“Writing worth keeping alive”

Jeremy Poynting talks to Nicholas Laughlin about Peepal Tree Press, the new Caribbean Modern Classics series, and how to define the Caribbean canon

Founded in 1986 by Jeremy Poynting, Peepal Tree Press — based in Leeds, in the north of England — began humbly, its first title “‘typeset’ on a daisywheel printer.” Over the past two and a half decades, shepherded with enterprise and thrift, it has become perhaps the major publisher of Caribbean fiction and poetry, with dozens of new books appearing each year, hundreds of titles on its backlist, and a distinguished list of international prizes and awards.

In 2009, Peepal Tree launched a new Caribbean Modern Classics series, with plans to return to print “at least sixty” significant Caribbean titles from the 1950s to the 1980s. Highlights so far include novels by Denis Williams, Edgar Mittelholzer, and Wilson Harris.

Poynting “first came to Caribbean writing as a student almost forty-five years ago,” he recalls, “through what was at first a politically motivated friendship with the Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiongo, who was at Leeds University doing postgraduate research. He turned me on to the likes of Lamming and C.L.R. James.” He later worked as a lecturer in further education and trade union activist, and began a PhD in Caribbean literature. His research brought him to the Caribbean for the first time in 1976. A conversation with the Guyanese writer Rooplall Monar in 1984 was the germ of Peepal Tree, and the press was launched with Monar’s book Backdam People.

In April 2010, CRB editor Nicholas Laughlin interviewed Poynting via email about the new Caribbean Modern Classics series, Peepal Tree’s possible role in shaping current and future directions in Caribbean literature, and the evolving notion of a Caribbean literary canon.

Nicholas Laughlin: When Peepal Tree Press announced the Modern Classics series in 2008, many Caribbean readers must have been surprised (and delighted) by the scope of your ambitions: returning “at least sixty” books to print over a period three or four years. In the past I’ve heard of various plans to resurrect out-of-print Caribbean books, most of which have borne scant fruit. What made Peepal Tree decide to do this now, and how has it been possible?

Jeremy Poynting: The project was something I’d wanted to do for a long time. I’d become increasingly conscious that many of the books I’d admired when I’d read them, sometimes over forty years ago, and the books that revealed what a hugely creative place the Caribbean psyche was, were out of print and destined to stay that way, and that more would follow.

At the minute, the rough cut-off is of books published before the mid-1970s, though we will bring that forward over time, and will need to do that to bring more women’s writing into the list. Here in the UK, books have at best a five-year shelf life, and then if they are not selling fairly substantially they are dead, so further disappearances of important work is inevitable. I knew that universities and schools were being condemned to teach an increasingly narrow range of books from the recent past, and that though there was a notional Caribbean canon, much of it was out of print. As a publisher and editor I’m very much in favour of contemporary writers being aware of where they’ve come from, and not have to invent the wheel (or pretend that they got there first). I felt that readers were being deprived of good books, and that societies need a sense of their recent past. The Caribbean novel is still by far the best window on how Caribbean people have led their lives.

NL: Does the series have any external funding, or do you simply have a very shrewd business plan?

JP: The project became possible because we got an unexpected windfall from a very substantial order for books to go into Trinidadian secondary school libraries, and this gave us a lump of capital such as we’d never had before, though we had to work like demons to put the order together — reprinting books, etc. Otherwise the classics project on the scale envisaged would have been impossible — our budget works in a very closely balanced way, with nothing to spare, and we didn’t want to jeopardise our commitment to new writing and existing authors.

NL: How have you decided which books to reprint, and how to define a “classic”? Writers’ estates and copyright arrangements must play a big part, but what have your literary considerations or criteria been?

JP: The starting point was whether this was a book that was out of print and rights were available. We were not going to start competing with Penguin to do classic editions of V.S. Naipaul! And being out of print and having available rights is not always the same thing. Faber, for instance, sit on the rights of John Hearne’s novels, and won’t return them to the family. Contracts in the 1950s often had no return-of-rights clause.

