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BOOKS

South Asian children’s books not bound by stereotype

Mango and Marigold Press founder Sailaja Joshi
Mango and Marigold Press founder Sailaja JoshiEmily Tirella/Courtesy Mango and Marigold Press

Sailaja Joshi founded what is now known as Mango and Marigold Press in 2014. Her venture (originally called Bharat Babies) has since blossomed into an award-winning independent press for diverse South Asian children’s books. Over the last 18 months, Joshi’s expertise as CEO was increasingly sought out by mainstream publishers eager to find voices like the ones she cultivates.

She almost didn’t make it this far, though.

In 2019, Joshi reached a low point. She was bootstrapping the Somerville-based press while working another job full time and raising two children. She had been rejected for funding by multiple venture capitalists and angel investors. Joshi thought about closing down the press. But then she noticed Payal Doshi’s manuscript for the middle-grade novel “Rea and the Blood of the Nectar” in the submission pool.

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Reading it, Joshi realized how much it would have meant to her 12-year-old self. She guessed, correctly, that the novel had been rejected by all other publishers. The author had almost given up. The two women “saved each other,” Joshi says now. “Rea” is due for release on June 15, the first in a trilogy and the first middle-grade novel released by Mango and Marigold. We sat down with Joshi over Zoom to get her thoughts on “Rea,” the publishing industry, and her journey as a business owner.

Q. Can you say why the new book appeals to you? And what you hope readers will get from it?

A. “Rea and the Blood of the Nectar” is a fantasy, which means it takes place in a mystical, magical world … which for our author was a mixture of this European-Indian existence. She read a lot of European novels growing up. A lot of the feedback from previous publishers had been like, we want her to spend more time in India. There’s this assumption that because she’s Indian she needs to share her background, her history. We don’t do that with white-centered stories. So I’m really excited for there to be a lot more stories in the world that are written by South Asians, that have South Asian dominant characters, that do not even try to look at the stereotypes.

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Q. Can you talk about how your experience in publishing has changed over the past couple of years?

A. The industry could have cared less about me, frankly. And sometimes it still feels that way. I had no background in publishing, and that’s the only reason I would have started this company. Because let me tell you: It is an uphill battle, with ogres throwing rocks at you. But now I have this immense opportunity, where I have professional stalwarts listening to me, and following in my footsteps, and starting to do the stuff that I have always been doing. You’re starting to see that shift in the larger publishing houses, recognizing that there is an incredible value in storytelling that is representative.

I hesitate to even use the term “diverse,” [because] it’s just representative. It’s putting more books on shelves that represent the communities, and doing so in a way that celebrates joy and existence and not just sorrow and teaching for white communities.

Q. You mentioned the conversation should focus less on diversity and more on representation. Can you say more about what you find problematic about the concept of diversity?

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A. I’m grateful for one of our authors, Gayatri Sethi, whose book “Unbelonging,” comes out in August. She is an intersectional feminist and we share that background. She has been very thoughtful, that “diverse” is a problem because it frames it in the reflection of white supremacy. Somehow whiteness is the normal, is the standard, and anything other than that is “diverse.” And that’s not true.

These stories have been minoritized very purposely by publishing. I frequently get asked, how do you find the authors? I’m like, Oh honey, I have no problem finding authors. There was no lack of authors 10 years ago, 20 years ago. It was the systematic nature of the industry that didn’t allow for different voices, for representative voices. And now, in a space where we have social media, where self-publishing is a thing, where if you have a story and $1,000 you can make a book — that’s where you started to see this shift in reclaiming what it means to have a book, to create a book, and to share knowledge.

Q. What do you see as next steps for the company?

A. Continuing to share stories that have gone untold. I love to tell authors to send me the thing that was rejected. And send it to me in its original form, not the form after you got some editor feedback and you whitewashed it a little bit more to please that gaze. I absolutely have an editing process, to be very clear. But very rarely are we ever going to be like, no you can’t do that.

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Q. Reflecting back on your time with Mango and Marigold, what do you think has been the biggest lesson?

A. To know and understand my strength. And then hire people for those things that I wasn’t very good at. That was a big learning curve. I kept thinking as an entrepreneur, I had to do it myself. ... And if we close down, if and when that happens, I will be proud, because my stories will continue to exist in the world. Those books are favorites, those books are loved by children and their parents, and it helps for communities to feel and be seen.

Interview was edited and condensed. Victoria Zhuang can be reached at victoria.zhuang1@protonmail.com.