Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The new MIT Press Bookstore in Cambridge’s Kendall Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

There were 1,269 demands to censor library books and materials in 2022, the highest number of attempted book bans the American Library Association has recorded. This wasn’t a gradual uptick. Just two years prior, in 2020, there were only 156 such demands, making for an 813% increase.

University presses – nonprofits connected to a parent university, with rigorous peer review and a faculty board checking the validity of published works – are unlikely players in this controversy. Even though university presses do not publish books in the young-adult category most likely to be in the line of fire, their publications provide research that stands against the half-truths and oversimplifications that these exclusions create. University press books may not reach children, but they’ll teach their parents and educators.

This intervention comes as specific kinds of representation are under attack: 26% of the books banned in the first half of the 2022-2023 school year had LGBTQ+ characters or themes, according to the free speech group PEN America, and 30% had characters of color or themes of race and racism. The most banned book in 2022 was “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” by Maia Kobabe. The third most banned was “Out of Darkness,” by Ashley Hope Pérez, a forbidden-romance novel about a Mexican American girl and a Black boy in 1937 segregated Texas. In fact, every single one of the top five banned books was either about racism or the LGBTQ+ community.

“This effort to undermine the education and knowledge and resources of young people is just horrifying,” said Gita Manaktala, editorial director of the MIT Press and a member of the committee overseeing the press’ grant program for diverse voices. “It’s absolutely an assault on the mission that’s so central to everything that we do.”

Gita Manaktala, editorial director of the MIT Press, at a March talk with the Dean’s Global Forum at Northwestern University in Qatar. (Northwestern University via YouTube)

In an age in which underrepresented authors are increasingly silenced, an MIT Press Grant Program for Diverse Voices founded in 2021 does the opposite, seeking to promote diverse authors in as many ways as possible. Its requirements are broad, and the financial support purposefully undefined – MIT Press authors identify the ways that they are underrepresented, and in return get the support they need to create their work. This can cover anything from child care to research travel to copyright fees.

“We may not know all of those possibilities,” said Victoria Hindley, an MIT Press acquisitions editor and the co-founder of the grant program. “We both want to be open but also to narrow the ground enough so that we can make a reasonable impact.”

Publications by the MIT Press representing the diversity of its publishing portfolio. (Photo: MIT Press)

University presses haven’t always put so much effort into supporting marginalized communities. The publishing field is known to be full of the children of privilege, staffed by those with the families and trust funds to carry them through the unpaid internships and low-paying entry jobs traditionally needed to break into the field. It has been only recently that publishers have begun to express awareness of the inequity.

At six university presses, including the MIT Press, this awareness recently took the form of a joint pipeline fellowship program, which gave people from backgrounds underrepresented in the publishing world a chance to intern for a livable wage. This fellowship, funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, was awarded to about 30 fellows, most of whom are still working in publishing, and lasted for six years. Across the nation, and beyond it, university presses are beginning to take a stand.

“I’ve been incredibly grateful and proud of changes in the prioritization that have happened over the last two years,” said Christie Henry, director of the Princeton University Press. “Equity, inclusion and belonging has a localized impact and inspiration, and trying to figure out how to bring us all together as a community while recognizing that is really important.”

As a queer, Black, Latina and female physicist, Jessica Esquivel was affected by these diversity-focused measures. Esquivel is used to being an “only” – she grew up in a neighborhood with a 2 percent Black population and is now among one of the less than 150 Black women in physics. She’d never thought about writing a book about her experiences, though, until an editor at the MIT Press reached out to her.

“It really just lit a spark,” she said. “For me, it’s not the norm to publish a book. So understanding all the kinds of intricacies and nooks and crannies of [writing] – it was all foreign to me.”

After working with a developmental editor to help hone her voice and develop a book proposal, Esquivel became one of the inaugural recipients of the MIT Grant Program for Diverse Voices – a part of the first and as of yet only cohort to be awarded one of these grants. Esquivel was connected with yet another MIT editor who helped her shape and write “Our Queer Universe: Deconstructing Definitions, Producing Particle Beams and Examining Entangled Identities,” a genre-bending book that uses the physics behind creating a particle beam as a metaphor for the barriers Esquivel has had to overcome throughout her life and career.

“I’m writing this for the little Black girls who are interested in science but have never been able to see themselves do what I’m doing,” Esquivel said. “I want to show that it is possible, that I had the same hiccups and barriers and difficulties as anybody else, and that I’m not an anomaly or a Black Einstein –  I’m just a regular person who had a passion for science and I didn’t let anything get in my way to get there.”