Updated: Jul 8, 2021
As a small independent press committed to publishing authentic own-voice stories, we are often inspired by the incredible work that other small publishers are doing in our field. That’s why we’re so excited to share an interview with you with co-founder of Yali Books, Ambika Sambasivan! On Yali Books' website it states, “We aim to reflect and validate the experiences of people of color, particularly those of South Asian descent, through relatable and inspiring stories based on their lives. To this end, we actively seek out and mentor underrepresented voices in writing and illustration to craft authentic narratives.” Modern Marigold Books shares this passion for championing underrepresented voices in publishing and we were really inspired after our phone call with Yali’s co-founder, Ambika.
Modern Marigold: For our readers who might be unfamiliar with Yali Books, what do you want them to know?
Ambika Sambasivan: We are a small press, independent publisher, focused on South Asian cultures. I’m keen to say “cultures” because we sometimes view South Asia as a monolith and it absolutely is not. At Yali we want not only to educate non-South Asians about South Asian culture but also to educate ourselves about each other. I think that’s crucial because there’s so much we don’t know about each other and I think it’s crucial to create deeper empathy for each other. You know, there has been turmoil in the region and the political forces often try to tear people apart but there’s so much we share and so much we should celebrate together. To see the humanity in someone you have only viewed through a political lens, I think that’s very important.
MM: You founded Yali with your mother and children's author, Kala Sambasivan. What inspired you to build an independent publishing company? Did you have any background in publishing before you got started?
AS: No! I had no background in it at all! My mother had written this children’s book and she told me, “I think you should illustrate this,” and at the time, that wasn’t my background at all, I wasn’t even an illustrator yet. We really had no idea about publishing but we thought, “you know what? We want to do this, we want to publish these books,” so we did and then we got some submissions from other authors and we started working with them and publishing their work as well. So, it’s really been a very organic journey to get here. That first book was in 2014 (Bye, Bye, Motabhai!) and so certainly now, after some years, we have more clarity about where we want Yali to go, we have a bit more of a vision. But from the start I absolutely fell in love with it. Absolutely, from the start it’s been fantastic fun and I realized, “this is what I want to do with my life.”
MM: How has it been working so closely with your mother?
AS: Oh, it’s been great! She’s in India so she really acts more like a sounding board, mentor, she helps with the acquisitions and takes on the bigger picture view of things. I’m doing a lot of the work with a team of freelancers. Oftentimes, we disagree, which keeps things interesting and it helps for us to argue because we get clarity through those discussions. Sometimes I convince her, sometimes she convinces me!
MM: What is the biggest surprise or lesson learned that you've had while working as an independent publisher of children's books focused on the experiences of South Asian people? What do you wish you knew when you started that you know now?
AS: I’m glad I didn’t know what I know now when I started! First, publishing itself is really, really, complicated and a lot of work. Running it as a small independent company is enormous work so I'm glad I didn't know this then because I would have thought, “oh, I don’t think I can do it.” Once you start something, though, you have this responsibility and this drive to keep going. Had I known all the facts before I got started, I would have been intimidated. Publishing is an enormous amount of work, each book is such a labor of love. This is true whether you publish at the largest or smallest publishing houses: the process of publishing is time intensive and labor intensive. So that was one part of it.
Working with South Asian authors has been extremely rewarding because with every book I get to learn so much more about our own heritage, our history, our cultures. It’s so incredible and there’s so much I don’t know and it’s like a vast ocean of knowledge that I’m exploring. With every book it’s a deep dive into a subject with the author and it’s fascinating, it’s just fascinating. So for me, it’s been a journey of learning and figuring things out as we’re doing it. There’s no time to sit down and take a course or something, it’s learning as we go along.
MM: Congratulations to Yali Books and author/illustrator Ameya Narvankar for his book Ritu Weds Chandni being recently chosen as a South Asia Book Award Honor book! What makes Ritu Weds Chandni stand out from other children's picture books?
