The term “underground resistance” has fallen into disuse over the last few decades, but Scott Ortega-Nanos believes it is due for a renaissance. A cofounder of the Project Kalahati Collective, he has been a stalwart organizer of the underground resistance for years. His Rise Above Bookstore on Telegraph was once an epicenter for underground activity throughout The Bay.
“It’s kind of tough to talk about that, but now things are getting a little more legitimate,” he said. “We’re still underground, we’re still grassroots, but there’s a lot more safety.”
Currently holding space inside of Downtown Oakland’s Pro-Arts Gallery, Project Kalahati and Kalahati Press is a community printing press and a DIY publishing house primarily focused on people of color. “There’s a lot of Risograph presses around, and a lot of publishers, but very few organizations give the people access to actual bookmaking technology or means of production,” he said.
Kalahati has no interest in being a publishing company, and prefers instead to focus on bookmaking, labor organizing, and community building.
“We’re not really in the game of publishing other people’s books for them or becoming a traditional publisher where we’re taking a person making these books to try to sell them,” Ortega-Nanos said. “We’re more concerned with teaching people and having them learn, hands-on. If you want to make a book, we can show you how to make a book and this is the cheapest way to do it. We have everything here. Then you have a chance to become part of, like, our labor organization.”
Kalahati means “half” in Tagalog, Ortega-Nanos said. “It’s really just an alias of mine, like a persona,” he said. Throughout my life, when I interact with, like, other Filipinos, they ask, ‘Are you Filipino?’ and I’d say, ‘Kalahati,’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, I get it.'”
“Half” is an apt term for the project because everything is distributed evenly among the collective: the time, the labor, and the resources. This division of labor has enabled Kalahati to produce zines and publications at a rapid pace.
Writer and publisher Akandi X, scholar Saam Niami , and Ortega-Nanos are the founders of Project Kalahati and they each came with their own visions and talents to contribute.
Akandi comes from a background in design and working with independent bookstore publishing houses. A few years ago, he and Ortega-Nanos collaborated on Magi, an Afrofuturist journal. “We were thinking about putting out a zine or a magazine, but with Scott’s access to a Risograph machine, it quickly became obvious that a newspaper would be better,” Akandi said. “And through our discussions, it became clear that we should focus on Afrofuturism, Afrofuturist theory, and news around those subjects.”
Putting together Magi was the impetus and inspiration for Ortega-Nanos to begin building Kalahati. And when he approached Akandi about the idea, he knew his friend was onto something. “It sounded like good work that needed to be done, and I knew I would be able to help,” he said.
For Saam Niami, hearing about the project from Ortega-Nanos entirely changed the direction his life.
“I really wanted to do some internships on the East Coast, but this just spoke to me,” Niami said. “It was in my home, and it was a project that was so much more rooted in the groundwork. It had long-term goals that I agreed with a lot more than going on the East Coast and being involved in some big corporate publishing house. So during my spring break, I reached out to Akandi and eventually we decided it was the right fit. Kalahati felt more like what I wanted to do with my time. I came home, and we immediately got to work.”
One of the first projects was a zine on lock-picking. “I did it as part of an arts installation I did in March I last year for an exhibit, Reorienting The Imaginaries,” Nanos-Ortega said, proudly displaying a copy of the fold-out. Kalahati also just recently published a book on Muzak and its influence on capitalism and is currently working on a radical treatise on food and health by a queer black woman. “It’s not just about food right now,” Nanos-Ortega said. They’ve also just released a chapbook of the works of poet Sloan Thompson and are working with artist and writer Yetunde Olagbaju putting together a short film, with a premier screening at Kalahati’s space on July 13.
“She made this amazing zine,” Ortega-Nanos said. “It’s an artistic re-interpretation of a stargazers handbook, where she both poeticizes and politicizes the night sky through new translations of the constellations. It’s powerful and inspiring work, and we’re proud to help facilitate it.”
Kalahati also has begun to collaborate with other underground organizations, many of them anonymous to protect themselves from political and professional backlash. One such group is Maroon University.
“It’s an organization composed of black and brown radicals,” Akandi said. “They want to publish and reprint radical text that’s been lost in the void, and not only books. One of the first things we’re doing with them is reprinting Eric Dorner’s manifesto, and an anti-lynching manifesto called Rope and Faggot.”
One of Saam’s stated goals is to “cancel” the UC Berkeley-educated poet Coleman Barks and his monopoly on translations and interpretations of the Persian poet and mystic, Rumi. For years, many have complained how Barks has interpreted Rumi’s poetry and musings, saying that he softens or declaws the often incendiary and radical elements of his words and intention. It’s only fitting that a radical publisher would seek to reclaim him as a patron saint of the radical cause.
“He has been profiting off of my culture and my literature for far too long,” Saam said. Thus, one of the probable forthcoming books will be a more faithful translation of Rumi’s poetry. One of the intents is to completely reclaim the Persian canon for Persians, by Persians. “We want to give the poetry back to the rightful people by taking it away from this white guy from Georgia,” Saam said.
Along with printing zines, teaching others how to make their own, and opening Kalahati Books (housed inside of Hasta Muerta Coffee in Fruitvale) on August 15, the collective also devotes some time to leading reading groups at Oakland’s Summer School. Nanos-Ortega is leading a discussion on the Marxist philosopher and revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, Akandi’s focus is queer phenomenology, and Saam is exclusively studying Edward Said’s Orientalism.
“I’m from Iran, my family is from Iran, and I’m very anxious about the situation right now,” Saam said. “It’s just riddled with orientalism. It’s my way of examining that anxiety.”
Alleviating anxiety and providing resource and remedy seem to be the driving forces for all Project Kalahati, and they are constantly seeking comrades to join them on their crusade. Once a would-be publisher learns the ins-and-outs of book and zine making, Ortega-Nanos said they will be invited to become active members of the collective. “They can also help to help out with the project, because we need help,” he said. “The organizing committee exists to make sure that the things we’re publishing and the people that we’re allowing into this project remain mindful and focused on radically altering the current situation and making it better.”