#DesiLitBiz: Rohini Malur on the Write in Power anthology from The Hidden Pen Collective

About The Hidden Pen Collective

The Hidden Pen Collective was started by Payal Ghosh and Anushree Kulkarni in May 2020 to support, encourage, and persuade (where required) people from marginalized genders to write the works they want to write. 

“Many of us wish to write, but find no motivation, some are even unaware about wanting to write, some write regularly but need more ideas and platforms and pushes to get better and better, some might still be in their nascent unsure journeys. This group is hopeful of acting as a catalyst to all the beautiful, strong, impactful writing sojourns.”

The original vision was to promote and support writing by those who have been denied opportunities because of their gender and whose voices were stifled or muffled. This has expanded to include other exclusions (ha!) of caste, religion, class. The group is/was/will be inclusive and intersectional. Gender is our primary lens still, so we currently don’t involve cis men in our activities.

The Hidden Pen Collective was started in May 2020 to support, encourage, and persuade (where required) people from marginalized genders to write the works they want to write. #DesiLitBiz .@DesiBooks

About Rohini Malur

Rohini Malur is a queer cis woman from Bangalore, India. She is a founding member of the All Sorts of Queer Group (for queer and trans persons who do not identify as cis men.) She is a poet, writer, tarot card reader, and an irrational atheist to boot. She has lived with clinical depression for more than half her life and has a lot to say about it, as well as about other things. In a utopian parallel universe where caste, patriarchy, capitalism, and the military industrial complex do not exist, she is a starship captain. In this universe, she is still waiting for her cat to find her and sort out her life. Rohini could have written a more serious bio, but this is the one that is true.

About Write in Power: An Anthology of the Personal and the Political

In this compelling anthology of fictional and non-fictional prose, poems, and art, we present the writings of twenty-four writers and artists from an inclusive spectrum of human experience. These perspectives speak to the intersections of the personal and the political creating a space for discussion and change. We find our power in our traditions or by breaking those traditions. We look outwards for love and acceptance, or to our own selves because we are all we have. Our stories—rebellious, accommodating, loving, suffering, defeated and in victory—declare our essential power. [All proceeds from the sales of Write in Power go directly to the Haadibadi Community Library.]

Editorial Team: Vijayalakshmi Harish, Anushree K S, Rohini Malur, Vijayashanthi Murthy and Meenal Shrivastava

Write in Power is an inclusive, intersectional anthology of fictional and non-fictional prose, poems, and art by 24 creatives from, primarily, communities of marginalized genders. #DesiLitBiz .@DesiBooks

Desi Books: Tell us, first, a bit about this group, The Hidden Pen Collective. How did it come about? What are the main goals? Are there any membership criteria?

Rohini Malur: The Hidden Pen Collective was originally talked about in the reading group, Books in the Time of Chaos. The members were talking about needing encouragement and support to write, and Anushree Kulkarni and Payal Ghosh are not the sort to think of a good idea and then do nothing.

Originally, the aim was to promote voices that have been suppressed and marginalized, and to also be inclusive. The group was originally called “Womxn of Political Writing” to reflect the gender lens through which we wanted to offer that support. 

The word “womxn” was accidentally unwelcoming and the original call for submissions was not clear as to who, outside of cis women, were invited to submit. Anushree reached out to me and invited me to be join the editorial team to help them state their wishes clearly and inclusively, which is how I joined the project. 

Together, we explored the context of the word “Womxn”, who used it, and how it is not, in fact, a trans-inclusive term. As they (we now) wanted to be a space that encouraged not only cis women but transgender and non-binary people, the name was changed to *The Hidden Pen Collective*. Our priority is still to support marginalized genders along their intersections with communities oppressed on other lines—cis women, trans women, trans men, non-binary folks, other genders that don’t fall within the traditional oppressive gender binaries. And within this (hopefully broad, evolving) paradigm, anyone is welcome to join the group. 

Desi Books: How did the idea for this anthology take root? Who would you say is the target or the ideal readership?

