"People feel really called to be at Beacon,” said Gayatri Patnaik, who joined the Boston-based press in 2002 and was named editorial director this summer. She sees her own childhood as preparation for working at the house, which explores questions of race, gender, and sexuality. Family also influenced her career choice: her uncle is Knopf head Sonny Mehta.
Patnaik’s journey to Beacon began in India, where she was born and spent her earliest years with her grandmother in New Delhi. At seven, Patnaik joined her mother and older brother in the U.S., where her mother took a teaching job at Frostburg State Teachers College (now Frostburg State University). Patnaik found herself in the small rural community of Finzel, Md. “It was a complete shock to my system to be plopped unceremoniously in western Maryland. But it’s informed a lot of my interests,” Patnaik said.
It was in Finzel that Patnaik first experienced racism and learned what it is to be an outsider. “[Finzel] was halfway across the world, the language was different, the people looked different, the food was different, the culture was different, and it snowed,” Patnaik said. She was also frustrated that no one could pronounce her name.
At 14, when Patnaik returned to India to study at the Woodstock School, an international boarding school, the feeling of being an outsider returned. “Those seven years [in the U.S.] had changed me so much,” Patnaik said. “I looked Indian, I was Indian, but I had forgotten Hindi. And when I tried to speak it, I had an American accent.”
Patnaik returned to the U.S., where she got her B.A. in English literature and minored in French and women’s studies; she began teaching English to speakers of other languages at Goshen College in Goshen, Ind. She received a master’s in cultural anthropology at the New School in New York City. After she graduated, Patnaik was immediately drawn to the family business, publishing.
Patnaik’s grandmother Sheela Sharma, who helped raise her, wrote 20 books in both Hindi and English. Even now, when Patnaik can no longer speak Hindi or read it, she keeps one of her grandmother’s books in her office and her home, where she can see it. Her father’s sister, Gita Mehta, has written numerous books. His brother, Naveen Patnaik, was published by Jackie Onassis at Doubleday.
Patnaik got her first taste of trade publishing at Rob Weisbach Books at Morrow, followed by a stint as an intern at Random House, where she learned just how big a shadow her uncle cast. She also held jobs in academic publishing at Routledge, where she went from assistant editor to full editor, and at Palgrave, where she was a senior editor. “I didn’t have a passion for commercial publishing,” Patnaik said, explaining that she wasn’t much happier with the number of books she was expected to bring into the more academic houses. She thought about leaving publishing but decided not to after she got a call from Beacon director Helene Atwan, who asked if she’d be interested in moving to Boston and invited her to interview for a job opening as senior editor.
Since joining Beacon, Patnaik has worked on several important series, including the King Legacy, a partnership between Beacon and the estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Editing it with colleague Joanna Green involved going into the King archives and finding material to create new books, one of which turned out to be Beacon’s fourth book from activist and public intellectual Cornel West, The Radical King.
Among her other efforts, Patnaik began Queer Action/Queer Ideas with Michael Bronski, an LGBTQ-oriented series. She also created Beacon’s ReVisioning American History series, which reconstructs and reinterprets U.S. history and is told from the viewpoints of different communities.
“[ReVisioning] not only demonstrates what Beacon has done well—Beacon has always been at the forefront of publishing when it comes to race, sexuality, gender, bottom-up history—but also that we’re continuing to be relevant and find an audience,” she said, singling out books such as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous History of the United States, which went through eight printings in its first year, won the 2015 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, and has sold close to 50,000 copies.
As part of its Race, Education, and Democracy series with Simmons College, Beacon has done well with Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood... and the Rest of You All, Too, which has sold close to 35,000 copies since it came out in March.
“I’m really struck by how the humble Beacon book packs a punch,” Patnaik said. “We’re as relevant, or more relevant, than we have ever been before. It’s exciting to be at a publisher that’s 161 years old and flourishing. We’ve had 14 years of surpluses.”
Current title: Editorial director, Beacon Press
Books on the nightstand: The Vegetarian by Han Kang, The Fire This Time by Jesmyn Ward, Maulshree by Sheela Sharma (who is Patnaik’s grandmother), and My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett
Forthcoming titles: Water Tossing Boulders: How a Family of Chinese Immigrants Led the First Fight to Desegregate Schools in the Jim Crow South by Adrienne Berard (Oct.), The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation by Daina Ramey Berry (Jan. 2017), and The Fearless Benjamin Lay, the Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary (Sept. 2017)