THERE COMES A stage in life when one sometimes forgets to celebrate the passing years; truth be told, it’s hard enough just to keep up with them, they pass so quickly. Recently, a long-time friend knocked on my front door, bearing an early birthday gift: a large round patisserie tin containing a tasty-looking confection topped with blackberries and icing. Delicious as the cake looked, the real present, she told me, was the tin: an antique of sorts, showing its age a little around the edges (like me). About nine inches in diameter, the tin had ‘Côte d’Or’ written in large brown and gold curvy letters, canopied over a stylised drawing in cream, ochre and umber of a side-facing elephant, trunk aloft, palm trees and pyramids in the background.
Further investigation later that day told me that this was the branding of a chocolate-producing Belgian company, founded in 1883 and trading under a pseudo-French translation of the name Gold Coast, the one-time British colony where I was born and which was the source of much of the cocoa used in manufacturing chocolate.
I can vouch for there being cocoa and palm trees in present-day independent Ghana (‘Gold Coast’ was dropped with independence in 1957), though in all the decades of my acquaintance with my native land I have never run into an elephant there, let alone a pyramid. Were things that different before I was born? On my wall used to be an old map purporting to be of ancient Africa, across vast areas of which was printed the legend ‘terrae incognitae’, dated 1798. In the course of the next century, European explorers and colonists would scramble to name and claim most of that terrain, ‘discovering’ what already existed. Whereas in 1870, only 10 per cent of Africa was under European control, by 1914 the figure had increased to almost 90 per cent. The elephant-and-palm-tree image on the tin references the coat of arms – with a background of…ah, that’s better…green hills – used by the British on the flag of their crown colony, the Gold Coast (as on that of other West African territories to which they laid claim).
The landscape of my mind was seeded with things British, thanks to my birth in a continent whose map still blushed with much colonial pink. I was schooled in England, earned a degree in English Literature at London University. Yet everything is subjective. We are each the centre of our world, and I will never know what it is like to be anything other than African-born and female, educated in the somewhat United Kingdom, with family branches in the Commonwealth of Dominica, the Commonwealth of The Bahamas, the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, and other warm diasporic realms such as Antigua and Barbados.
MY FATHER WAS born in the Caribbean at the turn of the century and, from his earliest days, was steeped in an appreciation of the British way of life. In Trinidad, where he was raised, he had been bright enough to gain entry to Queen’s Royal College (QRC), regarded as the island’s bastion of secondary-school education. QRC had been established in Port of Spain in the second half of the nineteenth century and was run according to the model of an English public school, complete with Oxbridge-educated masters. A contemporary of my father’s, and a life-long friend, was the historian and political philosopher CLR James, who, in his classic memoir Beyond a Boundary (Hutchinson, 1963) wrote tellingly of the expectations that West Indian boys such as he and my father imbibed along with the diet of British culture:
It was only long years after that I understood the limitation on spirit, vision and self-respect which was imposed on us by the fact that our masters, our curriculum, our code of morals, everything began from the basis that Britain was the source of all light and leading, and our business was to admire, wonder, imitate, learn; our criterion of success was to have succeeded in approaching that distant ideal – to attain it was, of course, impossible. Both masters and boys accepted it as in the very nature of things…it was the beacon that beckoned me on.
At QRC, aged eleven, my father won first prize in Form 3, which came with a copy of Cervantes’s Don Quixote that was inscribed by the headmaster, William Burslem – a man who elicited the description from CLR James of being ‘part Pickwick, part Dr Johnson, part Samuel Smiles…an Englishman of the nineteenth century…no more devoted, conscientious and self-sacrificing official ever worked in the colonies’. It was to Burslem’s teaching that James ascribed his love of cricket and English literature. A more momentous triumph for my father was winning the coveted Island Scholarship, which launched him on an irreversible trajectory. It gave him the opportunity to study medicine in Britain – first in Edinburgh, then in Dublin – and on qualifying as a doctor he went into general practice in Walthamstow, east London. From there he migrated in 1929 to West Africa, setting up a clinic in a rural area of the Gold Coast – what was then known as ‘the bush’, where there were no medical facilities and few resources or comforts of any kind.