Rohini Malur: Vijayalakshmi (VJ) says it was a coincidence that she thought of this on August 15th 2020. The original idea was hers, supported quickly by Meenal and Anushree. The book we have created together today is true to that original idea: to create an anthology whose proceeds would go to someone who needed it—education? Underprivileged girls? Something we could support wholeheartedly. Vijayashanthi recommended the Haadibadi Community Library, and we wholeheartedly agreed that they were a cause we were happy to support. 

We have tried to ensure that the pieces included in the book (which are eclectic and across genres) appeal to a wide readership. We believe that the book will appeal most to those who see reading as a way to expand their worldview and those who actively seek out literature by #ownvoices writers. The book also has significance for readers in academia, specifically the humanities.

Desi Books: What was the overall process of prose soliciting the and poetry pieces in the anthology? Did you reach out to writers or have a general submission call? What were your key consideration criteria for submissions? Were there any production-related guidelines (number of pages or pieces)?

Rohini Malur: We first sent out calls within the writing group and then broadened the call on Facebook, hoping for the usual unreliable but miraculous magic to reach people we wouldn’t otherwise speak with. We did reach out to a few friends who might not have seen the call or who we thought would be interested. We didn’t really reach out individually to specific writers. This was an intimate project and we reached out intimately. 

We also called for pieces which had been published online already: blog posts, Facebook entries, social media screeds. We wanted as broad a definition of “literature” as possible, with little to no gatekeeping for form, format, and genre. So much of the publishing industry *does* establish these narrow definitions of what is “good” or “worthy” literature, and we felt that we would lose out on strong works if we did the same. 

We set some guidelines for prose, poetry, and art. But, in retrospect, I don’t think we kept them in mind when reading the entries. Not strictly, anyway. 2,000 words max for articles/stories, two pages or fifty lines for poems, art work to fit a page. And we did set out the usual font, grammar, style guidelines. Even citations, since we were very clear we wanted no plagiarism or copyright issues down the line.

We received over forty entries, and we loved so many of them. I’d say we accepted nearly every submission? We each read every entry, and did a sort of round robin of the pieces we each wanted, thought could be reworked to be even better, that brought something different to the collection. 

We did reject one or two pieces. Something that we realized as we read the entries was that we wanted to prioritize #OwnVoices over an external gaze onto a marginalized community. We want to speak for ourselves and had to ensure that everyone else can too. 

Desi Books: There’s an entire editorial team behind the anthology. Talk a bit, please, about how this team came together, some of the skills they’ve brought to the table, and the process involved in jointly editing and producing a book (maybe 1-2 specific challenges and 1-2 specific successes.) 

Rohini Malur: I’ve been switching between they and we as I came on board maybe a month, a month and a half, after VJ’s original post. I had seen the call for submissions and shared it, and a friend and I had a discussion about who exactly was invited. We weren’t clear if this was for cis women, trans women, non-binary people. Anushree and I are Facebook friends and she reached out to me. She asked me how she and the other editors could make the language clearer and also invited me to be on the editorial team. Vijayashanthi Murthy was invited too, to bring a rigorous anti-caste lens to the work. 

In the initial discussions, we just explored both whom we were inviting and what we were aiming for. Vijayashanthi and I were entering into the team space, but they were welcoming and, more importantly, receptive. The way Anushree, VJ, and Meenal listened to us, thought about what we said, and changed what they needed to change was an exercise in graceful learning that I see very rarely and want to be able to perform myself. 

We workshopped the call for submissions and sent it out again. As we worked together, we each brought a different lens, a different skill, to the table. Anushree brought her joy of reading, her commitment to what we wanted to build, keeping our vision in mind. Meenal has a deep clarity and the language to frame the words for what we wanted to say. VJ has that artistic eye and a calm reading stance which can spot potential. Vijayashanthi is a deep thinker who brings out points that the rest of us missed, even if she’s been quiet while we all talk. And I fancy myself as the person who sees the worth of slightly eccentric works and is, surprisingly, tactful.

There is an entire editorial team behind the Write in Power anthology: Vijayalakshmi Harish, Anushree K S, Rohini Malur, Vijayashanthi Murthy & Meenal Shrivastava. #DesiLitBiz .@DesiBooks

Desi Books: Did the anthology also involve fundraising? Did writers get compensated?

