This year saw the launches of two UK-based publishing houses founded by and dedicated to amplifying the voices of women. Aina Marti-Balcells heads Héloïse Books, based in Canterbury, and Bibiana Mas helms 3TimesRebel Press, housed in Dundee, Scotland. For Women in Translation Month, WWB spoke with both about their experiences starting up and operating a publishing house.
WWB: What is your background, and what prompted you to found your own publishing house?
Aina Marti-Balcells (AM-B): I studied comparative literature at the University of Kent and lectured in French and Catalan for a couple of years. After that, I worked in TV production for a short period. I have also done some commercial translation, taught in schools, and worked as a manuscript reader. What led me to found Héloïse Press in the first place was my love for literature and women’s stories. I thought I could create a space for sharing women’s global experiences through literary fiction.
Bibiana Mas (BM): I come from the world of education, but my obsession with books led me to work as a bookseller for a few years. Then I decided to study to get into the publishing world: I did a master’s degree in book publishing in Barcelona. But life doesn’t always go as planned: my three daughters came into my life, we emigrated to the UK, and I decided to reformulate my working life to fit around them. I went back to university (this time in England) and trained as a doula and antenatal teacher, with the idea of being able to work and bring up my daughters in a more balanced way. For a while I home-schooled them. But someone who loves books can never let go of their dreams of becoming a publisher—and here I am, back in this world, which I plan to stay in for a long time!
WWB: What led you to publish only women writers?
BM: Basically my own experience as a woman: I know very well that being a woman and a worker—an entrepreneur or a creative, for example—while being a mother is very, very difficult in our world. My experience made me see how easy it is to be marginalized, to feel guilty for choosing one path or the other, no matter which, always guilty: either we will not be good enough mothers, or we will not be good enough workers. We will always end up losing out. So when I started to draw the first lines of what my publishing house would be like, I was crystal clear: I would only publish women, because sometimes it is necessary to unbalance the scales in order to put things back in their place. It is was a very well-thought-out decision, as was my choice to only publish women writers who originally write in a minority language. I want to make the invisible blatantly visible.
AM-B: Women writers informed most of my reading. I am very interested in women’s stories, and I found it a beautiful enterprise to bring women’s narratives from across the world under one roof.
WWB: Is there a particular theme, focus, or aesthetic that the books you’re publishing share?
AM-B: The books focus on women’s lives. The genre is mainly literary fiction in the form of novels, novellas, or short stories. Some of the books are more experimental than others, some are more intense, some are narrated in a more conventional way, but they all narrate the world seen through women’s eyes.
BM: The books I publish at 3TimesRebel have very different tones, they can make you laugh, shudder, or cry. But they all have one thing in common: they will make the reader feel uncomfortable. All the stories we publish aim to push the reader out of their comfort zone, to put them in someone else’s shoes. I believe that fiction makes it easier to empathize with something that disagrees with your own opinion and thus, little by little, to accept that in the world there are realities that sometimes are not our own. To accept that we are not the center of the world. In this way, we can gradually learn how to be more tolerant of others.
Each book is also intended to open a space for debate on complicated issues, such as the dark side of motherhood, the weight of patriarchy, the right to abortion, menopause, the abuse of power, etc.
WWB: What are you looking for in a novel as a publisher and as a reader?
AM-B: I love unlikable female characters and beautiful prose. I like to read about women trapped in their own conflicts and contradictions, seeing their imperfections.
BM: As a publisher I’m looking for what I said in the previous question: to be provocative, uncomfortable, to make the reader reflect. I’m not going to focus on a single style or a specific audience. Some novels will have more literary weight, and others will be more upmarket, but all of them will challenge our prejudices.
As a reader I look for a novel to shake me up. To make me feel. To make me chew on the story for weeks to digest it after I’ve finished the book.
WWB: Are there any underrepresented voices you’re particularly drawn to?
BM: I am absolutely open to all the voices of women writers who originally write in a minority language. But I won’t deny that I have a soft spot for Catalan women writers: it’s my mother tongue, and they represent my home.
AM-B: I am currently very interested in women’s lives in Arab and Sub-Saharan African countries, probably because I know nothing about the daily lives of women in these places and would like to. I would like to know about their struggles, their fears, their hopes.
WWB: What have been some of the most exciting aspects of the undertaking so far? What, if any, have you found to be the most challenging aspects?
AM-B: The most exciting aspects are definitely the moment when I find a great manuscript and our events with authors and translators. The biggest challenge is to make Héloïse Press known to a wider audience. It does require time to build up a large readership.
BM: Without a doubt the most wonderful thing I have experienced so far is to have met the team I work with. Without all of them, none of this would be possible. Without them, 3TimesRebel wouldn’t be what it is. Every day I learn from all of them. Each and every day. And that is fantastic. The most challenging one? Trying to be seen in the wild market we have here in the UK. This is one of the hardest challenges I face. But here I am, stubborn, speaking up to be heard, to be seen.
WWB: What is a new or forthcoming title that you are looking forward to sharing with readers?
BM: In October, our third book will be out: The Carnivorous Plant by Andrea Mayo, translated from Catalan by Laura McGloughlin. The protagonist realizes too late that she is completely trapped in a toxic relationship with her partner, Ibana. This book is a portrait of horror, a synthesis of all the violence that exists between couples and friends, at work or in the family. It reflects upon the limits of human relationships, focusing on abuse and its multiple psychological consequences. It’s a story about power rather than love.
AM-B: It is definitely our English PEN winner, The Memory of the Air by Caroline Lamarche, translated by Katherine Gregor. I remember applying for the English PEN when we did not even have a website! It is an honor for Héloïse Press to be publishing this title. It’s a short, sharp, and beautiful monologue about an abusive relationship, with a fantastic introduction by Dominique Carlini-Versini. Lamarche is one of the most significant Belgian writers today. She is a wonderful writer, and I am delighted to be making her work available to a worldwide audience.
WWB: What’s next for each of you?
AM-B: In November we will publish our last 2022 title: Satisfaction by Nina Bouraoui, translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins. (Read an excerpt here.) A very poetic and strong, almost violent, narrative about a mother in conflict with her own sexuality in Algeria. It’s an excellent book. I am really looking forward to 2023, when we will publish our first title originally written in English: the second book by a wonderful Canadian author, Lisa Pike, about the lives of the working classes in Ontario, shifting among several female narrators. We will also have a fantastic Swedish title exploring very timely topics such as the millennial female body in social media, a Catalan book about gender and migration, and much more!
BM: Now that 3TimesRebel is starting to have a little more presence and is more visible, I am going to focus my efforts on generating a space on social media and the 3TimesRebel blog for debate about topics from the books that we want to highlight. We are going to gradually emphasize our blog more and more.