The biggest decision in publishing is ‘who gets published?’ Whose ideas, world views, and idioms get added to the great library?
Anasuya Sengupta is the Co-founder and Co-Director of Whose Knowledge?, a global campaign to center the knowledge of marginalized communities on the Internet. Before that, she was Chief Grantmaking Officer at the Wikimedia Foundation, and a program director at the Global Fund for Women. She is a thoughtful, pragmatic leader whose work continually inspires and effects change – not least at Wikipedia, one of the world’s most prominent publications.
In this in-depth conversation, Arthur and Anasuya discuss the bigger picture: where book publishing fits into the universe of human knowledge, and what that means for our decisions as book-makers.
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Arthur Attwell 0:03
Hello, and welcome to How Books Are Made, a podcast about the art and science of making books. I’m Arthur Attwell.
Arthur Attwell 0:21
In our home, we have an enormous collection of printed books. Several meters of them, floor to ceiling, and when I look across those shelves I am looking at a record of my own intellectual life. It is a deeply affirming thing to see your worldview laid out like that in all the splendor of print. This is a gift I don’t take for granted. There are many people in the world whose lived experience has rarely been expressed in books. How did this happen? Well, there are many important decisions that people make when publishing books. Over time, over many books, those decisions add up into trends and patterns and customs and they come to define what we think publishing is. The decisions coalesce into what constitutes ‘the work of the publisher’. The publishers version of the chicken or the egg might be, what came first the decisions you made or the decisions you’re expected to make?
Arthur Attwell 1:28
Accumulated over time, the biggest of these decisions is who gets published? Whose ideas, worldviews, and idioms get added to the great library and what can we do to make sure that the great library gets greater still with every publishing decision we make? Someone I have long admired for her thoughtfulness, expertise and work on these questions is Anasuya Sengupta. Anasuya is the co-founder and co-director of Whose Knowledge?, a global campaign to centre the knowledge of marginalised communities on the internet. Before that, she was Chief Grantmaking Officer at the Wikimedia Foundation and a program director of the Global Fund for Women.
Arthur Attwell 2:13
I don’t believe it’s remotely possible to innovate and publishing without better understanding the bigger picture and I wanted to learn more from Anasuya about that bigger picture. Where does book publishing fit into the universe of human knowledge and what does that mean for our decisions as bookmakers? Anasuya, it is so lovely to speak to you, thanks so much for joining me on the podcast.
Anasuya Sengupta 2:38
It’s really lovely to be here, Arthur, thank you for asking me.
Arthur Attwell 2:42
I wanted to talk to you about this really high-level meta issue in the making of books. As you know, this is a podcast about how books are made and the very first decision that gets made in the course of making a book is who gets to write the thing. Whose knowledge are we putting into a book, Whose complex ideas get to constitute this thing. I know that that’s something that I can learn a lot from you about, so I thought I’d start by asking you to retell a story I’ve heard you tell about your childhood, about your first job when you were nine years old, as a librarian.
Anasuya Sengupta 3:23
[LAUGHS] Yes. I’m amazed you dug that story up, to be honest. I think I told this story to a group of really wonderful social justice digital librarians but it’s true. My first job was self-appointed and my brother and I, essentially my brother’s four and a half years younger than me, so at nine and five-and-a-half we set up a little lending library. It was a lending library on a charpai, which is essentially a cot made of rope, out on the landing … We lived in, you know, an enormous apartment block at the time and we set it up with books that we had, books that we borrowed, books that people gave us to put on the charpai and we were really serious about it. We have this little notebook in which we wrote down people’s names and when they took the book and when they brought it back and … for a circulating library I think we did really well for one summer.
Arthur Attwell 4:27
That sounds lovely.
Anasuya Sengupta 4:28
It was one summer, but it was great.
Arthur Attwell 4:31
Lovely story. When I heard you tell the story, it was part of a bigger narrative about your own journey in reading and in discovering the diversity of books that did exist but that you and certainly me when I was growing up we just weren’t initially exposed to. We had to go and find them. What did that journey look like for you?
Anasuya Sengupta 4:53
It’s been a journey that continues to unfold, to be honest. It’s really interesting, I mean you and I come in some ways from a very similar set of worlds, of post-colonial South Africa and post-colonial India, and for both of us in many ways, you know, coming from countries that have been colonised in multiple ways and in complex ways. I realised as I was growing up and loving books as I did, coming from a family of people who loved books, and who loved reading, that I was starting, at least as a child, to read only books in English and read only books in English from at that time England and then later on the United States. Or I was reading European literature translated, but I was not reading, initially, at least, about the world around me.