Obviously, most crucially, there was a judgement to be made about what was worthwhile seeing back in print. I did have an email correspondence with Kenneth Ramchand about the series, and he was very much in favour of having some kind of premiership of unquestionably classic titles and interesting “also-rans.” I didn’t feel this was particularly helpful as a marketing strategy for the also-rans, and I wanted the reissue of the books to stimulate new debate, new appreciations — and sometimes even the frank acknowledgement that some books didn’t live up to their reputations, but that we still needed to have them.

The canon had very much been set by Ken’s study The West Indian Novel and Its Background and its recent reissue, and much as I admire his book as a pioneering and often shrewdly written work of criticism, it has its biases against novels that don’t fit into the West Indian Creole nationalist paradigm. So that, for instance, novels that have a black political edge tend not to find favour, such as Neville Dawes’s The Last Enchantment. Other agendas that have emerged since The West Indian Novel was published needed taking into account — a novel such as Andrew Salkey’s Escape to an Autumn Pavement needed recognition as one of the very first Caribbean novels to deal acutely with a gay sensibility.

So I hope reissues without a league table will provoke some new placements and appreciations. I also wanted to do the less-expected, so that while Denis Williams’s Other Leopards was an obvious choice, The Third Temptation was not, but rereading it I found a really very interesting novel — a rare experimental work that sat beside but was hugely different from what Wilson Harris was doing. One novel hardly anyone will know about, but which was drawn to my attention by Evelyn O’Callaghan, is Elma Napier’s A Flying Fish Whispered. And though Napier was a Scotswoman who had settled in Dominica in the early 1930s, this felt like a deeply Caribbean piece of work, sparkily written and with a very early exploration of the plot/plantation distinction, and a feisty feminist exploration of sexuality.

Writer’s estates and copyright did play a big part, and there was some detective work involved in tracking families down, though in some cases it was a joy to deal with elders such as Jan Carew, now almost ninety, or the pleasure of family members that work was going to be republished. That process is by no means over, and I’m still trying to track down the estates of people such as Alvin Bennett (God the Stonebreaker), Fitzroy Fraser, Merrill Ferguson, and a few others. There were disappointments — the rights to Sylvia Wynter’s The Hills of Hebron had gone elsewhere — but we’ve only had one rejection, from Sir V.S. himself, who didn’t want to see a reissue of Seepersad Naipaul’s stories, which is a real pity.

The latest additions to the list are poetry titles, including books by Wayne Brown, George Campbell, and Una Marson, with more to follow — though we need to recoup a bit of money from the earlier titles first.

NL: What are the Caribbean titles that most surprised you by being out of print?

JP: Not shocked or surprised, but the absence of some George Lamming titles, Denis Williams, and Sam Selvon was symptomatic. And Faber’s decision to let all but the Guyana Trilogy of Wilson Harris’s earlier fiction go permanently out of print looked like an act of literary vandalism, though understandable in the present bookselling climate. I hope that our recovery of Edgar Mittelholzer’s earlier Caribbean work will reveal a much more serious and achieved writer than some of the previous criticism has suggested.

NL: Apart from Brown, Campbell, and Marson, what other poets might we expect to see — or might you like to include — in the series? And is there a place for non-fiction prose? I’ve long thought there’s a distinguished but under-appreciated tradition of creative non-fiction in Caribbean literature that is perhaps in need of recuperation.

JP: For the poetry I’d want to add as obvious starting-points Seymour and Collymore. There are some re-issues to be done of poets already on our list, such as Eric Roach and Slade Hopkinson, and then there’s some rereading to do of people I haven’t read for years, such as A.L. Hendricks, etc. What I’m actually thinking about just now, which may be a better container for some of the worthwhile poetry of the past, is something rather like the Penguin Modern Poets series of forty years ago, each book with a representative selection from three poets, except that in our series each title would have one poet from the past, one current and established, and one new or emerging poet. It’s our twenty-fifth anniversary next year, and this might well be a new venture for that year.

And as far as creative non-fiction goes, I’m very open to ideas here. I like Nicholas Guppy’s A Young Man’s Journey. Andrew Salkey’s non-fiction is really rewarding, and Seymour’s autobiographical series is definitely worth reviving. You throw me back to my bookshelves.

NL: Each “classic” edition includes a newly commissioned introduction. How have you matched introducers to books, and has this produced any surprising insights?