Rohini Malur: No fundraising, per se. And it has to be mentioned that no one got paid for their work on this book. The editors volunteered or accepted an invitation. The authors and artists sent in their work knowing that there would be no payment. This was a donation of their labor, their time, and their art for a cause that we believed in. It’s an act of incredible generosity, and trust in the editors as well as in Haadibadi. 

Desi Books: The book’s proceeds are all being donated as well. How/why was that decided? And how or why did you choose the library?

Rohini Malur: Well, we knew going in that this was a project specifically to fundraise for a cause. We weren’t sure what that cause would be, and we went round and round for a bit until Vijayashanthi suggested Haadibadi

“Haadibadi believes that all people should have access to learning and find a stage for expression. We are a community-led initiative and we are committed to the work of building the movement for a publicly owned, free library system that is accessible to all and creating space for learning and expression through theatre.”

Haadibadi is the perfect choice. It serves a vital need for underprivileged children, in line with our own interests and passions. Libraries are an essential, safe space for children. We should have more of them, and Haadibadi is doing lovely work in this area. So we spoke with the Haadibadi team, asked them if they were willing to be associated with their book. And they agreed. The proceeds go directly to the Haadibadi account.

Full proceeds from the Write in Power anthology are going to the Haadibadi Community Library in Bengaluru, which serves underprivileged children. #DesiLitBiz .@DesiBooks

Desi Books: The anthology is out now. How has the reception been so far? Did you have to approach the book’s launch and promotion differently because of the self-publishing platform and the wide-ranging nature of the anthology?

Rohini Malur: I have written and rewritten this answer so many times now.

Our major challenge was that we are just individuals working together on a passion project with no backing. PR is a world of promotion and sharing and exposure that is easier when you have the backing of the big guns: publishers, agents, booksellers. We are also fighting a real stigma that exists against “self-published” work, which works against us when we are trying to get others to promote us. 

We made a choice not to sell on Amazon, and instead worked through Pothi, an established site for self-publishing and Print on Demand in India. We felt this was the most ethical production and consumption dynamic we could offer. But it means we don’t pop up casually on someone’s Amazon browsing. 

So the answer is yes, we do have to approach launch and promotion differently. Promotion is a cash-heavy exercise, an ego-heavy exercise. You gotta hustle-hustle-hustle. Share. Ask your friends to reshare. Bug people who said they’d share but haven’t yet. Reach out to influencers. Reach out to book stores or critics. Reach out to platforms, reach out to strangers. We have to have the ego and energy our book deserves. 

Things moved a little slowly at first. But people have bought copies, and we can rest easy that Haadibadi will receive something tangible from this labor of love. We had a launch celebration on Sunday, September 26th with the authors Rheea Mukherjee and Kirthi Jayakumar to spread the word a little bit more. Some of the authors were able to join us and we had a beautiful session that I think did attract more people to buy the book.

Desi Books: As you look back on the overall journey of the anthology so far, what are a couple of pleasant surprises and, maybe, a couple of lessons learned?

Rohini Malur: For me, the pleasantest surprise was how much I enjoyed working on this book, with this group. I think I entered the project not being 100% certain but suddenly realizing that I cared very deeply for this book and for it to be out in the world. I knew putting an anthology together would be hard, but I hadn’t realized it could be fulfilling. I look at this book and I see something I helped create. Some of the works in there would not exist as they are without my help. That’s amazing. That’s humbling. That’s a little addictive. I want to do it again!

Another personal surprise for me—both a good one and a bad one—was how much support we would need outside the editorial team to do this. Without the help we had for receiving ISBNs, without Meenal’s partner helping us create the final files, without people who stepped in for our passion project, we simply would not be able to sell this book right now. 

As for lessons learned, I think all of us would agree that bureaucracy is a many-unsplendored thing. The process of applying for and receiving ISBNs (for eBook, color paperback, black and white paperback) was so long and it took more patience than we had left. That last mile of putting things together was exhausting. If I ever do this again, I’m counting my chickens ahead of time and applying for ISBNs two years early. 