Anasuya Sengupta 5:53
Just that was such an interesting moment of realisation. Of course, and unsurprisingly, the realisation came to me because I also lived with a writer, my mother is a writer.
Arthur Attwell 6:06
Anasuya Sengupta 6:07
My mother is a writer in English, but with a very strong contextual idiom in South Asia. And so, you know, I think I got my politics of observation around what I was reading, what it said, and what it didn’t say, who it was affirming and who it was hiding, from my mother. I’m, I love and admire her for it. I respect her so much for it. And you know, in some ways, her journey as a writer has been one of the lenses through which I have looked at books, at publishing and at knowledge at large. What I realised was that I had to both respect and affirm the books that I was reading that were originally written in English from elsewhere in the world, or that were translated from Russian, for instance.
Anasuya Sengupta 7:00
One of the lovely things growing up in India was that if you went on a train journey, as every Indian does, you would get, at the time that I was growing up, these wonderfully hard-bound copies of every Russian writer, because this is the way that India and the Soviet Union at the time were in collaboration or partnership, because India was part of the non line movement politically geopolitically, but there was strong affinities both towards Europe and towards the Soviet Union. And so we would get … I and I still have, back home in India, the entire collection of Tolstoy, the entire collection of Dostoevsky.
Arthur Attwell 7:44
Anasuya Sengupta 7:45
Beautiful, bound books, amazing stories, and, you know, Ukrainian folk tales, one of my favorite books growing up. Perelman, who was a Russian mathematician, so, mathematical puzzles. The first place I learned about the mobius strip was as a 10 year old in one of those books. It was a very interesting way to grow up. Then as I started understanding my mother’s writing and then you know, the writing in India, I started recognising how much I was in a monolingual space, I was only reading in English, when my lived experience was as a multilingual person. I speak six languages, I only read and write in two. Because India is so complex linguistically, we have over 21 sort of national languages and nearly 2000 dialects, and every major language has a script of its own. It makes it much more difficult to be multilingual in reading and writing than, for instance, if you’re Eurolingual, because the script is the same.
Anasuya Sengupta 9:02
I was getting, and I was lucky enough to get stories, either in translation or told to me by my parents or grandparents or so on. My father is Bengali, and Bengali literature is incredibly rich. My mother speaks both Tamil and Malayalam. Both of those are also incredibly rich in literary tradition. My maternal grandfather was a scholar in in Malayalam, and in Sanskrit. So you know, I had all these literary traditions floating in and out of my space. But, you know, as always, as a kid, you’re not necessarily listening to everyone else telling you what to read and what not to read. You have to discover it on your own. So, you know, I’m not surprised I had the politics of it growing up, but I think I affirmed it for myself later than, perhaps I should have.
Arthur Attwell 9:58
Yeah, I think that’s the same for many of us. You’ve mentioned in the past that Google Books reckon that when they found 30 million books to digitise that almost all of them were in only about 480 languages. So that’s only 7% of the world’s 7000 languages. Have I got that right?
Anasuya Sengupta 10:21
Yeah, I mean, this is, you remember the, the sort of complicated Google Books project?
Arthur Attwell 10:27
Anasuya Sengupta 10:28
I wonder what you think of it. But anyway, when our frenemies at Google did this estimate at the time, they estimated nearly 130 million books in mostly 480 languages, and you’re right that the world actually speaks over 7000 languages and that’s, that’s just in terms of orality. Of course, you know, if you think about sign, or you think of different forms of Braille, you think of drum languages, you have so many different forms of language in the world.
Anasuya Sengupta 11:00
Even as we love books, and publishing, you and I, there is a meta politics to be very aware of, in the power of text, and the dominance of text, and the dominance of text in which language so, you know, most books in 480 languages primarily means, again, you know, I’ve sort of coined this phrase, Eurolingualism, but it, most of it comes from European-based languages. A few in the rest of the world. We’re at Whose Knowledge? doing this, some research on the state of the internet’s languages, and digital access is similar.
Arthur Attwell 11:39
Anasuya Sengupta 11:40
We are just about at 500 languages, in content on the internet, and yet, 60% of that content is in English, you know, with Russian a very trailing second.
