Tilted Axis Press is an independent publishing house that has enthralled me for many years. It was founded by translator Deborah Smith in 2015, and I spoke with her after she won the Man Booker International Prize alongside Han Kang for their English translation of The Vegetarian.
The Vegetarian was first published in Korea in 2007, sold 20,000 copies and had a small but dedicated fan base. Whilst, at first, it struggled to find a home at a UK publishing house, once it was released its popularity soared both in the UK and back home in South Korea, selling over 400,000 copies that year. The week I spoke with Deborah, Han Kang’s books were simultaneously first, second and fifth place in South Korea’s bestseller chart.
“The success of The Vegetarian has proven that nationality isn’t a barrier,” Deborah said. “It’s shown that taking a risk on an unknown author, language or country that people aren’t familiar with is actually what people appreciate, rather than being handed something they have read fifty times before.”
The Vegetarian, a story split into three parts, is about a woman who makes the sudden decision to change her life in a way that is not sanctioned by her family or wider society. The lack of control she has is reflected in the structure of the novel, which denies her a voice. We only know her via the characters surrounding her, the ones who are attempting to stifle her as she seeks a life off the page, unobserved and free.
Deborah became a translator in quite a brazen way, by changing her Twitter bio to her dream job of ‘Korean translator’, which meant several publishers and agents stumbled across her profile when trying to find a home for Han Kang’s work and got in touch. The Vegetarian was the first book she translated. She’s bold and passionate about what she does, and she founded Tilted Axis Press to reflect this. The books they publish are mainly by women and mainly in translation; they offer translator mentorships and are dedicated to improving access to the publishing industry.
“We’re publishing books that excite me, in many different Asian languages, mostly books by women: books that probably would not get translated into English otherwise — because of representation not because of aesthetics,” Deborah explained. “Simply because if you are a woman writing in Malaysia and don’t speak English you are much less likely to get an international agent.”
Tilted Axis Press have published fiction, poetry and short stories. Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda, translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton, is a series of traditional Japanese ghost stories retold for a contemporary audience. Female phantoms glide across the pages in various forms. In the first story, Peony Lanterns, two ghostly women return to Earth as salespeople, who invite themselves into people’s homes and refuse to leave until they purchase something. Another short story collection Arid Dreams by Duanwad Pimwana, translated from the Thai by Mui Poopoksakul, tracks the lives of 13 working-class characters suspended in their routines. Many of these tales have a sharp edge, one quite literally with a woman carving children out of pieces of wood before examining a real child’s skin and wondering how easily her knife would cut through it — whether she could carve her own child out of somebody else’s.
The novels they publish are just as vibrant. One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun, translated from the Korean by Jung Yewon is set in an electronic market in Seoul. Its two central characters, Eungyo and Mujae, are treated as cogs in society’s machine. This book breathes magical realism and hauntings, the twist being that it’s the characters who haunt themselves — their shadows detaching to rise up against injustice. The Impossible Fairytale by Han Yujoo translated from the Korean by Janet Hong is a piece of metafiction that ties itself in knots. Beginning with a character called The Child, who wants everything a spoiled girl takes for granted, it holds up a series of mirrors to discuss the impossibility of writing the self.
Their pamphlet series Translating Feminisms includes poetry from Indonesia, Vietnam, Nepal and Korea alongside essays asking how feminism translates and what form it takes around the world. One of my favourite poems from this series is by Kutti Revathi called ‘Light is a Prowling Cat’ translated from the Tamil by Lakshmi Holmstrom, a beautiful extended metaphor of daylight arriving like a sleepy cat: ‘Seeing that the rain has gone / it spreads out its shadow-shop / upon the clustering trees, / then climbs up the tent-face / to sit and watch the world.’
Happily, I still have a few of their titles sitting on my shelves waiting to be read and I’m eagerly awaiting some of their 2021 releases, too. Next on my to-read pile is Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge, translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Tiang, a novel about a cryptozoologist who has been hired to uncover fabled beasts living in the city — some of these have been hiding for centuries, and others have just been engineered as artificial beasts.
This book club review of Tilted Axis Press was written by the author and poet Jen Campbell, whose latest book is The Girl Aquarium.
Images by Kendal Noctor.