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Wild Typography and Bootleg Books: An Interview with Leah Whitman-Salkin

The Montana series from Sternberg Press


To call Leah Whitman-Salkin simply an editor captures neither the scale nor the creative freedom of her work. Leah Whitman-Salkin is a purveyor of the abstract, a porter for unique artistic perspectives. Currently based in Mexico City, her editorial work stretches back to years as the editor at Sternberg Press and the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, where she was associate editor to Harvard Design Magazine for six years. She spent another six years in Tirana, Albania where she co-founded an independent community bookstore, 28 November.

Her most recent endeavour is the curation of the Montana book series for London-based publisher Sternberg Press. Itself an experimental publisher home to niche art criticism and theory, Sternberg Press effortlessly enveloped Montana's unapologetic feminist avant-garde into its folds.

It was through the Montana series that I first came across Leah Whitman-Salkin's work. One of two books in the series, Custody of the Eyes by Diamela Eltit, was the subject of my own research. I was intrigued to find that the novel by the prolific Chilean avant-garde writer had been republished—by Sternberg Press—over fifteen years after its translation into English.

Both Custody of the Eyes and its companion in the Montana series, Up Your Ass by Valerie Solanas, are as bold in their incisive explorations of patriarchy as in their riotously colourful covers.

The books directly contrasted with Leah's calm, pensive demeanour. Yet, they reflected the heart of her work: a visual and poetic amalgamation of women's voices from all corners of the world, evocative and disruptive and ready to be heard.

In the following interview, Leah and I discuss translation and curation, the development of her community space in Tirana, and her collaborations with artists, translators, and publishers.

The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Would you like to introduce yourself?

I'm an editor. I'm currently based in Mexico City, where I’ve been living for the past year and a half. Before that I was living in Tirana, Albania for six years, where I have a bookstore called 28 November. Most of my editorial work is focused on translation in a very broad sense—editing as an act of translation—and the intersections of translation, feminism, and political, radical imaginings of the future. That's articulated itself in many ways, in different forms, across years and projects.

What compels you to focus your work on women's art and women's writing?

I've always been interested and invested in thinking through, and with, marginalised people and voices—not exclusive to women. But also, women and feminism has been a thread throughout my work and my political interests.

At 28 November, I co-run a feminist reading group, [Radical Sense]. We read together and we talk; we've been meeting weekly for the past five years, since 2018. We used to meet in person, now we meet online. As part of the reading group, we do translation work. We're just finishing our second book of translations into Albanian.

I've always been concerned with ideas that feminism helps define. That's been a core motivator in terms of my own thinking around text and who I want to give voice to and centre.

What is the relationship between community spaces and these practices of publishing and translation?

We started 28 in 2018 in the centre of Tirana. It started as a project—the best way to describe it is a bookstore, but that's not what it is. It's more of a, like you said, community space. We don't have a physical space anymore; we dematerialised in 2021. But we're still very active in many different ways. When it was a physical space, all of our books were for sale, it's just that people didn't really buy them. *laughs*

A big part of our practice is also bootlegging. It's very expensive and difficult to get books to Albania, because of mail logistics and import tax and all of that. We were a negative-profit business, so to speak. We sold everything at cost. Mostly we got books to Albania by bringing them in our suitcases when we would leave.

A picture of a pale hand with a long yellow-painted nail holding a white booklet, which says "Radical Sense Reader Volume 1" in small print, held in front of the view of a city skyline.
Volume 1 of the Radical Sense readers

And so in parallel to selling books by other publishers, we have a bootlegging practice where we print and bind books ourselves. It serves as both a way to get books very quickly into readers’ hands, but it is also obviously a political project, refuting copyright...

We have a whole library of just bootleg books that we made. It also became a print-on-demand system. Any book that anybody wanted, if we could find or scan the book into a PDF, we would make it for them. A short book was three euros and a long book was five euros, and that just depended on our binding methods. We still do that, and that's also how the readers of Radical Sense, the feminist reading group that I co-lead, are published.

I don't know if you've ever been to Tirana, but it's very small, and there's very limited spaces for the arts and more critical community. 28 was always an experiment in radical independence, [questioning] what it meant to be an independent art space, or just an independent space. We never received any funding from anyone. We called ourselves a "no logo zone"... What radical independence means is you lose a lot of money and you invest a lot of your own money. That was just what we decided to do when we opened it.

