Anyone looking for important Caribbean novels on Amazon will know that much of the writing published from the 1950s through to the 1980s is out of print. They will also know that these are books in demand, if the evidence of some of the wildly inflated prices of second-hand copies is to be believed.
Over the next three or four years we plan a series of a least 60 titles, and then we will add to it as other key titles disappear from print, as they inevitably will, and as important books from the 80s and 90s join the state of printless limbo.
So far the list comprises fiction, but we are planning poetry titles too.By no means every title we are after has been gathered in. There have been disappointments - Sir VS Naipaul is not interested in seeing his father’s important pioneering collection Gurudeva and Other Indian Tales back in print, more’s the pity, and we’re still having trouble tracking down some of the literary estates to secure rights. Putting the list together has sometimes required the skills of a private eye.
Working on the list has been rewarding, exciting, nostalgic. Nostalgic because these are the books that first captured me for Caribbean writing almost forty years ago. Then it was still possible to find nicely jacketed first editions of virtually everything from the fifties onwards for a couple of pounds, or buy new copies of Wilson Harrises or Andrew Salkeys from New Beacon Books or, if not originals, reprints from the old pre-Pearson Heinemann and Longman days, (before the accountants got in). Rereading those books carried me back to those times: memories of Orlando Patterson as a fiery young orator in the occupation of the LSE in London in 1967; treks to 2 Albert Road (before New Beacon moved) and long discussions with John La Rose in the kitchen upstairs; books read to a soundtrack of Don Drummond on horribly but atmospherically crackly Studio One LPs (and Toots, Desmond, Max, and a not yet global Bob Marley ).
It’s been exciting to find that books that seized the imagination then, have not lost their power to disturb, and provoke reverberations of thought into the 21st century. Sometimes rereading now, with the hindsight of the past forty years, brings to the fore aspects of books not so apparent when they first appeared. Jan Carew’s Black Midas, first published in 1958, seems to me an eerily prophetic reading of some of what was to happen in Guyana in the 70s and 80s. But more of such thoughts later, and hopefully some on-line discussions. (What? Peepal Tree going 21st century with blogs and forums? Look out for some changes in our web presence before too long.)
It’s been rewarding because of the initial dialogues the project has spawned. Was there important work by women writers who I’d heard of but never read (or maybe never heard of)? Exchanging emails with old friends such as Evelyn O’Callaghan has certainly provoked some ideas. Look out for Elma Napier, for one. Rewarding too has been to hear or read of the pleasure of surviving family to learn that the work of late fathers, husbands (and in some cases the writer himself) will return to visibility.
So what does the list contain? Full revelation will follow, but so far the titles involve an old cowherd, a Shakespearean verse copied as a love note, a Shark, a man encased in mud, a man who goes for walks over the hill, a waiter angsting about his sexuality, a woman widowed by the Guyana rapids, a prospector who disappears somewhere between the confluences of the Cuyuni and Potaro rivers, an old Jamaican patriarch looking back on turbulent times, a socialist who returns from Oxford to rediscover himself and his people, a prostitute desperate for escape from destiny. More?? Yes there’s more, so look out for further instalments of news about Caribbean Modern Classics.