Grant’s Desi Achiever



Publishers are often regarded as angels on earth by the authors they give breaks to. But when one does so consistently, providing a platform for fresh, new talent, then that publisher creates a special niche for herself.

But to start at the beginning, where all good stories start... Once upon a time, a young couple came to Canada. Both were students in the us and on moving here, faced the same situation that many newcomers face today. A physicist, he soon found employment at the University of Toronto. In spite of a degree from a us college, she worked at temporary jobs before also landing a position as a lab technician at the UofT.

“The Toronto of 1980 was very different from what we have today,” she says. “It was cold, and I don’t mean just the weather but in terms of acceptance.”

There were very few restaurants offering desi cuisine.

“Gerrard Street was it! The few restaurants were there and the one theatre that screened Indian movies. Not like now when there has been a phenomenal explosion of South Asian culture – food, clothing, theatre... The face of the city has changed. Go to any hospital and you are likely to be seen by a doctor of Indian background. Now newcomers find a comfort level that didn’t exist back then.”

Also missing were books by South Asian authors. Those looking for books by VS Naipaul or RK Narayan had to order them through book stores.

“There was nothing here that related to our experience. There was a dearth of reading material that we were interested in.”

Her husband wrote a short story, but struggled to find someone who would publish it. The material was too ‘foreign’. No magazine was interested in carrying the piece. Frustrated, he said they would start their own publishing company.

The man who struggled to find a publisher gained renown as the celebrated author MG Vassanji. Today, he has to just announce a new book in the works for a bidding war to break out among mainstream publishers. The magazine they launched was The Toronto South Asian Review (TSAR), now known as Mawenzi House and she is Nurjehan Aziz, who has published over 200 titles and worked with over 80 authors – more, if one includes anthologies. She  has also edited The Relevance of Islamic Identity in Canada and Her Mother’s Ashes among other books.

“Yes, things are different now,” says Aziz, with a chuckle.

Mawenzi House is known for focusing on multicultural literature and poetry, particularly Canadian authors and subject matter, people writing about African, Caribbean, Asian, women and lgbtq issues. “These issues are big, and we take them seriously. Take women’s issues – we publish them not because they are women writers but because their work fits in with those categories of feminist studies.”

Authors that appeared in the Toronto Review include Austin Clarke, Michael Ondaatje, David Dabydeen and Dionne Brand.

Several of the authors they have given breaks to have gone on to make a name for themselves. Notable among them, Yvonne Vera and Shyam Selvadurai. Vera was studying at York University in the 90s when her professor Frank Birbalsingh suggested she send her collection of short stories to TSAR. Set in Zimbabwe, it was about the struggle for independence. Aziz immediately realized its worth and Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals was published to critical acclaim. Following its success, Vera returned to Zimbabwe to write full-time. She was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and subsequently, went on to win the prestigious prize.

“Yvonne is now published in the us and Europe,” says Aziz, her pleasure in Vera’s success evident. “We got three of her titles.”

Similarly, a short story by Shyam Selvadurai that they published caught the attention of another writer who found him an agent and now, of course, Selvaduari is published by giants in the mainstream publishing industry.  “His is a huge success story – and we were the first to publish him!”

Mawenzi House offers everything from editing and marketing to all the stages in between that bring a book to life.

There are so-called publishing houses that publish what they receive, with the writer being responsible for editing and proofing, etc.

Not so at Mawenzi House.

“Our editing process is intensive,” says Aziz. “We go through two to three drafts. There are two kinds of editing. Substantive, in which we remove repetitions or something that doesn’t belong, in which we may ask a writer to add or remove something. And then there’s copy editing in which we look at grammar and fix punctuation. The two together can really improve works. Authors have thanked us when the finished product was presented to them.”

The process starts when an author approaches Aziz who always says yes to seeing manuscripts. They review what they receive. If it’s something that interests them, grabs their attention – be it the subject matter or the style or where it comes from – they make an offer to publish. A contract is signed and then begins the rigorous editing process with the author. The designing of the book’s cover, the marketing, the publicity, promotions, all are undertaken with the author’s inputs. The whole process can take three to four months. While all this is going on, they are producing book catalogues and announcing books simultaneously. Organizing book launch events, readings and sending out review copies are part of the final push.

Not eligible for any government funding at the time, they had put together their own money – with help from friends and editorial board members – to start their publishing business, says Aziz. After a year of publishing, they applied for grants and today acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund, Canada Council for the Arts, and Ontario Arts Council  for their publishing activities.

“We had put out a call for writers, assuming there must be a few authors of Indian origin who were not finding venues to publish. That grew to three issues a year and ran for 20 years. Now, at Mawenzi, because of our vision and because of what we have published, exciting manuscripts are coming our way and it is tremendously gratifying.”

When they started out, it was just the two of them, and this while both were holding down full-time jobs. While her husband quit after his first book was published to devote his time to writing, she continued for a further 10 years.

“While also raising our sons, I might add!” she says with a laugh.

If it was challenging at the start as a fledgeling publisher, it continues to be no less so as an independent publisher that hasn’t been swallowed by giants and functions in a rapidly changing media landscape.

“We had no idea what we were getting into! It’s like we were going down a rabbit hole. It’s been very difficult financially. Others have dedicated teams for editing, publishing, marketing – here it’s just us, our staff of two and our interns.”

But they keep at it because of their love and passion for it.

 “When a book is done, when you feel you’ve done a good job, and when it gets the attention and the reviews it deserves, when authors we publish get invited to festivals, that is so very rewarding.”

Aziz and Vassanji are also immersed in the larger cultural scene, enjoying movies, plays, music and opera. Also going for long walks and, of course, reading. “I read so much for work, that there’s not much time for other reading, but I recently read a fabulous book. It’s called Water Beetles and is by the Manitoban writer Michael Kaan. It’s set in China and is really good.”

Their son Anil is a lawyer in New York and the younger, Kabir, is in finance.

Aziz tells aspiring authors to persevere with their passion. She nurtures younger writers, sometimes sensing a potential they are not exploiting to the full. “You have a talent here,” she might say to one. Or, “When are you going to write the next story/poem/book?” to another. And they thank her for the push.

“People start and then get distracted or they get disheartened and give up. I know it’s hard to make a living as a writer, but if they have the talent, my advice to them is to stay with it in spite of hardships they may face. Because ultimately, staying power leads to recognition, leads to success.”

Mawenzi House is now also publishing translations from  French and works by Francophone and aboriginal writers, taking their story in a new direction.

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