02 April 2016

Adda with Sunandini Banerjee on 6 March 2016 - an audience response.

In this note, adda participant Lav Kanoi writes about the multiple roles that Sunandini Banerjee performs at Seagull, and also about the extraordinary work and work-environment that Seagull provides for its remarkable employees to do remarkable things.

On 6 March 2016, down a nondescript lane in southern Kolkata, Sunandini Banerjee held adda with regulars and irregulars at Ranan. Sunandini is a publishing professional at Seagull Books where she dons two different hats: an editor’s and a designer’s. Accordingly, our adda that evening revolved around those two twin stars of her life in books. She began with a statement on the editing side of things, pointing out how copyediting is a self-effacing exercise for it must not be evident that there was an editor between the reader and the text (or, perhaps more appropriately, between the writer and the text). But there are many different aspects to an editor’s life, and there exist editorial interventions that, if I may say so, thrive on drawing attention to itself.

A visible example of this is in Seagull Books’ recent publication, the first English translation of Anselm Kiefer’s Notebooks (Volume 1: 19998–99). Working on this text, Sunandini began her engagement as any good copyeditor should, checking for style and consistency, dotting the i's and crossing the t’s. But occasional lines and phrases kept calling out to her softly. The writer had been interlacing his work with references to a variety of texts—lines from novels, poems, scriptures, astronomical and astrological texts—and sometimes was or was not indicate these quotations typographically. Her curiosity piqued with these sudden shifts in his tone and register, Sunandini embarked upon a research project of sorts, annotating each of these with the appropriate source. Suddenly, from copy-editing the text, Sunandini was commenting on it. A scholar emerged forcefully from the scratchings of the copyeditor. Now, the copyeditor was facilitating the reading of a text not by being a transparent glass, rather by acting as a focal lens, directing the reader towards hidden meanings in the text.

Notwithstanding this interesting shift in roles, one may argue that such an intervention might deprive the alert reader of the pleasure of ‘discovering’ the work by himself or herself. 

I should draw my reader’s attention to the other delightfully visible aspect of Sunandini’s work: that of an illustrator and cover designer. Sunandini shared a splendid portfolio of her design work with us, which included covers of books, pages and illustrations for stories.

If editing requires a complete perusal of the text, design of this kind generally depends on a less lengthy engagement. Often, there is only a small brief that accompanies the assignment. Typically, for cover or book design, although the designer is allowed to build only a perfunctory relationship with the text under treatment, she must somehow distill the book into its cover. This is not to say that the entire text is powerfully compressed into a few compelling visuals (is that possible?). My point is that, in Sunandini’s case, the same person carries out a very different aspect of the production of the book. However, Sunandini’s remarkable dual-position at Seagull also gives her the opportunity of a more comprehensive visual engagement with occasional texts. In this respect, the publication of Victor Halfwit is as remarkable as the story itself. When the translation of this work was commissioned from Thomas Bernhard’s German original, the firm readied itself to publish a voluminous book. However, nobody at Seagull had seen the German original. So when Martin Chalmer’s translation arrived, they discovered that the story spread over all of two pages. So, the mad-hatters at Seagull transformed the story, quite literally, into an extraordinary graphic novel (if I may use the term) of two-hundred odd pages.

If in her copyediting role at Seagull, Sunandini must efface her self and her presence from the text, in her role as an illustrator, she must imprint her creative self on the text, and sometimes across different texts. 

I cannot express how delighted I was by the story of the work, and the transformation the work underwent at Seagull. I am also astounded by the kind of spirit that Seagull and its people display in their engagement with different kinds of texts. Indeed, it is a testament to the remarkable organization it is that Seagull facilitates the making of such work by supporting remarkable people do remarkable things.