Arthur Attwell 11:51
When we think about what that means, in terms of human knowledge, you know, those are easy stats to dismiss if you don’t really think a little deeply about what it really means for us. But language is really a whole way of seeing the world, right. It’s also represents hundreds of thousands of people whose experience is either lost or never see themselves in the literature they read, which, in turn has an effect on really how they live their lives and how they see themselves in the world. I don’t think it’s really possible to overstate how important it is. How do you normally describe the importance of diversity in publishing, whether on the internet or in books?
Anasuya Sengupta 12:38
I don’t call it diversity. The reason for that is, I think, diversity as a word, you know, in different domains, at this point in time, sort of means a form of checklist representation.
Arthur Attwell 12:51
Anasuya Sengupta 12:52
Which can be an easy place to leave it, you know. I’m not saying it’s not important, but I think it’s a very low bar, if you like. Why I think I frame it, and many of us in this space, frame it as decolonisation, as decolonising knowledge, or really looking at the intersectionality of the power dynamics. It’s all about power, right? So much of our lived experience is about power. So, who has the power to publish? Who has the power to publish what? Who gets published, as you said, whose stories get known? Who gets awards? How do we even think of publishing? I mean, one of the questions I asked people when I start on this journey of uncovering what I call epistemic injustice, or what many philosophers have called epistemic injustice, is, even when you think about publishing, how many of us knew that well before Gutenberg’s Bible, you know, the Koreans and the Chinese were publishing books from the seventh AD onwards.
Arthur Attwell 13:56
Anasuya Sengupta 13:58
I mean, there’s a Buddhist doctrine that was on meccanoid type published in Korean. I don’t know if that, the 1370s I think?
Arthur Attwell 14:06
Yeah, it was hundreds of years before Gutenberg. Yeah.
Anasuya Sengupta 14:09
Exactly. Even to begin there, right. So that’s publishing.
Arthur Attwell 14:15
Anasuya Sengupta 14:17
Then to go beyond that, and say, Well, if language is a proxy for knowledge, which as you said, I think it’s a very, very anchoring principle. The minute we think and speak in a different language, we’re in a different system of knowing, and being, and often doing, right.
Arthur Attwell 14:38
Anasuya Sengupta 14:39
If you were to speak in … I’m not sure which languages you speak, Arthur, but I’m assuming say, if you were speaking in Xhosa, or you were speaking in Afrikaans, you would be thinking differently than if you were speaking in English.
Arthur Attwell 14:52
Anasuya Sengupta 14:52
I know for sure that if I’m speaking in Bangla or in Kannada or in Tamir, or Hindi, I’m certainly thinking differently than when I am speaking and thinking in English. If language is a proxy for systems of knowledge how, how poverty stricken are we that so much of our content is primarily monolingual and thereby monocultural and thereby only from very singular forms of knowledge. That of course then extends when you think about forms of patriarchy and you know the fact that so much of writing over historical times has been at least acknowledged, affirmed, and republished by white men from Europe or then the United States. How many people even as they recognise Jane Austen will recognise that she literally created a new form of novel.
Arthur Attwell 15:57
Anasuya Sengupta 15:57
Right? So, you know, just thinking about these things starts getting us to a far more deeper structural issue around knowledge, publishing, language and forms of knowing each other.
Arthur Attwell 16:15
It certainly helped, helps me to take publishing as we know it a little less seriously and therefore helps me think of new things we could try. You know in my field, which is largely the production of books, often when we work on projects in under-supported languages in publishing, or under-published languages we find that there’s a shortage of things like fonts and hyphenation dictionaries and certainly people who’ve grown up editing and proofreading in those languages. The systems that need to be present and nurtured to grow publishing in different languages are really deep and wide. When we take publishing as it stands a little less seriously we start seeing opportunities in all of that. I suppose I find myself a little drawn by the exciting possibility. There are all these stories of people that we could fill books with, you know we haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s possible. From what you’ve done and learned from your work especially on decolonising the internet, what would you be excited or relieved to see more of when it comes to book publishing?
Anasuya Sengupta 17:26
I would honestly love to reimagine the book, as you were saying. And for me it’s one of the reasons I think about a lot of the way that we think about decolonising knowledge. We think about it in a digital space and the reason is that I think about the digital as allowing us multi-modal forms of telling story. And you know, sharing information and knowledges is multi-modal, multi-form, multi-language and so how would we reimagine the book to be something which really centres the knowledges of the majority of the world who have been marginalised by historical and ongoing structures of power and privilege? What would a sort of ‘book’, if you like, and now I, imagine the scare quotes around book.
