Publisher Interview: Sunyoung Lee and Kaya Press [in Bookslut]
Early this year, at almost 18 years old, Kaya Press flew the nest. Leaving behind the comfort and familiarity of New York’s publishing world, the non-profit indie specializing in “books from the Asian diaspora,” moved offices across the country to Los Angeles. Now comfortably ensconced in the Department of American Studies & Ethnicity on the University of Southern California campus, Kaya has a new address, new community, new books, new staff, and is definitely basking in new energy.
With all the latest changes, the one Kaya constant is Sunyoung Lee… although she does have the fairly new title of “Publisher and Editor.” Founded in 1994 by Soo Kyung Kim, a postmodern Korean writer, Kaya was originally intended to house a journal of Korean literature-in-translation, which eventually morphed into Muae, a spirited anthology highlighting the newest in Asian Pacific American writing that Library Journal named one of “The Best Magazines of 1995.” Muae fell victim to the Korean economic collapse of 1997, but under the bolstering management of Juliana Koo and Lee, who took over that year as managing editor and editor, respectively, Kaya managed to survive – and thrive – living up to its namesake: “Kaya was the name of a tribal confederation of six Korean city-states that existed from the middle of the first until the sixth century CE,” their website officially explains. “Although the Kaya kingdom was an iron-age culture, it is remembered as a utopia of learning, music, and the arts due to its trade and communication with China, Japan, and India.”
Kaya Press channels that international history, feeding its artistic vision by regularly pushing the boundaries of the Asian Pacific Islander (API) diaspora through the titles the tenacious press has published thus far. A small sampling might include an enhanced reprint of the groundbreaking 1937 classic East Goes West by the first Korean American novelist Younghill Kang; American Book Award-winning The Unbearable Heart by Japanese German American poet Kimiko Hahn; Chinese Australian Brian Castro’s already-major-award-winning-in-Australia novel, Shanghai Dancing; the lauded Commonwealth Prize-winning Where We Once Belonged by Sia Figiel, which was the first novel by a Samoan woman to be published in the United States; and Migritude by Kenyan-born, South Asian-descended, citizen-of-the-world performance artist Shailja Patel.
The word “kaya” echoes the diversity of its authors: in addition to its ancient Korean representation, in Japanese, Kaya is also “summer night” or a type of yew tree that withstands harsh environmental conditions; in Malay, kaya means “rich”; in Indonesian, “prosperous”; in Tagalog, “to be able”; in Sanskrit, “body”; in Turkish “rock”; in Zulu, “home.”
For Lee, home is where the press is. In order to sustain it, she’s worked endless day jobs and freelance gigs – from Billboard magazine to Publishers Weekly – in addition to teaching the requisite composition classes, to pay the bills so she could nurture Kaya well into its teenage years. Now that she’s settled into rooms of her own at USC, Lee’s ushering out the next set of Kaya titles: Lament in the Night, which includes two 1920s Japanese American novellas by Shōson Nagahara, translated by Andrew Leong; The Hanging on Union Square, an experimental novel originally published in 1935 by H. T. Tsiang; Water Chasing Water by Seattle-based poet Koon Woon; and Korean American adoptee Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut’s debut poetry in Magnetic Refrain.
It’s been a full decade since we officially talked about Kaya. So, what’s your latest, greatest news?
The biggest news, as you know, is that we moved to LA this year. We’re publishing a bunch of new books, and a lot of wonderful new people are working with us. This is the largest group of people we’ve had involved with Kaya. USC gives us funding to pay for two part-time grad students – they’re 25% part-time – and we also get a lot of volunteers. Their involvement – both undergraduate and graduate students – means while they learn hands-on about the publishing process, I’ve been able to do more strategic work, to put more energy into Kaya, and that’s been really gratifying. [… click here for more]
Publisher interview: “Feature: Sunyoung Lee and Kaya Press,” Bookslut.com, December 2012