Indie Fiction Subscription #1: Introducing IGNOTA BOOKS
Each month, we'll introduce our subscription titles with exclusive interviews with their fierce, fabulous independent publishers. First up…
Ignota Books is an experiment in the techniques of awakening. We spoke to co-founders Sarah Shin and Ben Vickers about experiments, techniques and awakenings in advance of the publication of Ignota's first novel (and our very first indie fiction subscription title) UNKNOWN LANGUAGE by Hildegard of Bingen and Huw Lemmey, with Bhanu Kapil and Alice Spawls.
Read on for what?! how!?… wow.
1. Hi Sarah and Ben… First of all, how do you publish during an interplanetary cosmic shitshow? What keeps you going?
Adrenaline, mostly! While Mars in Aries has a combustible tendency, it also provides significant energy for getting things done. But let’s be clear, the ableist, extractive, performative ponzi scheme of productivity is the long slow shitshow that we don’t want to perpetuate in any way, especially not during these highly stressful circumstances. Doing by not doing, the Taoist teaching of wu wei [you can read more of Sarah's thoughts on wu wei in this new essay on Ursula K Le Guin and dreaming], is more than ever resonant for us during this utter shitshow of a year. We encourage taking some rest if and when possible #DECELERATE.
More seriously, Ignota’s programme was from the beginning in response to what we felt as an increasingly challenging set of political, historical, ecological, spiritual, psychological and material conditions for survival; the sense that the old narratives were no longer working to hold together the collective hallucination. In times in which there is a fracturing of consensus reality people often flock to more esoteric forms of knowledge—there is a treacherous, violent and immensely reductive trajectory of esotericism present in the West that manifests as lazy, parochial and nostalgic at best and worse, in a dubious continuum with nationalism and fascism. It seemed clear to us in 2017 that the mystical experience was set to become a major fault line in the emergent ‘culture wars’, and it therefore was essential that what had otherwise remained a private practice be extended into a public sphere against the co-optation of myth and magic by the right. Today we have Qanon and ecofascism, not to mention the instrumentalisation of Hindu mythology and yoga by Modi in India.
But outside of this broader set of coordinates, it is also important to state that Ignota is a path of exploration for ourselves and our friends—an effort to “find the others”. We refer to Ignota as an experiment in the techniques of awakening and it is the sense of experimentalism, trying things out, that guides our decision making process in everything we produce.
We want to share tools and practices that we have personally found helpful, healing and supportive of the resilience and flexibility needed to deal with uncertainty and stress. Perhaps the best example of this in our work is the annual Ignota Diary—journals serve us in our everyday, tracking our daily and yearly progression. So we wanted to create a container—in Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, she speaks of the potential for books to be medicine bundles. The diary is a medicine bundle that accompanies practice and which contains astrology and moon guides to connect with cyclical time, and offers seasonal rituals and tarot spreads to create a regular space for reflection and intention. Plus there’s a full holistic health appendix, with guides to acupressure, ayurveda, daily practice, herbalism, zen cleaning and psychedelic journeying. We’re incredibly excited that the 2021 edition will have new features for mushroom identification, dreamwork and kriyas; after all, we’ll be working through the cosmic shitshow hangover next year!
2. Ignota means “unknown”: is small press publishing always an unknown, or has creating Ignota been a particular journey into unknowables? (I’m thinking about the printing syndic that Shevek and his friends set up in Le Guin's The Dispossessed that leads to off-planet travel and the invention of the ansible, for example…)
Small press publishing is certainly much more open to the unknown as it is a labour of love, driven by passion and purpose, whereas in commercial big 5 publishing and the larger indies, profit and commerce are ultimately the greatest drivers, which are adverse to risk. Hence the (broadly speaking, there are exceptions of course) tendency to play safe and publish books that drive sales but rarely trades in the unknown, or lesser known, which has meant that mainstream literary culture, until recently, has been predominantly male, white and Anglophone.
We have taken risks in everything we have done to date and as uncertainty increases in the world, we remain faithful others will find something meaningful in what we are putting out into the world.
It’s important that we state that Ignota Books was always intended as a starting position for us. Books are what we love, and when we reflect on the tools that have been most instrumental in transforming our lives, it is always the book that we return to. But the desire is to do a plethora of other things, slowly. Last year we initiated the Crimson Hexagon, a ritual that we designed and distributed anonymously, inviting people to participate in a more embodied engagement with the material we are making.
