Last night, Naveen Kishore, the founder and publisher of Seagull Books, received the 2021 Ottaway Award for the Promotion of International Literature. At the celebratory cocktail reception in New York, Jeff Deutsch, the director of Seminary Co-op Bookstores in Chicago, accepted the Ottaway Award on behalf of Mr. Kishore and presented the following laudatory remarks. Mr. Kishore's acceptance speech is available here.
It is a tremendous privilege to be here with all of you wonderful devotees of the word and it is a profound honor to lead the celebration of Naveen Kishore, founder and publisher of Seagull Books. I must confess to some reverence in approaching this task, but I must also state what an absolute delight it has been to once again immerse myself in Naveeniana, as I attempt to briefly summarize the accomplishments of one of the most expansive people I know.
It might seem odd for a bookseller to present this award, so I hope you will indulge me in sharing just a bit about the Seminary Co-op, partly to justify my presence, but mostly to help further illuminate the singular vision of Naveen Kishore. The Seminary Co-op Bookstores, whose collection exceeds 100,000 volumes, in good times, including large selections of global literature and thought, books in translation, and books that sell exceedingly slowly, turn sixty next month and, in 2019, became the first not-for-profit bookstore in the US whose mission is bookselling. This was in no small part a result of the example set by Naveen, whose unlikely business sense is as poetic and intuitive as his literary sense.
Naveen understands the extra-economic value of books and the importance of institutions that can support the best of them. Sandip Roy noted of Seagull that “They believe the market will honor good books. Nor are they in a hurry for quick sales. This dramatically changes the nature of the discussion on what to publish.” You understand and embrace this market, as do we at the Co-op, and at great bookstores like Elliot Bay, City Lights, Source Booksellers, and McNally Jackson, or at great publishers like New Directions, Archipelago, Open Letter, and Europa Editions, or at great institutions like ALTA, ALA, the Jaipur Literature Festival, and, of course, Words Without Borders. It is clearly a movement, as evidenced by the distinguished winners of years past, and so we applaud the impulse to honor Naveen with the prestigious Words Without Borders Ottaway Award for the Promotion of International Literature.
One of many brilliant authors Naveen publishes, Hélène Cixous, in her Seagull book, We Defy Augury, might well be summing up the Seagull catalog when she writes,
My books are nautical self-constructions, I tell my daughter; free in their movements and in their choice of routes, they can take to the air or water, founder, fly, be composed of several stories, of jokes, of eye-witness accounts, true or false. They are enriched with alluvial deposits from all the worlds, deposited in this or that chapter. A gracious contribution from the gods. They are the product of many makers, dreamed, dictated, cobbled together, augmented with fantasies, whence the plurality of their birthplaces. If, to take notes on the voyage, I am at anchor in my Aquitaine study, my spirits come and go among the Cities and times that inhabit the different floors of my mental library.
Naveen founded Seagull Books in 1982 and his vision, initially established in the performing arts, borrowed heavily from what he learned in theater. He understood how much work went into creating a beautiful performance. And so he respected the elegance of the finished book and the work of all who contributed to it: not just the author, but the translator, the designer, the editor, the distributor, the bookseller, and the reader—all of these lovely and talented humans are needed to do this work, and Naveen is generous with them all.
While Naveen is a poet, an educator, a facilitator of the arts, an activist, and a great literary citizen, he is, first and foremost, a person of the book. Naveen is exceedingly generous, but his generosity doesn’t compromise his literary discernment or his aesthetic sense. And he has never subscribed to the myth of the solitary genius. Just as in theater, the production requires a community of talented artisans and craftspeople, translators, editors, and designers—sometimes, as in the case of the wonderful Sunandini Banerjee, all three in one. The books are as beautifully produced as they are written—even the catalogs, of course, are beautifully produced—in no small part due to Banerjee’s exquisite eye. And, like a great performance, they stir something deep within us and reverberate long after the curtain falls.
There is also a political component to Naveen’s work, and a political statement in how he has gone about his work. The audacious act of establishing world rights for major literary works in English in a modest but magical bric-a-brac of an office in Kolkata, which is about as far as one could anchor oneself from the centers of the literary world in London and New York, was a quiet and confident political act that reverberates forty years on. He once called it “borderless publishing.”
Banerjee has told the story of how, after Mo Yan, a Seagull author, won the Nobel, her father said, “Hats off to Naveen. The boy has determination. He stayed put in Kolkata and showed them it could be done.” Publishers, like great novelists, become universal by dint of their specificity. Being decidedly of a particular place is a profound way to be global. And establishing a perspective on the world from a particular place helps enlarge our understanding of a nation’s literature. No one knows better than Naveen how foolish the myth of Babel, how dreadful were we to only have one language. We need these ever-widening perspectives to build our own. It is through that specificity that we understand each other and ourselves.
Pascal Quignard, in one of his many books published by Seagull, The Roving Shadows, writes: “We must go where God leads us and not be in any way cowardly.” I doubt Naveen would consider himself brave, although his bravery is clear. He simply doesn’t know another way. Naveen himself has said, “If your dailyness is a book, then treat it like an everyday necessity. My everyday necessity is that damn book.” We understand, Naveen. And your necessity has become our gift.
We are tremendously lucky to live in the age of Kishore, to inhabit the different floors of his mental library. Congratulations, my friend, on this well-earned award.