AiW Guests: Ellen Mitchell and Sophie Kulik
Margaret Busby (OBE) is a Ghanaian born editor, publisher, writer and broadcaster based in London, and has been described as the “Doyenne of Black British Publishing”. Busby was Britain’s youngest and first black female publisher after she founded the publishing house Allison and Busby, in 1967. Whilst editorial director, she played an integral role in bringing writers from the African diaspora to critical attention, publishing authors such as C.L.R James, Nuruddin Farah and Buchi Emecheta, to name but a few. Her career encompasses radio, television, stage, literary activism, and she is a frequent contributor to The Guardian, The Sunday Times and The Independent. Throughout her extensive career, Busby has championed diversity within the publishing industry, campaigning for increased black representation; she was a founding member of ‘Greater Access to Publishing’ (GAP) and a patron of ‘Independent Black Publishers’ (IBP).
Busby edited the groundbreaking Daughters of Africa anthology in 1992, which brought together the work of more than two-hundred female contributors of African descent, organised chronologically and covering a variety of genres. The anthology was hailed as a pioneering feat of literature and the “ultimate reference guide to the writing of ‘Daughters of Africa’”.
Twenty-seven years after the initial release, Margaret has compiled a companion volume New Daughters of Africa, which includes a new generation of female writers of African descent, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Zadie Smith, Diane Abbott, Malorie Blackman and Roxane Gay. In conjunction to the new anthology, Myriad, the publisher, and the School of African and Oriental Studies are launching the £20,000 ‘Margaret Busby New Daughters of Africa Award’, which will offer black, female students resident in Africa the chance to study at SOAS in London.
We spoke to Margaret over the phone in March as she prepared for the launch of the new anthology.
Ellen Mitchell and Sophie Kulik: The extent of the original Daughters of Africa anthology is obviously massive, covering over five thousand years and sixty countries, with more than two hundred contributors and spanning a variety of genres: autobiography, memoir, oral history, letters and many anonymous and translated pieces. We know Candida Lacey commissioned the first Daughters of Africa anthology – can you remember the conversations that led up to that and how did you go about drawing together the original list of contributors?
Margaret Busby: Well, Candida was working for a feminist publisher called Pandora and they had just done an anthology of British women writers, with two editors, and the idea emerged of doing one of women of African descent. So, that was a book on just British women with two editors, and I came on, took on the world with one editor! The anthology was really trying to expand the canon. I always talk about living in a library because I have so many books, I’ve got books everywhere! So I went and pulled off my shelves books that I knew, authors I wanted to include, and I chose passages, and that’s how the original book was done.
There wasn’t too much original material commissioned, although once or twice things happened; I remember going to a party and being introduced to an African woman, or so I thought, who turned out to be Turkish – so I commissioned her to write a piece about her life! It was a mixture of what I already had access to and serendipity; there was no one way of going about it.
Sometimes people ask me how long it took me to put that together and I always say that it either took about a couple of years or all my life, depending on how you look at it.
When compiling this anthology, did you have an intended audience in mind?
No, I think the reason I wanted to do it was a response to the fact that in the literary establishment there was a perception that there weren’t many black women writers or women of African descent. There were the ones that everybody would refer to or knew about, whether it was Toni Morrison, or Maya Angelou, or Alice Walker. You would think there were just three, or maybe half a dozen women writers of African descent, and they were all African Americans! And anybody who came along was compared to them.
I wanted to kind of disabuse potential readers or the literary establishment because quite often the black readership did know many of them because we seek them out. You want to see yourself reflected in what you read. I wanted to say yes, there are more than half a dozen women of African descent who’ve been writing, or dealing with spoken word as well, but it covers the world and it goes back generations, it goes back centuries. Look at the end of this book: there’s a huge bibliography, so keep reading! It’s really just trying to expand minds.
No, when you’re doing something you do it because you have a passion for doing it or you want to see it come to fruition but you’re not necessarily looking beyond that. It certainly has had an impact on people – people as readers, people as writers – because I think there were a lot of people who read that book who wanted to be writers and were influenced by it in one way or another. So, I guess it has had an influence and has a continuing influence; this new anthology demonstrates a continuing link to those writers and that whole literary history of women of African descent who are using words creatively, whether orature, spoken word, speeches, the written word, different genres..