Anasuya Sengupta 18:26
What would a book look like that would allow me to experience in multiple ways the Vachanas, or the sayings of a 12th century indian poet who was sort of my proto-feminist muse, called Akka Mahadevi. Akka Mahadevi lived in north Karnataka. She battled against patriarchy and the oppressive caste system and her Vachanas, or sayings, are still spoken and known in India to this day in Karnataka and over the last 100 or more years they’ve been put to song, and so they’re sung now.
Arthur Attwell 19:07
Anasuya Sengupta 19:08
How does someone like Akka become part of a process of knowing that we can all share? Right? Is that a digital book that allows us to hear the Vachanas both in song and spoken? Is there an annotation of who she was and why she was? Is there an overview of how she sits in a larger sort of narrative arc of what is called Bhakti poetry or Sufi poetry, across Asia that is very much anti-dogmatic and the voices of resistance and liberation well before we knew those words. So how how do we reimagine the book to be all all of these things that allow us to know each other better?
Arthur Attwell 20:04
Yeah, that’s really interesting. It’s something that I think about more often than is sensible is how we define the book at a time when we want to reimagine it. Because if we want to reimagine the book, we have to think what is it about book-ness that we want to retain? And what is it that we can discard or replace or change? For me, the book is a self-standing package of complex ideas. That, for me is fundamentally book-ness. So self-standing in that the book doesn’t need to be interpreted by a teacher, like a course might be. Because it’s longer than an article or a tweet, thank goodness, it usually contains a complex idea or a set of complex ideas, whether that’s in the form of a story or an encyclopedia or anything. The point is, it’s complex ideas.
Arthur Attwell 21:03
For me, once I had found that definition for myself, it certainly made it easier for me to start thinking, how do we change the form of the book, and particularly for me, the ways that we make the book? Can we democratise contributions to books, because when you’re creating self-standing packages of complex ideas, that lends itself to there being one person who makes the final curating decisions about what goes into the book. That’s where the power ends up sitting with one person, who for the most part, historically, has been white and male. So certainly, when we start reinventing what the book is, outside of that core definition, we can start thinking about ways to democratise. Who contributes, who makes the curation decisions?
Arthur Attwell 21:49
One thing that I think often about is Wikipedia. You’re deeply involved or have been deeply involved with the Wikimedia Foundation, where in many ways, the digital book that is Wikipedia that replaced large encyclopedias, is doing this reimagining work itself. Is that something that is part of the conversation at Wikimedia? How, how are we changing the nature of publishing? Not commercial book publishing, but the nature of how complex ideas are, are created?
Anasuya Sengupta 22:20
Yes, and yet only to, to an extent. And so, you know, I love your definition, Arthur, because what I love about it is that when you say self-standing, it allows you to imagine different modes, not just of what that means, but also of what it means in its tactile nature. So it … So much of a book, for me growing up was about touch.
Arthur Attwell 22:48
Anasuya Sengupta 22:49
And smell. Right. I’m sure it’s the same for you, I will still walk into a library and smell the shelf before I touch it. I don’t know if you do that. It’s sort of a visceral thing for me, especially with old books. Or, actually very new books as well.
Arthur Attwell 23:06
Anasuya Sengupta 23:07
But at the same time, you know, the reason that the digital offers as these new ways of seeing and knowing and being, in some ways, it allows us to celebrate long-standing ways of seeing and knowing and being because of its multi-modality of voice and visual and the textual potentially together. That, I think, is a really interesting part of it. I think with the Wikimedia movement and with Wikipedia, part of the constraints of the sort of ecosystem so far has been that Wikipedia for all that it wants to be you know, the sum of all human knowledge, is still constrained and limited by its understanding of an enlightenment-driven 18th century encyclopedia.
Arthur Attwell 24:04
Anasuya Sengupta 24:05
Even as it brings down Encyclopedia Britannica, it is very much based on Encyclopedia Britannica. So, in the case of Wikipedia, you know, you can only create an article on Wikipedia, if the subject of the article, whether a person, an event, or a thing, or anything else, is notable. Notability is not about being known in the domain of that person, place, or thing. Notability is about how much is that person, place, or thing written about in secondary sources, like books, like peer reviewed journal articles, like well-known newspapers, and potentially, stretching it a bit, well-known blogs? Now, once you have that definition of notability, and once you have that definition of a reliable source that still depends on textual publishing, then you come back to all the inherent problems of the power dynamics of publishing.
