We speak to Rukhsana about her lockdown reading habits and her ultimate reading recommendations.
I am associate agent at The Good Literary Agency. Institutional racism and within that, the implicit barriers underrepresented writers face, means that the stories available leave us with a skewed worldview. All writers, all voices, all stories need to be told for everyone to read, and it is this that the agency prides itself on. As a charity we work specifically with underrepresented writers. I am always thrilled when I find or am presented with unique voices, stories and ideas. It’s such an exciting place to be.
How did you get into the publishing industry?
I entered the publishing world – one that I never in a million years would have thought of - through a positive action diversity scheme run by Arts Council England (ACE).
Has your attitude to reading changed since working in the publishing industry? How has it changed your reading taste or the genre of books you usually read?
Yes, definitely. I started out at Saqi Books, and though I had read a few books in translation (mostly Russian, mostly men) at Saqi I was introduced to contemporary fiction in translation, from places as far away as Krygistan, Iran, Syria, India, Nigeria and so many more. Alongside great fiction in translation, I worked on some remarkable nonfiction. The photographic history, Black Britain by Paul Gilroy (2007) is extraordinary. My next role was as assistant editor, then editor at Profile Books, who publish intelligent, informative nonfiction, and here is where my love of nonfiction really kicked in. Whereas before I would have read more fiction, less nonfiction, it is now the opposite.
Is there a project or book that you have worked on that you are particularly proud of?
From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp is one of those once in a million year (slight exaggeration) find – especially because it existed all along. Dr. Gene Sharp was a professor of peace studies, having researched and formulated his political theories for over forty years. His seminal work The Politics of Nonviolent Action was published in 1973. Within his teachings was a ‘how to’ topple a dictatorship. When the Arab Spring first erupted in 2011, a small detail that emerged was that the activists were carrying pamphlets, which happened to be his guide From Dictatorship to Democracy, translated into Arabic. I was hooked, I did some internet searching during my lunch, found it (it was available to read under a creative commons licence). A slim, simple breakdown of the tools needed to actualise such monumental change left me gobsmacked. I mean, sure, it was online but you’d have to spend a long time looking for it, that’s even before you knew it existed. I managed to persuade Dr Sharp that new readers existed, who needed this book, and I convinced the sales and marketing team (much harder to do) that there was real value in publishing a book that ‘already existed’. It was never going to be a bestseller, but it is an important book, translated into thirty languages and valued and referred to by activists across the world.
Where do you buy or access your books?
I’d love to say I buy all my books from local indie shops, but this isn’t possible sometimes. Waterstones, and (shamefully) Amazon, because it is so stupidly convenient. (I hang my head in shame, but I think this is a dirty secret that most of us keep).
What books have you been reading in lockdown? Do these books typify your usual reading taste, or have you found yourself reading other genres and authors?
I’ve hit a real block during lockdown. All those people who’ve written a novel, created amazing things, read a million books (I exaggerate, see above), perfected their baking skills (i.e. can make a perfect souffle), well that just hasn’t been me. I’m envious, but I’ve accepted that I have been massively unproductive. I started and stopped reading so many books and got really annoyed with myself. I did manage to read Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was by Sjón. Sjón is an exquisite Icelandic writer, and this story of a boy, who actually never was, is deeply affecting. I’m sure I read one other book at least - but I can’t remember which (so it probably wasn’t very good).
What is your most beautiful book?
There are so many, the most recent book I can talk about is Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind. Just look at the pages of the closed book!
What surprises you about your bookshelves? Is there a book that you were surprised to love as much as you did?
I don’t think there are many surprises on my bookshelf – at least not to me – though others may think differently. They are books that have lived with me on life’s journey. There are periods in one’s life that bring you towards books which speak to that time (angsty teenage poetry), understanding my identity as a woman and of colour (there aren’t any I can list here as I didn’t come across anything that helped with this conundrum in the 80s/90s); wanting to escape to other lands (international fiction), wanting to understand personal relationships (psychology), needing inspiration and self-belief (self-help, motivational), becoming a mother (wait, there are no manuals for that).
What are your most anticipated reads for 2021 and do you have any reading goals?
Luster by Raven Leilani, Open Water by Caleb Azumah, Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera, The Khan by Saima Mir, too many to list; it’s a very exciting year. I read manuscripts out of office hours, pretty much every day. I don’t really set goals as such, but I make sure I read widely in all genres. There is though, one aim - read more science.
What are your ultimate book recommendations?
Oh gosh. Top three that come to mind: All my Friends are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman; Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, Beer in the Snooker Club by Waguih Ghali; Levels of Life by Julian Barnes; A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James; read EVERYTHING ever written by James Baldwin; and Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant. (Okay so that’s seven, there are more, but I’ll stop here).
You can find Rukhsana on Twitter.