He married my mother – a UK-qualified midwife and nursing sister in her own right – and she became his stalwart helpmate, bearing him a son and two daughters, of whom I was the youngest. Our early years of childhood seemed more adventure than anything, spent surrounded by palm trees, sugar cane and cocoa farms, in daily acquaintance with lizards and mosquitoes, having occasional encounters with snakes, with kerosene lamps substituting for electricity and flush toilets being a luxury to aspire to. But when the time came for me and my older siblings to go to school, with scant choice available in ‘the bush’ we were destined to be sent away to obtain the start in life that our hard-working parents wished for us. They were prepared to make any sacrifice necessary; that being the case, a British education beckoned.
So it was that my sister and I found ourselves the first Africans at an international boarding school in Sussex. For the first time, I became conscious of myself as an African, simply because that is how others identified me; yet I found myself in an environment where nothing seemed to affirm my African identity. From my school friends I might have learnt how to count in Farsi and to curse in Mandarin, but in every other aspect I received a thoroughly English education, the team games of hockey and netball included.
Reading for an English degree at London University rounded things off nicely; by the time I ended my formal education my literary references were a respectable mix of Shakespeare and Chaucer, Dickens, Milton, Donne, Virgil and Cicero – even Molière, Corneille, Ronsard and du Bellay. However, nowhere in my formal school or university curriculum did I come into contact with a single book by an African, or by anyone who was not an acknowledged representative of European civilisation. Certainly, as far as my English education was concerned – and thank goodness it is no longer the case today – there were no black writers.
As the years passed, and I swung into the ’60s, it occurred to me that this was an absence too far, amounting to an erasure of my identity; there was no acknowledgement of how my presence and history connected with everything else I had been taught during the years in England. Trying to reclaim that connection, I sought out all the texts I could find that made any reference to my continent or to African peoples anywhere. Briefly, in the early ’60s, I was an avid reader of a short-lived literary magazine called John O’London’s, which to my delight featured a black South African woman columnist called Noni Jabavu. Happening upon the African Writers Series initiated by Heinemann Educational Books in the ’60s was a life-changing experience. To read writers such as Chinua Achebe and Flora Nwapa was to locate the missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. I also discovered the occasional anthology of ‘American Negro’ poetry – such as Beyond the Blues (Lympne, Kent, England, Hand and Flower Press, 1962), edited by Dr Rosey E Poole – which provided fodder for articles I foisted on my college literary magazine for the enlightenment of my English peers. And from then on, my personal library swelled daily with volumes that positively affirmed my identity in an environment where I was often the only person of colour.
BY THE TIME I became a publisher myself, teaming up in a somewhat arbitrary way with another young quixotic dreamer called Clive Allison to start our own company – Allison & Busby was conceived at the party where we first met as undergraduates – I had long given up on settling for the status quo when it came to an industry then dominated by elderly white gentlemen.
We had determined that our first three Allison & Busby titles would be poetry books, but whereas it was usual at the time (1967) for poetry to be published in slim hardback volumes, in small print runs and therefore at quite high prices, we set out to do the exact opposite: cheaply priced paperbacks. Learning from our mistakes as we went along (luckily, we had both found gainful employ that allowed us to begin indulging our crazy fantasy), we somehow produced fifteen thousand copies and, though we struggled to sell them without distribution other than by targeting people we met on the street, we attracted enough attention and goodwill to give us confidence to continue.
The first novel we took on as full-time publishers had been much rejected on both sides of the Atlantic: African-American Sam Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1969). We believed that its powerful political message, in an era when Black Power was more than a slogan, deserved to be heard. By dint of hard work and stubborn idealism, we made a success of it, garnering quantities of press coverage and managing to sell translation rights in several languages.