JP: In a variety of different ways. Sometimes a current researcher, such as Juanita Cox, who is doing great work on Mittelholzer; sometimes a current writer such as Raymond Ramcharitar, who I got to do an introduction to A Morning at the Office, because I felt there were elements in that novel that would appeal to him — which they did. Or inviting a critic/politician such as Rupert Roopnaraine to write on Mittelholzer’s Shadows Move Among Them because of its themes of authority and libertarianism, and because I knew he admired Mittelholzer’s work. I got Kwame Dawes to write about his dad — the truth is, no one else was going to get to do that one. I even wrote one myself, and I will confess to being a highly interfering editor of the introductions, so that a good many have emerged as what I hope have been creative dialogues.

What I’ve wanted out of the introductions has been a general blowing-off of dust, a bit of contextualising in both original and current times, comparisons, connections that may not have been apparent at the time of publication, and in some cases quite detailed readings of novels to bring forward qualities that were overlooked in earlier reviews or criticism. The reputation of Mittelholzer, for instance, has been dominated by the image of him as the churner-out of pot-boilers; what Juanita Cox’s reading of The Life and Death of Sylvia reveals is a highly conscious, writerly literary artist. In some cases, such as Denis Williams’s The Third Temptation, the introduction offers very helpful insights into reading what is a challenging text and establishing it as a Caribbean novel, although it’s set in Wales and there are no obvious Caribbean connections. However, I’m always on the lookout for new introducers, and rather out of the loop on who is currently researching what, so folk are very welcome to make suggestions or offer themselves. We pay — modestly.

NL: You mention the role of Ramchand’s West Indian Novel in defining what we still largely accept as the Caribbean canon, and also the reassessment of writers like Mittelholzer. How else — which is to say, in what other directions — do you think the Peepal Tree classics series could expand or re-shape the Caribbean canon?

JP: As to what constitutes the canon, I don’t think it’s Peepal Tree’s job to try to define it. That’s part of what I hope will be a much wider debate, and not one restricted to academia, which seems to me to be in danger of taking the discussion of literature to a point where more general readers can no longer participate. I think it’s our role as a publisher to make available and re-present to potential readers a fairly diverse range of titles in terms of the “classics.” There is clearly a gate-keeping role here, and however you look at it, we do have barriers, and they do involve thinking about “significance” and “literary quality.” The two might not always be the same.

Where my preferences lie is with a much more inclusive but heterogeneous sense of what constitutes the body of writing that is worth keeping alive and reading. I prefer that loose formulation to the implicit exclusions and elitism of the idea of a canon. Post-Ramchand, the body of Caribbean writing has become explosively diverse in aesthetics, in its attention to gender and sexual orientation politics, in the exploration of ethnic identities, in the connection between national literatures and the wider Caribbean region, and in the relationship between literature produced in the region (Kamau Brathwaite’s Caribbean Caribbean) and in the Caribbean diasporas.

I understand people having their own territories, geographic or aesthetic or gender-wise, but find it depressing that too much critical writing and actual reading preferences (on the evidence of what we sell and where) seems trapped in narrow loyalties. I bow to no one in respect for Wilson Harris’s body of work. His Tradition and the West Indian Novel is one of the most important pieces of Caribbean critical writing. I think an awful lot of what Wilson writes there is necessary and hugely challenging (though I think he misconceives Lamming), but the thought of a Caribbean fiction that comes wholly from a Harris line would be both narrow and daunting!

What I find engaging is the kind of dialogue that you can read into the work of Harris, Naipaul, and Lamming (which was a quite explicit dialogue at times). This is what I hope both the classics series and our more contemporary publishing allows to happen. Reality is too complex to imagine that there’s only one way of getting at it.

NL: A sort of devil’s advocate question: how do you feel about the fact that Peepal Tree is — and for some years now has been — the major publisher of Caribbean literature? There are advantages in terms of funding and distribution (among other things) to your being located in Britain, but how do you respond to those who wish that Caribbean publishers within the Caribbean played a greater role in shaping contemporary Caribbean literature? Or are such geographical distinctions moot in this age of the “transnational”?

JP: It was never our intention to be in that place. In the beginning it was more a matter of finding a niche that publishers such as Heinemann and Longman were vacating and — with (increasingly) Macmillan — seem to have vacated. It’s also been a position wished on us by the fact that, increasingly, some established Caribbean authors formerly with big publishers have been required to sell more copies than they were doing, and have been dropped.