How did the Montana series come about, and how does it work at the intersections of the political with language, translation, and the accessibility of more radical or peripheral works?

It just started evolving organically in my head as a book series. I didn't start with texts. I started with an idea of the things I was reading and what I wanted to be working on. I come from an arts background; I studied art history in school. I've always worked, in terms of publishing professionally, in art criticism and theory and artist books. And I found that I didn't really care to read art theory anymore, personally. Maybe that's because it just became work, it wasn't exciting me. I was reading a lot more fiction and a particular kind of fiction, and I was watching myself do that. I decided that maybe I shouldn't separate these two things, that I could bring the things that I wanted to be reading into the space where I have to read, or read professionally.

I've worked with Sternberg Press for a really long time, and so I proposed this series to Caroline [Schneider], the publisher, and she was immediately super supportive, which was amazing. We have a lot of trust between us, so she was just like, “Yeah, go for it.”

That was back in– I’m trying to think when we first met about it, probably 2018? It's been evolving ever since. And you know, as I said, I didn't start the series with any texts in mind. It was more of an idea of what those texts could be. I knew I wanted to work with out-of-print books, or books that hadn't been translated yet. But also new things. I didn't want to limit myself, so I made very broad constraints… They can be stretched as far as I want them to. It's also mine. Nobody tells me what to do with it. Importantly, I'm not an academic, it's not academic. So it's not like it has some research purview that has to have a certain… rigidity to it, or standing.

"This is an insane, funny, amazing little thing. And it's crazy that nobody's ever published it."

How did you go about choosing Up Your Ass and Custody of the Eyes?

I find it really difficult to do research in my everyday life. It's hard for me to pause, and shift and be like, "OK, research brain." And so a lot of that happens in residencies, where I can shift all of my focus and really throw myself into the project. In 2019, I had a curatorial residency, strangely enough, because I'm definitely not a curator. *laughs* But [it was] at Banff in Alberta, Canada and I went there being like, “OK, I'm gonna emerge with the first book. That's my goal.”

I was reading nonstop. I probably read like a book a day, at least. And I knew that I was interested in certain Latin American avant-gardes. I really didn't know much about it, again, being non-academic and not coming from a background in literature at all. So I just started exploring and digging, and I came across Diamela [Eltit]’s work and I was just blown away. I was like, “What the fuck is this?” *laughs* It's incredible...

An open-faced scan of two pages of black text on a white background. On the lefthand side, a quote from Rosario Castellanos: "No, I do not fear the pyre that will consume me but the badly lit match and this vial that gets in the way of the hand I write with. Rosario Castellanos" On the righthand side, the word "baaam" in bolder bubble letters.
The epigraph and first chapter title pages of Custody of the Eyes by Diamela Eltit

I'm not sure if I read Custody of the Eyes first or not. I read a bunch of her books while I was there, but that book hit me so hard. I remember I had a studio there, and almost immediately into reading it, I started reading it out loud. I felt like I really needed to hear it. And so I read the whole book to myself out loud, which [brought out] what she's doing as a narrative device… When you read it in your head or when you read it out loud, you become the "you"… That's the play that she's also doing with the "I" and the "eyes". I was really blown away by that book, and I was just like, “OK, for sure, I want to work on this.”

And then with [Valerie] Solanas, I was reading [Up Your Ass] almost just for fun. It was definitely part of the research, but I was just like, “This is an insane, funny, amazing little thing. And it's crazy that nobody's ever published it.” And I put it aside. I was talking to a friend, and he was asking me what I was reading, and he was like, “You should totally publish that.” It had never really occurred to me because it didn't feel, for some reason, like it fit within Montana, even though I didn't know what Montana was. And then I felt like actually, that's all the more reason to publish it. It really, again, stretches the boundaries of what I even thought this thing could or would be.

So I was like, “OK, I'll start with a play,” even though I didn't think I would ever publish a play. And oddly enough, now, the third book is also going to be a play.

Tell me about the editorial and design components and how that collaboration worked with Sternberg Press.