You spoke about the anthology New Daughters of Africa there. What prompted you to update this and commission the new anthology, twenty-seven years later?
Well, I wouldn’t call it an update, I would call it a companion volume. The first volume went from the present day back generations, showing that we didn’t just arrive in the 20th century or 21st century, but that there was a history that we could draw on and were inspired by. Similarly in the new volume, although it doesn’t spend so much time focusing on those past generations, as there are so many younger and contemporary writers that I wanted to include, it still does refer back. It’s not a question of contemporary writers arriving out of nowhere; they arrived having been able to build on a history of writers who had gone before them. There are writers in the new anthology from the nineteenth century, as well as writers from the 1990s – so it’s a range again. I didn’t actually lay down a template – you have to write about this, or on this theme, or on this book: it was down to the writers themselves to choose how they wanted to be represented.
You said there is a range of voices, but given that there is greater visibility now for black female voices compared to twenty-seven years ago – for instance, you’ve got celebrity feminist literary figures such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who were not active at the time of the original publication – was there a shift in tone or emphasis of the kinds of writers and pieces that you wanted to include?
Twenty-seven years ago the internet was not what it is now, so people couldn’t go and look things up in the same way. That is why I wanted to have that large bibliographical section at the back of the original anthology, to say well this is not the only book that you need to read, it’s an indication of other works that are available.
The internet has made it possible for writers to have greater visibility and to access different parts of their literary history but I don’t think things have necessarily changed so much towards literary responses to black women writers of African descent. Somehow a lot of praise is still kept on a few, as if they have to represent everybody, and they’re the only ones who will actually get that sort of literary accreditation and critical attention.
So you’ve named Adichie – could you name me five writers that you know of that you think are important?
Well we are increasingly aware that African voices and literary figures are just something that we are not taught – it’s not on the British educational syllabus. So, yes you’re right, it is really difficult for us to name writers off the top of our heads.
Well you see that’s why I’m doing it! So did you feel there was something missing in your curriculum when you were being taught literature?
Yes definitely, the kind of literary canon that we were taught at school was incredibly Eurocentric.
Well exactly, and I’m surprised, I had my schooling in this country – I’m African, I went to school here, I had my university education here – I did not read a single book by an African or a black writer in my whole official curriculum. It’s also a question of seeing oneself reflected in what one reads – so it’s interesting that you feel that. Imagine how much more a student of African descent would feel it.
So, I think that’s why this anthology is so important, because it is providing a space and providing that platform for so many people.
It’s really just showing that there is more that you could be enjoying, that you could be learning from, that you could be reading. There are things that could open your mind, that could enlighten you that you have to seek out for yourself because it is not being offered within your formal curriculum.
Did you find that due to the success of the previous anthology and the influence it had on so many people, that writers were jumping at the chance to be involved with the New Daughters of Africa anthology?
With the new anthology, I started with a huge spread list of hundreds of writers – you may think two-hundred plus writers in this anthology is quite a lot but I had five-hundred on this page at one time. There was no shortage and of course you might think of a writer but then how do you access them? Have I got their email address? Is it somebody I know personally? Am I going to have to go through an agent or a publisher? How long will it take? There’s an awful lot of emailing that I’ve done in the last year and chasing people up – so there were lots of people who were not in it, who could’ve been in it! It’s already a huge book and it could’ve been twice the size.
If I said to you, put together an anthology of two-hundred women of European descent that would include everyone from Jane Austen to JK Rowling – that would be difficult! You’d have left out a lot of people and that’s the case here: there are two-hundred wonderful contributors but there are many more that could’ve been in it – so it’s something that I’m proud of but something that in a strange way I’m not quite satisfied with. It’s never a question of saying this was a definitive anthology; the first one wasn’t definitive in that way and this one is not. But anyway it’s a start – I’ll do another one maybe …
How did the ‘The Margaret Busby New Daughters of Africa Award’ come about? Did you envisage that your work would be able to create something with such an amazing legacy?
Well the new anthology has been done in a different way in that we wanted to make a difference in terms of providing some sort of legacy which would enable an African woman, or writer, or somebody living on the African continent to benefit; this new prize is going to do just that. We started off thinking that we would make a donation to some charity in Africa, and it grew into this specific award which has been backed by SOAS. All the contributors waived their fees so together we could make this collective, more generous donation that would have that outcome.
