I felt the thrill of possibility at the launch of Lola Olufemi’s second book, Experiments in Imagining Otherwise, at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) in November 2021, when Hajar Press co-founder and co-publisher, Brekhna Aftab took to the stage to introduce the press as a space that is deliberately and absolutely ‘not neutral’. The words came as a breath of fresh air.
Hajar Press crowdfunded their way into existence in 2020, anchoring their work in the promise of plurality and community. Co-founded by Aftab and Farhaana Arefin, both of whom have worked in publishing for a number of years, the independent and ‘proudly political’ publishing house clearly defines itself and its primary audience as ‘run by and for people of colour’, thus setting forth its commitment to a complete re-imagination of what publishing can be and do.
Lola Olufemi, Experiments in Imagining Otherwise, Hajar Press, London, 2021
Cradle Community, Brick by Brick, How We Build a World Without Prisons, Hajar Press, London, 2021
Sarah Lasoye, Fovea/Ages Ago, Hajar Press, London, 2021
Heba Hayek, Sambac Beneath Unlikely Skies, Hajar Press, London, 2021
Jamal Mehmood, The Leaf of the Neem Tree, Hajar Press, London, 2021
Yara Hawari, The Stone House, Hajar Press, London, 2021
Hajar Press’s crowdfunding campaign outlined a clear-eyed assessment of the publishing landscape it was launching into, yet poised to work differently:
Antiracism is not a commercial trend, an optics trick to look good and cash in. We reject the notion that our worth is market-driven—our stories occasionally tokenised and uplifted to serve white guilt and liberal curiosity, then relegated again to ‘special markets’ and the back of the list.
As a political press, we are uninterested in increasing ‘diversity’ while ignoring the oppressive structures that keep us unequal. We cannot talk about ‘inclusion’ at the expense of racism, white supremacy, and imperialism; nor ‘representation’ instead of capitalism and exploitation.
But we must also intervene in the left, where for too long people of colour have been asked to legitimise and lend our support to movements that have only sidelined and silenced us in return. We don’t have time for politics that erase and leave behind the most marginalised people.
Building on these statements, a sense of engagement and inclusivity permeates Hajar’s social channels, and their submission process clearly recognises how the written word can become a potent archive against erasure – as noted on their website: ‘We understand that history can reside in stories passed down through generations and want to provide a platform for writing that appreciates social memory and the spoken word.’ There is also the distinct aim to create communities around books, authors, and the press itself. To this end, Hajar has developed a subscription model whereby readers will receive each book in advance of publication and are invited to reading groups and events to engage with Hajar authors.
Their first year has given life to six books of expansive positionality and plurality. It’s an electric line-up – prose and poetry collide, theory meets speculative fiction, drawings grace several collections, others include a blank space for readers to contribute their own thoughts, several authors step out of the page to ask you direct questions. All of the 2021 publications include a playlist; one book is written by a collective – Cradle Community – with no individual author taking precedence, and in fact no individuals named as authors at all, which is radical in itself.
To understand just how radical this is, look no further than the recent controversy surrounding teacher and writer Kate Clanchy’s memoir Some Kids I Taught. The book resorted to racist and ableist tropes in staggering frequency when describing the children whose writing Clanchy shares throughout – an approach which does reveal its extractive nature when compared with, say, a book written by a collective. The controversy, disturbingly, was not the content of the book, but that some people dared to question it. It was Clanchy herself who called out an online review for supposedly fabricating racist quotes – except that these were in fact drawn directly from her work. The visibility of this discussion brought more attention and authors into the mix, for instance seventeen-year-old autistic author Dara McAnulty, who received such overwhelming abuse after highlighting two passages in which autistic children were described as ‘odd’ and living in ‘ASD land’ that he left social media. Similarly, writers Monisha Rajesh, Chimene Suleyman, and Sunny Singh received a torrent of abuse for calling out racist tropes, and for months following their statements, were accused of censorship and of attacking Clanchy.
