In Conversation with Rumana Yasmin

Posted in Neem Tree Blog on July 15, 2021

Rumana Yasmin is the founder of BokBok Books, an independent book publisher specialising in both English and Bengali children’s books. Starting the company with no industry knowledge, Rumana’s journey into publishing went hand in hand with being a mother. Inspired by the lack of Bengali representation on the bookshelves today, she decided to address the gap in the market by growing a community of authors and illustrators of Bengali heritage to tell their stories to her children and to the next generations.  Although this did not come without its challenges, Rumana shares her advice for new publishing hopefuls – “I would say not to be put off by a lack of the right educational background/work experience. I have found that there are always people who are willing to come forward and help you learn the ropes.” 

To begin with, what do you love most about being a publisher? 

Every project opens up possibilities for new collaborations, a space where a rich exchange of ideas and know-how can take place, and a chance to really fall in love with a book while creating it.  

Tell us a bit about yourself and what inspired you to set up your own publishing company, BokBok Books?  

My journey as a publisher and a mother went hand in hand. One of my strongest urges as a new mother was to become a storyteller for my children and raise them amongst the tales that I had grown up listening to. My mother was an amazing storyteller and I wished to carry on her legacy. Stories were also my way of building a bond between my children and my homeland, Bangladesh, which I had left behind 12 years ago to live in the UK. But I soon realised that my stories, my words, just weren’t enough. I needed to have a whole village to tell them stories – and that’s when I thought of this idea of growing a community of authors and illustrators of Bengali heritage to tell their stories to my children and to the next generations.  

Did you face many challenges doing this? How did you finance the company initially?  

Learning to juggle my babies – my children and my business – is an ongoing process that I know can never be mastered. What I am learning is to have reasonable expectations for myself in all my roles.  

It was tough at the beginning, having to learn all the ropes, since I had no previous experience in publishing, but what I quickly learnt about indie publishers is that we’ve got each other’s backs, and whoever I have asked so far for help or advice has happily provided it. 

I started BokBok Books with very little funding from my own pocket, but now we are stronger, with financial support from Arts Council England and Beximco Bangladesh, who believe in our aim as an organisation to support underrepresented talent in the arts.  

Did your previous educational or work experience help or did you find yourself starting from scratch? 

I started from scratch in terms of my knowledge of the publishing industry. What did come in handy was an immense love for words and stories, which I am lucky enough to have explored through my first degree in literature and linguistics.  

I’d love to know more about BokBok Books! Could you tell us a bit more about your publishing house.  

We are a publishing house focused on representing Bengali authors and illustrators in children’s literature. Anyone who gets involved in creating a book with us shares our passion to bring about positive change, through one children’s book at a time.  

My two children are my constant inspiration for BokBok Books. We love doing bokbok (the word for ‘endless chatter’ in Bengali) in our household, and books contribute greatly towards fuelling the endless chatter. So I always find myself wanting to make books about subjects that I would like to bring up in conversations with my children as they grow up, be it our heritage, equal rights, or environmental justice. No subject of discussion is off limits in our household, and I hope our books too can make way for open conversations amongst all our readers. 

How do you source your books? Are there literary agents that you work with or is it more word-of-mouth and organic? 

People either send in their manuscripts to me, or we develop ideas for in-house projects and then match the right team members with each project. 

What are you most proud of in your publishing journey so far?  

Our village of authors and illustrators already numbers more than thirty, not bad for a fairly new publishing company. I love how we can connect through the process of making books, and it fills me with pride that we can represent them in children’s literature worldwide.  

Favourite book(s) you’ve worked on at BokBok Books? 

I get immensely attached to every book that we work on. Currently, we are developing the content for ‘Sensing Bangladesh – A Children’s Guidebook to Art from Bangladesh.’ We are running a residency with six poets to develop the content for the book, which is going to feature artworks by Bangladeshi artists, accompanied by poetry responses, interactive prompts, guides and facts. Working together as a team, watching this book unfold, is truly a captivating process. This book is my current passion.  

Finally, do you have any advice for people aspiring to work in the publishing industry?  

From my own experience, I would say not to be put off by a lack of the right educational background/work experience. I have found that there are always people who are willing to come forward and help you learn the ropes; and also, there are many roles in the industry, so there is always the potential to transfer skills. I guess what matters most is a love for books, and a hands-on attitude to learning and working collaboratively.  

Thank you so much for taking the time to share your insights with Neem Tree Press, Rumana!