Zeba Talkhani is the author of My Past is a Foreign Country and has written for the Saudi Gazette, The Manipal Journal, gal-dem, Wasafiri and the Nasty Women anthology. She is the Production Editor at Bloomsbury Academic and is a passionate advocate for marginalised voices in the publishing industry.
I’m Zeba Talkhani, author of My Past is a Foreign Country. It’s a memoir about growing up in Saudi Arabia and living in India, Germany and the UK as a Brown, Muslim woman. In my book I explore the impact of patriarchy on my life and the different ways in which the world parses Muslim women’s identities. It was a difficult book to write, and quite scary too. I was scared of the way people might react to my vulnerabilities but instead of letting my fears stop me, I allowed them to fuel me towards the life I aspire to live – one where I held myself accountable for my actions and didn’t stay silent against the oppression I witnessed.
By the time I published my book, I had been working in publishing for seven years. I moved here to pursue an MA in Publishing and soon after that, I joined the workforce. My first job wasn’t with a traditional publisher, I worked as an editor for a data aggregating company that created digital platforms for universities and researchers. My job was much more technical than I was comfortable with but I learned a lot during that time, especially what it’s like to work in England, being the only person of colour in your team and the expectations others have about Indian or Muslim people.
I now work in book production and am also a freelance reviewer and event chair at literature festivals. I am familiar with many aspects of the publishing industry but I still wasn’t ready for how vulnerable you are as an author within the publishing industry. A book is so personal to the author, and there continues to be such opaqueness about the way things work in publishing that it’s not always possible to know what to expect. Even with an excellent, communicative team of editor and publicist, it was a scary experience. I feel stronger from having been through it and knowing that a version of my life now exists for people to peruse and hopefully learn from is an exceptional privilege.
In my career, after my first job, I moved into book production and have remained in that department at two different companies. I specialise in academic books and enjoy how process driven the job is while having scope for creativity. The job never feels the same because the books keep changing and with them the authors I work with. When I first decided to work in publishing, I wanted to be an editor and at first only applied for editorial jobs. I imagined editors reading manuscripts all day and not much beyond that. While still a student, I did several publishing internships and learned about different departments. Production caught my fancy almost immediately. I liked that production editors work with a lot more books than an editor would and we get to be part of the process of how the finished product looks and feels. Within academic publishing, production editors have a lot more ownership over their books and work closely with authors, editors, typesetters and others to create the best book in the most cost-efficient way.
Working with authors is by far my favourite thing about production. They keep things interesting and I love the variety they add to my job. I get a lot of job satisfaction from being able to help authors decide what’s best for their books and for fulfilling some of their requests. This is something I have started enjoying even more since becoming an author. I know how grateful I’m for the amazing experience I had with my editor and I want to be able to pay that forward.
When I first joined the publishing industry it was not diverse and even now, I am often the only person of colour in most rooms. It’s easy to feel alienated when occupying spaces that can feel unwelcoming simply by the way they are made up. If I could go back in time and give my younger self some advice, it would be to occupy the spaces you have earned without doubting yourself. It’s so easy to look around you and feel disheartened, to feel that you don’t belong. Don’t give into this feeling! Instead of despairing, think of ways in which you can change the space you occupy. After all, the most effective change comes from within.
Portrait of Zeba by Chris Boland.