There is a new publishing press in Redlands, California and a driven team behind it, including five sisters. Meet Katia Aoun Hage, the founder of Elyssar Press, and her four sisters—Samar Hage, Nadia Boulos, Maryse Naaman and Stephanie Bou Karam. Also joining the team are Jessica Yowell, Traci Takahara, Wendy Hunt, Allie Rigby, Sim Jimenez, Jean-Claude Hage, Anis Bou Karam, Greg Gomez, Rachad Aoun, and Marie Fares. Since its inception, Elyssar Press has released five books, including poetry collections, artist books, and biographies in English, French, and Arabic. By June of 2021, two additional books will be published with even more on the way and submissions open.
What began as a tiny seed planted by Katia Aoun Hage, the founder of Elyssar Press, has blossomed into a space for stories from around the world to be celebrated and shared. Elyssar Press is committed to the power of human knowledge, and to telling tales that remind people of the joy of being alive. That’s why the press publishes both local and international works, with a focus on sharing the human experience.
Before the interview below, there is also a brief explanation of the namesake behind the press. Then, please enjoy the incredible story of how Katia Aoun Hage was led to create Elyssar Press and how alongside a talented and engaged team, this press is bringing more beauty, resilience, and hope into the world.
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Who Was Elyssar?
From childhood, the great Queen Elyssar has been an inspiration to the five sisters who knew Queen Elyssar for her bravery and wisdom. “She was legendary,” Stephanie Bou Karam explains during the interview. In the 9th century BC, Queen Elyssar and her loyal subjects fled from the Phoenician Tyre. After sailing the Mediterranean Sea to Tunisia, Elyssar founded the great city of Carthage.
In her quest for peace and freedom of expression, she gave rise to a nation which became a crossroads for rich thought and knowledge from around the world, a hub of exchange of stories, discoveries, philosophies, sciences and spiritual beliefs.
Today, Elyssar Press brings that bold vision to the world of literature, offering a home for works by international artists and writers who believe in the power of creation.
The Sisters of Elyssar Press
This dream to bring more art and stories into the world began several years ago when Katia Aoun Hage called one of her sisters to see how her dream idea would sound once verbalized. “What would you think if I started a publishing company?” She said. At first, Nadia did not know what to say and later, Samar also needed some convincing—but no sister was shocked by this idea, since Katia is known in the family for being very open to the world and all of its possibilities.
For the sisters, a world centered around art was not a new concept. Growing up in Lebanon, art had been a central part of their lives, and something that grounded them as children during a time of war.
“One day, in the middle of the war,” Katia explains, “our Dad hauled a piano into the house.” This was during the Civil War in Lebanon, a time of sheltering, but within the home itself, also a time of art. “I remember the neighbors laughing and also thinking it was crazy—who buys a piano in the middle of a civil war?” Katia says.
“But really, we were homebound for a lot of our childhood,” Katia continues, “and I remember my Dad saying, with this piano now in the house, ‘the girls will get to grow up with beauty and music to balance what the war is bringing into their lives.’ “
“Our Mom has always loved the arts too,” Samar adds. “Dance and music, especially. Whether we were good at it or not was not the point; she just wanted us to have something else in our lives, something that could center us.”
So when Katia proposed the idea of starting a publishing press and started giving it a shot, in some ways for the sisters, this entire idea felt like the natural thing to do.
“Katia was just so excited about it, she’s always had so much passion, and she kept telling me, ‘I’ve always wanted to do this.’ ” Nadia adds. “And at the time, I had paused my career in marketing to focus on raising my kids, so I was so excited to have a fresh opportunity like this. Plus, Katia can be very convincing.” Nadia pauses before asking everyone on the Zoom call, “Can I tell the cucumber story?” Katia waves her hands at the camera and shakes her head, laughing, but her younger sisters insist.
One hot summer afternoon,” Nadia recounts, “Katia was craving a snack of cool cucumbers. Since there were only a couple left, and not wanting to share, she convinced us all — naive teenagers at the time — to eat the cucumber peel, while she devoured the juicy heart. She accomplished this under the guise of the cucumber peel being more nutritious than the heart…and we totally believed her!”
If anyone has met Katia, they know exactly what Nadia means. Katia glows with enthusiasm and has a way of saying yes to possibilities in a way that makes you want to be on her team.
“Everybody has a situation in life, one that is really life-changing.” Katia says. “For me, that was cancer. You just look at things differently after something like that. I had always wanted to have a publishing press, and I remember thinking, ‘If not now, then when?'”
During the call, Samar reflects on how there was always music of some kind in the house, especially when Katia was studying musicology at a university in Lebanon. “Plus, my Dad was always humming Arabic songs, so music was there. It was always present in our life. And poetry too, with my Uncle. No gathering could end before someone was playing the piano, and us all singing. We still do that now, it would feel empty without it.”
“I just thought everybody does this, that everybody had something like dance and music in their lives.” Stephanie jumps in. “Of course as I grew up, I realized that was not true, but I felt that everybody wants it, though, everybody needs it.” It makes sense, in all these ways, that the sisters would eventually come together for a huge endeavor like Elyssar Press, as one way to breathe more art into the world.
Today, each sister and the Elyssar Press team at large offers the press their own, unique skill. Katia is the dreamer and, as her sisters note, a very convincing person whose passion makes everything come alive. Samar is exceptional with detail and words, making her an editor with an intuitive knack for reviewing manuscripts. Nadia is a natural with communication and with her marketing background, she is eager to help Katia with some of the logistics. Maryse is highly driven and has a way of predicting upcoming movements in the art world. Meanwhile, Stephanie sees the big picture and keeps the team organized. With her background in interior design, she also has an eye for the aesthetic of a space and loves applying this to the artistic layout of the books.
Elyssar Press is excited to release more books into the world that celebrate “individuality, the richness of every culture and the understanding attained in the knowledge about each other by ways of beauty in the written language and design.” You can learn more about the team on our About page.
This year alone, Elyssar Press has multiple titles on the way, including another collection of poetry and an anthology celebrating artists and resilience in Beirut. Stay tuned for all that is happening for this driven team and all the art they are bringing into the world.