Upsetting Brooklyn: Brooklyn Rail (March 2011)

by Eleanor J. Bader

When Zohra Saed was a child, her father frequently spoke about two things: Islam and Afghanistan, her family’s country of origin. She found his stories riveting. In fact, she loved them so much that she started writing stories and poems of her own.

“I’d go to the elementary school library and doodle poems into the books,” she begins, her smile widening with each spoken word. “The teachers thought I was defacing school property but what I was actually trying to do was put myself up on a library shelf.”

It’s now nearly three decades later and Saed’s goals have not so much changed, as expanded. As co-publisher of the Brooklyn-based UpSet Press, she and her business partner and close friend, Robert Booras, seek to print poetry and prose that takes readers out of their social and political comfort zones.

The collaboration has resulted in three first editions since 2004: Nicholas Powers’s Theater of War; Matthew Rotando’s The Comeback’s Exoskeleton; and Cihan Kaan’s Halal Pork and Other Stories. In the fall of 2010 they released a second edition of Suheir Hammad’s Born Palestinian, Born Black, an out-of-print book of poems that had originally been published in 1996.

Saed and Booras met at Brooklyn College in the late 1990s when both were pursuing Master of Fine Arts degrees in poetry. “I was doing a ’zine called SPAWN and Zohra was doing a ’zine called RIPE GUAVA. We met in a feminist theory class and said, ‘Gee, we have to link up and join forces,’” Booras begins. “At first we shared networks and I was publishing her in my ’zine and vice-versa. After a few years of being each other’s cheerleaders, we decided to merge efforts and become a non-profit press.”

Their first impulse, he continues, was to promote writing that was ideologically progressive. “We saw that political poetry was frowned upon,” he says. “Poets were dismissed if they had too much of a message or made too much of a statement.”

Saed—more bubbly and effusive than the quieter, more laid-back Booras—nods in agreement but adds that the impetus to form a press was also a direct descendant of a punk-inspired Do It Yourself—DIY—ethos that continues to motivate them. “If you don’t see what you want out there, make it yourself,” she says. “For me, it’s about creating a library of books that I want to read.”

And the name? “The name took at least three years of back-and-forth,” Booras laughs. “The word upset has two meanings. One is about upsetting the status quo, but the second is about championing the underdog. When the lesser team wins it’s called an upset. Jamaican reggae and dub musician Lee Perry, who is also known as ‘The Upsetter,’ further inspired us. This sense of being a rabble rouser had a lot of appeal when we were debating different names.”

While Booras and Saed acknowledge that their initial vision has shifted a bit since UpSet incorporated in 2000—a feat accomplished with help from Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts—the desire to publish or republish what Booras calls “left out voices, voices that go against the grain,” remains ironclad.

“We’re trying to be innovative and add to what’s already out there,” Saed says. “We’re bringing back writers whose work has either been forgotten or that has never been translated into English.”  One such writer, Nadia Tueni, a Lebanese poet who died in 1983, is on their wish list. They are currently working with Tueni’s granddaughter to obtain the rights to the poet’s work. Once that is accomplished, the work will be translated from French to English; it will subsequently be introduced into the U.S. marketplace.

(Photo: Matthew Rotando reading at the launch of his book, The Comeback’s Exoskeleton)

For Booras and Saed, the process of recovering overlooked texts is exhilarating, and their enthusiasm for uncovering lost gems is obvious, even contagious. At the same time, they believe that it’s also important to stay contemporary. They call their most recent release, Cihan Kaan’s Halal Pork and Other Stories, a perfect fit for UpSet—a rhythmic, avant-garde look at North America through the eyes of a young, non-religious, Texas-born Muslim reared in the Borough of Churches.

The first fiction writer of Crimean Tatar descent to be published domestically, Kaan’s five-story collection defies categorization. His themes range from the treatment—and mistreatment—of Muslim Americans since 9/11, to the gentrification of Coney Island, to white racism in the punk music scene.

Perhaps surprisingly, Kaan wasn’t looking for a publisher when serendipity brought him into contact with Booras and Saed. Instead, the fledgling publishers found the fledgling writer at a screening of She’s Got an Atom Bomb, a film Kaan completed in 2004. Saed recognized Kaan from high school—they both graduated from Sheepshead Bay in 1993—and one thing led to another, the end result being the publication of Halal Pork in early 2011. Although readying the text for publication took several years, both publisher and author say they are thrilled with the result.

Publishing, however, is a constant process, with little down time between books. Indeed, despite ongoing efforts to promote the four titles they’ve published to date, Booras and Saed are working hard to map out their next four-to-five projects. Some, like a collection of poems by Jennifer Husk, are near completion and will be out later this spring. Next year’s books will include a novel by Champa Bilwakesh, whose work has appeared in the Kenyon Review and Monsoon Magazine. In addition, the first of several Tueni translations and a book of poems by Amir Parsa are in the pipeline for late 2012 or early 2013.

As for Booras and Saed personally, the two—published writers themselves—are hopeful that UpSet will take off in a big way, allowing them to quit their day jobs and focus their energies on bringing innovative, original writing to readers the world over.

“We’re always on the lookout for people who exercise the craft of writing in a way that’s smart,” Booras says.

Saed shakes her head vigorously and it is clear that she and Booras are of one literary mind. “We try not to be limited by style,” she says. “We’re looking for writing that feels beautiful and necessary and critical. Critical is important. Every one of our writers has a critique, an urgency. Cihan Kaan is a perfect example. His work has so much energy. It’s playful but offers a missing perspective on being here, in Brooklyn, and being turned upside down and into The Other by 9/11. It’s the post 9/11 experience without melancholy.”

And it has resonated.

Moustafa Bayoumi, author of How Does It Feel to be a Problem: Young and Arab in New York, calls Halal Pork “irreverent, urgent, funny, and refreshingly unpredictable.”

Suheir Hammad’s Born Palestinian, Born Black has been similarly lauded. Poet Naomi Shihab Nye calls Haddad’s collection “a brave flag over the dispossessed,” and E. Ethelbert Miller of the Institute for Policy Studies says that the poems “open a door to learning.”

It goes without saying that these comments please Booras and Saed. Nonetheless, they’re concerned about the future of the industry and are presently exploring e-publishing their future releases. That said, they’re optimistic about UpSet Press and are eager to see where this publishing venture will take them. Right now Booras says that they’re receiving two-to-three unsolicited manuscripts a week. While they don’t have the financial resources to publish a fraction of the talented writers who come their way, they can’t help grinning as they let their minds wander into the uncharted territory of what-ifs, whether it’s expanded sales or grants from foundations or individuals who champion cultural diversity.

“Edward Said once said something to the effect that he preferred a belligerent intelligence to conformity,” Booras quips. For him, Saed, and their small circle of authors, pushing the envelope of convention is a powerful reason for being.

Beautiful words, of course, are an added bonus.

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