Norman Warwick reads a report by Aida Edemariam

Aida EDErmariam

photo 1 The Guardian journalist Aida Edermariam recounts a revealing story that Margaret Busby tells, about the first novel she published. A friend of the family had bumped into a former US serviceman called Sam Greenlee  who said he had written a novel, rejected by 40 American publishers, a satirical thriller about the first African American man hired by the CIA but given a very visible non-job (the point being it was only to improve the CIA’s image). The man kept his head down, learned about guerrilla warfare, then quit to become a freedom fighter in Chicago. Busby took on the book, borrowing money so Greenlee could stay in London while his novel was edited and, when it was about to be published, in 1969, she sent it to The Observer.

The paper refused it – it didn’t extract fiction and certainly not ´black power´ novels. Busby sent it back, insisting the paper was wrong. It ran an extract, and The Spook Who Sat By the Door was subsequently translated into six languages and turned into a film. When the film, opened in 1973, newspapers wondered if it would start race warfare, though The New York Times called it a ´parable of institutional racism.´

It closed early under FBI pressure, and was not reissued until 2004, then, nearly a decade later, added to the National Film Registry at Library of Congress.

Busby, now in her seventies, tells the story, perhaps, partly to marvel at how naive she was in her youth, but she also allows the story to point out how so little has changed. Her account also tells you much about Busby herself: her persistence; her appreciation of a quiet character who turns out to be radically subversive; her instinct that a thriller could carry a serious political argument as easily as a polemic; and, yes, her bravery.

Two years before she published Greenlee, Busby had become not only Britain’s youngest publisher, but also its first black female one (John la Rose, who established New Beacon Books in 1966, was Britain’s first black publisher) ; quickly followed, in 1969, by Jessica Huntley, of Bogle-L’Ouverture.

Margaret Busby went on to run a publishing company for 20 years, and in that period also was able to edit two door-stopping, ground-breaking anthologies; she worked as a reviewer, scriptwriter, lyricist, radio and TV presenter, activist and mentor – and has been chair of judges for the Booker prize.

´[She] helped change the landscape of both UK publishing and arts coverage and so many black British artists owe her a debt. I know I do,´ wrote Zadie Smith last year.

Born in Ghana, Margaret Busby has a strong presence – nicely captured in three pictures of her in the National Portrait Gallery – that is somehow both serious and mischievous. She comes from a family of doctors and lawyers. Her father, the son of a tailor, won a scholarship to study medicine, first in Trinidad then Edinburgh and Dublin. He practised in London before serving in the Ghanaian countryside; a blue plaque now commemorates his pre-NHS commitment to the poor people of Walthamstow.

Busby herself has served Ghana since 1999, as a safohen (captain) of Bentsir No 1 Asafo Company of Oguaa Traditional Area, Cape Coast – the first of seven traditional warrior groups established to protect the area. (She is expected to drop everything and go there if she is needed.)

She still has vivid memories of childhood spent in the Ghanaian countryside, the lighting of lanterns in the evening, the protests that led into the fight for independence and, given what she has gone on to achieve, perhaps the most important memory of all is that of learning to read, through a combination of Nelson Royal Readers that she remembers were ´what every colonial child read, where every subject was about Britain´ and her father’s medical books. As  pre-teenager Margaret was sent to school in England, with her parents remaining behind, scrimping and saving, her mother limiting herself to one dress, worn in the day and hung up to dry overnight – to pay for the education of Margaret, her brother George and her sister Eileen.

The school was enlightened, by the standards of the time; children came from all over the world and diversity was such that Margaret (below) can still laughingly recall how she quickly learned ´to count in Farsi, swear in Mandarin and sing in Spanish,´ Outside school, however, she was ´very conscious of being different. I got used to being thought of as one of the little African girls. I was never me

Margaret Busby

The poems she published in the school magazine were about children called Percival and seashores she had never seen, but she remembers, in the very early sixties, coming across a literary magazine with the South African writer and journalist Noni Jabavu on the cover.

´She represented a sort of role model,´ Margaret remembers. ´By the time I started publishing in 1967, I knew it was possible.´

There was not enough money to get the young Busby home for the holidays, so she was sent to a farm in Sussex run by Verily Anderson, a writer.

´That was where I had my first editorial experience: helping Verily type her books.´

At university in London, Busby studied English, edited the college literary magazine and published poems in the New African.

