Comma press’ Banthology: Stories from Unwanted Nations was commissioined as a direct response to the imposition of President Trump’s immigration ban which has seen travel to the US restricted for visitors from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Syria. A collaboration with US indie Deep Vellum, the anthology, which features stories from these countries, explores the impact of restrictions on movement and serves as a "testament to the importance of creative resistance in turbulent times", Comma Press editor Sarah Cleave says.
Natasha Onwuemezi: How did you come up with the idea for the anthology?
Sarah Cleave: When Trump announced the first travel ban, we watched the chaos unravel at airports across the US and knew we had to do something to show our outrage. The anthology was a way to look beyond the headlines and to explore the impact of restrictions on movement more generally. It was also a way for us to give voice to a set of nations the White House had dismissed as being populated entirely by terrorists.
How did you choose the writers?
Comma has worked with authors from the Middle East and North Africa over the years, so we were inundated with offers of support. Some authors have appeared in Comma anthologies (such as Sudanese author and activist Rania Mamoun), but the majority we are publishing for the first time.
We tried to work with writers who had been affected by the ban. One of the authors, Anoud, moved to New York from Iraq a month before the first ban, and was, like many others, scared to leave in case she wasn’t allowed to return. A number of other contributors are journalists or activists, and had a great deal to say about the implications of the ban.
What are your thoughts on the final stories?
I’m really pleased with all of them. Considering it is a collection of only seven stories, the breadth of interpretations of the brief is astounding: from the satirical, to the fantastical, even to the biblical. There are certain symbols that crop up a few times—transient spaces such as airports, for example—but each story offers a different perspective on the myriad ways in which individuals can be affected by regressive, divisive actions.
What do you think is the role of projects such as this in turbulent political times?
Good stories, transmitted through literature, cinema, music or any other artform, help us make sense of the world. They invite us to discover what it’s like to be someone else, someone who may be arbitrarily defined as an “other”. The role of creative projects is to work towards expanding people’s view of the world and the people in it, and counteract the insular narratives portrayed by some of the most powerful.
What is the role of publishers in such times?
With [the above] in mind, the role of the publisher is to platform counter-narratives when they can, and champion voices which are at risk of being silenced or sidelined by those in positions of power. As publishers, we have a responsibility to ensure that the books we are publishing reflect the world as it actually is, rather than the way that we are told it is.
How does the Banthology title fit in with Comma’s overall ethos?
Banthology is a representation of all that we love about literature. As with every book we publish, we wanted to platform excellent writing by both established and emerging writers who aren’t afraid to experiment with style and form. When that comes together in an attempt to disrupt Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric, well, what could be better?
What impact do you hope the anthology will have on society and readers?
We hope this collection will enrich, enlighten and entertain, and also demonstrate the value and responsibility of literature during times of upheaval. We want it to spark dialogue and debate, and to showcase as many different experiences: the travel ban not only affects those living inside the so-called “banned nations”, but also those that have sought peace and freedom in exile.
How did the Deep Vellum collaboration work?
Deep Vellum is by far the coolest translation publisher in Dallas, if not the world, so when Will Evans contacted us about the collection, we jumped at the chance to collaborate. Comma led on the editorial side for this particular title, but we’ve been using our collective might to market the book and push it into as many hands as possible, on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s hopefully the start of a very long and fruitful relationship. Watch this space!