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Publishing the Postcolonial: Politics and Economics of Postcolonial Print Cultures

Last week, Newcastle University hosted the Postcolonial Print Cultures Research Network’s (PPCR) second annual conference. The two-day event, titled ‘Publishing the Postcolonial: Politics and Economics of Postcolonial Print Cultures’, consisted of speakers from Yale, SOAS, New York University, Westminster University, Newcastle University, Amherst College, and CNRS. The presentations included a wide range of topics and encompassed diverse geographical locales. For example, Laetitia Zecchini concentrated on Modernism and Little Magazines in the context of the cold war, Sarah Niazi spoke about film journalism in the Urdu public sphere, and the conference concluded with a roundtable discussion (chaired by James Proctor) between experts who are “in the business” of postcolonial printing and publishing.

Peepal Tree Press’s Jeremy Poynting participated in this closing conversation. He was joined by Sejal Sutaria, Mark Byers, Nicholas Laughlin and Francesca Orsini. Sutaria questioned the relationship between print culture and sound culture in terms of audience and circulation, and raised important questions such as ‘how can we expand print culture to include those communities who rely on oral culture, such as Dalit communities?’ She suggested that we might begin to move away from spatial organisations of literature and reconceptualise it in temporal terms, which would more readily include those communities whose postcolonial experience is, at present, peripheral. Her last point resonated with Orsini’s discussion of publishing and responsibility. She questioned what responsibility publishing houses have in preserving literary culture and choosing who to publish when their actions actively contribute to a national and geographical identity.

Poynting and Byers talked about non-metropolitan publishing houses in Britain. Byers focused on Bloodaxe (which is based in Newcastle) and the significance of its political and cultural register. Drawing on ‘All Wi Doin is Defendin’ by the renowned Jamaican-British dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, he points out that a reader’s understanding of a piece of literature is influenced by its publishing context. ‘All Wi Doin is Defendin’ is a response to the 1980s race riots which were caused by the institutionalised discrimination in Thatcher’s Britain. It was originally published by Bogle-L'Ouverture but was re-published by Bloodaxe in 1991, which, Byers suggested, altered the poem’s address. Indeed, the poem conveys a sense of unity to the predominantly black readership of Bogle-L’Ouverture because it discusses their shared struggle and oppression in Britain. However, to Bloodaxe’s white readership, the poem can be interpreted as an accusation. For example, Johnson’s use of the word ‘yu’ makes the reader the subject of the poem rather than the audience, and thus works to implicate them as oppressors. Bloodaxe published ‘All Wi Doin is Defendin’ alongside other vernacular protest poems, some of which portrayed white working-class experiences. Byers explained how this placed Johnson’s poem within a literary tradition of dialect writing and also forced the readers of Bloodaxe to confront their own complicity in racial oppression. Poynting from Peepal Tree Press (a Leeds based publishing house), on the other hand, considered the complexities of publishing Caribbean literature. His talk linked nicely to Orsini’s as he raised interesting points concerning Peepal Tree’s role in creating a canon of Caribbean literature and the importance of reviving literature that never existed, such as the unpublished work of Anthony McNeil – a missing voice in the region’s literary canon. When asked who he published for, Poynting stated that he published Caribbean literature for the authors themselves, for communities of writers, for Caribbean readers, for the sake of that abstraction that is the Caribbean cannon, and for himself.

Laughlin gave an overview of the publishing scene in the Caribbean. He noted that there are more Caribbean authors than ever before, and yet, text books are the most lucrative aspect of regional publishing as bookshops are scarce. According to Laughlin, Caribbean authors find it difficult to circulate their work within the region; lots of books are being published but never leave their island of origin or rely on hand-to-hand distribution (whereby the authors take copies with them when they visit other islands). Literary magazines, the internet, and literary festivals, however, provide a platform for authors. One of the most famous literary festivals in the Caribbean is the annual Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad and Tobago (taking place 25th-29th April 2018), which is not only a celebration of Caribbean literature, but also represents the opportunity for authors to win prizes. Laughlin is one of the main organisers for this event, and Peepal Tree Press, in their capacity as the leading publisher of Caribbean writing, will also attend.

Sofia Aatkar 

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