In October, our Transmissions TV show will air on the 14th and 16th, and this again is an invitation to different ways of knowing. We suggest that you “Know nothing. Feel everything” by participating in a series of exercises, rather than presenting an intellectual inquiry as the mind-body dualism of Western thinking that has elevated rational thought is a dead-end and also a trap and a prison that knows only one way of sensing the world, as if the body isn’t highly intelligent, as if intuition and feeling and haptics aren’t also ways of knowing that have kept us alive as a species.
Community is also important to us and we have always enjoyed hosting live events, from parties to readings and talks. But the pandemic has changed that, we think possibly for the better. We now do a series of Ignota Hosts events, a series where we host writers and artists who we love and admire but who we don’t necessarily have the pleasure of publishing, as well as book launches for our own books, and the occasional fundraiser. Our next event is the launch of Unknown Language of course, on 17 September on Zoom, then we are thrilled to host Jenny Hval’s book launch for her next novel Girls Against God [pre-order here] with Johanna Hedva, who will be doing the birthchart of Jenny’s book, among other things.
3. Ignota’s new book UNKNOWN LANGUAGE shares its title with the phrase that gives the press its name, “lingua ignota,” the unknown language described by Hildegard of Bingen (who is the co-author of the book). Was it always the plan to publish something about/with Hildegard? Why is she so important to you/us now?
We often ask ourselves, wasn’t it always Hildegard’s intention that we start this press? Are we not but a vessel?
4. How was it working with Hildegard? And with Huw Lemmey, the other co-author? What brought Bhanu Kapil and Alice Spawls to the project?
In each project that we undertake we’re interested in worlding, asking “What is a world?” and “What kind of a world do you want to live in?” Unknown Language is possibly the first in the genre called speculative mysticism, and is an exercise in world-building through science fiction, for “the truth is a matter of the imagination”.
Worlds have protagonists, a mythos and an origin, though we like our origin stories to be mongrel, monstrous, not so into the purity discourse. And the heroic narrative is, as Le Guin says, akin to ‘the killer story’, while its expression as the hero complex is best processed in the therapy room. Bhanu Kapil’s work around monstrosity, hybridity, the humanimal, the migrant, mental health, the body and the racialised subject, is a lodestar against the techno-Heroic modality of linear progress, and inspired and captivated us from the beginning. We knew that she would be perfect to create a highly original, gently funny and touching new mythology that flips the colonialist underpinnings of discovery narratives in her introductory story where an orphan of civilisational collapse finds and activates fragments of Hildegard’s messages. She received and transformed our invitation in 2018 out of the blue into a time crystal in 2121 on the planet Avaaz, formerly known as Earth.
Huw Lemmey we invited to write a rendition of Hildegard’s story with her words, but to translate her teachings into a story that speaks to our age and that also resonates with her potent concept of renewal as viriditas, “greeness”: to re-green her work itself, to find ways of putting in conversation her experiences in the moral and spiritual ruins of her world with ours to offer some guidance for the challenges of 21st-century collective consciousness. Huw’s idiosyncratic perspective has created a richly imagined world that feels timeless and timely; the post-apocalyptic city is medieval but broken SIM cards litter the streets, giant beasts prowl and snarl by the mountains while cosmopolitans sup juice and coffee.
As ever, Huw’s vision is sensitive to queerness and desire, here to that embedded in Christian mystical texts, and he brings a depth and sophistication to the encounter between politics and religion in the historical middle ages. The result is a queer pilgrimage narrative that tells the story of the journey of a soul. We feel this image is the best gesture towards the nature of Huw and Hildegard’s collaboration.
Lastly Alice Spawls is a great fan of Hildegard’s music; she is widely considered to be the first composer in the Western tradition. We invited her to write the afterword, a biographical account of the life of the ‘real’ Hildegard as ‘Dr Alice Spawls’—a framing device that adds another layer to the questions and themes of authenticity, authorship, transmission and reception that run throughout the book as a whole.
5. You’ve published a single-author poetry collection (States of the Body Produced by Love, by Nisha Ramayya), a poetry anthology (Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry, co-edited by Sarah and Rebecca Támas), an experimental novel, Satoshi Nakamoto’s famous and elusive paper on bitcoin, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” – where/what next?
The next book is one that writes itself — written during the first summer of the coronavirus pandemic. We can’t say too much about it right now but we can say that it’s an intervention in literature that takes a hallucinatory journey through selfhood, ecology and intelligence via cyberpunk, ancestry and biosemiotics.
Our dear friend and philosopher Federico Campagna, author of the exhilarating book Technic and Magic, shared this description last week after reading the manuscript: “This book isn’t just a futuristic project about consciousness and technology. It is an anatomical theatre displaying the ruptured limbs of the self, the tendons binding thought and voice, the lymphatic dialogue between freedom and necessity. Peek into it, and you’ll gain a glimpse of a mystery that has been with us since time immemorial.”