Anasuya Sengupta 25:12
As a Wikipedian who comes from the global South, who comes from a point of view that is about epistemic justice, which, you know one form that we have been able to talk about on Wikipedia is knowledge equity, but this limitation is still in terms of the form that oral citations for instance are very, very rare and often derided even to this day. I mean, a mutual friend of ours, Achal Prabhala, did this wonderful film you know in 2012 called People are Knowledge. That film if you remember was about how do we create oral citations for a world in which knowledge is primarily oral?
Anasuya Sengupta 25:56
Wikipedia is still struggling with that. So you know, we’re having those conversations now which I think is so much better than the days when we weren’t even … Not just not having the conversations, we were, there were many Wikipedins who refused to have those conversations and didn’t think they were worthwhile. Some of them still exists but by and large I think the movement has moved and is recognising some of these very critical structural issues.
Arthur Attwell 26:27
That’s really interesting. Just thinking now more about the commercial side of book publishing. I’m curious to get your thoughts on, on something I think a lot about. In my publishing work I struggld to see how commercial publishing can begin to address the enormous need for abundant representative books that are essentially created, to use the better term you have, in a decolonised way. For the most part I prefer to choose to do my publishing work outside of that commercial publishing world. This is because I’ve kind of come to see that if you want to work for change you can’t really change where a big old tree is planted. Big old incumbent industry. But you can plant a new tree, and so I work to plant trees. Sometimes I think that I’m copping out a little bit of the hard work of trying to change big systems from inside. How do you think about the world of commercial book publishing in the light of the decolonisation work that needs to be done? How do you answer that, that common retort that publishing just isn’t viable if you’re not making most of your books for and about the white and wealthy?
Anasuya Sengupta 27:43
You know it’s really interesting, in some ways you know I love your ecological metaphor of the tree and it obviously echoes Audre Lorde’s master’s tools and the master’s house. I think I and my sort of band of companions like to think of ourselves as revolutionary pragmatists, or pragmatic revolutionaries, whichever way you’d like like to see it. But I think there’s a both and, which is at the heart of the processes of epistemic resistance and liberation and justice is imagination. Is the imagination of those who have not been affirmed in their imaginations before. So … So much of feminist science fiction is that, so much of afrofuturism is that, and this form of imagining has been true across the world in all of our communities and just isn’t known in the same way. Just as an example in Bangla, traditionally at least, you were only known as a well known author for adults if you proved yourself as a children’s author first because they recognise that actually the toughest form of writing is for children.
Arthur Attwell 29:03
That’s interesting. I agree, but I hadn’t heard it that way.
Anasuya Sengupta 29:06
Bengali literature, Bengali being Bengalis, Bengali literature is full of all of its best known writers from Rabindranath Tagore to Sukumar Ray writing for children.
Arthur Attwell 29:20
Wow, I didn’t know that.
Anasuya Sengupta 29:22
There’s a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, you know I grew up on Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol which is sort of like nonsense doggerel which is written about the time and you know very much sits right cheek by jowl with Lewis Carroll.
Arthur Attwell 29:37
Anasuya Sengupta 29:38
The thing is, let’s take the tree that already exists. The tree that already exists as commercial publishing, even that tree does not acknowledge often where its trunk and roots are most firm. Just as an example, I mean as we think of it so much of commercial publishing today is bolstered by what is some, somewhat pejoratively called genre fiction, right? So romance, detection, children’s writing. One of the interesting things about that is a lot of that writing, or most of it, is done by women, is done by people of colour. Even in commercial publishing, at least in in fiction, there isn’t even an acknowledgement of what is driving profits, what is driving its commercial appeal. I think there’s a whole unpacking of that dynamics of invisible-isation even in commercial publishing.
Anasuya Sengupta 30:43
The other version, for instance, in terms of language is, so much of commercial publishing often happens in places that we don’t assume. For instance, India is actually the second largest English language print book publisher in the world, because we have the second largest English speaking population in the world.
