Peepal Tree Press spreads its branches

The world’s leading publisher of Caribbean literature makes its home in chilly Leeds

Hannah Bannister and Jeremy Poynting of Peepal Tree Press. Photograph courtesy Peepal Tree Press

One of the ironies of the Caribbean publishing business is that the world’s leading publisher of Caribbean literature is located approximately five thousand miles away from the islands whose books it is devoted to. For more than twenty years, aspiring creative writers living and working in the Caribbean have been offered a publishing lifeline, which most metropolitan publishers have generally refused them, by the Peepal Tree Press, based in Leeds in the UK. Founded in 1985, Peepal Tree now has over 160 titles in print, many of them fiction or poetry, and many more in the works.

This impressive list includes eye-catching names like Martin Carter, Samuel Selvon, Kamau Brathwaite, David Dabydeen, Marina Omowale Maxwell, Rachel Manley, Beryl Gilroy, and Laksmi Persaud, along with many writers first venturing into print. Another important part of Peepal’s mission is reprinting titles long out of print, like John Hearne’s novel Voices Under the Window. Earlier this year, one of Peepal’s recent books, the short story collection Suspended Sentences by the Guyanese Mark McWatt, won both the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best new fiction, and a Casa de las Américas prize.

Amazingly, from inception right up to Spring 2006, Peepal was a two-person show: founder and managing editor Jeremy Poynting, and marketing manager Hannah Bannister. The founding impulse came in 1984, amid the ruins of the Lusignan sugar estate on the East Coast of Demarara in Guyana, as Poynting listened to his friend Rooplall Monar enacting some of the short stories he’d written but despaired of ever having published. At that time, there wasn’t even paper for printing in Guyana. Poynting took the manuscript back to England and printed it at the further education college he was then teaching at, and with the publication of Monar’s Backdam People, Peepal Tree Press took root.

It’s been a long haul, as Poynting recalls. “There were the problems of getting a business started with very little experience, large overdrafts, bailiffs, a business partnership which went badly wrong.” Named with Indo-Caribbeans in mind, at a time when they were still culturally and politically marginalised, Peepal had to contend with aspiring authors’ misconceptions. “We tried to be very explicit about the organisation and the fact that it was just two people. Most understood, but others had grander notions about us and would treat us like Heinemann or Longman. Those who knew regarded it as a fairly quixotic exercise, rather than people trying to screw them.”

With a clear priority that “was always survival”, to finance the fledgling company Poynting turned to commercial printing after acquiring an old offset press, but this led to “dealing with others’ deadlines rather than our own.” Succumbing to the competition from digital printing and websites, the offset print market collapsed, but by then Peepal had established itself. This was due to sheer perseverance, a substantial backlist (digital printing allowed for small print runs to keep titles in print), and a developing relationship with American distributors.

Aware of mainstream metropolitan publishing’s indifference to Caribbean literature and the problems of publishing in the Caribbean, Poynting is full of admiration for Ian Randle’s Jamaican publishing house, and stresses his “interest in the growth of the Pan-Caribbean literary process.” Part of that process is selling texts in the region (currently about three to four thousand books annually), and Peepal Tree gives a fifty per cent discount to regional booksellers. Territorialism and “consumer resistance” are problems: Trini books tend to sell well only in Trinidad, and “it’s easier selling old names than the new ones.”

Poynting sees several ways forward: “Getting writers better known” through magazines like Caribbean Beat and The Caribbean Review of Books; encouraging bookshops to be “a little more adventurous”; and stimulating a flow of information throughout the region, which can be helped by literary festivals like Jamaica’s Calabash. “A regional literary prize would make a big difference,” he says, along with some help from Caribbean academics, who, Poynting feels, “need to commit to writing about contemporary literature, in ways that bring it to a wider audience.”

But, meantime, he affirms: “As long as I’m the driving force, Peepal will stay committed to writing coming out of the region. It’s very easy to publish diasporic writing, and it’s easier for diasporic writers in an environment where they can develop with exposure, peer review, and writers’ groups. It’s all much harder in the Caribbean, where books need to be published whose primary audience is the people in the region.”

One of Peepal’s initiatives for 2006, which should inspire Caribbean poets, is the appointment of Kwame Dawes as guest editor for poetry. So we can expect to hear some new voices, and maybe even welcome Walcott’s successors in the coming months — thanks to Peepal.