The NGC Bocas Lit Fest has announced that the 2016 recipient of the Bocas Henry Swanzy Award is publisher and editor Jeremy Poynting of UK-based Peepal Tree Press, the leading publishing house focused on contemporary Caribbean writing. The announcement came on 16 March, at the media launch for the 2016 NGC Bocas Lit Fest, Trinidad and Tobago’s festival of words, stories, and ideas. Poynting will receive the award on 30 April during a special event at the festival.
Inaugurated in 2013, the Bocas Henry Swanzy Award for Distinguished Service to Caribbean Letters is an annual lifetime achievement award to recognise service to Caribbean literature by editors, publishers, critics, broadcasters, and others. It is named for the late BBC radio producer (1915–2004) who created a landmark platform for Caribbean writing in the 1940s and 50s through the Caribbean Voices programme, which broadcast fiction and poems by West Indian writers across the region.
The 2016 award to Poynting coincides with the thirtieth anniversary of Peepal Tree Press, based in Leeds, North England. With more than three hundred books on its list, ranging from works by debut authors to resurrected classics, Peepal Tree has arguably done more to nourish contemporary Caribbean literature than any other publisher in recent years.
“Jeremy Poynting deserves to be recognised for the selfless work he has done for decades,” says Bocas Lit Fest founder Marina Salandy-Brown, “getting Caribbean writing onto the page, editing and shaping it beforehand, making it the best each writer could offer to the reader. Poynting is the perfect recipient of this award, as his work mirrors the pivotal and most valuable contribution of Henry Swanzy. Both men were makers of Caribbean writers and we all owe them an enormous debt.”
The roots of Peepal Tree Press go back to Poynting’s previous career as an academic, when his PhD research into Indo-Caribbean literature took him to Guyana. The plight of talented writers there with no outlet for publication inspired him to found a literary imprint. His first book, Rooplall Monar’s Backdam People, was published with the most basic of equipment: “‘typeset’ on a daisywheel printer,” Poynting recalls, “and printed in the evenings at the college where I worked.”
In the early days, Poynting ran Peepal Tree out of his garage, printing the books himself and managing two or three titles per year. Its growth into a powerhouse of Caribbean publishing was slow, often difficult, and even more often debt-incurring. But gradual support from the Arts Council of England, the introduction of more affordable digital printing technology, and the arrival in 1994 of Hannah Bannister as the second key member of the Peepal Tree team all helped overcome the substantial challenges involved in running a small publishing house.
Today, Peepal Tree is the publisher of first choice for many emerging Caribbean writers. It has published more winners of the three genre categories of the OCM Bocas Prize than any other publisher, including the 2015 overall winner, Vladimir Lucien’s poetry collection Sounding Ground. Poynting’s achievements have been recognised by the University of the West Indies, which granted him an honorary doctorate in 2014.
“Jeremy is a crucial and vital figure in contemporary Caribbean letters — that’s beyond question,” says Bocas programme director Nicholas Laughlin. “There are many dozens of significant Caribbean writers whose work would not have seen the light of publication without Peepal Tree, and Jeremy has also rescued many classic Caribbean books by bringing them back into print. He is unmistakably British but he has a deep love for and knowledge of the Caribbean, particularly of our literature, and especially of Guyanese literature. It seems utterly appropriate to recognise the work of Jeremy this year, coinciding with the thirtieth anniversary of Peepal Tree and the fiftieth anniversary of Guyanese independence.”
CROSS, master pen makers, are the new donors of the award. In past years, the Bocas Henry Swanzy Award was given to publisher and broadcaster Margaret Busby, OBE (2015), scholars Kenneth Ramchand and Gordon Rohlehr (2014), and publishers John La Rose and Sarah White (2013).
The title sponsor of the 2016 NGC Bocas Lit Fest (23 April–1 May) is the National Gas Company of Trinidad and Tobago, First Citizens is the lead sponsor, and One Caribbean Media and the Ministry of Planning and Development are main sponsors. Other sponsors are the Massy Foundation and the University of the West Indies.