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Sharing our Voices

UK writer, editor and independent black publishing pioneer Margaret Busby says we need to wean ourselves from validation by the West
Published: 
Wednesday, April 29, 2015
Margaret Busby OBE to receive the 2015 Bocas Henry Swanzy Award On Thursday, April 30, at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, Margaret Busby OBE will be recognised for her important role in advancing Caribbean writing. She will receive the 2015 Bocas Henry Swanzy Award. The T&T Guardian interviewed Busby last Friday about her experiences in the world of publishing, writing and the value of hearing diverse voices in the stories that help shape and reflect who we are.

“You should not be put off from starting things because of what you haven’t got. People often say: ‘Oh, I can’t do that, I haven’t got enough money.’ Did I have any money when I just started? I had no money, I had no experience, I was very young,” commented British writer and editor Margaret Busby in a Skype interview with the T&T Guardian last Friday.

“I knew nothing,” said Busby, of the time back in the late 1960s, when, with a freshly minted Honours English degree from London University, she bravely started the small independent publishing house Allison and Busby (A&B) with fellow English graduate Clive Allison.

Margaret Busby became the UK’s youngest and first black woman publisher when A&B Ltd launched in 1967 on a shoestring budget. It began as a part-time evening and weekend gig, printing poetry in paperback at affordable prices, after both young people had finished day jobs in the lower ranks of “grown-up publishing houses.” 

“With the first A&B titles, we didn’t even know how many copies to print, so ended up with 15,000 poetry paperbacks and no distribution. Our distribution was stopping people in the street, saying: ‘Do you want to buy a book?’” said Busby, adding: “I designed some of the covers myself. We started with nothing but ideals. You needn’t say: ‘I’ll wait till I have money’. Start from where you are. Your biggest asset is your own energy.”

Busby has done a great many things since then.  In addition to being a pioneering independent publisher of radical and literary works, she is also an editor, a writer, a journalist, a critic, a literary judge, and has been a television and radio broadcaster. She presented the shows Break for Women (BBC African Service), Talking Africa (for the Africa Centre, Spectrum Radio), as well as appearing on a range of programmes including Kaleidoscope, Front Row, Open Book, Woman’s Hour, and Democracy Now! 

“I’ve always loved radio,” she said. “I think radio is much more interesting than television. Someone (Steve Allen) once said: ‘Radio is the theatre of the mind, and television is the theatre of the mindless.’”

Busby has scripted abridgements and dramatisations of works for BBC Radio4, including by Lawrence Scott (Witchbroom), Walter Mosley (Devil in a Blue Dress), Wole Soyinka (Ake: The Years of Childhood), Henry Louis Gates Jr (Colored People), CLR James (Beyond a Boundary), Timothy Mo (The Monkey King), Sam Selvon (The Lonely Londoners) and Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea).  

Creative, open-minded publishing

But above all, Margaret Busby has helped propel many ethnically diverse, previously neglected stories of people into the world through her role as an open-minded, creative publisher, enriching many lives with varied narratives of identity, politics and imagination. And it all started many years ago in West Africa, growing up with parents who were of Caribbean heritage (her maternal grandfather GJ Christian migrated from Dominica to the then Gold Coast in 1902, her father from Trinidad in 1929). 

“I guess the roots of my interest in the written word go back to my father, Dr George A Busby,” she shared. “He was at QRC and won the Island Scholarship, left Trinidad in 1919 to study medicine in Britain, then settled in Ghana, where I was born. Indeed, my initial connection with publishing CLR James came because I knew him through his friendship with my father since their schooldays. As a publisher it was important to me to bring CLR’s work back into print.”

The A&B imprint (of which Margaret was editorial director for 20 years, until 1987) developed a reputation for innovative, unpredictable and international fiction, poetry, non-fiction and children’s books. Its notable titles included Sam Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat By the Door, a first novel by a black American with a revolutionary take on the politics of race in America. The book, rejected by everyone else on both sides of the Atlantic, became a huge success, and in 1973 it was made into a controversial film expressing the turbulence and contradictions of the times.

A&B broke new ground as an independent publishing house, with authors including CLR James, Chester Himes, Roy Heath, George Lamming, Buchi Emecheta, Michael Moorcock, Nuruddin Farah and Rosa Guy. 

Recalling A&B’s heady early years in a time of 1960s miniskirts, The Beatles, op-art, feminism, and the US Civil Rights movement, Busby once wrote: “Serious literature and politics brushed shoulders with the odd quirky title that it was hoped might take off and subsidise the rest.” 

“But times were always tough,” Busby wrote in 2011, in her UK Guardian obituary for Clive Allison: “It was not unknown for bailiffs to turn up threatening to impound the typewriters. Finally succumbing to the exigencies of being penniless, A&B was taken over… in 1987.” 

Busby continued to promote African and Caribbean writing, campaigning for diversity in publishing with initiatives such as GAP (Greater Access to Publishing), co-founded with Jessica Huntley of Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications. As editorial director of Earthscan Publications from 1987 to 1990, Busby published classic writers of the postcolonial world such as Frantz Fanon, Alfred Memmi, Han Suyin, René Dumont and Carolina Maria de Jesus. 

And amidst other literary projects, she ​remains a passionate advocate for enabling new and different voices to be heard.