Arthur Attwell 31:05
Anasuya Sengupta 31:05
You know, if you sort of extend it to say newspapers, the largest circulating daily newspapers in the world are in Japanese and Hindi. Dainik Jagran, which is a Hindi newspaper, is the second largest circulating newspaper in the world. So even when you think about what is commercial, and what is driving commercial revenue, there’s a completely wrongheaded set of mythos around it. I just, then thinking then you go to the, the tree that needs to grow. And you know, I’m sort of thinking of, you know, the reimaginations of both the book and where it comes from and who it comes from. But what are the ways in which those trees can intertwine? How can they be the oak in the Cypress? And in that case, I think it is about acknowledging that so much of the power of imagination, the power of science and technology, the power of the many different forms of knowledge, come in these extraordinarily plural forms. That needs us to reimagine exactly, as you said what the book is, yeah.
Anasuya Sengupta 32:22
There’s such excitement, to me at least, and I think for you to think about what that means. I don’t know if you’ve read Braiding Sweetgrass, which is this wonderful book by Robin Kimmerer, of indigenous knowledge and how it sits alongside 18th century enlightenment-driven knowledge.
Arthur Attwell 32:41
That sounds lovely, I haven’t read it.
Anasuya Sengupta 32:43
I would highly recommend it because it is a very accessible and beautifully written book in English that looks at what it means for those of us who hold multiple forms of knowledge and multiple systems of knowledge just in our embodied cells, like she does, because she is Native American. And so what form of book would someone like Robin actually want to create that would bring these systems of knowledge together that might go beyond text, or might include text, but also go beyond it. Because so much of Native American knowledge is also oral.
Arthur Attwell 33:24
Right. I’m super excited about the possibilities of oral books, audio in books. You know, I think that there is a natural visceral aversion among book-making purists, myself included, to breaking that model, that mode shape of the book that is just pages and print, I love that that form. But I can’t deny the immense appeal of audio. I’m a huge podcast listener, big fan of audiobooks, I think that there’s so much to be done there. I really, genuinely believe it’s a way to unlock entire new bodies of literature among people and countries that we just haven’t seen anything from yet, particularly where I am in South Africa. I think that it could just do the most extraordinary things. I’m looking for those bright spots that can be the guiding lights here, you know, that set the trend that we can that we can pick up and run with.
Anasuya Sengupta 34:25
I so agree and you know, the way that I think about it, even as someone who loves the classic form of the book, right, the textual book that you pick up and touch and you can balance half your life on, sometimes. At the same time as someone who you know, from India who comes out of an oppressive caste system in which you know, my ancestors had been the oppressors. I’m savarna, which means I’m the so-called upper caste person. So, you know, all of us sort of, embody the oppressed and the oppressor in in multiple ways. Sitting in the UK, in London, as I am right now, as a brown woman I experience empire in a very different way.
Anasuya Sengupta 35:09
But one of the things I’ve learned from my dalit feminist comrades and inspirations because they come not just from the lowest caste as it were but even outside the caste system, they they were pejoratively called the untouchables. One of the things I’ve learned from them is how text has been a form of oppression.
Arthur Attwell 35:33
Anasuya Sengupta 35:36
Even as we celebrate it, as we do with so many things in our complex lives, there needs to be a place for critiquing it and recognising the power of what it has hidden so far, and who it has hidden so far. That is I think for me one of the reasons that I celebrate the visual and the oral as I do and, you know, in our work at Whose Knowledge? we constantly think of that even as we do our writing. We have a podcast ourselves for that reason and we try and create books that are collectively written that also have essays, that have voice attached to them. You know we, we’re trying all these things and you know one of the things I’d love to do, Arthur, going forward is to imagine with you how we could be doing this better.
Arthur Attwell 36:32
Well that’s, that’s an exciting project. We are also thinking a lot in my team about how we can start mixing oral work into the text base and the digital work we’re doing as well. So, so much to do there. Talking about other forms and other voices I don’t want to forget to talk a bit about #visiblewikiwomen because that sounds like a very exciting project. Can you tell me more about that?
Anasuya Sengupta 36:57
Absolutely. As you know I co-founded and co-run a feminist collective called Whose Knowledge? which is essentially, unsurprisingly, now that you’ve heard all that I think about, a campaign to centre the knowledges and the histories and the imaginations of marginalised communities around the world online. Of course when I say marginalised again, we are the majority of the world.
Arthur Attwell 37:22
That’s really important.