Concluding an incisive Guardian article about the debacle, Rajesh wrote: ‘Publishers have churned out books about race and identity over the last two years, an endeavour that is meaningless if the problem lies deep within publishing itself. Writers, agents, editors, publishers, and literary festival organisers need to accept that there is a lot of learning to do about genuine diversity and inclusion, and that empty platitudes and diversity schemes mean nothing if we’re punished for speaking out.’
The harmful irony of the situation, given the media’s staunch defence of Clanchy, was that she will have benefited from the visibility, whilst the abuse and resulting trauma experienced by Rajesh, Suleyman and Singh – and any other writers who echoed their criticisms – will be merely absorbed into the ever-growing catalogue of micro and macro aggressions carried by writers of colour, which become either active or absorbed deterrents to writing at all. Against this backdrop and atmosphere, the publications of Hajar’s inaugural year stand out for their precious and considered work in enacting the care and openness to enable ground-breaking writing by people of colour in the UK today.
Back at the ICA, Aftab went on to state that as a publisher, Hajar saw ‘no either/or between the revolutionary and the beautiful’, the two qualities that make this press a vital new platform for incisive, generous and impactful writing. Its resonance is already being validated: by the time of the launch, less than three weeks after its initial publication, Lola Olufemi’s Experiments in Imagining Otherwise had already sold out its initial print run.
Olufemi’s writing is full of possibility, of conjecture, of challenge. ‘If I ask you to connect point A to point B and you inevitably draw a straight line, what do you think you think of history?’ she asks, in her opening note on language. Alongside these confrontations, she also outlines her commitment as a statement of intent. And makes it difficult for you to not join her.
Most concepts with potential start to droop from overuse. Indulge me! I write to say, I do not wish to box you into the otherwise. We are not trying to put our finger on it; I bet you have heard that before. Here, the otherwise is a linguistic stand-in for a stance against; it is a posture, the layered echoes of a gesture. I promise you that no approximations will be made. Only pleas, wishes, frantic screams, notes on strategy, contributions in different registers. Substitute the otherwise for that thing that keeps you alive, or the ferocity with which you detest the world.
In the casual, open and expansive talk, Olufemi admits that she was more nervous about this book than her previous work, highlighting clearly the value of the permission that Hajar Press afforded her to delve into uncertainty. What is anything radical and new if not, at some level, a risk? As she writes herself:
The otherwise requires a commitment to not knowing.
Are you ready for that?
In between readings and reflections, Olufemi celebrated the potentiality of writing in the realm of the speculative (‘timeless time’) and underlined that downplaying the importance of imagination is a mistake made in the theoretical realm – statements that recall Mexican intellectual and writer Octavio Paz’s suggestion that we should imagine the past and remember the future.
The imagination is a site where Hajar’s publications are in clear conversation, whispering to each other. The importance of the imaginary comes to life prominently in Yara Hawari’s novella The Stone House, a text that inscribes itself into a tradition of Palestinian resistance, of narratives shared to challenge the oppressive dominant story. It draws on stories of Hawari’s own family – father (Mahmoud), grandmother (Dheeba) and great-grandmother (Hamda) – and leans into the memories instilled in her from a young age, and the spaces into which imagination had to step to complete the picture.
It was in this ephemeral cognitive realm of inherited stories, personal and collective, that I sought solace and temporary relief from the world around me. I was able to bring the destroyed Palestinian landscape to life and simultaneously blur out the colonisers’ infrastructure. I could revive long-lost relatives and imagine our community whole, intact and unfragmented. And I was able to breathe.
Movingly, Hawari’s imagination casts her father as a boy, seeing him lean into the imaginaries he builds around facts. In the process, the book becomes a conduit through which we learn names, remember places, people and dates, and understand the story that isn’t inscribed in history books, but that is passed down from generation to generation as a vital form of resistance.
