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Industry Insight: Q&A with Peepal Tree Press - Making Books Matter

Intrepid, innovative, and committed to fruitful collaborations, Leeds-based Peepal Tree Press has been blazing a trail for thirty-six years.

Founded in 1985 to publish fiction, poetry and non-fiction from the Caribbean and its diasporas and by Black British and British Asian writers, they’ve nurtured and published some of the novels I’ve most loved discovering in recent years, among them Elma Napier’s A Flying Fish Whispered, Anthony Joseph’s Kitch, and the magnificent winner of the Costa 2020 Book of the Year Award, Monique’s Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch

From their preservation and celebration of Caribbean classics, to their commitment to publishing exceptional books of our time that will stand the test of time, to their inspiring collaborative approach, Peepal Tree Press are a publisher to applaud and explore, and we’re delighted to feature them in this month’s Industry Insights article. Over to founder Jeremy Poynting to tell us more.

Describe your ethos in three words

Make books matter.

Give us a brief history

Peepal Tree Press was founded in 1985 by Jeremy Poynting, still its managing editor, as a one-person operation based in his garage and house. Hannah Bannister, now its Operations Manager (and designer and marketing manager), joined the company in 1994 at the same time as it became a limited company and a couple of years after moving into its still current premises at 17 Kings Avenue, Leeds. 

Currently 10 people work with Peepal Tree, but only two are full-time and the whole team is about 4 full-time equivalent. The team includes Kwame Dawes and Jacob Ross as associate poetry and fiction editors respectively; Malika Booker who leads our podcast, The New Caribbean Voices; Dorothea Smartt and Kadija George who run the national Inscribe writer development programme; Kadijah Ibrahiim and Jacob Ross who run our local Leeds Readers and Writers group; Adam Lowe and Rawan Eisa who work on online marketing and promotion; Paulette Morris works in despatch and is our number one community advocate. 

For roughly the first 25 years Peepal Tree survived by printing its own books and printing for others. In 2006 Peepal Tree became a regularly funded organisation and in 2011 part of the Arts Council’s portfolio. It has published over 450 books to date, from around 50 books over the first 10 years and on average 15-18 a year more recently. It focuses on fiction, poetry and non-fiction from the Caribbean and its diasporas and by Black British and British Asian writers.

What were your biggest challenges in the early days?

The biggest challenges in the early days were the absence of the internet, email, websites, and digital pre-press and print production. Pre-press was a very manual operation. It is hugely easier to publish books now. Add to that the lack of money, experience in publishing, large bank overdrafts and still working as an FE lecturer for the first 11 years of Peepal Tree’s life. Difficult times.

What are your top five highlights/landmarks from your thirty-five years?

I think they’d have to include Kwame Dawes’s Forward Poetry Prize in 1994 for Progeny of Air; Jacob Ross’s Jhalak Prize for The Bone Readers in 2017; Vladimir Lucien’s Sounding Ground and Jen Rahim’s Curfew Chronicles (described by Lorna Goodison as one of the most ambitious books by a Caribbean writer), both OCM Bocas Prizes at the Bocas Litfest; Roger Robinson’s T.S. Eliot and Ondaatje prize for A Portable Paradise, and of course Monique Roffey’s Costa prize for The Mermaid of Black Conch. But the truth is, though prizes are very affirming for writer and publisher, I could have picked highlights that didn’t involve prizes – special moments – and even if there had never been any prizes, I would still have found those affirmations. There are many other books on our list equally worthy of that kind of notice.

What’s your acquisition process? Do you make collective decisions as to which books to acquire? How would you summarise what you’re looking for - your editorial criteria?

Manuscripts come to us by a mixture of open access via Submittable, through continuing contact with the writers we have already published and sometimes through invitation – for instance from work that has impressed us at Bocas in their showcases for developing writers, and also through the Inscribe publishing programme of anthologies and chapbooks. I’d lie if I said the acquisition process was wholly collective. I rely heavily on advice from Kwame Dawes and Jacob Ross, but ultimately the decision is mine – though we rarely disagree on very much. 

I suppose the editorial criteria falls into three interconnecting questions: firstly, is this writing that displays a distinctive individual voice and vision, and a level of skills that goes well beyond just promise; secondly, is this writing that adds both to the range of our list and to the bodies of Caribbean and Black British writing in terms of focus, content and aesthetics; thirdly, without being statistical about it, we are keen to see some balance between giving access to new writing and continuing to support (if they are developing) the careers of writers we have already published; a balance between writers based in the Caribbean (who in general are much less likely to be published than writers based in the UK) and writers based in Britain. 

We’ve never needed to think much about issues of gender or LGBTI balance since what has come to us does that for us. We do try to balance between poetry, fiction and non-fiction in the annual list choices, but the balance really depends here on what is good, so sometimes there may be more poetry than fiction, sometimes an overwhelming majority of short story collections – a choice not always popular with those who have to promote and sell the books.

Could you tell us about the Inscribe initiative - how it came about, its aims, its outcomes?

