With around 300 titles in its book list and roughly 20 new titles appearing each year, Peepal Tree provides readers not only with a significant archive of Caribbean and Black British fiction, poetry, and non-fiction but also with the “Caribbean nation’s” emergent writers, intellectuals, and activists. Abram Foley caught up with Jeremy Poynting in February 2020.
AF: Peepal Tree was founded in 1985, and your current mission statement notes that the press is concerned with “whether a book will still be alive in the future”. Can you tell us a little bit about the early titles that allowed Peepal Tree to have a future – that helped to set the trajectories on which Peepal Tree continues?
JP: I’d preface this by acknowledging that there’s always a difference between a book still being alive for you, and persuading readers to make space in a crowded present for books from the past. We try to keep a balance between discovering and midwifing the new, supporting the continuing output of existing authors (if it continues to develop), and recovering important books from the past.
There is also a commitment, not absolute, to keeping books in print. Probably the attrition rate amongst the very earliest titles has been higher than later in our life – some disappeared into selected/collected poems, a handful we’ve allowed to sleep, but in general having a sizeable backlist with a significant number of books that continue to pick up even modest sales has been really important to us. There suddenly came a point about 15 years ago when we realised that backlist sales were making a significant contribution to our revenues – like £20k a year – and this meant real changes in how we operated.
We used to print/make our own books (in fact ran a print shop and did quite a lot of work for other small presses), and the growth in backlist revenues meant that we could afford to outsource the making of books and concentrate on publishing. Digital technology with short run printing has helped to keep backlist books in print. Backlist titles have continued to grow as a proportion of sales income. In part it’s the long tail effect, in part the fact that books have found their way onto higher education reading lists here, in North America and the Caribbean itself. Sometimes when a new generation of readers discovers an author, they discover the backlist.
How has your mission changed from what you’d envisioned in 1985? Do changes in politics and the publishing industry – or even in the interests your writers pursue – sometimes take the press in new directions?
The earliest books were connected to the doctoral thesis I completed in 1985 – they had a strong Guyanese, to a lesser extent Trinidadian, and a significant Indo Caribbean component. They were quite often books by writers whom I had come across, corresponded with as part of my research. What I published (it was just ‘I’ at this point, until around 1992/3) was in part a response to the emergence of a generation of Indo-Caribbean writers who, by and large, had stayed in the Caribbean, came from a wider range of social backgrounds than earlier writers, included women, and were in general the beneficiaries of the widening of secondary education in the 1950s to bright students – but not necessarily the rare scholarship boys like V.S. Naipaul.
The writing itself was often a response to the bitter disillusionment with post-independence governments in the Caribbean, the realisation that the new leaders were more interested in stepping into the colonisers’ shoes than in decolonization, and were continuing to manipulate ethnic tensions for political purposes. In Guyana in the 1980s and into the 90s there was wholesale economic collapse, authoritarian parodies of the command economies of Eastern Europe, and ethnic exclusions (of Indians by an African-Guyanese supported government). All these things stimulated an urge to tell stories.
In terms of being here in the UK, it was a time when those publishers who had been interested in Caribbean writing in the 1950s – 1970s had largely either disappeared or been swallowed up by larger competitors. Those publishers who were interested because they had seen a potential educational market, such as Heinemann Caribbean, Longman (Drumbeats), Macmillan and briefly Faber Caribbean, were either themselves being bought up and/or their Caribbean interests were dwindling away. I saw a niche, though it was, of course, one that had been vacated because the market was mostly very small.
Part of the context of our operation was also the awareness that for reasons of geography, size of markets, petty nationalism and the absence of any kind of distribution networks, the chances of self-sustaining literary publishing in the Caribbean were very restricted. Even now, the only really successful continuous publishing located in the Anglophone Caribbean region is based around serving the needs of the universities and is academic in focus – with little literary input.