Then, at a party, Busby met Clive Allison, a young Oxford undergraduate. By the end of the evening they had decided to set up a publishing company together when they finished their degrees. Both took day jobs at other publishers, setting up office in the evenings and weekends in the Soho flat of a friend of Allison’s.

Unsurprisingly, there was very little money in the venture. Busby’s then husband, Lionel Grigson (´We lived in Notting Hill – that was the only place we could afford. Can you imagine?´), was a jazz musician. As jazz didn’t really pay either, she presented programmes on BBC radio and TV programmes for the Central Office of Information; she has over the years produced films and written abridgements of books by, among others, Jean Rhys, Wole Soyinka, Walter Mosley and Henry Louis Gates; her jazz lyrics were recorded by Grigson (who later established the jazz department at the Guildhall School of Music) and the singer Norma Winstone.

Allison & Busby published people ´because we felt we wanted to, because they were important to us, or we felt they were going to be important to anybody else. We were not constrained by any conventions,  we just had to make them work. We published songs to sing in the bath! Printed on waterproof paper. And we published a lot of ´black´ books. Not because it was a black company, but because it was something that interested me.´

Their zeal and eclecticism saw them publish everyone from James Ellroy to Michèle Roberts, Michael Horowitz, Buchi Emecheta, Hunter S Thompson, the sonnets of Michelangelo and the fantastically successful The Worst Witch series, by Jill Murphy.

As I read Aida Edemariam´s article, I was almost constantly bemused by how Margaret Busby could have been so involved with writers I had been reading since I was a teenager, many of who I had revisited with a relish when studying English literature and language at the University of Leeds thirty five years later.

I learned from Aida´s informed essay that Margaret Busby and Allison also published Roy Heath (who won the Guardian fiction prize in 1978) and Nobel nominee Nuruddin Farah, and ´took a chance´ on African American writers, such as Ishmael Reed. Others,  like CLR James and George Lamming, were virtually out of print, so she set out to “rescue [them] from oblivion´ by reprinting them.

Ellah Wakatama Allfrey is an editor-at-large at Canongate, and says she finds it inspiring that Busby ´at a very early age, recognised who and what she was. She was somebody who makes culture. And she set about doing it and hasn’t stopped. Regardless of the social difficulties.´

And it was not always easy. The writers were fine, but ´everybody from the window cleaner to the bank manager´, Busby has recently told an interviewer, ´assumed I was just there to make the tea. The window cleaner used to say: ‘Can you get your boss to pay me?’ I’d say: ‘Yeah, he’s next door.’

Or it was assumed she was sleeping with Allison, even though she was married to someone else. Looking back at the press cuttings about her, as she put it last year: ´I was being treated as some sort of freak – ‘the girl from Ghana goes into publishing’ – as if they were saying: ‘Black girl can read.’ That was the society we were part of and what I was used to, so I just got on with what I was doing´  which, it turns out, was most of the editorial heavy lifting.

The partnership ended in 1987, when Allison & Busby was bought out by WH Allen in 1987, and the partnership ended. The purchasing publisher retained Allison but somehow failed to find a job for Busby.

´Anything I am now, I have done on my own since then,´ she says.

For three years she was editorial director of Earthscan (publishing books about nature and climate), and has been freelance ever since, working on her anthologies and dramatisations, reviewing, including for The Guardian, and founding, in the 1980s, with Huntley and Lennie Goodings of Virago, a group called Greater Access to Publishing.

Margaret Busby

Even whilst doing all this she has also gone along quietly making connections, mentoring writers and editors, and helping people.

When she realised that more than 90% of Wikipedia editors were male, (as I read that I thought, also of Wiki´s reputation for factual inaccuracy) she began writing anonymous entries for overlooked women, trying to redress the bias.

In 1992, she published an anthology, Daughters of Africa, which contains examples of writing by women of African descent from ancient Egypt to the present. She found many parts of the collation on her own bookshelves and drew from a lifetime of searching for things she was not taught at boarding school or during her degree.

´In those days,´ she says, ´if anyone talked about black women writers, you would think there were just three of them, maybe four: Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, maybe Maya Angelou or Terry McMillan.´

(Aida Edemariam  sharply points out that these days that list tends to be Morrison, Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.) Daughters of Africa is a rebuttal of over a thousand pages.

Writers across the world have reason to be grateful to Margaret Busby. Allfrey, who credits her with making her feel ´possible´ just by existing, has written of a Francophone Ivorian author who had been struggling to write because she felt only ´Lagos urban´ novels counted; when someone gave her Daughters Of Africa, she said it set her free.