He knew details about places that no longer existed, like the villages of Al-Zeeb, Al-Basa and Al-Kabri. Although they were in ruins, he could bring these villages to life in his mind, where he rebuilt them bustling and whole. Mahmoud knew people he’d never met, like Um Adel, whose lemon tree he was under strict instructions from his parents to take care of. Or the Al-Qadi family, in whose abandoned house he and his friends played hide-and-seek.
It also enables the reader to understand, as a child might, how the dominant narrative came to be, making it also an archive of undeniable witness to Palestinian history.
In lessons the children were shown photographs of what appeared to be arid land and destitute people from before the establishment of Israel. Mahmoud asked his father later if it was true. Kamel replied that if the photograph had only been taken from the other direction, it would show the bustling international port of Yaffa. But that history was deliberately erased. ‘Don’t believe them when they tell you that before Israel there was nothing,’ he told Mahmoud.
In writing from the perspectives of three generations, Hawari also reflects on trauma, its intergenerational presence and its omnipresence –the ‘devastation that was not visible to the naked eye, the kind that wreaked havoc in minds and hearts’.
The urgency of Hawari’s book is compounded by its ongoing relevance; it was written largely in 2021 during the Unity Intifada, which was sparked by resistance against expulsions in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem. ‘As I was putting pen to paper to archive my great-grandmother’s struggle to stay in her home over six decades ago, another generation of Palestinians was rising up against displacement and dispossession today’, Hawari writes in her author’s note, underlining the ongoing destructive horror of settler-colonialism.
Brick by Brick: How We Build a World Without Prisons by Cradle Community is also concerned with dismantling the all-encompassing apparatus of the prison industrial complex, as well as – crucially – building and transforming. Delving into questions of immigration, healthcare, education, housing and food, amongst many other thoughtfully articulated topics, the book reads as a manual or a step-by-step reflection on what needs to change and how to change it. One member of the collective reflected that it was a book seeking to answer the question of ‘I know what I believe, I know what I value, I know what I care about, I know what I stand against, but what do I stand for?’
In this sense, it is very much built on prominent prison abolitionist and scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s statement that ‘abolition is not absence, it is presence. What the world will become already exists in fragments and pieces, experiments and possibilities. So those who feel in their gut deep anxiety that abolition means knock it all down, scorch the earth and start something new, let that go. Abolition is building the future from the present, in all of the ways we can.’
The collaborative nature of the book’s writing is powerful in itself. Following a robust reflection on language used, as well as a statement on foundations, co-conspirators, and guides, the collective’s introduction notes that ‘we have written this as a collective in acknowledgement that individual acclaim is counter to our message, and because none of us could do this alone.’ It should be understood from this statement that the work of abolition is not easy but its goals can be achieved in community. By positioning the book itself as an outcome of collaboration, Cradle Community acknowledges its limitations and invites you to join in the conversation – recognising the changing landscape, potential blind spots, and a long-term goal that can only be achieved in community, in collaboration, in ongoing communication. ‘Working collaboratively has given us the courage and protection to produce imperfect, opinionated, principled work. We’re still growing, and we’re growing together.’ In short, work that speaks urgently to imagining more, better, otherwise.
At an event for Edinburgh’s Radical Book Fair, one member of Cradle asks the audience to reflect on whether they had spoken to someone who was incarcerated in the last week; in the past month; in the past three months; in the past year; in the past three years; in the past ten years… ‘They are disappeared. We are not meant to think of them. So what we’re doing with abolition is that we’re trying to subvert a world in which entire human people can be disappeared to a place where no one is meant to care about them anymore. Or can be relegated to a status… criminal, insurgent, you know, terrorist. To which their humanity becomes second place.’ Again, the whispers between publications can be felt. They could have been speaking about the Hawari family in The Stone House, or those striking in Olufemi’s imagination.
As with all of Hajar’s publications, Brick by Brick too is about the power of imagination – its aim is not merely to decry the state of the country (for it is clearly anchored in the UK context, whilst drawing on examples of international solidarity and care) but to imagine other ways. ‘Abolition motivates us to solve problems, instead of attempting to vanish people for being too complicated. We must work to build institutions that affirm our humanity, rather than deny it.’
