Peepal Tree has helped bring Guyanese literature out of the wilderness
Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton
May 15, 2005
The recent rise of Guyanese literature including several book launchings, new published works in both fiction and non-fiction, releases by Guyanese authors both locally and internationally, notable local publications including self-published works, and public readings of poetry and prose in Guyana, has already been mentioned. Attention must now be paid to the very significant contribution to the march of Guyanese and Caribbean literature made by the Peepal Tree Press.
There is no doubt that this literature has taken a prominent place in the English-speaking world, and that this place has been made much more secure by the several new publications in recent years. Many factors have been responsible for this growth. Going back five decades, one may count among them, the efforts of literary journals such as Bim, Kyk-Over-Al and the New World Fortnightly; and magazines like the Chronicle Christmas Annual, now called The Guyana Annual. More recently, the contributing initiatives have included the increase in local publications, the resurgence in public readings of poetry and prose produced by the University of Guyana, the Association of Guyanese Writers and Artists, the Ministry of Culture, British High Commissioner Edward Glover, Castellani House and Petamber Persaud.
Those and others have all played their part in Guyana. Similar contributions to the growth of modern West Indian Literature will take us much further afield and will certainly include the activities in London of the Caribbean Artists Movement out of which sprung the New Beacon and Bogle L'Ouverture publishers led by Erica Huntley, as well as Henry Swanzey and the BBC's Caribbean Voices programme. In this light, we must also count the work of Peepal Tree Press.
Few of the institutions mentioned above have survived the various onslaughts of the last fifty years, and some of them might not even be rightly called institutions. A number of them have been sporadic and some of the strongest ones defunct. But in the context of Guyana, Peepal Tree has been among the most constant in the last 15 years in the provision of an outlet for and the discovery of new writers. It has been associated with the Guyana Prize from the inception, and was timely in accompanying Guyanese literature out of the wilderness of the 1980s.
One of the highlights of the year so far was the launching of a number of books by Peepal Tree in Barbados, Trinidad and Guyana last April. This included public readings, exhibitions, sales and the introduction to the audiences of new and recent Guyanese titles published by Peepal Tree. The British Director of the Press, Jeremy Poynting, told of the humble beginnings of this publishing house in Leeds, England and how it found its roots in Guyana. Poynting explained his connections with Guyana and how he was inspired by local writers while researching for his doctorate in the country. His work included the place of the Indian presence in the literature and culture of the Caribbean and this must have given him a name for the press. The peepal tree has great religious significance for Hindus in Guyana and is treated with care and respect wherever it is found. It also provided him with new writers to be published and exposed to a wider audience.
One of these is Rooplall Monar, whose work impressed him during his time in Guyana. Poynting published Monar's first, and so far his best, book of fiction, a collection of delightful and important short stories called Backdam People. The new establishment operating out of Poynting's house in Yorkshire, also released the first novel by the now prominent Jan Lowe Shinebourne, Timepiece. Both Monar, who still lives in Annandale, and Shinebourne, originally from Rosehall, Canje, but now established in London, started their careers as members of writers groups in Guyana and were propelled into greater public exposure by their Peepal Tree publications and their success in the first Guyana Prize.
Shinebourne's Timepiece was the Best First Book of Fiction while Monar was awarded a Special Judges' Prize for his two books, Backdam People and a collection of poems, Koker, entered for the inaugural prize in 1987. This coincided with an eventual rise of Guyanese literature out of the dark period, the kali yuga of the nineteen seventies and eighties. It also started the consistent and continuing supply of Peepal Tree books in the Guyana Prize and the unprecedented success that they have had. No other publishers have entered as many and none have won more prizes than Peepal Tree.
In 1989 Poynting's press was again responsible for a Best First Book, this time for Poetry with Brian Chan's Thief With Leaf. Then in 1994 Peepal Tree created possibly the biggest upset in the history of the prize when Harischandra Khemraj won the Best Fiction Prize for Cosmic Dance. He upstaged a very strong field of prominent, established writers to win the major prize with what was his first published work. A few of Britain's most powerful publishing houses such as Jonathan Cape, Faber and Faber, Chatto and Windus, Secker and Warburg fell among the vanquished that year, defeated by very small, yet unestablished presses like Peepal Tree and Dangaroo.
This will have to be the most satisfying of all the prize results if Ruel Johnson's victory in 2002 is not. It was the discovery of a new, unknown writer who was a schoolteacher in D'Edward village, representing a major aim of the Guyana Prize: the development and encouragement of new Guyanese writing. It was equally important for the manner in which Peepal Tree has been making its contribution to the nation's literature through the publication of books like Khemraj's.
This long association was prominently exhibited in the April launchings, which included three books on the 2004 Guyana Prize shortlist and one past winner. Shinebourne's The Godmother and Other Stories and Denise Harris' latest novel, In Rememberance of Her, both appear on the shortlist for the Best Book of Fiction, while Between Silence and Silence by Ian McDonald is shortlisted for Poetry. Peepal Tree also launched at the same time, Horizons by Stanley Greaves, an already famous artist who had been writing poems for decades but only assembled his first collection for publication in 2002. It won the Poetry First Book Prize. Most of the others whose books were launched are also past winners: Shinebourne, Harris for Best First Book in 1996 and McDonald (although with a different publisher) for Best Poetry in 1992.
This association continued through two of the other books launched. Mark McWatt, already established as one of Guyana's best poets, won the prize in 1994 for The Language of El Dorado published by Dangaroo Press. He is now being launched as a writer of fiction with his first collection of short stories, Suspended Sentences, yet another contribution to the expanding Guyanese literature published by Peepal Tree. Imaginary Origins by Cyril Dabydeen was among the nine new titles inaugurated at Cara Lodge in Georgetown. Dabydeen, a writer of poetry and prose resident in Canada, has been often shortlisted.
The publishers responsible for these releases have put out the amazing total of 180 Guyanese titles including critical and non-fiction works. A very important one of these was launched among the others in April. This was The Primacy of the Eye by Rupert Roopnaraine, a critical study of the art of Stanley Greaves, which is a valuable addition to publications on Guyanese fine arts, which are far too few. The circumstances surrounding this publication recall the release by the same publishers of the definitive critical text on Martin Carter, All Are Involved: The Art of Martin Carter, edited by Stewart Brown and launched at a conference hosted by the University of Guyana in 2000. Copies of this work were also exhibited and put on sale during the most recent launchings. Books like these define the nature of Peepal Tree's contribution to the development of Guyanese literature, since they illustrate the role of this press in bringing to the public important and very necessary texts.