Allison & Busby went on to become a respected, if maverick, publisher – though unacceptable by apartheid South African standards, not least because black and white staff worked alongside one another. Our authors encompassed Buchi Emecheta, CLR James, Michael Horovitz, Claire Rayner, Nuruddin Farah, Michèle Roberts, Hunter S Thompson, Ishmael Reed, Rosa Guy, Roy Heath, Ralph de Boissière, Anthony Burgess, Jill Murphy, Chester Himes, Michael Moorcock, Miyamoto Musashi, Christine Qunta, Mineke Schipper, B Traven, Val Wilmer, Andrew Salkey, George Lamming, Lautréamont, Michelangelo, Maurice Nyagumbo…and scores of others. Someone once paid me the compliment of saying, ‘You never knew what Allison & Busby were going to publish next. But you knew it would be interesting.’ Ours was always an international list, our authors were both black and white, we published fiction, non-fiction, poetry, children’s books – and for twenty years we were somehow at the forefront of independent publishing.
Times changed, and I moved on to pastures new. For a while, I was editorial director of Earthscan Publications, privileged to publish non-fiction by notable writers such as Han Suyin, Frantz Fanon, Albert Memmi, René Dumont and Carolina Maria de Jesus. Then came the opportunity to compile Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writing by Women of African Descent (Jonathan Cape, 1992). The impetus was to bring together voices I had failed to hear; some two hundred women were featured within a volume running more than a thousand pages. It was evident that many of these women had not been accorded the recognition they deserved. In my introduction I explained – echoing words by Toni Morrison and Alice Walker about writing the sort of books they wanted to read but did not yet exist – that this was the sort of anthology I wished I had had access to years before. That was twenty-five years ago, and happily New Daughters of Africa (Myriad/New Internationalist, 2018) is now in the works to showcase more of those writers, particularly the generation that has emerged since 1992.
THE DECADES SINCE I first became a publisher have seen radical changes. The entire canon of English literature has been favourably influenced by many exciting writers whose identities could not be more diverse. Salman Rushdie once summed it up thus: ‘What is new is that the “centre” has deigned to notice the “rim”, because the “rim” has begun to speak in its myriad versions of a language the West can more easily understand.’ The tables have not necessarily been turned so much as replenished with cultural gifts from the rest of the world, in terms of literature, music, visual arts.
All credit to the black-run publishing houses (or maisonettes) that charted their own course, among them John La Rose’s New Beacon Books and Jessica Huntley’s Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications in the ’60s; in the ’70s, the Black Ink Collective and Karnak House; in the ’80s, Buzz Johnson’s Karia Press and Verna Wilkins’s children’s imprint Tamarind Books. Little change, however, is apparent in the mainstream publishing industry’s workforce. To have more than the handful of black editors that currently exists (pre-eminent among whom is Ellah Allfrey, newly appointed publishing director of Indigo Press) would, I am convinced, mean an even more exciting variety of books being published, books taken on from a fresh perspective and liberated from the often stereotypical criteria used to judge black writers.
As a black woman editor, I had few role models anywhere in publishing. In the 1970s, I was delighted to be able to compare notes with Toni Morrison when she worked as a senior editor with Random House and was responsible for nurturing an impressive list of black talent, including Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, June Jordan, Muhammad Ali and George Jackson. Morrison’s genius as a writer of fiction has been universally acknowledged since she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. Her importance to me personally has always been the feeling that she is directly addressing me, and not pandering to the notion of the ‘white gaze’ nor mediating her stories according to what a non-black audience might be deemed to expect.
In her 1992 collection of essays, Playing in the Dark (Harvard University Press), Morrison brilliantly analyses identity in the American literary imagination, from the perspective of both writer and reader, sensitive to the knowledge that ‘cultural identities are formed and informed by a nation’s literature’:
The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power. The languages they use and the social and historical context in which these languages signify are indirect and direct revelations of that power and its limitations.
Having examined the assumption that ‘traditional, canonical American literature is free of, uninformed by, and unshaped by the four-hundred-year-old presence of first Africans and then African-Americans in the United States’, she makes an observation both simple and profound: ‘As a writer reading, I came to realize the obvious: the subject of the dream is the dreamer.’