In the introductory pages to her dazzling debut poetry collection Fovea / Ages Ago, Sarah Lasoye explains the fovea in the eye as both receptacle and receptor – representing ‘aspirational acuity, and fundamental receptivity’, which she goes on to qualify in terms that bring both past and present into view. ‘I used to spend so long yearning for acuity, wanting to know precisely where my body started and ended, to be sharp and deliberate, to make myself solid, to do justice to that watery kid. In more recent years, as I have grown more substantial, my weight has shifted towards the receptivity part – the ability to sit still, open, ready, and with gratitude.’
The collection gleams with clear-eyed, angular reflections on that formative age, where imagination was both malleable and at risk of being stilted by the world’s dominant monoliths.
and the spoon was in my mouth when I woke
and I didn’t ask why
and maybe I should have, but instead I swallowed it
and the cool metal slid down my throat
and the silver was – at once – within me (like it was
never its own)
and I found that I could be fed by a tool for feeding
and I never hungered again
within poetry, imagination offers me an escape from a lot of pressures I sometimes feel to write in a particular way. I think a lot of poets of colour feel [like this]. There are some things that I know people will want to hear a black queer woman write about. And I don’t want to do that! I feel it, I feel the pressure on me. Holding firm to the imaginative potential is my guiding steer.
To speak on your own terms is a recurring subject for Hajar’s writers, many of whom are publishing their first works. Gaza-born, London-based Heba Hayek says that
I chose auto-fiction because I wanted, first of all, to stop looking at myself as an anthropological project, which is, again, how the world usually looks at me. And even to, as Toni Morrison says, lose the white gaze in my imagination. I did not feel like I had to write for the purpose of publishing and then for the purpose of Western or English-speaking readers to observe me and absorb me in a way that’s accessible to them and acceptable.
Reflecting both on her girlhood in Gaza and existing now so far from it, Sambac Beneath Unlikely Skies bristles with the struggle to reconcile two realities entirely at odds, yet coexisting. In doing so, one also creates a skewed lens on the other. At the same time, the book is infused with food, permeated by laughter, compassion, rowdy aunts and ambivalent matriarchs.
In my kitchen, I whisk all the ingredients together and lick the rest of the batter as I switch my phone camera on.
‘Sho ya helwa? Mnawra ya mama.’
‘Ba’ref manzari midh mneeh. Don’t pretend.’
She reassures me that I look nice, as long as I don’t mention the word anxiety.
I make the syrup as we continue to chat: sugar, orange blossom water, lemon, water. My house smells like Mama.
The lump in my throat slowly melts, and I feel my heartbeat slow down. Baba joins the video call with his big grin, and I watch them argue about whether I need to add the cream on top or in the middle of the cake.
No one should be this far.
The text’s accessibility is notable, and its ‘normalcy’ something that Hayek has been asked about a lot since its launch. ‘I find it ridiculous sometimes, because violence exists in these countries as well, it’s just the way slow death and the way we’re washed under the systems and capitalism and whiteness – it’s very, very different from the death that’s happening back home, but people talk about normalcy in such a surprising way as if it shouldn’t exist back home and it should exist here. I think there is war everywhere, there’s words and there’s also normalcy.’
Sambac’s writing began to take shape in community with other women in exile, a community being a balm against a surprising level of erasure experienced in Ohio. A place where people ‘see you only if they really, really want to (except, of course, when you’re wearing an Occupy Wall Street not Palestine t-shirt).
Your manager at work looks alarmed when he notices your t-shirt and throws an apron at you.
‘I’m with you, but it’s like you’re asking for trouble.’
You catch it with your right hand, which feels like a victory. You don’t argue because you begged him for this double shift.
‘It’s Ohio, sweetheart,’ he adds.
It creeps you out, the way he always calls you pet names. When you say this to a guy from your MFA, he says that this is just the way people speak here. Midwesterners are known for their kindness, as if you’re being rude about it. You’ve never felt this invisible your whole life.