The Inscribe writers programme began as a project initiative based in Yorkshire, led by Kadija George from around 2008. From around 2015 it became a national programme, jointly led by Kadija and Dorothea Smartt, both fine poets. Its goal is, to quote: “Supporting writers of colour in England to professionally advance their creative work and their careers through coaching, mentoring, workshops, residentials, training, newsletters, publications and general advice.” In addition, Inscribe operates as an imprint of Peepal Tree, producing anthologies and chapbooks of work in progress for members of the programme. 

In addition to the national Inscribe programme, we (Jacob Ross and Khadija Ibrahiim) also run a local Readers and Writers group in Leeds, a real mixture of people with different kinds of writing goals, some professional, some self-expressive, but all with a huge interest in both talking about reading and developing their own writing skills.

A collaborative approach seems to be at the heart of what you do. Could you tell us how you engage with writers and publishers in the Caribbean?

We have been a partner of the Bocas Litfest since its beginnings 12 years ago. It’s an important annual event (and now one with a year-round focus) because it brings together writers from across the region and North America and the UK. It is a prime occasion for selling books and presenting new writing to informed and appreciative audiences. We provide a good many new books for launching every year; the festival showcases up-and-coming writers and there are several writers who have come to us through this process, such as the excellent Barbara Jenkins, with a first short story collection, Sic Transit Wagon and a first novel, De Rightest Place (a Trinidadian Cheers) both published after she was 70.

We are involved with other important collaborations worth mentioning, as partners in the Leeds Soroptimist Prize for women writers of Black and Asian origins, and in the Colonial Countryside project, with Corinne Fowler of Leicester University, a project concerned with telling “difficult truths” (and very unpopular ones in right-wing circles) about the connections of country house heritage with the profits of slavery and the East India Company.

Your Caribbean Modern Classics series is outstanding, serving the vital purpose of keeping brilliant books in print that might have otherwise been lost. How do you select books for this series? What’s next?

We select Caribbean Modern Classics by a) the fact they are important and still worth reading and have something to say to the present; b) that they are out of print; c) that it is possible to identify the current copyright holder, usually the literary executor. Sometimes it’s quite a challenge to track families down, and many of the original publishers have long disappeared, either totally, or into one of the global agglomerates. There are books we want to republish but can’t locate the rights holder.

There are more to come: more John Hearne, more Edgar Mittelholzer, more poetry and more drama. It is certainly also our intention to push the target date forward from the 1940s-1970s into the 1980s and beyond. This will bring into the series the important books by women writers that began to appear in volume in the 1980s. 

Which book do you wish you’d published?

Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings. We’d have made our fortunes and never had to think about money again. Seriously, it is a book that I admire. I’d have loved to have been around to have published Ulysses! But of more recent Caribbean fiction that I greatly admire that we didn’t publish, I’d include Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night, Earl Lovelace’s Salt, and in poetry I am a great admirer of Lorna Goodison’s work.

Which book are you most proud of having published?

That’s really difficult, but Kwame Dawes’s Prophets has to be there. It was quite an early publication (it’s a verse narrative, book-length poem) both in Kwame’s career (1995) and in mine as a publisher. I went back to reissue it recently in a new edition, and was driven to write a reader’s guide to it. It’s rewarding to discover things you hadn’t seen before, even though you were the book’s first editor.

Which of your 2021 books would you like to highlight to the LoveReading community?

Well, already out is Corinne Fowler’s Green Unpleasant Land. This is a literary study that locates aspects of rural England in the discourses of empire, colonialism and migration. It has engendered a frothing-at-the-mouth response from the Daily Mail, and a degree of personal abuse for the author that is deeply shameful. 

Then there’s the anthology produced by the Readers and Writers group, a real showcase of Leeds talent, edited by Jacob Ross. This is called Weighted Words. Then, in a way that shows the current astonishing concentration of talent of women writers in Trinidad, we’re publishing an important series of novels, all linked by the fact that they are works of historical fiction (of mostly the first two-thirds of the 20th century) and one memoir. These are works of fiction that go back to a period previously only written about by male authors – some fine work, with sometimes decent women characters, but seen always from a male perspective. 

These include Amanda Smyth’s Fortune, whose setting is the early oil industry in Trinidad; Merle Hodge’s One Day, One Day Congotay, an enriching and militantly political family saga set in colonial Trinidad in the first half of the 20th century; Jen Rahim’s Goodbye Bay, set in the first few years of Trinidad’s independence in the 1960s, which is the story of a woman’s withdrawal from personal difficulty to a remote rural post office, and her discovery that this is no withdrawal at all; Vijay Maharaj’s The Mystic Masseur’s Wife, which goes back to restore the missing Leila from V.S. Naipaul’s famous early novel, The Mystic Masseur. This is a frequently very funny work of inter-textual re-invention. And then there’s Barbara Jenkins’s memoir, The Stranger Who Was Myself, which recreates a life from memories of the 1940s, a sojourn in Wales in the 1960s, and a return to Trinidad in 1970. All these Trinidadian books with appear in the second half of 2021.

Huge thanks to Jeremy for taking the time to talk to us. Do yourself a favour and check out the Peepal Tree Press website to find your new favourite writers.

Keep up to date with Peepal Tree Press

Website: www.peepaltreepress.com

Facebook: @peepaltreepress

Twitter: @peepaltreepress

Instagram: @peepaltreepress

If you enjoyed this, click here to check out our other Industry Insight Q&As.

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