By Gaytari Patnaik | A little over ten years ago, I found myself mulling over what kind of history books Beacon Press could successfully publish. With the incredible history titles published every year by both university and trade presses, what could Beacon do to distinguish our list in this competitive space? Certainly, the books would need to reflect Beacon’s progressive vision of social justice and also the inherently “cross-over” nature of our list. Cross-over in two senses—both in terms of the intellectually grounded but accessible writing, as well as our ability to find multiple audiences—trade, academic, and activist—for our titles.
I had a roundabout path to where I am now. I went to a STEM magnet high school and worked at the Army Research Lab in the microphotonics department and figured I would be an engineer. I entered college as an engineering major and minored in art. The whole while, I wrote articles as a student reporter. In high school I was the news editor of our school paper and in college I was a staff reporter for the campus paper. The Asian American Student Union published a newspaper, and the editor-in-chief contacted me for help. I wrote a few pieces and became the editor-in-chief for the next two years. Halfway through my junior year, I switched majors and I graduated with a BA in journalism and a minor in art and worked in a newsroom of a paper and as a writer for a magazine—and found that I was good at layout and composition and went to grad school for design.
As so many cultural leaders note in the tribute obituaries we’ve linked to below, Ntozake Shange was a completely original, breathtaking artist. From the time she embraced the name gifted to her by Ndikko and Nomusa Zaba, a name which meant “she who comes with her own things/who walks like a lion,” Ntozake Shange launched headlong into her program to electrify dance, poetry, and theatre. Even when her own movement became limited, she kept her focus and worked whenever she could. We were working with her on a book to be called Dance We Do: A Poet Looks at African American Dance.
We are shocked and heartbroken. We learned of the sad news that our author, Rashod Ollison, passed away on October 17 from non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He was forty-one. He graced our catalog with his coming-of-age memoir Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues, and Coming of Age Through Vinyl. In his singular, flavorful writing voice, he brought to life his story of growing up Black and gay in central Arkansas during the eighties and the nineties. Back when we asked him if he had an audience in mind for his memoir, he said he didn’t think anyone would want to read it.
I was amazingly lucky. I’d been associate publisher at Farrar, Straus and Giroux when we were distributing Beacon, so I got to “help out” with some of their books, including best-selling books by Marian Wright Edelman and Cornel West. When my predecessor left, the search committee came knocking at my door. I just happened to know one of them, Roger Straus III, so maybe the fix was in. But it was the amazing Kay Montgomery, executive vice president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, who really settled me in and supported me for the next seventeen years. I’ve never recovered from her abandonment (well, yes, she retired after more than twenty-five years at her job…).
By Emily Powers and Bella Sanchez | Imani Perry’s Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry is a watershed biography of the award-winning playwright, activist, and artist Lorraine Hansberry. If people know anything about Lorraine (Perry refers to her as Lorraine throughout the book, explaining why she does so), they’ll recall she was the author of A Raisin in the Sun, an award-winning play about a family dealing with issues of race, class, education, and identity in Chicago. Lorraine’s extraordinary life has often been reduced to this one fact in classrooms—if she is taught at all.
By Ayla Zuraw-Friedland | It’s back to school season. After several months of anticipation, worrying over first-year seminar selections, and at least one public melt-down in a Target parking lot while shopping for dorm room essentials, thousands of college freshmen across the country are packing up and doing the cross-country shuffle. There are communal bathrooms to scope out, clubs to sign up for, and perhaps most importantly, roommates to get acquainted with. This person can either be your partner in crime on a journey of self-discovery and youthful mischief, or your most treasured nemesis . . . or a semi-anonymous entity with whom you share mini-fridge space and see once every three days.
Finishing my last year of undergrad, I had the intention of becoming a high school teacher of Spanish and French. The pedagogy courses I took, however, convinced me that I didn’t want to teach after all. On top of that, I had to pay my way through college on my own, and when you’re competing in the Student Debt Olympics, year after year, you reconsider taking on a job that would barely cover rent and the cost of that luxury called food. I had to think of something else.
By Louis Roe | Now that we’re in summer’s final stretch, Beacon’s design department is busy putting together jackets for our Fall 2018 titles. Our cover designs are typically finalized about a year in advance of the on sale date for in-house and marketing purposes, so there’s finally enough emotional distance from the design process to reflect on these! Here’s a peek at a few of my favorites from this list.
I always thought I was going to be a Professor and had just finished my Masters in Cultural Anthropology from The New School for Social Research. My thesis was on the role of the Indian government in perpetuating the AIDS pandemic, and as passionate as I was about it, I wasn’t sure I wanted to make the PhD commitment. Around this time, I happened to spend time in India with my uncle, Sonny Mehta, a longtime publisher who tossed out, “Why not try an internship in publishing and see what happens?” I did, and it changed my life.
If you’re not diving into the ocean at the beach this season, crack open those books and dive into summer reading! Sometimes you just need a break from the awfulness that has inundated the news and our social feeds. So. Fiction? Nonfiction? What’s your pleasure? We asked our staff members what they’re reading and what they’d recommend. You’ll thank us later.
