08 April 2021 Blogs, Academic, Librarian, Faculty

Appreciating Smaller Publishers: Peepal Tree Press

Though small in relative size, Peepal Tree is a prominent voice in Caribbean and Black British writing

By Bob Nardini
VP, Library Services, ProQuest

Editor’s note: this is the second blog post in a series by Bob Nardini about the critical role of smaller publishers in bringing diverse content to libraries.

Jeremy Poynting founded Peepal Tree Press – a publisher focused on international writing from the Caribbean, its diasporas and the UK – out of his Yorkshire home after laboring through a doctoral thesis at the University of Leeds.  Poynting’s study of Caribbean literature had put him in touch with authors with insights on the region’s post-colonial experience. Peepal Tree’s first book, Backdam People, was a collection of stories about Guyanese sugarcane workers by Rooplall Monar, who had grown up on those punishing canefield estates. Published in 1985, the book is still in print today.

You can learn a lot about Peepal Tree Press by reading this interview with Poynting, or by visiting Peepal Tree’s website, where a quick search will produce results on Carnival, Rumshops and Alcohol, Body Adornment, Hair, Ganja, Masks and Masquerading, Cultural Loss, Cultural Survivals, Boats and Sailing, Steelband, Stickfighting, Ghosts and Jumbies, and 28 other search facets. Under “Spirit and Spirituality” you’ll find Afro-Christian Religions, Hinduism, Islam, Rastafarianism, Voudon, Obeah, and more. “People” will show you African Caribbeans, Indian Caribbeans, Chinese Caribbeans, Madrassis, Muslims, Tourists, Travellers, and others.

You also may notice that The Mermaid of Black Conch was named the 2020 Costa Book of the Year, one of the book world’s big prizes. “Utterly original,” according to the judges, it’s a novel based upon Caribbean legend written by Monique Roffey, a Trinidadian-born author who teaches at Manchester Metropolitan University.

This wasn’t the first major award claimed by a Peepal Tree book. Roger Robinson, a British-Trinidadian writer known for his performances of West Indian “dub poetry,” won the 2019 T.S. Eliot Prize for A Portable Paradise. “A major victory,” wrote The Bookseller, noting that Peepal Tree “saw off competition from Cape Poetry and Picador with two nominations each.” This was hardly an overnight success, remarked Poynton, since he had first published Robinson in 2013, and the poet’s first book had come out in 2004.   

“What I hope it signals in the longer term,” said Poynton of the Eliot prize, “is that whilst Empire has been speaking back for many decades, the metropolitan literary establishment is beginning to listen and that in some sectors of society, at least, we are starting to regard ‘diversity’ not as some desirable add-on but as an essential quality of our culture.”    

From the very beginning, Peepal Tree’s books have been a way for Empire to speak back. Though small in relative size, Peepal Tree is a prominent voice in Caribbean and Black British writing. The Guardian, for example, reviewing Leone Ross’s short story collection Come Let Us Sing Anyway, referred to her “imaginative power and great psychological depth” in portraying her Caribbean protagonists as “women with strong passions and huge problems.” 

Anthony Joseph’s Kitch: A Fictional Biography of a Calypso Icon is “a rich kaleidoscope, recounted mostly in Trinidadian creole with a brio and bravura to match the very best calypso,” wrote The Guardian.  Sharon Leach, who wrote Love It When You Come, Hate It When You Go, “occupies a unique position,” said the Jamaica Observer, “telling the stories of mainly professional women living in townhouses and apartments in Kingston and trying to understand their place in a rapidly changing world.” 

Kevin Le Gendre’s Don’t Stop the Carnival, according to The Financial Times, “is a meticulously researched, compassionate and sweeping opus of the history of Black British music.”     

These are just a few of the Peepal Tree titles on the ProQuest Ebook Central platform (print titles are also available through Rialto and OASIS).  Still independent – now publishing some 20 new books annually, with a backlist of about 300 titles – Peepal Tree has outgrown the Yorkshire garage where Jeremy Poynton founded his venture. “Visitors are always welcome,” says the website about today’s quarters.  “Everything happens at 17 King’s Avenue, in the Burley area, a rundown, multicultural part of Leeds (where business rates are low and you can get a good massala fish across the road).”

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