully-realized. This, of course, is never the case; what may seem effortless is a ton of hard work, vision, critical thinking and organization. Transit Books is a perfect example of this. They seemed to suddenly grab our attention at Brazos late last year. We received a copy of Andrés Barba’s slim, haunting novel Such Small Hands and after I read it I implored the rest of the staff to do the same. It is our Brazos Best for April.
Transit Books was founded by Adam and Ashley Levy in 2015. They are a nonprofit publisher of international and American literature. Based out of Oakland, they were gracious enough to answer some of our questions about translation, publishing and a few of the titles they’re most excited about.
BB: So tell me a little bit about Transit Books and how you began.
ANL: Adam and I met eight years ago in grad school in New York. We later moved to Budapest on a translation fellowship Adam received, and when we returned to New York, we got jobs in publishing and figured this was likely the rest of our lives. Although a kind of barricade has always seemed to exist between the worlds of domestic and international literature, we really noticed this divide when we got back. We noticed it among our circles of friends, the publishing circuit, readings and events. Adam and I began talking more and more about what our own curated list would look like, a list that centered on that kind of border-crossing—of language, place, and form—and the idea for Transit was born. After we got married, we decided to take the leap and quit our jobs and move to Northern California, where I grew up. This was more terrifying at the time than I can adequately describe, but I think we both knew that we'd reached a point where if we didn't do it then, we'd never do it. We knew we wanted to start the press outside of New York and thankfully when we arrived in the Bay Area we met a stellar community of booksellers, translators, and publishing folks. Then we began building our little ship.
BB: Working in an independent bookstore I've seen a noticeable increase in the interest in international literature in the past three of four years. It's very encouraging. Does it feel like you are launching at an auspicious time for translated literature?
AZL: A dark cloud hung over the publishing industry after the recession, when the rise of ebooks seemed unstoppable and independent bookstores were closing and places like Borders and Barnes and Noble were ceding more and more territory to Amazon. But independent bookstores have been on rise, the ebook market has leveled off, and Amazon, well . . . that’s allowed for more independent presses to join the fray, presses like ours that are taking risks on authors who go unnoticed by the major houses and whose work pushes the boundaries of what’s possible in literature—and there are more and more booksellers who have been vocal about getting these books in the hands of readers. At a time when our political discourse centers around putting up walls, it’s encouraging that readers are increasingly eager to break them down.
ANL: I agree that there's an exciting momentum behind international literature right now, and we're honored to be doing this kind of work alongside veterans like Open Letter, Two Lines, Dorothy, and others.
BB: Are there certain specific things you're looking for when you look for publishing a book - language of origin, plot, aesthetics?
ANL: We don't look for a language of origin, specifically, but we're always excited to encounter a project from a country whose literature we’re less familiar with. In general, though, I would say that we gravitate toward stories that are full of feeling, full of heart, regardless of where the plot takes us or how the book is constructed.
AZL: We’re always looking for something we haven’t heard before—a voice, a style, a take on the world. But beyond that we want our books to complement and speak to one another in some way. I think that conversation is really important, and making sure there’s space for readers to join that conversation is central to that goal as well.
BB: What are some forthcoming titles that you're excited about?
ANL: I am ridiculously excited for our lead title for the fall, Swallowing Mercury, by the Polish poet Wioletta Greg. It's her debut novel about growing up in rural Poland in the 1980s, and was just longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.
AZL: In May, we’re publishing Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. It’s a big, sprawling multigenerational saga that reimagines Uganda’s precolonial past and present, following the cursed bloodline of the Kintu clan from 1750 to the present day. It speaks back to Things Fall Apart with a boldly feminist spin. I can’t wait till it’s out.
BB: Are there other presses that have been an influence on you and how you want to do things/ what you publish?
ANL: We admire Graywolf tremendously. Our other heroes include Coffee House, New Directions, Archipelago, Dorothy, Open Letter. The list goes on.