I think we have both been an alert responder to, and to some extent a shaper of, literary directions. I recognise that, inevitably, we play a gate-keeper role and I hope that we have always done this in responsible and informed ways. I think I can claim to have a pretty thorough knowledge of the bodies of Caribbean and Black British writing, so that the choices we make about what to publish arise from a complex of responses: to the qualities of the writing we are considering, its relationship to texts on our own backlist and forthcoming titles, to the past body of Caribbean and Black British writing and to what we/I perceive as new directions in process. At present this has included the exploration of diverse sexualities, and the potential of genres such as the speculative, the gothic and crime fiction as ways of saying something about the world. Strangely, in a region where crime is a major preoccupation, writers have only just begun to see the potential for genre crime fiction as a way of reaching readers and saying meaningful things about their societies.
Peepal Tree was founded in the midst of Thatcher’s rule and just a few years after the New Cross Fire, SWAMP 81, the Brixton uprising, and the Scarman Report – the subjects, in part, of Jay Bernard’s recent collection Surge. Now Roger Robinson – a writer and spoken word artist you publish – has just won the T.S. Eliot Prize for A Portable Paradise, which engages closely with the Grenfell Tower fire, its antecedents and its aftermaths, among other things. What for you is the role of the publisher in addressing such ongoing urgency and precarity? And have your strategies changed with the times?
I suppose my publishing activities have been something of a sublimation of disappointed political hopes and the suspicion that my own tendencies led me towards the former (publishing) than the latter (direct political activism). I was a member of the Communist Party and briefly the Socialist Workers Party, but even in the Communist Party, my activism led towards the word – I edited and produced (and wrote a good deal of) the weekly student news sheet the branch produced and sold for one penny (this was c1965-68).
As I embarked on a very long-drawn-out part-time PhD, I became close to both John La Rose and Sarah White at New Beacon, and the Huntleys at Bogle L’Ouverture. John La Rose in particular was an important mentor, both in demystifying the processes and possibilities of publishing and negotiating the relationship between the political and the literary. I was later involved in efforts to bring the Radical, Black and Third World Bookfair to Leeds and Bradford. I launched books with Creation for Liberation in Bradford. I was an active trade unionist in the Further Education lecturers’ union, so I think I can say that Peepal Tree has always had its roots in oppositional activities.
At the same time, as a publisher, I have to be persuaded that writing about, say Grenfell, genuinely opens up space for real empathy, real understanding – which I think Roger Robinson’s does – and that’s really hard because it takes real talent and imagination, because it’s much easier to write in a way that is sloganistic, or make a display of feelings that are self-promoting rather than empathetic.
In the past I must have turned away scores of bad poetry collections, poems of bald statement in chopped up prose where writers seem to have imagined that saying that Thatcher was a terrible woman and black people suffered racist abuse was saying anything new. So, I don’t think that our strategies (or at least my vision of the world) have changed overmuch with the times. I remain excited by writing that responds to the inequities/iniquities of the world in imaginative ways, but I also have a space for writing that is concerned with interior worlds, that calls for quiet reflection – and you may often find them in the same collection.
I’m interested in your look back to Heinemann Caribbean, Longman, Macmillan, and Faber, and the way that these imprints dwindled away. In response to fairly recent reports on the lack of diversity of published books in the UK, and the dearth of BAME people working in publishing, big presses have once again turned some resources toward addressing shortcomings in their publishing models. To the skeptic, this might look like a repetition of what happened in that first wave of interest you mention. What kinds of infrastructural changes – so to speak – need to be made so that these publishing emphases aren’t so easily written off once the revenue begins to dry up? Or do you imagine that nurturing interest in BAME and Caribbean writers, among others, will continue to be the work of small presses?
Heinemann, Longman and Macmillan were always mostly oriented to the educational/academic market, and were mostly concerned with reprinting previously published work. Their interest in original work was always fairly spasmodic and probably down to the passing through the company of a newly recruited but short-lived editor. I won’t mention names, but there are at least two people I know (with both of whom I had conversations) who played that role, including a distinguished Jamaican/British poet whom Heinemann appointed as an editor about a decade ago, but nothing came of it.
Faber was always more interested in original work. Between the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s it published important Caribbean writers such as Wilson Harris, John Hearne and Garth St Omer. But its Faber Caribbean series, launched around 1998, lasted only about 8 books – interesting choices of mostly translations, but evidently not commercially rewarding enough to continue. Over the last couple of years, Faber has signed up three Caribbean novels, largely I think because of the buzz coming out of things like the Bocas Litfest in Trinidad, and I’ve no doubt they monitor what we’ve been up to, and see that there’s quite an efflorescence of new writing, particularly coming out of Trinidad. I don’t think it’s cynical to think that this commitment will last only as long as sales figures warrant. We quite regularly pick up top-class work from mid-career writers whose last book didn’t sell well with a mainstream publishing house.