Subtle observation, lived and gleaned, is also the heart of Jamal Mehmood’s The Leaf of the Neem Tree. Poetry and short stories elegantly trace the contours of grief and reflections on death, on place. Elders amble along the pages, imparting the wisdom of humility and care. Mehmood’s literary canon is invoked by name – Naguib Mahfouz, Mahmoud Darwish, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Saadat Hasan Manto. It is in fact a representation of Manto that lends the collection its title, as Mehmood explains in his introductory note, ‘in Nandita Das’s biopic on Saadat Hasan Manto, the talented Nawauddin Siddiqui says the following phrase: “Neem ke pathe kadwe salih – khoon to saaf karte hain.” Roughly translated: “Neem leaves may indeed be bitter, but they do clean the blood.” This simple metaphor has never left me.’ This opening anecdote also reflects all the sources one might gather meaning from – how one person’s imagination of another’s reality will impact on others’ understandings of the world.
Cultural and linguistic multiplicity is a recurring theme. As in Hayek’s writing, not everything is translated, yet much can be understood:
Shabnam Aunty had sensed how affected I was by her words that day. She slid me a small box of jalebis when we were both on tills and apologised in Urdu—for reasons I can’t explain, this always makes forgiveness easier. ‘Maaf kar do, bete meri baat tumhe buri lago na?’ I could have cried. ‘No, no, aunty, it’s okay, koi baat nahi.’ She asked me to forgive her anyway, and I had to comply. She was forgiven.
But it is also a bittersweetness that drives attempts to bridge the gap in between. As Mehmood writes in the poem Tongue,
Translation is among our strangest
passtimes, both most and less fruitful.
The leitmotiv of permission, of existing on your own terms, is again accentuated when looking at the six publications together – how distinctly each is what it wants to be, what it needs to be.
‘What would you write, if you could write anything you wanted?’ is the question Hajar asks their prospective authors. Suddenly the blank page takes on a different meaning – far from writer’s block, it asks what actually blocks writers.
and the Wise Other
In ‘This Work Isn’t For Us’, an important piece of research into diversity and inclusion in the arts, which was published in 2020 freely on Google Docs, and thereby devoid of association with any single platform, writer and curator Jemma Desai asks: ‘why, despite thirty years of sustained professional development programmes, recruitment drives and “mentoring” programmes resulting in a highly qualified, well-networked and credible set of individuals from a range of ethnic backgrounds, the industry in its static nature is still focused on the individuals who are excluded rather than those who do the excluding’. This comment can be applied to any structure that has thrived on systemic racism, sexism, classism and ableism. That is, most likely, just about every industry and institution around us. It also underlines why Hajar’s work is so significant – born out of a reflection on who does the excluding, but not stopping to dwell on that place. Instead, building.
In Arabic, the root h-j-r means to migrate. Hajar (or Hagar) was the name of the Egyptian handmaiden of Abraham’s wife Sarah and mother of Ishmael. Abraham married Hajar so that she might bear him children, but after Sarah later gave birth to her own son, Isaac, she insisted that Hajar and Ishmael be banished into the desert. As such, the press explains on their website, ‘Hajar represents the racialised people who perform the hidden labour that maintains society but are then disposed of and cast into the margins, their lives, stories and sacrifices forgotten or co-opted.’
In her seminal 1989 essay ‘Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness’, the late cultural theorist and social activist bell hooks wrote:
I am waiting for them to stop talking about the ‘other’, to stop even describing how important it is to be able to speak about differences. It is not just important what we speak about, but how and why we speak. Often this speech about the ‘Other’ is also a mask, an oppressive talk hiding gaps, absences, that space where our words would be if we were speaking, if there were silence, if we were there. This ‘we’ is that ‘us’ in the margins, that ‘we’ who inhabit marginal space that is not a site of domination but a place of resistance. Enter that space.
Two decades on, these words still resonate. And as if in response to hooks’s clarion call, Hajar Press has indeed entered that space.