The team behind the Write in Power anthology made an ethical choice to not sell on Amazon despite the extra effort, support, and hustle needed to find their readers. Please click through to get copies & leave reviews. #DesiLitBiz .@DesiBooks

Desi Books: How can readers get their hands on the anthology? Ordering links? Where can they leave reviews?

Rohini Malur: As I mentioned, we decided to self-publish through Pothi, which doesn’t have all the convenience of Amazon but doesn’t make us complicit in sad industry practices either. 

You can get a PDF copy, a color print paperback, or a black and white paperback here.

And reviews, yes please! You can find us on GoodReads; Readerly, and Storygraph.

Desi Books: Thank you for your time. Closing with the usual question: what’s your favorite desi book and why?

Anushree Kulkarni: I always start stammering and fumbling when someone asks about favorite books. It is like sharing a very intimate part of me not many know about. I don’t have any one particular book to talk of but we have a space-time-words limit, so I will quickly talk about the two or three at the top of the mind. I read Foxy Aesop by Suniti Namjoshi about three years ago and have not stopped thinking of even now. Suniti has explored the meaning of storytelling, of morals, of biases of the readers, and the direct impact of it on societies. She goes back in time and questions Aesop during his story-creating process. That’s imaginative and . . . fascinating. Another book that gave me immense and newer perspective was Philosophical Trends in Feminist Movement by Anuradha Ghandy. The research and knowledge that has gone into creating that book is totally worth holding up as an example. The Gypsy Goddess by Meena Kandasamy and No Nation for Women by Priyanka Dubey are two other books I’d like to make a quick mention of. See, I cannot stop. I have a problem. And I don’t even want a cure. 

Meenal Srivastava: I read too many academic books on history and contemporary political economy. About India, I really value the body of work of Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib for their profound scholarship. In terms of non-academic books from Indian authors, my current favourite is Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto for its authentic but compassionate portrayal of flawed but lovable people and relationships.

Rohini Malur: Only one book is cruel and unjust! After much dithering I pick Same-Sex Love in India: A Literary History, edited by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai. Originally published in 2001, Same-Sex Love in India is historical proof of queer existence in India for centuries, and also a vast, eclectic collection of really good writing by, for and about queer passion, desire and love. Saleem Kidwai passed away recently, a huge loss to the Indian queer community, and I’ve been re-reading the book, really moved by the labor of it, the beauty of it. 

VJ Harish: The Devourers, by Indra Das, which is a dark, immersive, and very engaging novel about a woman who crosses paths with a group of European werewolves in Mughal India. The book’s exploration of the liminal and its use of shapeshifting as a metaphor to speak about the restrictiveness of binary identities of gender, sexuality, etc. really spoke to me. It is also personally significant to me because it brought me home to the richness of speculative fiction in India and to the larger community of “my people” that I was searching for up to that point. So, as a reader, and as a writer, The Devourers has a special place in my heart. 

Vijayashanthi Murthy: As a student and teacher of literature, Indian writing has been my comfort space. Dalit and Bahujan writers speak the language I relate to. There are too many writers who give me the strength to resist and breathe. I’ll share few works here: Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste is a phenomenal work which opened my world to well-researched writing. A speech which wasn’t accepted by dominant groups becomes the first go-to text for any anti-caste person. How can I not mention Dalit women writers who teach me to respect my story: Sujatha Gidla and Bama are part my everyday. Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants traces the history of her family. Her book made me have conversations about my roots with my family. Bama’s Sangati reminds me of my grandmother. My grandmother is a phenomenal woman from a small village from Tamil Nadu. Bama’s words have made me write about my grandmother in my blog. Recently, her work was removed from one of the premier institutes, I wish they could see the power writers like these possess.

Click through to read the terrific desi book recommendations from the editorial team (Vijayalakshmi Harish, Anushree K S, Rohini Malur, Vijayashanthi Murthy & Meenal Shrivastava) of the Write in Power anthology. #DesiLitBiz .@DesiBooks

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