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Dread Times: eBooks to See You Through

This collection of 'ebooks to see you through' celebrates the very best Peepal Tree titles on the theme of 'dread times'.

Nearly two hundred years ago the radical critic William Hazlitt began an essay writing, “I cannot understand the rage manifested by the greater part of the world for reading New Books.” Even back then he reports on the phenomenon of a publishing rat-race, the narrow span of time a new book has to enter the lottery of catching the reading public’s attention before it is crowded out by the demand for newer novelty. As Hazlitt goes on to say, “If I have not read a new book before, it is, to all intents and purposes, new to me, whether it was printed yesterday or three hundred years ago.” Of course, as a publisher you can’t ignore the production timetable of advance information, publication dates, reviews, prizes – and returns, when bookshops conclude a book has passed its sell-by date. Of course, in the normal run of things it is the new books that have to have the marketing attention. But it’s like family. The newborn is extra-special, but you don’t consign the earlier-born to inattention. Indeed, I remember having to reassure an older sibling just how special he was.

Right from the very beginning of Peepal Tree’s existence, I’ve struggled with the idea that books can only have a limited lifespan, and to a real extent our belief that we should be publishing books that could last has paid off. Our survival over 35 years has been very much down to the fact that the backlist generated significant revenue. It might have been what Amazon described as the economics of the long tail, but for us it worked, and went a little way to confirm the view that good books last.

Dread Times

Just now, like every other publisher, we are struggling with the lockdown of bookshops, and the fact that some of our books got caught in the limbo between normal times and these dread times. Why not, we thought, make a virtue of necessity, defer new books to later in the year of some hoped-for semblance of normality and remind readers of the existence of some top-notch Peepal Tree novels they may have missed over the past twenty years. Books that still exist, but have never been offered in e-book form (though we are always happy to post physical copies). The principle was to focus on books that we thought not only were good (or we wouldn’t have published them), but books that had something to say about these dread times.

So what has been in and on our minds in these times? In mine, a sense of how important family and friends are when you can’t visit them (though for some, no doubt, a sense of puzzlement about how we come to be related to these particular people). A more acute sense of place? Looking afresh at your home and garden if you are fortunate to have one, and maybe discovering places in your immediate neighbourhood you have never seen before – though you have lived fifty years in the same place, as I have. Dreaming of the places that form the extensions of your spatial reality – a visit to Trinidad cancelled, a desire to walk along the three miles of the Rhossili beach on the Gower? An appreciation that going to work lends itself to structuring your day, whilst being at home offers myriad distractions and the temptation to drift and daydream? And anxiety, a sense of existential threat for yourself and those closest to you, not least your Black friends and the extra threat they face? These were some of the thoughts in my head when I suggested a number of books from the backlist that might be a good fit for these dread times.

So why not join Tapan in Manzu Islam’s Burrow who is forced to hide, to go underground like a mole when the people catchers of the Home Office are on his track, burning to deport him back to Bangladesh, who must discover just what inner resources he may have. And what group of people had less freedom than those who were enslaved as other people’s chattels, commodities to do with as they pleased? In David Dabydeen’s historical novel, Johnson’s Dictionary, there is a powerful reminder of the marvellous freedom of the mind, the power of the imagination and the word to inspire other possibilities. In Denise Harris’s Web of Secrets, join Margaret, locked down in her Georgetown house with her aunts and ailing mother, to uncover the adult secrets the household vainly tries to keep from her. Anthony Kellman’s West African king, Jaja (Tracing JaJa), is sent into house arrest and exile in Barbados, but finds some comfort not only in the nurturing attention of the young woman who looks after him in his ill-health, but in his enhanced appreciation of the beauties of the flora and fauna around him.

For many, lockdown has been about the strangeness of changed circumstance, and this is the theme of novels such as Jan Shinebourne’s The Last English Plantation and Jacqueline Bishop’s The River’s Song, both novels about girls at different stages in their lives confronting changes of scene, changes of circumstance, in Guyana and Jamaica respectively.

Of course, Covid-19 is a powerful reminder that we meddle with nature at our peril, that whilst we’ve been deriving the solace of a kind of humanised balance of nature in our gardens and parks, nature is always ready to remind us both of our insignificance and our hubris. In Diana Macaulay’s Huracan, at each of three periods in Jamaican history, powerful winds expose the vanity of human effort and expose the fault-lines in unequal societies. Hurricanes come and go (but arrive more frequently), and there have been those who have long warned us of deeper, less passing, existential threats to accustomed ways of human life. In Curdella Forbes Ghosts it is the consequences of climate change and rising sea levels that threaten rather than a viral pandemic, but that threat demands of her characters, with their very different personalities and strengths, new resources to accommodate themselves to utterly changed circumstance.

Locked-up, it is of course family who we are with or who we are separated from, and in Lakshmi Persaud’s Daughters of Empire there is both a warmly sensitive portrayal of the stresses of intergenerational change in an Indo-Trinidadian family in London, and the strength of family ties, and the centrality of home, food and neighbourliness in making a good life. Patricia Powell’s The Fullness of Everything, on the other hand, is a novel about the healing power of forgiveness, when Winston, 25 years away from Jamaica in the USA, is telephoned to hear that his abusive father is dying. He is deeply reluctant to return – and even more angry when he discovers he has a half-sister no-one has told him about.

So what do we do when we are locked down? Turn to stories and reading, as nearly 700 years ago, ten young citizens of Florence quarantined themselves away from the bubonic plague that was sweeping the city, each telling a tale for the time they are in seclusion, until they reach 100 tales – the stories written by Boccaccio in his Decameron of 1353. That is, in a sense, the model of Mark McWatt’s Suspended Sentences: Fictions of Atonement, a collection of short stories, each written in a different voice, and crossing a wide range of genres – folk stories, science fiction, LGBT confessions, magical realism and stories about bakoos and doppengangers. They are the stories which are set a group of sixth-formers as a punishment for their drunken rampage on the day of Guyana’s independence, collected many years later when all have left Guyana in homage to a missing friend. And whilst there are no multiple voices in Kwame Dawes’s A Place to Hide, there is a rich range of scene and characterisation to bury yourself in these stories, set in 1970s & 80s Jamaica – lovers, runaway poets, gangsters, religious seekers – and Bob Marley’s spirit – in this classic collection.

eBooks to See You Through

Friday 22 May 2020 – Instagram eBook Launch with Jacob Ross at 4pm British Summer Time. Visit Instagram for more information.

Patricia Powell, The Fullness of Everything – 27 May 2020

Kwame Dawes, A Place to Hide – 3 June 2020

Mark McWatt, Suspended Sentences – 17 June 2020

Curdella Forbes, Ghosts – 24 June 2020

Jacqueline Bishop, The River’s Song – 08 July 2020

Jan Shinebourne, The Last English Plantation – 22 July 2020

Denise Harris, Web of Secrets – 29 July 2020

Manzu Islam, Burrow - 12 August 2020

Diana McCaulay, Huracan – 26 August 2020

Lakshmi Persaud, Daughters of Empire – 09 September 2020

Anthony Kellman, Tracing JaJa – 16 September 2020

David Dabydeen, Johnson’s Dictionary – 30 September 2020

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