Anasuya Sengupta 37:23
It’s really important to remind people. It’s one of the reasons I don’t use the word minorities anymore. I sometimes will say minoritised because it is an active form of minoritise-ing folks who are actually numerically the most in the world and the most populous in the world. But through Whose Knowledge? one of the key spaces, as we just talked about, in terms of sort of bringing different forms of representation and seeing representation as a necessary but insufficient condition for epistemic justice, knowledge justice, is Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not just a place that we imagine to be the sum of all human knowledge. It can only become that imagination if we do a great deal to change who writes for Wikipedia and what is written on Wikipedia and what is seen on Wikipedia. 20% of all the writers write 80% of the content and most of that is from Europe or North America. Only one in 10 self-identifies would project as female or non-binary and, all of that to say, if you look at biographies on Wikipedia, just about a fourth of all biographies if we’re lucky in any language addition is a woman or a non-binary or gender nonconforming folks. On the English Wikipedia just 18% of all biographies are of women.
Arthur Attwell 38:57
Good grief. That’s way worse than I expected.
Anasuya Sengupta 38:59
It’s actually really bad. I don’t think … Again people often don’t realise how bad it is and 18% has been, you know slowly, difficultly, changed from what was about 15 to 16% over the last few years. You can imagine you know percentage points in terms of the volume of Wikipedia is enormous.
Arthur Attwell 39:24
Hundreds and hundreds.
Anasuya Sengupta 39:24
Even, yeah, even that. We still at 18%. And then if you look at those biographies, only a fourth of those have images. So the invisibility of women and particularly women of colour and women from the global south and gender-nonconforming folks or female identified people is huge. As we know the thing about Wikipedia is that any of its inequities and gaps get massively sort of amplified across the internet, because most third party content providers, or search engines like Google, for instance, pull a lot of their data from Wikipedia. So that’s why we began a few years ago, #visiblewikiwomen.
Anasuya Sengupta 40:19
The reason you’re asking me about it is, of course, because it’s March, it’s International Women’s Month. Every March to May, starting from the eighth of March, we run this campaign called #visiblewikiwomen where we invite, encourage, enthusiastically support folks from around the world to bring on to Wikipedia, and that is through Wikimedia Commons, the multimedia repository for Wikipedia, to bring onto Wikipedia and its sister projects, the images of women from around the world. That has been for us one of the most extraordinary ways in which we are starting to shift who you get to see on Wikipedia, because writing a Wikipedia article is complex and has many difficult rules that not everyone understands or enjoys, necessarily. But we are all now mini photographers at large. We all have images of women in everyday life, or notable women in our communities, whom we can upload. So long as we’re ready to do it, and offer it to the world under Creative Commons licenses, openly licensed ways, it allows us then to use those images, both to inspire new Wikipedia articles as well as to populate existing Wikipedia articles with images and to really close that invisibility gap.
Arthur Attwell 41:56
Fantastic. Where should people go online to find out more and see how to contribute?
Anasuya Sengupta 42:01
Well, we would be very happy if you gently push them towards our website, where we have all of the information around it. And that’s whoseknowledge.org. That’s whose spelled W-H-O-S-E knowledge dot O-R-G. Though I also, of course, like to sort of tease that, who is knowledge would have equally been a good, good name for us. Sometimes people do, do write it that way.
Arthur Attwell 42:29
I’ll put that in the show notes as well, so that anyone listening to the podcast can click out of their browser or podcast app and get straight there and get participating. Anasuya, this has been just a wonderful conversation. I really appreciate your thoughtfulness, breadth of knowledge, pragmatism, it’s just always a pleasure chatting to you. Thank you so much for spending some time with me.
Anasuya Sengupta 42:53
Thank you, Arthur. I’m looking forward to imagining or reimagining the book together.
Arthur Attwell 42:59
For sure, we have lots to talk about. Thanks so much.
Anasuya Sengupta 43:02
Arthur Attwell 43:04
And thank you for listening. If you enjoyed this, it’d be such a help if you’d take a moment to share that with a friend or on social media. You’d be amazed at the effect that every share has on our downloads. So thanks for that too. You can point people to howbooksaremade.com where I’ll also post links to things we talked about today. We’ll also add a transcript of this conversation there.
Arthur Attwell 43:26
How Books Are Made is supported by Electric Book Works, where my team and I make books all day every day in sunny Cape Town, South Africa.