By Yvette Lisa Ndlovu
I’ve always been told that its difficult if not impossible to publish a short story collection these days. My stories are populated by Black people, are set between Zimbabwe and the USA, and center the lives of Black women. My debut Drinking from Graveyard Wells is a genre-bending collection that blurs the lines between magical realism, social horror, AfroSurrealism, and fantasy. The stories contain elements of the surreal to address the very real horrors and absurdities of patriarchy and capitalism on Black women.
Being a debut author from Zimbabwe, I thought my chances of landing a publisher for these weird, unapologetically African stories was a pipe dream. Then I stumbled across the University Press of Kentucky’s New Poetry and Prose Series whose mission is to seek out contemporary fiction and poetry that “exhibit a profound attention to language, strong imagination, formal inventiveness, and awareness of one’s literary roots.”
The Press is at the forefront of discovering fresh voices from the margins such as Rion Amilcar Scott’s Insurrections. I submitted to the 2021 New Poetry and Prose Series immediately, a straightforward process through their website that involved a cover letter and filling out a Google form. That is the beauty of university presses. They are less driven by conventional notions of marketability, notions that often privilege white authors and western forms of storytelling. University Presses seek out titles that may be too experimental or niche for other publishers and that appeal to both academic and trade markets. With the University Press of Kentucky, I found a publisher that was excited to champion African story forms.
Throughout the process, I’ve worked with a small but hands-on team that was enthusiastic about my ideas during the editorial process and constantly asked questions and listened to get it right. One of the things that was important to me was to have an African cover artist and the team worked to ensure Ivorian surrealist painter Obou Gbais’ artwork graced the cover. Working with UPK has been a collaborative partnership. It is no surprise that university presses have shepherded groundbreaking work by Black writers like Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies (West Virginia University Press) and Go Ahead in the Rain by Hanif Abdurraqib (University of Texas Press). University Presses are one’s to watch out for.