Then we’re publishing the Atlas of Anomalous AI, edited by Ben and K Allado-McDowell, which maps the current complexity arising from our relationship to emergent intelligence, and the relevance of more ancient systems of knowledge from which it springs. Constructed as a wildly associative constellation of ideas, stories, artworks and historical materials, the Atlas draws on art historian Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas and sets forth an alternative approach to thinking through AI in this moment. The volume is made up of artworks, texts and stories from contributors including: Ramon Amaro, Jorge Luis Borges, Federico Campagna, Arthur C. Clarke, Nora N. Khan, Catherine Malabou, Matteo Pasquinelli, Nisha Ramayya, Hito Steyerl, Pablo Amaringo, Ithell Colquhoun, DeepDream, Susan Hiller, Hildegard of Bingen, Carl Jung, Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz, Paul Laffoley, Suzanne Treister among many others.
THEN!!!! We are going to take a pause. The Great Conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn in Aquarius that happens on the 21 December this year marks an epochal shift from the Earth Era to the Air Era, the end of a 200 year cycle, as memorialised by our 2020 Interplanetary Cosmic Shitshow Longsleeve. Given that the world may look quite different from this new vantage point, it seems necessary to take a moment to acclimatise.
6. What’s the most important thing people can do to support the small/indie press ecology?
Perhaps the first thing is to understand the economics of small press publishing, which Preti Taneja says are such that it’s “basically anti capitalist.” When books are sold in shops and on Amazon and other online retailers, pretty much half the cover price is what the publisher takes to recoup printing and production costs. So bigger publishers tend to publish books at a higher print run to bring down the unit cost; you can see the reasons behind the tendency to focus on big-name authors at the expense of a flourishing diversity of different kinds of authors and experimental forms.
To support publishers who are breaking boundaries and putting fresh, exciting perspectives into circulation, you can buy directly from small press and independent publisher websites, and of course the indie bookstores which do so much to support us!!
We really, really appreciate any shares, boosts and photos of our books online through social media as unlike bigger houses, we don’t have the time (see aforementioned tons of other projects, wage labour, etc) or resources (see above, basically anti capitalist) for marketing and promotion, and we love to see people enjoying our books.
In spirit of this we’d like to end by giving some shout-outs and recommendations of independent publishing and organisations that are attempting to bring another world into being through independent work:
The White Pube has gone from strength to strength, recently launching a no strings attached Writer’s Grant for working-class writers and a library of successful funding applications. You can support their work on Patreon.
Dark Study is a new, collective, experiment in emancipatory knowledge production centred on art describing itself as “a place of resource redistribution aimed towards nothing less than liberatory ends”. Its founders and advisers announced so far are incredible already, including Che Gossett and Jesse Darling. The program is FREE and the application deadline is 28 September > https://www.darkstudy.net/ If you would like to support Dark Study, please visit their Patreon or GoFundMe pages.
Arika is a Scotland-based independent political arts organisation that has recently been recognised for their brilliant, tireless work spanning disciplines and activism by the Turner Bursaries award.
Auto Italia’s forthcoming digital programme ‘PICO: Un parlante de África en América’ situates picó culture within a discussion on sound system cultures as sites of sonic resistance across text, mix and image commissions exploring the global resonances of African diasporic sound within music production.
The White Review is one of our favourite journals and a crucial part of independent literary culture in the UK. We loved their review of Nisha Ramayya’s States of the Body Produced by Love.
MAP magazine is an artist-led publishing project and is an essential space for imaginative commissioning. We are finding much in their Tenancy series by guest commissioning editor Helen Charman, which invites writers and artists to join her investigation into the nature of renting.
We are extremely excited to read A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing, forthcoming from the ever-brilliant Peninsula Press! Could there be a more urgently needed exercise in antifascist non binary thinking? Could there be a more generous and capacious thinker than So Mayer? We think not.
Obviously everything that Fitzcarraldo Editions publishes is gold but we’re especially thrilled with the new edition of Virginie Despentes’ cult book King Kong Theory.
Makina Books is a bijoux small press and their publishing of Strangers by Rebecca Tamás is gorgeously handled with care.
Our favourite magical bookstore in London, Treadwell’s, has published their first book! Treadwell's Book of Plant Magic is by Christina Oakley Harrington, Treadwell’s founder and force of nature.
We loved Caspar Heinemann’s Novelty Theory from The 87 Press and are excited to see what they do next.
Hajar Press is a new independent political publishing house run by and for people of colour launching in 2021 with an incredible roster including Lola Olufemi.
Let a thousand small presses bloom!