An Interview with Sunyoung Lee, Publisher of Kaya Press
Early this year, at almost eighteen years old, Kaya Press flew the nest. Leaving behind the comfort and familiarity of New York's publishing world, the non-profit indie specializing in "books from the Asian diaspora," moved offices across the country to Los Angeles. Now comfortably ensconced in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity on the University of Southern California campus, Kaya has a new address, new community, new books, new staff, and is definitely basking in new energy.
With all the latest changes, the one Kaya constant is Sunyoung Lee... although she does have the fairly new title of "Publisher and Editor." Founded in 1994 by Soo Kyung Kim, a postmodern Korean writer, Kaya was originally intended to house a journal of Korean literature-in-translation, which eventually morphed into Muae, a spirited anthology highlighting the newest in Asian Pacific American writing that Library Journal named one of "The Best Magazines of 1995." Muae fell victim to the Korean economic collapse of 1997, but under the bolstering management of Juliana Koo and Lee, who took over that year as managing editor and editor, respectively, Kaya managed to survive -- and thrive -- living up to its namesake: "Kaya was the name of a tribal confederation of six Korean city-states that existed from the middle of the first until the sixth century CE," their website officially explains. "Although the Kaya kingdom was an iron-age culture, it is remembered as a utopia of learning, music, and the arts due to its trade and communication with China, Japan, and India."
Kaya Press channels that international history, feeding its artistic vision by regularly pushing the boundaries of the Asian Pacific Islander (API) diaspora through the titles the tenacious press has published thus far. A small sampling might include an enhanced reprint of the groundbreaking 1937 classic East Goes West by the first Korean American novelist Younghill Kang; American Book Award-winning The Unbearable Heart by Japanese German American poet Kimiko Hahn; Chinese Australian Brian Castro's already-major-award-winning-in-Australia novel, Shanghai Dancing; the lauded Commonwealth Prize-winning Where We Once Belonged by Sia Figiel, which was the first novel by a Samoan woman to be published in the United States; and Migritude by Kenyan-born, South Asian-descended, citizen-of-the-world performance artist Shailja Patel.
The word "kaya" echoes the diversity of its authors: in addition to its ancient Korean representation, in Japanese, Kaya is also "summer night" or a type of yew tree that withstands harsh environmental conditions; in Malay, kaya means "rich"; in Indonesian, "prosperous"; in Tagalog, "to be able"; in Sanskrit, "body"; in Turkish "rock"; in Zulu, "home."
For Lee, home is where the press is. In order to sustain it, she's worked endless day jobs and freelance gigs -- from Billboard magazine to Publishers Weekly -- in addition to teaching the requisite composition classes, to pay the bills so she could nurture Kaya well into its teenage years. Now that she's settled into rooms of her own at USC, Lee's ushering out the next set of Kaya titles: Lament in the Night, which includes two 1920s Japanese American novellas by Shōson Nagahara, translated by Andrew Leong; The Hanging on Union Square, an experimental novel originally published in 1935 by H. T. Tsiang; Water Chasing Water by Seattle-based poet Koon Woon; and Korean American adoptee Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut's debut poetry in Magnetic Refrain.
It's been a full decade since we officially talked about Kaya. So, what's your latest, greatest news?
The biggest news, as you know, is that we moved to LA this year. We're publishing a bunch of new books, and a lot of wonderful new people are working with us. This is the largest group of people we've had involved with Kaya. USC gives us funding to pay for two part-time grad students -- they're twenty-five percent part-time -- and we also get a lot of volunteers. Their involvement -- both undergraduate and graduate students -- means while they learn hands-on about the publishing process, I've been able to do more strategic work, to put more energy into Kaya, and that's been really gratifying.
What's it like to be a solo publisher now?
[Former publisher and managing editor] Juliana Koo is on Kaya's board of directors, so she remains involved, although not in a functional capacity. Juliana really built the organization, and put in place the structure and framework for the kind of press we are now and how we run. She took care of everything financial, so it's been an interesting process of learning about how to make a publishing company actually functional. I still don't get any salary from Kaya -- that's been true since 1997. It's still a labor of love!
How did the affiliation and move to USC come about? And how's the honeymoon been thus far?
The honeymoon continues to be great. USC doesn't have an official publishing entity; Figueroa Press, which does occasional one-off titles and reprints, and Annenberg Press, which puts out more scholarly publications, are associated with USC, but they're not sustainable, fully functioning companies like, for example, University of California Press. USC saw an opportunity to have a working press on campus and give students a chance to see what the publishing process is like. Interested USC students started a group, KAYA: Students for Independent Publishing, to experience for themselves how books get put out. We're also happy to be affiliated with USC's Department of American Studies and Ethnicity. Viet Nguyen, who is a professor in the department, is on Kaya's board.