AS: Ritu Weds Chandni was actually Ameya’s dissertation, his master’s dissertation. It was just like a dusty old report filed away somewhere and he was very keen to see if he could bring it out into the world. Part of his research was to look at contemporary literature and see representation of LGBTQ+ communities and he found very little, or whatever was there was very stereotypical. So that’s why he wrote the book. He had been looking for the right publisher and when he came to us it was probably one of the very first few South Asian LGBTQ+ picture books at that time. We were thrilled!
We loved his story; we didn’t know how people would react. We did have that in mind and we did have a conversation with him because LGBTQ+ books have traditionally faced opposition, everywhere, not just here but also in India. So we didn’t know how things would be received, but he said, “it doesn't matter, I really want the story to come out.” He didn’t come to it from a commercial point of view.
It was a very long process to get it done. He has a full time job and then we got hit with the pandemic, so it was a long process, but we put so much effort into the book. He went above and beyond, into the evenings after his day job he was working on it. We are so thrilled with what came out and it was very well received both by readers and reviewers and award committees. We’re very very grateful for all the love.
MM: With the upcoming July 2021 release of A Mystery at Lili Villa by Arathi Menon, Yali Books will have published the gamut of children's literature from early picture books through to YA novels and even activity books. Do you find that one type of book is more challenging or rewarding to publish? Do you have a pet favorite whether it be picture book, middle grade, or YA? We won't tell the others!
AS: Picture books are honestly the most challenging. It involves two creators: one who is creating the story and then one who has to come on board and put themselves in the story for the illustrations. It’s a tandem dance between them and it’s about coordinating their efforts and making sure it comes together beautifully. So a picture book with two creators is often the most challenging. Picture book texts are not easy to formulate either. I think often people think, “oh, a picture book, it’s five hundred words I can write it easily,” but no! Picture books are poetry, I mean you have to take an enormous amount of time, they go through so many edits to get just the right words. It’s the effort that you put into writing poetry: how do these words dance together? How does the meaning come through in this sentence? I think it’s challenging.
Prose, on the other hand, is very labor intensive. Once you get into 35,000 words, every sentence you’re polishing, it becomes labor intensive. But, there is so much more meat there. There’s so much more to learn and so much more to delve into, I think.
As a reader? I love middle grade. Middle grade is awesome: it’s this perfect balance between still being innocent and childlike and going on these adventures.
And in YA I’m seeing really beautiful writing, it’s almost becoming literature in its own genre. It’s really shining through as writing. I wouldn’t even put YA as children’s literature anymore, it’s become very complicated!
MM: Finally, what are you currently reading, watching, listening to, or playing that you would recommend to our readers?
AS: Well, I’m reading books on the British Raj and partition but I won’t recommend that heavy reading to your readers. But I’m very excited because I just ordered Rukhsanna Guidroz's Samira Surfs. It just released. Rukhsanna was one of our first few authors and she went on to publish with Salaam Reads by Simon & Schuster and this one comes out with Penguin Random House and we’re very proud of what she’s doing.
MM: Is there anything else you'd like to plug? What upcoming Yali releases can you tell us about?
AS: Our upcoming release House of Glass Hearts. It toggles between present day America and the historical period right before India and Pakistan gained independence. It’s beautiful, it’s from her own family’s story of having to move across during partition. It’s a beautiful YA historical fiction that blends with present day coming out this September.
Spring 2022 is going to be Kesar and the Lullaby Birds set in the beautiful salt deserts of Gujarat and it has a beautiful sibling relationship where the baby won’t sleep and her older sister tries to get her to sleep, it’s very sweet.
Ambika Sambasivan, is the co-founder of Yali Books and an illustrator-by-accident. She has created artwork for books published by Scholastic India and Karadi Tales. She works with craft paper to create distinctive collages built on a simple, clean aesthetic. More of her work can be seen at Studio WotMot.