I hope that the way that I have lived my life or the work that I have done in publishing is also going to inspire people. I know there are people that say there aren’t enough publishers of African descent in this country and there are some who have been inspired by me. If you do something well, other people can look at that and say that they want to do what you have done. I think that with or without this award, that is something that I have always tried to do. I have tried to always do whatever I am doing in the best possible way, rather than being daunted by what other people say is possible – nothing is impossible until you have tried and found it impossible. There is always some way that you can make something that you really want to happen, happen. I hope that you two will be doing that too!
Over your career you have won so many awards. Last year The Voice listed you as among eight black women who have contributed to the development of Britain. Do you find that this acclaim comes with a massive sense of the responsibility that you then have on your shoulders?
I don’t even know when they do that, sometimes I think that they can only think of a few people so they just bung me on! I think it’s an honour to be thought of in those grandiose terms but I’m not living my life with an ambition to be on some list and I’m not even sure that it’s true – but its a great honour!
Although, I always say that it is easy enough to be the first, we can each try something and be the first woman or the first African woman to do X, Y or Z. But, if it’s something worthwhile you don’t want to be the only person, so I think that’s what it’s about. I hope that I can, in any way, inspire someone to do what I have done but learn from my mistakes and do better than I have done. I am not doing it to get some sort of personal accolade, and be on some list. If you were to draw me up a list of ten something or others, on the spot it would be quite arbitrary and I might be on it, I might not. So yeah I don’t see it as a burden because it doesn’t phase me. I don’t wake up in the morning and think oh look I’m on a list of whatever. [Laughing] I just look around and think look what a mess my house is, and all those papers everywhere….
With over fifty years of experience in the publishing industry, have you noticed any significant changes, specifically for black female writers or publishers since you started?
Well, I guess there are more. But, as I said to Gary Younge, who did an interesting article a few weeks ago. He spent a year reading only books by African women writers and he asked me for a quote, and I said well until we can’t actually name them there is still work to be done. There are more African women writers being published perhaps now than twenty-five years ago, but why shouldn’t there be? We shouldn’t be able to name check them all, there should be many more than we can name check. There are lots of good books being published and I think one of the things that makes change is if the people doing the choosing also change. If there are more people choosing what gets published then there will be a greater diversity in what gets published. I think that’s something we have to look at in terms of diversifying the output; we have to diversify the workplace. That’s the way that you will get diversity and inclusivity.
One doesn’t necessarily have to make a big show of doing. Quite often I see these publishers talking about how we are going to have a special scheme for diversity or inclusivity or BAME – I hate that term. You don’t have to announce it in some way, as if you are doing somebody a favour, you just publish good books! You don’t go to a party where everybody is the same except for one person and make a big announcement that you’re going to be particularly nice to that one person – that’s not how it is. You just do the normal thing, you just do the decent thing.
So, it’s really just about changing it from the ground up?
Well I think so, I think it is changing in every way. I mean I’m really excited that you two are interested in interviewing me. I mean you didn’t have to, you’re not from my background but there’s something that made you want to do this. That’s the sort of spirit that we must encourage, it’s not just about perpetuating the status quo!
New Daughters of Africa: An international anthology of writing by women of African descent published on 8 March and is available to purchase here.
Margaret Busby will be speaking about the anthology alongside contributors Leone Ross, Namwali Serpell and Ros Martin on Saturday 29th June at 5pm at the Malcolm X Community Centre as part of Africa Writes – Bristol. This is a free event with no ticket necessary – just come along!
The following week on Saturday 6 July she will be speaking about the anthology alongside contributors Bernardine Evaristo, Nadifa Mohamed, Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ and Namwali Serpell as part of London’s Africa Writes festival at 7pm at the British Library. Tickets are available here.
Ellen Mitchell is a final-year undergraduate student at the University of Exeter, studying English Literature. Her areas of interest include film, African literature, and feminist theory, and she has just completed her dissertation on female anger within film and its relationship with the #MeToo movement. Ellen has written reviews and articles for Exeposé, was a radio presenter for the student station Xpression, and the English and Film Editor for The Undergraduate Journal this year.
Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A