A good example of this is the 1992 book she edited: Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writing by Women of African Descent, which the Washington Post Book World described as “a magnificent starting place for any reader interested in becoming part of the collective enterprise of discovering and uncovering the silent, forgotten and underrated voices of black women.”

Why does Busby think diverse voices and stories are important? 

“Because otherwise we’re not tapping into the richness of information, of point of view, everything that makes life interesting.  So that you don’t only get one perspective all the time, with everything filtered through the usual gatekeepers—we know who they are, whether in London, New York or wherever… Other voices need to get a look-in, not just those that already have the power. 

“I’m always keen to encourage people to become involved with the publishing industry because I hear people say ‘I want to be a writer,’ but not many say: ‘I want to be a publisher.’  Yet you can’t get to a wide audience as a writer without a publisher. One of the things the Bocas Lit Fest is trying to do that I admire is to support or encourage publishing in the Caribbean region,” she said.

“I often point to the example of Toni Morrison, who at the same time as being a novelist was also in publishing. Important black writers got published through Toni being an editor at Random House. It doesn’t have to be either/or,” said Busby.

Busby mentioned her involvement as patron with the Etisalat Prize (created by Etisalat Nigeria in 2013), for a debut work of fiction from an African writer: 

“It’s a pan-African prize, coming out of Nigeria, so it’s not looking to the West for validation. That is the sort of thing that is important, whether we’re talking about the African continent, or the diaspora, or the Caribbean, so that more power is somehow vested in the region from which the writer comes.”

New talent

Does Busby have any favourite writers? 

“It changes day by day,” she said. “There are writers I’m still looking forward to reading. Writers from different parts of the world on different days would be on my list of favourites. Earl Lovelace, Derek Walcott, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pauline Melville…. I published Roy Heath, from Guyana. A wonderful writer, who’s not as well-known as he should be.

“And so many new writers. I put together my anthology Daughters of Africa almost 25 years ago. Just think of all the writers who could be in it today, inspiring women of African descent who have emerged, such as Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. A host of younger writers. Some will be at Bocas, including Karen Lord and Tiphanie Yanique. NoViolet Bulawayo came to Bocas last year.” 

On black feminism

How does Busby feel about sometimes being labelled a “black feminist” writer and publisher?

“I don’t mind it… Clearly as a black woman stepping out into the publishing world in Britain, I was kind of a freak. As a woman with a male business partner, you also have to stand your ground. So I’m used to being in that position. 

“And I will encourage other women. A few have been inspired to become publishers because of me—and I support them. There’s a very enterprising woman called Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, an African feminist, who started the publishing company Cassava Republic in Nigeria. She is doing some fantastic work, and faces immense odds, but she keeps going. If there’s ever a problem I can help her with, I will do so, as I would with any woman who wants to start in publishing. 

“Feminism is something we have to acknowledge as necessary in the society we live in.”

“Another brave publisher I’d like to mention is Verna Wilkins, who is at Bocas for the first time this year—she founded Tamarind Books in the 1980s to address the issue of diversity in children books.”

​Who is Margaret Busby?

British editor, writer and broadcaster Dr Margaret Busby was born in Ghana of African/Caribbean heritage. Graduating with an Honours English degree from London University, she became the UK's youngest and first black woman publisher when, with fellow literature graduate Clive Allison, she co-founded Allison and Busby Ltd (A&B) in 1967.

During her 20-year role as editorial director of A&B, Busby published many noted authors including CLR James, George Lamming, Andrew Salkey, Hunter S Thompson, Buchi Emecheta, Chester Himes, John Edgar Wideman, Roy Heath, Nuruddin Farah, Michael Moorcock, Michael Horovitz, Ralph de Boissiere and Rosa Guy. 

Busby edited the pioneering 1992 book Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writing by Women of African Descent. She has continuously campaigned for diversity in publishing with initiatives such as GAP (Greater Access to Publishing), co-founded with the late Jessica Huntley of Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications. 

Busby’s radio abridgements and dramatizations include work by CLR James, Jean Rhys, Wole Soyinka, Timothy Mo, Sam Selvon, Walter Mosley, Henry Louis Gates and Lawrence Scott. Her BBC Radio 4 play Minty Alley won a 1999 Race In the Media award. Her writing for the stage includes Sankofa (1999), Yaa Asantewaa—Warrior Queen (UK/Ghana, 2001-02), and An African Cargo (2007).

Her awards include an honorary doctorate from the Open University (2004), the Order of the British Empire for services to literature and publishing (2006), and Honorary Fellowship of Queen Mary College, London University (2011). 

Busby has been a judge for many literary awards including the Caine Prize for African Writing, the Orange Prize, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the Commonwealth Book Prize, and the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. She is Prize Ambassador of the SI Leeds Literary Prize (for unpublished fiction by Black and Asian women in the UK) and a patron of the pan-African  Etisalat Prize for Literature. 

Busby works as a writer, editor, consultant, reviewer and broadcaster. She has written for publications including The Guardian (UK), Independent, Observer, New Statesman, and Wasafiri magazine (whose board she chairs). In 2014 she co-authored, with Ishmahil Blagrove, Carnival: A Photographic and Testimonial History of the Notting Hill Carnival. 

(Sources: IBP, Bocas Lit Fest, Black Book News)