AS I HEAD to Uganda to facilitate an African Writers Trust workshop on publishing and editing, I am convinced more than ever that the future for that nebulous thing, African literature, lies in the ability of individual countries to be their own gatekeepers, rather than awaiting validation in London or New York. Sarah Ladipo Manyika, writing in The Guardian in 2016 about her decision to give world rights for her second novel to Nigerian publisher Cassava Republic Press, said:
In recent years, African writers have gained prominence on the world stage; some have won prestigious prizes, while others have signed lucrative book deals and sold to multiple markets. However, Africans are not prominent, almost to the point of invisibility, in the ownership of production. The gatekeepers of African writing remain firmly rooted in the west – African publishers typically must buy, rather than sell, the rights to books, even those that are marketed to the rest of the world as African stories.
Cassava Republic Press, she explained further, was ‘unencumbered by some of the stereotypes of what so-called “African literature” should look like’, producing thoughtfully designed covers that ‘eschew the lazy visual tropes that are often relied upon by the publishers of African-authored literature in the West (think sunsets, bare torsos, palm trees)’.
In the New York Review of Books, Caine Prize-winner Namwali Serpell from Zambia makes crucial points about Ugandan writer Jennifer Makumbi’s 2014 novel Kintu (Kwani Trust), saying: ‘Like Charles Dickens or Gabriel García Márquez, Makumbi ranges widely across time and social strata; her knowledge of Ugandan culture seems as precise as a historian’s…’ (Refreshing to note the comparison with writers who are neither female nor African.) She continues:
Africa contains more countries, languages, ethnic groups, and genetic variation than any other continent. We are united solely by our history of division. Yet African novelists are inevitably stuffed next to each other on panels and bookshelves. We are asked bafflingly broad questions about ‘African literature’, ‘African history’, and ‘African politics’, or lazy and predictable ones about poverty, disease, and war. It’s a gift, in some ways. Who wouldn’t want to be compared to greats like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, rather than the latest batch of contemporaries? Who wouldn’t want to feel relevant to real world issues? But it gets old. ‘Africa is not a country,’ we’ve become accustomed to saying. Our fictions are neither about the continent as a whole, nor do they address only this limited set of Western stereotypes about it.
Reading these paragraphs took me back to a memory from 1989, when I was given the honour of co-editing an edition of The Guardian Weekend that was entirely devoted to Africa – an honour that was slightly tainted by the knowledge that exactly the same space had been given to an edition on Scotland. Serpell goes on to comment on the fact that, despite all this generalising and pigeonholing, African writers are rarely thought to speak to the universal. And if ‘the origin of the human species is probably East Africa, then why can’t Kampala be the centre of a profoundly universal inquiry’?
One of my favourite novelists, Trinidadian Earl Lovelace, has emphasised the theme of personhood in his novels. In The Dragon Can’t Dance (Persea Books, 1998), the struggle to self-define identity and personhood is linked with community and culture through an unforgettable narrative centred on the annual carnival and the lives of the carnival masqueraders.
The challenge for each of us is to find our place in the world from which to lead and read our lives as best we can, whichever world we are told we belong to – Old World, New World, Third World, postcolonial world… The labels may change, or lose their traction; our identity remains our own for each of us to define and shape. Following a referendum in 1960, my homeland transitioned from Crown Colony to Republic in the Commonwealth of Nations – that name Commonwealth referencing the general good. Yet there is no escaping that one person’s good is another’s bad in this uncertain time of Brexit and of tragicomic world leaders.
A current story in the headlines is about ‘decolonising’ the English faculty at the bastion of excellence that is Cambridge University, which traditionally has encouraged a canonical approach that elevates white male authors at the expense of all others. How different might my life have been had that happened more generally decades ago, with global literature being the norm. Ubuntu – the southern African philosophy that believes in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity – may yet be our salvation. Come what may, I gratefully acknowledge having eaten my cake, but I am left with a tin full of memories, holding on to optimistic dreams – while keeping a lid on maybe a hidden nightmare or two.