Busby’s eight hundred page follow-up, New Daughters Of Africa, was published in the last year or so. It begins in the 19th century, but duplicates nothing from the first. Many pieces were written specifically for Busby, all without payment; the money generated by the book will pay for a £20,000 MA bursary – the Margaret Busby New Daughters Of Africa award – at Soas University of London, for a female African student.

In January, the Publishers Association announced that only 13% of people who participated in its diversity survey of the industry’s workforce identified as black, Asian or minority ethnic. The numbers who went to private school were three times the national average.

Busby, who has achieved so much, still feels impatient. ´Every decade there’s another survey. We don’t need to keep doing the same survey; we need to think what are we going to do about it.´

In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd there is, more than ever, a need for clear thinking and balanced reporting on the issues it has raised and Sidetracks & Detours has posted several pieces and comments on these pages.

Until reading the Guardian´s uplifting article on Margaret Busby, though, I had not been aware that after the death of George Floyd, 100 writers banded together to form the Black Writers’ Guild. Its first act was to send an eight-point letter to the biggest publishers in the UK, demanding, among other things, an audit of black authors and black staff and more black commissioning editors.

Busby’s sister had recently died so she was unable to be involved  but what she would also have stressed was ´as much as asking ‘them’ to do things for us, we need to talk more with each other, [about] what we do for ourselves´. She would like it not to be ´this us and them thing as if they are the publishers and we are the writers begging them to take us on or promote us, or whatever. Well, I want us to be the publishers as well. And I want more people to be on both sides.´

For several months, in the wake of the Floyd killing, the books industry almost every day hailed the signing of a new black author; Macmillan US signed a 21-year-old Londoner’s first novel for $1m. Busby wishes them well, but is cautious. ´What we’re seeing now is traditional industry choosing what they think should be published. It’s not people within the industry who are African or black British, or whatever, choosing what they want.´

The risk is what Adichie, in the 2009 Ted Talk, called the power of the single story, in which only one thing is known about another culture and all stories are expected to conform. Adichie suggested this is a problem only heightened when it comes to Africa, which is often treated as a country rather than a continent containing more than fifty countries.

´If you have a book by an African writer who wants to write about computers, and doesn’t mention villages, or tribalism, can you call them an African writer? Probably not, if you’re an English editor. It’s not African enough!´

The same applies to black people being required to discuss race. So what if, for instance, Reni Eddo-Lodge, whose Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race became the first book by a black British author to top the bestseller charts, wanted to follow it up with a biography of Churchill? If an editor was thinking of taking on Eddo-Lodge on Churchill – would he be allowed to? What is expected of a black writer?

Every bestseller impels a rush to jump on the bandwagon, but it is especially risky for minorities.

 ´I remember Toni Morrison saying that if she took on a black writer, she’d have to make sure that writer was successful, because otherwise the view would be that black writers don’t sell,´ says Margaret Busby.  

´And I think what is dangerous about the current situation, that they get this new young, coming-of-age story by x, y or z, and then, if that doesn’t succeed, everything else is blighted.

I hope that people are examining their beliefs and thinking: ‘Where are the people from a different class background, ethnicity or a different part of the country?’ I think there are publishers who have been publishing diverse work, without making a song and dance about it. Taking books on because they’re good, not because they’re trying to fill some quota.´

And don’t get Margaret started on the term BAME. ´I hate that term! I am central to my own world – as you are to yours.´  

She is especially fierce about the detrimental effects of that kind of terminology.

´There was a time when I was only given books by black writers to review. I’ve shot myself in the foot by saying: ‘Well, I actually read white writers as well.’ So then you know they’re not going to ask you to do any black writers, because they’re too embarrassed. And they still don’t ask you to do white writers, so you end up doing nothing.

a sign of change?

The assumption is that it’s got to be a black writer or a black subject or else I’m not qualified. It’s so limiting! A lot of black people, especially those brought up in this country, it’s not that they know only about black culture. I know about Chaucer and Milton and Molière as well – you know twice as much, not half as much.´

The publishing world is perhaps still of white-noise.

´I can still go to literary parties where I’m the only black person,´ Margaret Busby tells us.

´So what are we going to do? It’s not just about saying: ‘Well, we’ll let one in to sit by the door so people can see, so nobody,´ she laughs slightly  ´can accuse us of being un-diverse. But what next?´

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