April 21, 2023

The little publishing house that could: UCalgary Press aims to change the world through stories

Brave and Brilliant literary series gives more access to authors writing groundbreaking books

In 1773, Phyllis Wheatley, a young enslaved woman, became the first African-American to publish a book of poetry. Nearly 250 years later, Alison Clarke, an Edmonton-based author, reimagined her story in Phillis, a book of poems. Growing up, Adrian Lysenko and Ivanka Galadza heard stories about the Holodomor (Ukrainian terror-famine) from their grandmothers. The stories served as inspiration for Five Stalks of Grain, their graphic novel. In 1965, Everett Klippert became the last man jailed in Canada for being gay. Natalie Meisner, a local professor and playwright, created Legislating Love, a play about Klippert’s story. These divergent stories have one thing in common: they all found a publishing home at the University of Calgary Press.

In 2015, the Press, an established academic publishing house, decided to start something new. Brian Scrivener, director, Aritha van Herk, board member, and Helen Hajnoczky, editorial co-ordinator, sensed an opportunity to expand the Press’s reach by adding a literary imprint — to make room for transformative and unusual stories that may not see the light of day because publishers aren’t willing to take a chance on them.

“I’m really interested in books that cross genres,” explains van Herk, a respected author and pillar of the UCalgary creative writing program.

The world needs stories. Culture — the arts — is ultimately what is going to transcend our divisions.

The trio ventured into the creative publishing world, launching the Brave & Brilliant series. They were fortunate to have the Press’s scholarly publishing process as precedent and significant collective expertise — van Herk agreed to be series editor, Scrivener has a keen sense for branding, and Hajnoczky is a published poet.

They chose the name with great care. “’Brave’ and ‘brilliant’ is the touchstone we apply when we decide what to publish,” explains Scrivener. “It encapsulates work of exceptional quality from someone willing to go out on a limb to stretch the craft.”

Brave & Brilliant released its first book in February 2017 and this month, a mere six years later, the series released its 30th title.  Its mandate is to give more access to publishing, for under-represented voices and work that defies categorization. A look through the series catalogue confirms its authors are fearlessly creative in their storytelling:  

“The series is eclectic in genre and subject,” notes Hajnoczky, “but the books in the series share a spirit of being bold and lively, each with their own strong and unique voice.”

Aritha van Herk, left, and Brian Scrivener in the University of Calgary Press office.

Libraries and Cultural Resources Staff

Though there aren’t many university presses that have a creative imprint, it clearly fits within the post-secondary mandate to take on the work of widening access to a notoriously exclusive industry.

“I see a university as a town hall, as a public square where people share their stories and their experiences,” notes van Herk. “It is really important that we make room to give more attention to the voices of women and Indigenous writers and thinkers.”

By 2030, Brave and Brilliant will have published 50 books. That’s 50 authors whose work might have been relegated to the desk drawer.

Wayne Arthurson is one of those authors. “When I finished the The Red Chesterfield I had no idea (if) anybody would take it — it felt too weird, too small. Brave & Brilliant said it was perfect for them,” he recalls. “Working with Aritha was fantastic — I knew she would just want to make the book better. The experience made me feel glad to be an author again, made me love publishing again. It’s my smallest book, but I’ve probably had the biggest response to it.”

Indeed, the book has been translated into French and is one of the first books published in Braille in Canada. Suzette Mayr, Giller Prize winner (and UCalgary professor) named Red Chesterfield one of four books she recommends people read.

Through word of mouth and its growing reputation, submissions to Brave & Brilliant have increased significantly in recent years. “We’re working almost two years ahead,” notes van Herk. “We’re getting fabulous books, there’s so much choice.”

dennis cooley had published nearly 30 books of poetry with different publishers when he decided to submit a manuscript to Brave & Brilliant. He knew van Herk and had looked at some of the Press’s listings. “There aren’t many presses hungry for poetry, yet Brave & Brilliant was actively seeking poetry and promoting it,” recalls cooley. And, as an added bonus, “[Hajnoczky] is a dazzlingly good editor. She really improved the manuscript.”

Wayne Arthurson agrees. “Brave & Brilliant feels like a friend who will fight for the book — a team helping an author trying something new, giving life to their vision in the best possible way. It’s what publishing should be.”

For the University of Calgary Press, it’s all about opening the doors of creativity wider in order to publish bold work. In this regard they are the little publishing house that dared, and could.

dennis cooley will be at Shelf Life Books on April 30 at 2 p.m. to promote his latest book, body works. Follow the Press on Twitter or Instagram at @ucalgarypress.


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