I think I’d make a distinction between the alertness of editors to shifting trends in extra-British (or more specifically English) geographic areas of interest, and a commitment to ensuring that there is a genuine diversity of voices in British publishing – not as a matter of novelty and superficial variety, but as a matter of fundamental equality of access. Given the prominence of prize-winning books from Black British writers over the past few years (in poetry more than fiction – but all hail Bernardine Evaristo), there is undoubtedly going to be an increased interest from the mainstream, but only if it results in sales or the kind of kudos that burnishes their brand.
Over the past few years, there have been some interesting appointments made of some quite prominent Black editors, but they are few, and titles such as ‘editor at large’ don’t fill you with confidence – they suggest a certain detachedness from the core of decision-making. It’s probably unrealistic to expect publishing to be ahead of the field when a lack of minority ethnic and particularly Black representation runs through academia, business and politics.
In terms of infrastructural change, I’d always see a place for independent – and in some instances funded – publishing as providing the space for those writers who want to define their own terms for what they write rather than delivering what mainstream publishing sees as commercially viable. This is a matter of class and region as well as race and culture. We are, for instance, an enthusiastic part of the Northern Fiction Alliance.
In many respects, with digital technologies available at all stages from editing, typesetting to printing, with online social media making the building of reader communities very possible, the mechanics of publishing and marketing are immeasurably easier than they were when we began 35 years ago (no websites, no email, phototypesetting, manual creation of layouts – pasting-up). I hope that the successors to New Beacon Books, Bogle L’Ouverture publications, Karia Press and others will emerge from the Black community to define their own spaces.
What does it mean for you to know that your audience isn’t only based in the UK but also in the Caribbean (and elsewhere)? Are there certain books that you imagine will do better in one place than the other, and then base your decision off that?
We want to sell our books everywhere, but it is especially important to me that they reach readers in the Caribbean and that we keep on making space for writers who are based in the region. For reasons that would take a whole other interview to cover, literary publishing has never really got off the ground or been able to sustain itself in the Caribbean (geographical separation, size of markets, petty nationalism, absence of distribution networks), so I/we feel a responsibility to work with others (like the literature festivals, the handful of dynamic bookshops, the networks of writers) to ensure that Caribbean writers can connect with Caribbean readers in sharing truths, creating empathy, holding the political elite to account, and creating a literary culture which contributes to human development.
Over the years I have read/thought a great deal about the connections between Britain and the Caribbean. I see them as being part of the same difficult story, and being about unexpired, unpaid debts – and that I hope that Peepal Tree can make a contribution to the process of truth-telling about empire and the shedding of imperial illusions. We are currently part of a project with the University of Leicester and the National Trust called ‘The Colonial Countryside’ which is dedicated to that kind of truth-telling, that a huge number of our beautiful country houses were funded by the slave trade, slave-grown sugar and financing, or the plunder of India by the East India Company.
As an editor of Caribbean books I always tell writers from the region that in the first instance they should be writing for their fellow country people and the region. This clearly has implications for cultural reference and the language registers used – and avoiding unnecessary and intrusive explanation. Good writing carries its contexts with it. Within that framework, yes you know (or hope) that some books are going to have a wider appeal beyond the prime Caribbean, Caribbean heritage readership. Sadly, you also know that some books will do much better in Trinidad than Jamaica, and vice versa.
As far as viability goes, we depend on accumulating sales across all those territories – the UK, the Caribbean, North America – with different levels in those places for different books. Occasionally we know that probably only other poets are the market for a particular book. It’s one of the benefits of having Arts Council funding, for which we are very grateful, that we can take on books we think are important but are unlikely to have any immediate flood of sales.
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Impossible terms and conditions, a narrow view of the industry, a gatekeeper to success. When it comes to small presses, mainstream prizes have a lot to answer for. But is it all bad? Clare Howdle explores the divisive nature of literary prize giving – and how for some, it’s a case of revolution from the inside out.