“No either/or between beautiful and revolutionary," an interview with Hajar Press

by Sophie Marie Niang, Deputy Features Editor

I first heard about Hajar Press on Twitter, like I do many good things in life. Hajar is a new political press for people of colour launching in 2021, with an incredibly exciting lineup of writers and a fantastic vision centering community, imagination and creativity. I will be using many superlatives in this article because this project is genuinely exciting, and because neutrality doesn’t exist. Hopefully, by the time you have finished reading this piece, you will also be thinking in superlatives.

Brekhna Aftab and Farhaana Arefin, the duo behind Hajar, both come from the world of publishing. After respectively three and four years working in the industry, they both grew increasingly frustrated with the same recurring, structural problems: a mutual friend introduced them, and the idea for Hajar was born. What are these structural problems? “The publishing industry seems stuck in a loop when it comes to issues of racism,” Brekhna tells me. “It is unable to offer new, transformative ideas, while diversity and solidarity are constantly used as branding exercises.” Farhaana echoes this sentiment, pointing out that structural issues are found in all stages of the publishing process. “For instance, the fact that Amazon is the main bookseller today is obviously a problem. From the beginning, we knew we didn’t want to work with Amazon.” Instead, Hajar will work on a subscription-based model, which Brekhna says isn’t hugely common, but has been experimented with by various publishing houses in recent years and over lockdown. To cover some of the costs of the first series of Hajar books, they have also launched a crowdfunder (which, at the time of writing, has already reached over 80% of its target). Brekhna talks about the central issue of figuring out how to be both independent and sustainable. “We’re not saying we’ve solved it, but we knew from the outset that we didn’t want to be tied to funding bodies and patrons who might influence our editorial vision.” Farhaana adds that the subscription model is also a way to ensure community remains at the heart of the project. “We want Hajar to be community-led, and to form a community around it.” Like many of us, I’m sure, I often hear the word “community” used in an empty way, but listening to Farhaana, I am reminded of the beauty and radical potential of this concept. She highlights that reading today is a very individualised endeavour: there is little to no connection between the readers and the authors, or even between several authors attached to the same publishing house. The subscription model will help create this connection on various levels. Readers will receive and read the same six books throughout the year, and Hajar will organise events around the books with authors and readers. As far as authors are concerned, this subscription model will enable the press to move away from the current popular model in publishing which focuses on a few big successes a year, which then help fund other books. Instead, Hajar will be able to offer the same care and attention to all their authors, who share equally in the press’s success.

On their crowdfunder page, Brekhna and Farhaana wrote: ‘we don’t believe in upholding an either/or distinction between beautiful and revolutionary.’ This sentence perfectly encapsulates Hajar’s philosophy. Brekhna tells me that Hajar was imagined as a provocation. She remembers feeling underwhelmed by a lot of ‘literary’ writing which, while it was imaginative in its form, seemed to exist in a sort of “contrived political vacuum.” Yet our ability to create beautiful things is crucial to the process of building new worlds. She laments that “people of colour are constantly locked in a certain paradigm which limits us to proof and imitation, even though, as Gail Lewis says, when you’re on the margins you can see across an entire field of vision, but when you’re in the centre you’re just turning in circles.” Against this oppressive paradigm, Hajar’s mission will be to “give space to those whose imaginations are not bound up with the status quo, to create for ourselves, and to imagine new worlds rather than explain our truths to white readers.” Thinking about the press’s political values, Farhaana also highlights that Hajar’s principles crystallised in the wake of the 2019 elections, as the left was imploding and people of colour were used as props in debates which did not centre them. Meanwhile, the liberal mainstream called for diversity, but was invested in reproducing racist structures. “Equal access to unjust systems is not liberation,” she says, quoting poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan. This is why Hajar is not interested in a depoliticised call for “diversity,” which Farhaana says is often a “rat race for very specific people of colour.” Instead, they aim at creating a space of safety for their authors, because they recognise the political significance of the freedom to experiment. Experiment with form and genre, but also with themes, without the limiting gaze of whiteness.

Talking about Hajar’s first six authors (Yara Hawari, Cradle Community, Sarah Lasoye, Heba Hayek, Lola Olufemi and Jamal Mehmood) is great, because Farhaana and Brekhna are so genuinely excited and proud of every single one of them. When I asked how they went about creating this community of writers, Farhaana answers that these authors all embody the values of Hajar - community, care, radical imagination. For most of these authors, this will be their first book, and Brekhna stresses that a commitment to first time authors is central to Hajar’s project, which they wish to continue in the coming years. The duo met some of their authors at live poetry readings (in the Before times, when these were still possible), or through activist groups. Others are journalists or nonfiction writers who will be publishing fiction for the first time. “When we approached them, we basically asked ‘what would you write if you could write anything?’,” Farhaana tells me enthusiastically. “We then had many energising conversations with them, discussing their projects.” At this point Brekhna jumps in and tells me that these cathartic conversations were also a window into what they hope to achieve with Hajar. “This project is about carving out new worlds and healing spaces for people of colour,” talking both about the authors and the potential readers. The duo also points out that this commitment to creative freedom and new horizons goes beyond the authors. “We know that design is political, so we’re also very proud to be working with two incredible designers (Samara Jundi and Hanna Stephens),” Brekhna tells me. The designers will also create in this space of freedom and experimentation, making objects that reflect the new horizons contained in Hajar’s books.

What’s next for Hajar then? Brekhna and Farhaana tell me that this has been an incredible learning curve, but they both smile as they evoke the next few months. 2021 will be focused on the first six books, and as Farhaana says, on “making sure each book goes to someone who loves it!”. The crowdfunding campaign ends at the beginning of November, the subscriptions should launch in December and the aim after that is to start publishing in the spring and keep going. While the hope is to see Hajar grow, Brekhna tells me that it is important for them to maintain a slower way of publishing while growing. “We want to make sure that each book and each author gets the attention and care it deserves.” She adds, “we hope to open up a sense of possibility, politically and creatively, for everyone who engages with our books.” Farhaana also tells me that she hopes that 2021 will bring the possibility for all to meet in person again. “I would love a real, in-person, launch party, and also to see Brekhna more!” The duo tells me that they’ve only met in person a couple of times before lockdown: almost all of the work to bring Hajar to life therefore happened over Zoom and Whatsapp, which is almost impossible to believe when I see the connection between the two across my screen. If anything, this proved to me that good things happen at a distance, and that was truly heartwarming.

When asked if there is anything they’d like to add, Farhaana and Brekhna are full of gratitude. They thank their authors and the designers they work with, everyone who has contributed to Hajar so far, and everyone who has shared knowledge and expertise with them. In particular, they are grateful to the publishing houses and independent presses who have assisted them in the early days, among which Ignota Books, Silver Press, Myriad Editions, the 87 Press, Cipher Press, Galley Beggar Press, Hush Harbour Press and Seagull Books. They also thank the people who wrote endorsements for the project - some of which you can read on Hajar’s website, and which again show the extent to which a project like Hajar is needed in today’s literary landscape.

Talking to Brekhna and Farhaana was inspiring: not only because their authors lineup is very exciting, but because it showed what is possible when words such as community, solidarity and care are taken seriously in creating new spaces of expression, not ones that seek to integrate us into a burning house (to paraphrase James Baldwin) but ones that wish to create whole new worlds for us.

You can find more information about Hajar Press on their website and on their crowdfunder page, and read Bad Form’s interview with Lola Olufemi, one of their 2021 writers, about her previous book here.

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The print and digital literary review by Black, Asian, and racialised community writers.