How did you end up becoming an agent for such a wide array of writers from all over South Asia?
I was very academically inclined in school, to the extent that my friends used to poke fun at me for studying all the time. My world revolved around examinations and rankings. I did not have a smidgen of imagination or creativity. I was not a voracious reader either and never looked forward to the Library period. I took up commerce in 11th standard and had plans to establish a career in the financial sector.
I think my whole brain was rewired after a serious illness at the age of eighteen. I began to take refuge in writing and reading books and lost all interest in formal education. Though I did end up doing a BBA course at a second-grade institute, I must say it didn’t help me at all.
After a lot of grappling with and exorcising my demons I managed to write a book. It did the rounds with some publishers through a friend of my father’s friend. Even the brilliant Khushwant Singh read it but he told my uncle that he found it ‘too verbose.’
A lot of people don’t know that I was a victim of one of the most notorious publishing scams in the UK in early 2000. I had a Scottish agent, but he knew no one in publishing. He used to send out elaborate submission updates to his clients, naming the who’s who of the publishing world, without actually making a submission. The scam was exposed by an editor who told another victim that she had never received her manuscript from the agent.
Sometime in 2008, I dashed off a Facebook message to Mita Kapur of Siyahi, asking if she would be willing to consider me for a role in her new literary consultancy. She responded immediately and for a brief period, I read manuscripts for her agency. Since it was a freelance position, I was willing to do a lot more, so she put me in touch with the proprietor of Platform magazine and also the novelist, Namita Gokhale. I proof-read some issues of the magazine.
Those seven months with Namita Gokhale changed my life. No MFAs or fancy publishing degrees could have taught me as much about publishing as interning with one of its big figures did. All of a sudden, I was thrust into the close-knit world of authors, editors, literary gatherings, festivals and so on.
Despite being based in India, you are known for representing key Pakistani authors, including Sabyn Javeri, Haroon Khalid, and Anam Zakaria. Why the interest in Pakistani literature in English?
My first author from Pakistan, the anthropologist Haroon Khalid, got in touch with me after a well-known Pakistani publishing house refused to publish his book on the festivals celebrated by Pakistan’s minorities. Similarly, his wife, Anam Zakaria, also approached me after submitting her book to a well known editor. I remember how I and my editor Rahul Soni read her sample chapters overnight so that we wouldn’t end up losing a potentially good book.
The well-known literary scholar and translator, Rakhshanda Jalil, who worked with me on three books, was immensely helpful, putting me on to writers like Ali Hashmi, Ali Akbar Natiq, Sabyn Javeri and Raza Naeem.
After working on some of these books, I understood the richness and diversity of literature emerging from Pakistan. How else can one explain formidable editors signing a 22 year old Pakistani writer for the translation of an obscure poet, or a 25 year old journalist for a book on Aga Shahid Ali?
I also believe that debut writing from Pakistan, in general, is more finished and promising than debut writing from anywhere else in the subcontinent.
As an agent based in India, how is your work is bringing audiences across borders together?
I think Pakistani writing has always been popular in India but it’s never been as big as it is today, in terms of both volumes and genres. That’s why I feel particularly proud about my debut writers from the region, because without proper representation and championing they would have struggled to get a response from publishers, let alone publishing offers.
The increasingly insular UK and US markets mean that now writers with global potential (someone like Sabyn Javeri or Nadia Akbar, to give examples from my list) may also prefer to sign with a desi agent than a foreign one. So, there is a terrific momentum around Pakistani Writing in English, but it has to be sustained through good new books and media.
What are some of the trends you are seeing in writing in English from South Asia?
I think fiction, especially literary fiction, is getting completely overwhelmed and overshadowed by non-fiction. The editors here still look up to the UK and US markets when it comes to literary fiction and home-grown authors don’t command as much attention. That’s why there is a need for strong local influencers more than anything else right now.
How do you find new talent?
I relied on mentors like Rakhshanda and other satisfied authors to put me on to new writers. Now, because of my success rate, I believe I have become the default first option for most new writers. Having said that, I reject a lot of writers from Pakistan, some of whom have managed to sign with rival agents and get deals from major publishing houses.
Is there anything you particularly look for when you are thinking about representing someone?
Originality and style are very important to me for fiction. I spotted this newness in Sabyn Javeri’s Nobody Killed Her, SS Mausoof’s Warehouse, Nadia Akbar’s forthcoming Goodbye Freddie Mercury and most recently Mirza Athar Baig’s Hassan’s State of Affairs translated very adeptly by Haider Shahbaz. In non-fiction, like non-fiction written anywhere in the world, the topicality of the subject and the pedigree of the writer make all the difference.
Where do you see things heading for writing in South Asia in English?
Publishing itself is going through a major change because of increase in production costs, competition from new channels of entertainment like Netflix, and the dwindling attention span of readers. As a result, only a very small fraction of good debut writers, especially in the literary genres, are able to break through.
I seriously don’t know what makes a book ‘great’ or a ‘bestseller’. I wish I knew. However, I don’t see a dip in momentum for Pakistani writers because they show so much promise and sell as well as Indian writers.
Last, but not the least – three books we should be reading RIGHT NOW?
Arnab Ray’s Mahabharata Murders, Parimal Bhattacharya’s No Path In Darjeeling Is Straight and Sabyn Javeri’s Nobody Killed Her. Needless to say, they’re all books represented by me!
Did you enjoy this article? Why not read our interview with author, Sabyn Javeri?
Take a look at the books Kanishka has published in our catalogues: Nobody Killed Her by Sabyn Javeri
Read Kanishka’s tips on getting published here