Nonprofit publishers often are easy to identify. Many have a leftist slant and feature works that are ethnically diverse. Like any nonprofit organization, these presses have a stated mission and their work serves that mission. They can be small, like Durham's Carolina Wren Press, or large, like The New Press, based in New York.
Carolina Wren Press has a stated mission to publish underrepresented writers: women, people of color, people with disabilities, experimental writers.
Carolina Wren's most recent publication is a collection of stories, "Downriver," by Jeanne M. Leiby, a native of Michigan. It is a carefully wrought collection about the lives of women struggling to overcome the limitations of place, economics and their own dysfunctional lives. The women are strong, yet not simplistic; sometimes confused, sometimes hurt by their own choices, they find ways to persevere, if not thrive, in the lives they carve out for themselves.
In "Pink," the best story in the collection, an adult woman visits her 66-year-old mother, who is starting to break down physically and mentally. From the start, we know things are more complex than they seem. The mother greets the daughter with her threadbare bathrobe hung open to reveal her nakedness. The mother says, " 'This is you' and her fingers stiffly outline a single arch of (C-section) scars."
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The story appears to move straightforwardly. But the narrative is fractured in a cinematic manner. Movements forward and backward come as complete scenes separated by white space, so that time diminishes as an element. Flashbacks seem less like memories than contemporaneous scenes.
As the narrator discusses with her brother what to do about their mother, she explores past moments. Themes of incest subtly unfold. By the end, the reader feels the shards of the family's fractured life; the incest is symptomatic of a deeper illness. Sex, as is the case in other stories in this collection, is an attempt to find solace against tragedy - the death of a father, a drowned brother pulled from the river, one's own debilitating awkwardness.
Leiby received her MFA from the University of Alabama and has been published in major literary magazines. She is originally from the Detroit area, and the stories in "Downriver" often feature women from working-class backgrounds; sensitive, tough people who don't so much struggle to overcome difficulties, as take suffering and disappointment as aspects of life one simply has to endure. The matter-of-fact way the characters deal with difficult circumstances and behavior reflects an urban, Northern working-class approach to life. Problem-solving strategies are direct, confrontational, often verbally violent.
Leiby's world is one where roles are defined: "Mothers raised daughters. Fathers - with fists and curses tried to curb the wild streak violence and irresponsibility they passed on to their sons - and dreams are limited - His parents had one dream: they wanted to retire to a mobile home permanently secured on the Ohio shore of Lake Erie where the pine trees still grew sky-high."
Yet the seemingly slow-motion exterior lives of the characters hide frantic interior monologues of diffuse passion, anger and frustration.
Like all nonprofits, Carolina Wren Press relies on grants and donations to support their work, and so are less dependent on book sales. Like all small presses, drawing the attention of reviewers and distributors is always a problem. This is unfortunate, because Leiby's story collection is as strong as most of the ones published by major presses. The book is available at www.carolinawrenpress.org/.
The New Press
The New Press, also a nonprofit, is a much larger organization than Carolina Wren Press. The New Press aligns itself with NPR and PBS, both philosophically and in terms of scope. The press publishes writers who are ethnically diverse, as well as such well-known figures as John Edwards and Studs Terkel. They unabashedly address social problems: race, immigration, human rights, labor, etc.
Unlike Carolina Wren Press, The New Press, which publishes 70 books a year, does substantial marketing of its work. Its books are distributed by W.W. Norton, so review coverage and placement in bookstores isn't a problem.
Although unabashedly political, not all its publications are partisan. Despite its confrontational title, the anthology "Literature from the 'Axis of Evil' " is not an exercise in Bush-bashing. The poems and stories -- from Iran, Iraq, North Korea and other countries on the U.S. enemy's list -- are, for the most part, solid literary translations that focus on the abuse and suffering people face in their own countries.
"The Vice Principal" by Iranian Houshang Moradi-Kermani would stand out in any collection of Best American Short Stories. It opens with a vice principal, switch in hand, storming into a teacherless classroom that's out of control. "As his voice boomed ... the kids flew like frightened mice from the blackboards and the nooks and crannies of the classroom and stuffed themselves back in their seats." For punishment, he assigns the students to write an essay on "Who Renders the Greatest Service to Mankind."
One boy, seeking to find something beyond the predictable choices of doctors, teachers, engineers, centers his essay on the town body-washer, the person everyone despises, ridicules, flees from, yet the one person all turn to when somebody in their family dies and they need someone to wash the body and wrap it in a shawl for burial.
The vice principal, furious at what he believes is an attempt to mock him, beats the boy with a switch and expels him from school.
Like other work in "Literature from the 'Axis of Evil' " this story presents a harrowing view of a world where censorship is violently enforced and the individual's right to think is treated as a threat to the state.
Other social issues are dealt with in these stories and poems, too.
"A Tale of Music," by North Korean Kang Kwi-mi, details the life of poverty and racism he faced as a child growing up in Japan. "My father pulled a scavenger's wagon and my mother worked at a sardine factory where she sprinkled sugar, vinegar, and sesame seeds on the fish to be dried. She was fired even from that job because she was Korean."
Other stories offer insight into the lives of people who live in Sudan, Iraq, Cuba, Libya and elsewhere.
The work in this volume, while not as consistently strong as Leiby's work, would fit nicely in any American literary magazine. At times, in fact, despite the diverse subject matter, there is a sameness of voice to the pieces in this anthology that limits the diverse feel of it. The translations are smooth, accessible, highly literate, but perhaps a little too Westernized.
Still, for insight into the lives and beliefs of people from countries whose work is rarely made available to U.S. readers, it's hard to find a better compilation.