Herstory: A Women’s History Month interview with Publisher Hisae Matsuda

Publisher Hisae Matsuda reading Dharma teacher and author Sister Dang Nghiem’s latest book Flowers in the Dark

In celebration of Women’s History Month, I wanted to spotlight our own Publisher, Hisae Matsuda, who inspires and empowers all who work with her. As of 2021, while women make up the majority of those employed in publishing, they are generally hired and kept at lower-level positions, and on average they earn less than their male counterparts.1 For a woman, especially a woman of color, to be a publisher when there are so few, it is a testament to Hisae’s impactful work. Below, I speak with her about her thoughts on the impact and importance of women in publishing, how she navigates the industry, and her advice for those who are trying to break into the field.

Hisae Matsuda serves as publisher of the teachings of the Plum Village Engaged Buddhism tradition, which she finds a beautiful path for personal and community healing and transformation. Hisae is inspired by great writing that shows the connections between spirituality, sustainability, social change, and healing.

What was your gateway into publishing? 

Hisae Matsuda: I was in my twenties, a student, teaching English and raising two young children as a single mom in Tokyo. A friend introduced me to a gig researching articles and writing and editing copy for a large educational publisher. That gave me the experience and confidence to continue honing my skills as a wordsmith, and when I moved to the United States I began working first in tech then in trade publishing, eventually joining a very Berkeley, West Coast press called (somewhat confusingly) North Atlantic Books, after Black Mountain poet Edward Dorn’s 1960s poem, “North Atlantic Turbine: A Theory of Truth,” which describes the dangers of global commoditization. I really enjoyed the process of taking abstract ideas and turning them into books that had the potential to change people’s lives in tangible ways. It’s magical. In publishing, I’m aware we are merchants of culture, but we also belong to an older tradition of recording and sharing what is most precious in life.

What advice would you give women who are trying to advance in publishing?

Hisae Matsuda: It’s International Women’s Day. We’re fortunate to work in a field that is run by thoughtful people, mostly women. The UN website says, “Women of the world want and deserve an equal future free from stigma, stereotypes, and violence; a future that’s sustainable, peaceful, with equal rights and opportunities for all. To get us there, the world needs women at every table where decisions are being made.”2 That includes the publishing community. Take your place at that table, be present, and love yourself!

Publishing is a predominantly white environment, especially at the executive levels.3 As a woman of color, how have you navigated in these spaces?

Hisae Matsuda: I do notice when I sit at gatherings of people in publishing that I may be the only woman of color in the room. As an immigrant twice over I have frequently felt anomalous, for example when I was the only Japanese person in my school growing up in England, or being one of only four or five women in a building of five hundred when I was a writer in Silicon Valley. The wonderful thing about mindfulness practice is that it helps me feel at home whatever environment I am in. A non discriminating mind is a happy mind. So, even if the people around me are very different from myself, I kind of don’t care. I purposefully remain open to the idea that people are not inherently discriminatory.

Do you feel a responsibility [to other BIPOC in publishing] to push for change from the executive level? How have you done this?

Hisae Matsuda: I do feel a responsibility to the publishing community to stop its exclusionary practices, which are a subtle form of violence, and this means publishers need to be not complacent and do the work on inclusion and belonging. At Parallax, we are very lucky in that we already have inclusivity baked in as a value, and this year we’re planning to do JEDI training as a team (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion training) with our sister organization, the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation.

This may be a hard question: what is a book you have worked on that you are especially proud of?

Hisae Matsuda: Flowers in the Dark: Reclaiming Your Power to Heal from Trauma with Mindfulness by Zen nun Sister Dang Nghiem. “Sister D,” as she is known, was trained as a medical doctor and now, as a Dharma teacher in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village tradition, she has devoted her life to helping people heal from severe, complex trauma. Her teaching is extraordinary and her book is too.

At the end of the day, what do you hope your legacy in publishing will be?

Hisae Matsuda: In terms of a body of work, I hope I will have helped keep a channel open for certain ancestral truths to be told that can heal us as human beings and our sense of separation and alienation, our despair over what we have done as a species to the Earth and to each other. As for being publisher at Parallax, I hope that during my watch the Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism will establish a cohesive virtual and physical library for the sublime teachings of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and Plum Village, so that they can be shared easily with future generations. But ultimately, I hope that when I’m old and retired, people will remember enjoying working with me. That would be the real test of whether I’ve absorbed the brahmaviharas (Buddhist virtues).

In honor of Women’s History Month, what woman in history (living or dead) would you love to have tea with?

Hisae Matsuda: The nuns of Plum Village! Due to the pandemic we can’t travel to the monasteries where they live and practice, but they are amazing tea masters. And among the dead, I’d love to have tea with Frida Kahlo.

I hope you enjoyed learning a bit about our wonderful publisher Hisae. If you are interested in learning more about some of the women who have impacted our community, I recommend reading about Sister Chan Khong, the cofounder of Plum Village and picking up her lovely book Learning True Love.

1. Women in the gentleman’s career of publishing 2. UN Women-International Women’s Day 2021 3. Based on the Lee and Low Diversity Study of Publishing in 2019.

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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