Cipher Press: Bold, Uncompromisingly Queer Books
One year on from the UK going into lockdown, we talk to the founders of Cipher Press to get to know one of the shining lights to have emerged from the pandemic in a celebration of queer publishing
Launched mid-pandemic in August 2020 with the publication of Large Animals – Jess Arndt’s debut collection of strange, beautiful and biting short stories – Cipher Press quickly established themselves as a force to be reckoned with in independent publishing, with a bold, strident list of uncompromisingly queer books. As we catch up with co-founders Ellis and Jenn to talk queer literature’s past, present and future, we ask where did the idea of setting up a queer press come from?
“In the 80s and 90s there was a huge LGBTQ+ publishing scene in the UK,” begins Jenn. “At Frankfurt Book Fair, on the Thursday night, it was like a big queer publishing party with all the LGBTQ+ publishers. Then slowly, over the years, they all just disappeared. I suppose what we want to do is publish queer books for queer readers, but we also want to publish in a quite traditional, mainstream way. We’d like to think, with the stories we publish, even though we have queer readers in our minds, that everyone will enjoy them, as well.”
“It's a bit of an experiment, in many ways,” continues Ellis, “to see if it’s actually going to work! Even though we have queer readers in our minds when we’re publishing, we would like to think that the stories we publish, everyone will enjoy them as well. I was on furlough for two months and we did a chapbook that felt quite community-led, that wouldn't have happened without the pandemic. That was a nice little introduction, it was like a mini launch of the press, in a way.”
“We were going to bring Jess Ardnt over to do an event at the ICA with Dodie Bellamy and Isabel Waidner, which would have been amazing, and all that kind of stuff we obviously couldn't do,” adds Jenn. “It feels a little bit like we haven't actually launched Cipher Press properly. I feel like we need to have a party once the pandemic is over!”
As for those stories Cipher looks to spotlight, Jenn explains: “There are so many amazing LGBT books coming out with bigger publishers, but I suppose the point of us is to pick up the books that they might be too nervous to publish. One thing I’m looking for when I read submissions is different ways to tell stories. A story that might have been told many times before but subverted and made queer, that's what's interesting to me, whether in terms of the language or the structure or the characters or even just what the story is about.”
Their next book, Sara Jaffe’s Dryland, is a tender, meditative queer coming of age set in the 1990s, following teenager Julie Winter. “I think Andrea Lawlor summed it up best saying it's a little surly, a little melancholy, a little dirty,” says Jenn. “It's the only book I've ever read about a queer adolescent experience that has really resonated with me. Part of the story is centred on the relationship the protagonist, Julie, has with her brother, who’s missing. She gives little hints about where he might be and the gist of it is that he's moved away and he's probably HIV+. It's sweet, as well. I think a lot of queer people who were teenagers in the 90s, pre-internet, when you were still making mixtapes and going to little markets and buying beads, will love it.”
“I think for people who were teenagers growing up queer at that time, the AIDS epidemic was this bizarre background noise,” continues Ellis. “You didn't really know much about it, you maybe weren’t friends with anyone who was experiencing it. She really captured that sense of something pervasive without articulating or being specific. It kind of makes you want to go back and give yourself a hug!”
As for the future of Cipher, their next step is Brontez Purnell’s ‘cult masterpiece’ 100 Boyfriends – “he’s just so visionary, you're reading his sentences and they're hilarious and they’re filthy and they're foul-mouthed and then suddenly, out of the blue, he’ll say something so profound that it just sort of blows your mind” – and to publish new UK authors, having received Arts Council funding to do just that. Their first UK debut publishes in late 2021.
“We’re trying to find debut writers who are trans, non-binary, queer writers of colour and queer working-class writers,” notes Ellis, “with the intention of publishing outside of the white, queer experience. We would like to be a varied press telling all types of different stories.”
Dryland by Sara Jaffe is released 18 Mar; 100 Boyfriends by Brontez Purnell is released 6 May
Cipher's current open call for submissions closes on 31 May – full information can be found at cipherpress.co.uk