By Helene Atwan | Like most Americans who care about poetry and literature, I was saddened to learn that Donald Hall died this weekend. We were privileged to publish two of his books of prose: Life Work and Principle Products of Portugal. When I first took over as director of the press in 1995, a poster for Life Work was proudly displayed in our offices, and it made me even happier to be a part of the press. Later, I was fortunate to meet Don and to chat with him about projects, on and off, though never quite lucky enough to publish any new work. His work is a gift to us all. I think often about one line of his, often quoted by a mutual friend, that resonates especially now: Work, love, build a house, and die. But build a house. The house that Donald Hall built is a mansion with room to embrace all readers. He will be missed.
By Ayla Zuraw-Friendland: I didn’t mean to start my spring cleaning at 10:30pm on a Tuesday. I had just gotten home from having a drink with a friend and it was warm enough in my attic room to open a window. I was optimistic in the way that only a cheap cider and a text confirming that your order of pad thai will arrive in thirty minutes or less can make a person. Tonight, I announced to my roommate’s cat, would be the night I finally switched my summer and winter clothes. I dragged the boxes from the attic, and began what would be a three-hour process. It was a lot more than I bargained for.
By Gayatri Patnaik: I had the very good fortune to meet Dr. Mary Frances Berry (MFB) when I was twenty-one years old and working at the University of Pennsylvania. Having recently graduated from college with one major and an excessive number of minors (three!), I was undecided about what to pursue in graduate school. I ended up in Philly, working in Penn’s history department, where, in addition to supporting the professors administratively, I was allowed to sit in on classes and lectures.
By Christian Coleman: There was one story Octavia E. Butler wouldn’t write. Reveling in science fiction/fantasy for an openness she saw lacking in other genres, Butler gave us gene-trading extraterrestrials, psionically powered mutants, a genetically engineered vampire, a reluctant time traveler forced to visit the brutal past of American slavery. But during her three-decades-long career as a novelist and short story writer, she never gave us a ghost story. She didn’t believe in ghosts. Raised as a born-again Baptist, Butler stopped believing in the afterlife and a celestial caretaker by age twelve. “Somehow you’re supposed to believe and have faith but not worry about having any evidence to support that belief and faith,” she said in a 1988 interview. “That just doesn’t work for me, and I never went back.” Coincidentally, at age twelve she began trying her hand at science fiction.
By Perpetua CharlesThis year marks the fortieth anniversary of the court decision in Loving v. Virginia that struck down anti-miscegenation laws across the United States. Thanks to this ruling, people across races could legally declare their love for each other through marriage. Sheryll Cashin’s new book, Loving: Interracial Relationships and the Threat to White Supremacy, offers a history of interracial relationships in the United States and looks at how present interracial relationships will shape the future of the country. As I read Loving, I was struck by a short section near the end of the book. Cashin writes that one doesn’t have to marry, date, or adopt a person of another race to experience transformational love or to acquire what she calls cultural dexterity—an enhanced capacity for intimate connections with people outside one’s own tribe. An intimate friendship works just as well. Cashin doesn’t use the word friend lightly, and neither do I.
We’re excited to be marching in Boston Pride this year! Will we see you there tomorrow? You’ll see us in bright blue shirts emblazoned with “Publishing with Pride,” handing out buttons and postcards with links to PDF samples of select LGBT titles from our catalog. And it looks like the weather will be cooperative this year, too. A sunny Pride is the best Pride. Those of us you will see in the parade, staff members and authors, would like to share with you the reasons why we’re marching. Happy Pride!
By Gayatri PatnaikOne of my sharpest memories as a girl was when an immigration officer came to our house in rural Finzel, Maryland when I was about nine years old. He showed up at our house unannounced and I still remember the stunned look on my mother’s face when she answered the door. I didn’t realize until much later how high the stakes were or how very close we had come to being deported. While I can’t share specifics, I can say that one of the things the officer asked for was the phone number of people my mother knew who could attest to her character. And I remember sitting there in our kitchen hearing the one-sided conversation as he called friends or acquaintances or colleagues of my mother’s, one after another. When he left, I walked with him to the door and he shook my mother’s hand and told her she was a remarkable woman and that if she didn’t hear from him in the next six months, she wouldn’t have to worry about her citizenship status further.
By Tom Hallock | We, as publishers, have important work to do in protecting an open, democratic society that is now under increasing threat. The threat has been growing after decades of disturbing illiberal trends: the growth of corporate power, a widespread anti-intellectualism, the rise of social media echo chambers, pervasive racism, and partisan attacks on the nature and purpose of government. Now we are about to inaugurate a president whose election is a product of these trends, a man whose public statements have been true only fifteen percent of the time according to Politifacts and who regularly disparages science, expert advice, the media, and his critics. As Robert Reich points out, these are the tactics of demagogues. In the face of these threats, publishers have urgent work to do.
By Ayla Zuraw-FriedlandWhen publicity assistant Perpetua Charles and senior editor Joanna Green first began planning a staff trip to see the film Loving in celebration of Beacon’s forthcoming book on the same topic five months ago, they couldn’t have known for sure what our political environment would be as they and fellow members of the Beacon Press staff walked through a rainy November night to the theater. Exactly a week after the country watched the electoral votes tally in favor of a divisive Republican presidential candidate, we came together to view a retelling of how Mildred and Richard Loving, a young interracial couple from Virginia, helped end the ban on interracial marriage in the United States.