As part of Why Are We Still Here?, a series of 12 blogs written by women around the world to mark International Women’s Day, UK publisher Margaret Busby reflects on her groundbreaking anthology Daughters of Africa, the ups and downs of Black feminist publishing and why she has hope for the future.
Looking back a quarter of a century, I don’t always feel happy about the way things have changed. When the tenth (late lamented) International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books was opened on 3 March 1991 by the one-of-a-kind African-American poet/publisher/performer Jayne Cortez, the existence of a variety of independent feminist and black publishers and booksellers spread a feeling of optimism about the future.
That year, I was working on compiling a mammoth tome entitled Daughters of Africa, commissioned by Candida Lacey, an editor with the women’s publishing imprint Pandora. They had recently published an anthology of British women writers by Dale Spender and Janet Todd – note: two editors, one language. Not to be outdone, I single-handedly took on the whole world, in all languages and genres.
I had long been bothered by the fact that the literary establishment seemed to think there was only a handful of noteworthy Black women writers, and those were American. And it was par for the course to find collections of short stories from the Caribbean, say, or poetry from Africa, that were routinely all-male. Yet there have always been rich offerings by women of African descent over centuries, and not only from the obvious countries; I found remarkable writing from Turkey, Russia, Germany. When D of A was published in 1992, subtitled “An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent from the Ancient Egyptian to the Present”, it ran to more than 1000 pages and featured some 200 women.
As I wrote in the Introduction: “Only comparatively recently have Black women begun to find receptive outlets and wider distribution for their work through mainstream publishing houses in the metropolitan West.” Sadly, the majority of the small independent publishers I name-checked are no more.
Nevertheless, the future seemed bright. Post-DofA Britain alone produced children’s laureate Malorie Blackman, novelists Andrea Levy, Bernardine Evaristo, Zadie Smith (who gave her mother, my friend Yvonne Bailey-Smith, a copy of D of A as a birthday present “when she was young”…), a plethora of poets, and an impressive range of non-fiction writers such as Andrea Stuart (whom I introduced at a symposium last week).
Yes, there was a moment when it was possible to feel proud of black women setting up as autonomous publishers (take a bow, Verna Wilkins, founder of prize-winning Tamarind Books and before her my friend the late Jessica Huntley had joined the struggle in the 1960s, setting up Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications not long after I co-founded Allison & Busby) or holding decision-making positions within the mainstream: Ellah Allfrey, former senior editor at Jonathan Cape, went on to be deputy editor of Granta magazine before striking out on her own international career as editor and literary facilitator; and Elise Dillsworth, with more than a dozen years of editorial experience at Virago/Little Brown, has moved on to set up her eponymous agency.
My aim with DofA all those years ago was to reclaim for women of African descent a place in literary history – “a position obscured until recently by the neglect of publishers, critics and society at large”, as Maya Jaggi wrote in a review. The establishment in 2012 of the SI Leeds Literary Prize for unpublished fiction by Black and Asian women in the UK points to the reality that they are still underrepresented in output, which may well reflect the lack of diversity within the industry.
Yet, there are positive notes, like Africa-based initiatives such as Femrite (Uganda Women Writers’ Association, founded in 1995), and Mbaasem, founded in 2000 by the inspirational Ama Ata Aidoo. In the 2014 Africa39 list, identifying 39 of the most promising writers under 40 from sub-Saharan Africa, women more than held their own in the tally. Last month, a book-shaped parcel that dropped through my letterbox filled me with warmth: Furies: A Poetry Anthology of Women Warriors, edited by Eve Lacey – none other than the daughter of Candida Lacey (now publisher of Myriad Books), who commissioned D of A. At the time Candida was pregnant with her first child, who had the grace to be born on my birthday. We now share something else, as anthologists.
Looking at the index of Furies, I spot poets Patience Agbabi and Malika Booker who would be in “Granddaughters of Africa”, were it to happen. Or perhaps I can leave the battles to the next generation.
As Ama Ata Aidoo has said: “Once in a while I catch myself wondering whether I would have found the courage to write if I had not started to write when I was too young to know what was good for me.” Yet she also made the empowering observation: “A young girl’s voice doesn’t break; it gets firmer.”
Margaret Busby OBE was born in Ghana and educated in Britain. She was co-founder of London-based publisher Allison & Busby. For the past twenty years she has worked independently as a writer, editor, critic, consultant and broadcaster. She edited the pioneering volume Daughters of Africa (1992), and has contributed to many publications and written drama for BBC radio and the stage.