I came upon Roxanne [Maillet]'s work around the time that I was starting Montana, so 2019– before going to Banff, while Montana was still very much in my mind, but nothing material was present. I came upon her work in Marseille. She had done a project there, and she was also working on a feminist reading group and making little readers, and so it was very resonant with what we do at Radical Sense, but very different.

She's a wild typographer. She has a really amazing sensibility. I always imagined Montana to be austere in some ways, because I thought the content was going to be really intense. But then I saw her work and I was just like, “I think this is it.” I approached her and she was immediately totally in. We met and we had a bunch of ideas.

An open-faced book on a white background. The lefthand page is blank, the righthand page says "I dedicate this play to ME  a continuous source of strength and guidance, and without whose unflinching loyalty, devotion, and faith this play would never have been written. additional acknowledgments: Myself--for proofreading, editorial comment, helpful hints, criticism and suggestions, and an exquisite job of typing. I--for independent research into men, married women, and other degenerates."
Dedication page of Up Your Ass by Valerie Solanas

It was important to us to have a series design that could be carried through all of the books. And it was also important to figure out ways that each book would be unique and could stand alone. Defining what would be fixed and what would be flexible took a very long time.

I'm also very particular. I'm really interested in design, and I love working with designers, and I'm very particular. Because her designs can be quite loud and playful, it was really a matter of figuring out the right tone, and how much play the books could afford. It's important to me that these are books to be read; they're not books to be looked at. So I wanted to make sure that they were still really legible, even if they introduced a lot of very playful or strange typographic choices.

Was that balance of "how much play the books could afford" an element that you considered in choosing the texts?

No. Before I had invited her to work on it, I had imagined that [the design] was going to be more austere. I was looking more towards classic French novel designs and things like that where there's really a plain and almost calming nature to the book design. But that was just a projection. And I knew that by inviting her that would be totally fucked with, and obviously I did that intentionally. I'm not a designer. I could tell her what I had in mind, but that was not going to lead the design at all.

How do you perceive translation? You've already talked about it being similar to editing in a way; can you expand upon that?

I personally don't translate. I don't write, so I don't translate. For me, editing is a form of translation… it's similar to publishing as a form of making things public. It's about bringing texts or ideas into a form that they don't readily, necessarily, present themselves as. Or figuring out how to present them and make them public in the most compelling and interesting ways. Editing is part of that process. I think that is deeply based in a form of translation. But of course, there's the more literal translation of bringing one text in one language into another text in another language.

Right now, the third book in the Montana series is called A Strange Adventure by a writer named Eva Forest. That was originally written in Spanish as well, in a very different part of the world. She was writing from the Basque country in Spain. The book is a play. It's strange… it's a play without characters, or without named characters, so it's very polyphonic. The play begins in verse and then goes into prose. In many ways, the poetry doesn't stop.

I knew immediately when I read the book that I wanted it to be translated by a poetry translator. So this really amazing translator Robin Myers is working on it now. I wanted to work with her also because she was in Mexico City, so we could kind of have a closer, more intimate conversation. But also because I really love her translation work and her work; I was just a fan. That's how a lot of my work [begins]. I was a fan of Roxanne's, so I just reached out to her. Real fan girl vibes. *laughs* So yeah, Robin is working on the book now. The first draft will be ready in September, so we'll see how that process unfolds.

Do you have a book that you would like to recommend for our readers?

I’m looking at my bookshelves, which are really kind of sad right now because I haven't brought all my books [to Mexico]. Well... what's on my desk? I won't be any more scientific about it.

This is related in some ways to an upcoming project, and also just not at all. It's called Sarah Penn’s Knobkerry: An Oral History Sourcebook. It's written and edited by Svetlana Kitto. It's an oral history of a woman, [Sara Penn], who owned this incredible shop in New York City in the '70s and '80s. Kitto talks to all these people in her orbit, and sketches this woman and this space that she created.

I find a lot of kinship in it in terms of Montana and the characters that I'm interested in, these problematic, marginalised women, and how they’re remembered and memorialised. How, when their lives exist in a particular historical moment, that can be translated or brought into the present.

LEAH WHITMAN-SALKIN is an independent editor based in Mexico City. She would love for readers to know that her feminist reading group, Radical Sense, is open for anyone to join.


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