The move to LA has been so exciting. LA is clearly the center of APIA [Asian Pacific Islander American] communities and cultures, but surprisingly, LA doesn't have any APIA literary organizations, so that's one area in which we hope Kaya can fill the gap. We want to create some sort of space and opportunity for conversations to happen around APIA literature. LA has numerous small presses doing great work -- but there's still lots of opportunity for a different kind of growth here. My ultimate goal is for LA to become a world literary capital!
What are some of your plans to that end?
I've been talking to [Los Angeles Times book critic] David Ulin; Lisa Pearson of Siglio Press, which offers literature mixed with visual elements; Teresa Carmody of Les Figues Press, which publishes mostly experimental works; and Chiwan Choi of Writ Large Press, among others, about giving indie lit a higher profile in the city. Kaya had our first booth at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in April -- we called it the Smokin' Hot Indie Lit Lounge -- that was partially underwritten by USC. We had three major goals: One, to get people more familiar with the publishing process; two, to give people more exposure and access to the type of works indie lit publishers offer; and the most fun part, three, to let people make their own anthology! We solicited pages from other local small presses, and people could pick and choose what they wanted to put into a single volume that they could then collate, design a cover for, and bind, their own personalized anthology.
People got to experience the whole publishing process in miniature. Clearly, selling books is really important, but we also want to show the many other aspects of book publishing -- we don't want you to just buy a book, we hope you'll get really excited about the process of creation that publishing enables. Non-profit indie publishing has to have that sort of participation to remain sustainable long-term. The Festival is great for promoting authors and their books, but we want to encourage the creativity and enthusiasm of lots of book publishers, and use all the opportunities the festival has to build links and communities with other indie presses.
Kaya had four new releases this fall. Can you talk about the two prose pieces first?
We're really thrilled to be debuting a book that has never before been available in English -- Lament in the Night by Shōson Nagahara -- a collection of two novellas originally published in 1925 by a Japanese-language press based in Los Angeles's Little Tokyo. I had never known that the Japanese American immigrant community was so developed back in the 1920s that it could support its own book publishing company. That's only one of the reasons why we were so thrilled to come across this project. Lament is also a really gritty, enormously ambitious literary account of immigrant life in the early twentieth century. Andrew Leong, the translator of the works, came across this lost world of first generation Japanese-language literature almost by chance while doing research for his dissertation (he has since gotten a job at Northwestern University). He found a whole generation of extremely motivated Japanese American writers who were deeply invested in the possibilities of fiction and poetry, but they became menial laborers, gardeners, and servants when they came to this country. They would discuss Tolstoy over campfires after working in coal mines or as migrant workers in the fields. But because their writings weren't available in English -- not to mention the enormous disruption and trauma that resulted from the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor, where even speaking Japanese, much less owning Japanese literature, was looked on with suspicion -- almost no one knows about them. So Lament in the Night really is an undiscovered classic, one that we hope will spark a new push toward looking for non-English-language literature about immigrant experiences.
The other novel we're publishing this fall, The Hanging on Union Square, is another example of the rich but undiscovered history of APIA writers who most people don't know about because they fall outside of conventional ideas of what an APIA writer is or should be. It's written by this crazy, unique, iconoclastic figure, H.T. Tsiang, who moved to New York City after being heavily involved with political activism in China -- he worked as a secretary for Sun Yat-sen and then left after Chiang Kai-shek took over. He went to Columbia and became a radical Communist poet and writer. He self-published four novels and a collection of poetry. We eventually plan to publish all his books. Hanging is an indescribable novel -- and so shocking to realize it was published in 1935! The original cover didn't even have a title -- it started at the top with the word "YES" writ large, followed in smaller type with, "the title of a book is more of a book than a book is a book," then another line in small type -- "I say" -- and another enormous "NO," and a final line with just a huge "SO." The cover of the book alone is part futurist rip-off and part immigrant Dada -- and that's not even getting at the crazy mash-up of ideas in the book itself. We tried to incorporate this aspect of the original design on our current cover -- though bowing to commercial demands, we also had to include the actual title.
The story -- if you can call it that -- is a satirical allegory about a hapless protagonist named Mr. Nut who is walking through NYC over the course of a single day -- every chapter is one hour of his journey. As he wanders through New York's Depression-era underworld, he meets various people -- Comrade Stubborn, a Communist whose family just got evicted; Miss Digger who eventually resorts to picking up money with her vagina in a nightclub act; a wealthy man named Mr. System who tries to hire Mr. Nut to dress as a rabbit and be his sex toy. In the end, Mr. Nut decides to hang himself in Union Square in protest of the conditions he finds, as his way of getting back at Mr. System. It's all very odd, but highly recommended! Tsiang eventually became a character actor in LA, and appeared in such films as Tokyo Rose.
What I love most about both Nagahara and Tsiang is how unusual their voices and perspectives are. Not only are they unfamiliar to most people (or at least, not since they were first published), but their voices were, for one reason or another, edited out of American -- and even Asian American -- literary history. The sort of frank writing in their books is hard to find in any comparable APIA lit being written at the time. They took on unpleasant topics – like sexual exploitation, addiction, systemic oppression -- unhesitatingly and almost rashly. They totally went against all expectations of how immigrants were looked at and what roles they were supposed to play.
