impepho press: Holding Space for the Intersectional Feminist Voice of Africa

26 Mar 2019
Vangile Gantsho in conversation with Danai Mupotsa at the launch of their books by Impepho Press in Braamfontein last year. Photo: Boipelo Khunou

Impepho, reputedly one of the earliest herbs used by African healers, is a powerful indigenous medicine renowned for clearing spiritual pathways.

When vangile gantsho, Sarah Godsell and Tanya Pretorius joined forces to tell Pan African feminist stories, ‘impepho press’ was identified as the most appropriate name.

Pen SA recently interviewed Ms gantsho to learn more about the vision and backstory of impepho press as well as what drives its founders.

Q: What sparked the idea to start impepho press?

A: I think it was a long time in the making. I, for one, have always been interested in telling African stories. And from there, I became obsessed with Africans owning African stories. I spent my 20s interning at different publishing houses and when I was blessed with the opportunity to travel, I began to create networks around the continent. While pursuing my MA, I also found myself increasingly frustrated with not seeing myself in literature. I had always found bits of myself (mostly in the diaspora) but I was searching for something more, and closer to home.

All the while, Sarah and I had been working together on a number of poetry projects, and Tanya helped me self-publish my first collection. Tanya had experience in publishing and Sarah was already doing amazing work with teachers on how to teach history, which meant that the three of us serendipitously found each other ready and willing. We all wanted to publish books with a definite intersectional feminist voice within the African context, and I wanted to ensure that we were part of building a Pan African network of Africans owning African stories.

Q: Is there a story behind the name?

A: Another thing that brought us together was our commitment to healing in the work we do, individually and I suppose, now as a collective. All three of us hold space and have a vested interest in facilitating dialogue, so that we can be a part of better, healthier communities. Be it through teaching, feminist dialogues, and/or pursuing spiritual callings. So the short answer is: this name just felt right.

A more complicated answer, however, would be that impepho is an indigenous species of wild chamomile (found in Southern Africa). It’s usually burned as incense to communicate with ancestors or clear spiritual pathways and can also be used as a calmative – one of its many healing properties.

Tanya, Sarah and I want to create books that will make the world we live in better. Books that imagine us wildly and bravely. Books that create pathways between what we think is real and what we think is not. We want to read books that tell human stories, pretty and ugly, with sincerity and skill so we decided to write them. And if we could not write them ourselves, we would find them, and we would publish them.

This is how we burn impepho, both as a pathway, and as an offering.

Q: The writing you are currently publishing is mostly poetry. What is the motivation behind this?  Is there a plan to expand to other genres in the future?

A: Poetry is Sarah and I’s home language. We decided to start with what we know, and hopefully, as we grow, we will be able to expand into other genres. We are most interested in creative fiction, but we are not closed to creative non-fiction either. I think, for now, we want to focus on what we can afford. And that is the kind of literature we can edit ourselves, but if a manuscript that wasn’t poetry was compelling enough, we would definitely be open to putting in the work required to publish it.

Tanya Pretorius, vangile gantsho and Sarah Godsell at the Impepho Press launch. Image by: Nzuri Pingendo

Q: You are “committed to the sincere telling of African and international stories, celebrating both the fragility and resilience of human experience.”

The writers you have worked with come from different parts of Africa, yet their work is published in English. Have any of these works required translation? If so, how do you ensure that the writer’s voice remains intact? Finally, with 2019 proclaimed the ‘Year of Indigenous Languages’ by the UN, we were wondering if you can envisage impepho publishing works in languages other than English in the future?

A: Translation is so tricky. Important, and tricky. It is important because it directly speaks to ownership and access, particularly to the home communities of authors of colour. It is also tricky because one is, in essence, creating a new story. Finding a cultural equivalence and creating a story that resonates with the original.

We would definitely love to see more stories in non-European languages, and that is something we plan to contribute towards someday. Again though, I think because we are so small and publishing a book is so expensive, we really cannot afford to bring on translators at the moment. But, if we came across a manuscript where the story jumped out at us, and needed translation, we would go for it.

For now, the books we have chosen are English, not because we were specifically looking for English manuscripts but because these four titles were exactly the voices we wanted to hold space for. I think there is room for them to be translated and hopefully, we will get there sooner rather than later, but we also know it’s not as simple as translating Surviving Loss into isiZulu and putting it on the shelf. We would have to explore how best to share the new story of Surviving Loss that would emerge from such a translation so as to give it its best literary life.

So yes, you will definitely see impepho press publishing works in African indigenous languages in the future.

Q: What do you look for before publishing a writer?

A: Does this writer’s story speak to our ethos of intersectional feminism? Is the story beautifully written? Is it brave and exciting and messy? And does this story haunt us? I think that last question, always. We want to read something and feel changed.

Q: You describe yourselves as an intersectional-feminist publishing house. Why is it so important for publishing houses such as yours to exist? 

A: It is undeniable that women of colour continue to suffer horrendous atrocities the world over. It is also impossible to ignore that the lives of the LGBT+ community’s (especially people of colour) are under attack or compelling the community to go into hiding (at best) on this continent. Books affect how people think and view the world. Books can also play a huge role in validating one’s existence. Publishing houses such as impepho press, which encourage people to dream themselves into literature, make visible what the world continues to prove it hates, both as a mirror and as an act of defiance.

Q: Who (individuals or organisations/companies etc) inspires the work that you and your colleagues do at impepho?

A: Obviously, we adore Audre Lorde! As a guiding voice and constant reminder. Cassava Republic is doing incredible work and gives us a glimpse into what is possible. Modjaji Books, deep south and Botsotso remind us to “stay low and keep firing”.

Find out more by visiting impepho press’ website.

Featured image: vangile gantsho in conversation with Danai Mupotsa at the launch of their books by Impepho Press in Braamfontein last year. By Boipelo Khunou