Being in this place is hard work, I tell you. There’s still only the core of two of us in the office delivering the publishing (plus Kwame Dawes in the USA, and we have just acquired a trainee marketing assistant who is funded to work with us for the next nine months), and survival over twenty-four years means that there are an awful lot of authors and books to try to look after. I think that over the years we have made many more right decisions about what to publish than wrong ones, and the books themselves have been edited and presented in a way that is both professional and truthful to their Caribbean or Caribbean diasporic origins. We’ve never asked writers to rewrite because we wanted to make them more accessible to a UK or more generally commercial market.

We do have advantages being in the UK. We get some funding from the Arts Council (though our finances and budgets are on a very tight and impecunious shoestring), and we are in a geographic position where distribution to the UK, USA, and Canada and to the Caribbean is possible without too much difficulty. All my family, including grandchildren, are in the UK, though otherwise a relocation to the Caribbean would be very tempting!

But I take the question very seriously. The first book we did (well, it was just me then, in 1986) carried an apologetic afterword about the neo-colonialism of re-exporting a Guyanese book to Guyana. I admire hugely what Ian Randle and UWI Press have been doing, but I can also see why as Caribbean publishers neither has gone very far in publishing contemporary creative literature. It’s all about market. Even the universities tend to preference their national literatures on their reading lists, and bookshops are in general very reluctant to buy books that come from outside their national territories.

I don’t think geographic distinctions are moot. For one thing, there ought to be space for what Ruel Johnson calls provincialism in Caribbean writing; the kind of writing that perhaps doesn’t travel so well out of its national territory but which has something to say that’s pertinent to readers within that territory.

NL: A sort of addendum to that: to some of us based in the Caribbean, it often seems that Caribbean literature has largely been and is increasingly being written by expatriate writers (i.e., Caribbean-born but based elsewhere) and published by non-Caribbean publishers for a significantly non-Caribbean audience. What are your thoughts about this? Does the experience of Peepal Tree Press support this notion, or refute it?

JP: This is a very pertinent observation. I’m always keen to publish work that originates in the Caribbean Caribbean and critical of the assumptions of some of the diasporic Caribbean-born or even Caribbean heritage academics that they can speak for the region. I know that writers based in the region are disadvantaged with respect to getting published, that there are agents and publishers in the UK and North America who won’t look at Caribbean Caribbean writing (Earl Lovelace is a very rare exception) because it’s not promotable (unless it falls into an international genre and — if one is being perhaps unwarrantably cynical — the author is young and attractive). However, I certainly wouldn’t go as far as Ruel in dismissing writing by “expatriates” as “not Caribbean.”

It’s a different kind of Caribbean, but someone such as Jan Shinebourne will not cease to be a Guyanese writer, though she now writes about the power of memory or about the lives of Guyanese in the UK. But she, I’m sure, would frankly acknowledge that she can’t write intimately about the Guyana of the past thirty or forty years. This is the problem. During the 1990s and (decreasingly) up to about 2005 we published a stream of very powerful Guyanese novels all by writers still then resident in Guyana, and some of their power came from their inwardness and lived experience of the hard years of the 1970s and 80s. Now only one of these writers is still in Guyana, and with the exception of Ruel Johnson, I’d have to say that many of the manuscripts that have come to us from Guyana may show elements of talent and promise, but lack the evidence of wider reading and are too lacking in “craft” writing skills to be really publishable. I really hope I’m going to be made to eat my words here.

And you are right:  there is a kind of diasporic writing that makes use of Caribbean flavours to sell what is a global or international product, and bears all the signs of being published for non-Caribbean audiences, though I don’t think that’s what we do. And I’m very aware as a publisher of the possibility that in time what is more appropriately described as Black British writing will lose its Caribbean echoes altogether. It’s a problem that began with Claude McKay and C.L.R. James eighty or more years ago.

There’s a much more extensive discussion to be held on the subject — one that leads to a focus on professional writer development (and reader development) that builds on what is already being done in the region. I’d like to be able to contribute to that discussion.


The Caribbean Review of Books, May 2010