And the two poetry collections?
Water Chasing Water is our second title by Seattle-based poet Koon Woon. His first book, The Truth in Rented Rooms, which we published, won the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award in 1999. Koon moved to the U.S. at age ten from Guangdong; he's a self-taught poet. He's struggled with mental illness most of his life and was homeless for a while. His unique perspective is not the sort of typical voice you hear from; he's definitely outside the edges of promotion of the APIA literary mainstream.
Our other poetry title is Magnetic Refrain, a debut by Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut who is a Korean American adoptee. Coincidentally, she did her PhD in Creative Writing at USC -- she just graduated this year, but Kaya accepted her manuscript before we moved here. Her work is mythic in tone, drawing on fairy tales and fables. I'd say it's sort of secular fiction meets mythology. She's dealing with issues of loss and longing and, of course, adoption.
Kaya's website currently offers thirty-one titles available for purchase. How far out does the publishing schedule go?
We're planning on two more books coming out in the spring. We don't really have a set number, but I'd say we average two to four books per year. We're trying to ramp that up to six to ten titles per year! We have many more people on staff now, so I think that will be possible.
In general, how do you choose your titles? How many manuscripts do you have to read for every one title Kaya publishes?
Kaya's editorial board -- five people, including me -- meets twice a year. Every manuscript has to have unanimous board approval to get published. Because we're such a small press, we have to be extremely selective. I don't have hard numbers, but for every manuscript we publish, I would say we go through at least thirty to forty submissions.
Do you think Kaya might ever publish kids' books?
If we can get some expertise on how to market kids' books, I would love to. I also want to publish graphic novels. We just need to have the right project and find the best way to market it.
Talking about expertise, I've read quite a few novels recently by non-Asian writers writing about Asian experiences. Three titles from this year alone come immediately to mind, mainly because of their diverse degrees of success. The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson was stupendous, A Walk Across the Sun by Corban Addison was middling, All Woman and Springtime by Brandon W. Jones verged on disastrous. Any thoughts about white men writing outside their ethnic box? Would you ever consider publishing such titles?
We are an APIA publisher, but what does that mean? Who or what gets included in the Asian diaspora? Do we include titles "about...," or just stick to "by..."? We've gotten a few of those submissions -- mostly historical pieces set in China, Japan, and Taiwan. We don't have a set policy that if you're not Asian, we'll reject your manuscript. Certainly, racial purity is not a factor of determining whether or not you can be one of our authors! We're trying to offer a rich and layered understanding of different kinds of experiences of the API diaspora. We look for complexity, depth, freshness of perspective or approach to literature.
That said, of course being an APIA writer isn't going to guarantee you publication, either. We're not an advocacy organization; we're not trying to publish more APIA writers just because they are APIA. I'm most proud of the consistency of editorial rigor that we've maintained. Publishing would be so much easier if we just accepted books that came with some additional outside funding – but our aim is to publish books that enhance the APIA experience in deeper, unexpected ways. We don't want repeat titles of "I'm an APIA because my mother cooks with ginger"! Being APIA is just one aspect to our writers. We want our authors to be as complex, detailed, unique, and innovative as they want to be.
I don't see any logical reason why we couldn't find a non-Asian writer writing a rich Asian experience; we just haven't seen that done well yet in the submissions we've read. But I will also tell you that the one book I read in high school with a complex Asian character was [John Steinbeck's] East of Eden. Growing up in an all-white community, finding Lee in that book was really important to me. A lot of literary folks have expressed criticisms about him, but I think Lee is the character that holds that book together. I would have published that book.
Indies have historically had to struggle more to survive, and being a niche ethnic indie makes survival that much more challenging. Kaya's almost twenty years old! What's your secret to longevity?
Ha! Isn't stubbornness also Korean?
I guess so. The thing that has saved Kaya is that it's not ever been about making money. We want to stay in business, of course, but not by selling millions of books. Books have to be made available and put in the right hands. Books are like a spark -- and people might be inspired to do something they never thought possible just by reading a certain book. And that's how change happens. Kaya is not a vanity project. We have a purpose.
We're all led to believe that change needs to happen on such a massive scale, but I'm telling you that change can happen one book, one person at a time. One person says, "I love that book, it gives me hope that I can write something on my own." That person writes, inspires someone else, and so on. Change happens.
I have to say again that reading about an Asian character in so-called classic American literature growing up had a really huge effect on me. Finding Lee might even be the reason why I stuck it out with Kaya all these years. That some sort of Asian presence in American literature existed was a total shock to me. Lee fucking learns Hebrew and parses this passage from the Bible! That was amazing shit! That had a lot of staying power for me! That's testament that books DO matter.
Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book review blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.