Unpublished manuscripts at New Beacon Books

Together with its concrete achievements, the New Beacon publishing archive contains the trailing threads of many partly completed or imagined book projects: the seeds of ideas, unpublished manuscripts, planned publications. These incomplete projects tell us much about the development of New Beacon’s work and the practical obstacles to building a more cohesive sense of regional identity. According to the radical left-wing French publisher, François Maspero, what a publisher does not publish is often as important as what he or she does (Hage). With this in mind, New Beacon’s boxes of unpublished manuscripts are an important, if largely invisible, element of their publishing history. Of these several hundred manuscripts some are long forgotten, while others, including work by Anthony McNeill and Jan Carew, went on to be published elsewhere. The list reveals that La Rose planned at least three series: a Black Power series called “Black Star” which would include speeches by Stokely Carmichael and an interview with Huey Newton published in Ramparts in September 1967 (Black Liberation file, unpublished manuscripts); a Lost Literature series that would include Minty Alley by C.L.R. James and Pigments by Léon Gontran Damas (5.4.67 KR to JLR, LMA/01/0698); and a series of short histories and biographies focused on Jamaica (Johnston, LMA/01/0440). That New Beacon received so many manuscripts from across America, Africa, and Europe is further testament to its visible success in forging a new independent space in the landscape of British publishing.

One manuscript, dated 1974, is the typescript for a new volume of poetry by Sierra Leonian writer Syl Cheney Coker. This volume, “The Graveyard also has teeth”, was eventually published elsewhere, but the letters reveal the author’s process of revising the poems against his increasingly acrid sense of political corruption in Sierra Leone. Coker’s connection to La Rose is significant. One poem, “To a tormented playright”, dedicated to Sierra Leonian dramatist and director Yulisa Amadu Maddy, lists cases of oppression faced by writers. It poignantly acknowledges the shelter La Rose provided:

Remember, I said, how furious I was
that Vallejo had starved to death in Paris
that Rabearivelo had hanged himself
suffocated by an imaginary France
and I introduced Neruda and Guillén to you
and how in desperation we sought solace in the house
of John La Rose that courageous Trinidadian poet!
 

A neglected aspect of New Beacon’s publishing work is its efforts to build connections beyond the English-speaking world. This work between languages and colonial contexts was seen by La Rose and White, and by the participants in CAM, as a key aspect of their activism. They sought to increase wider regional knowledge of Spanish and French Caribbean literary culture, publishing an introduction to the poetry of Nicolás Guillén and making various attempts to publish translations of francophone literature of the Caribbean, and Lusophone writing from Brazil.

The archives contain unpublished translations of Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal and Discours sur le Colonialisme (translations by St Lucian author, Jacques Compton), both published in new editions by Présence Africaine in the 1950s. These translations built on the successful performance of Césaire’s Cahier organised by John La Rose for CAM in 1969, though they were never actually published. Indeed, Gordon Rohlehr wrote to La Rose expressing his need for the text: “I am very anxious to receive a copy of your translation of Césaire’s Cahier. Very anxious indeed. I have been planning to do a translation for my own benefit, but what with MOKO & lecturing, I haven’t had the time” (21.7 No year, GR to JLR, LRA/01/0684/2). The first published translation in English, by John Berger and Anna Bostock, appeared in 1969 published by Penguin. New Beacon also planned to publish June Henfrey’s thesis on Aimé Césaire (LRA/01/0379, LRA/01/0183), though the project did not come to fruition.

As in Britain, the situation for publishing Caribbean literature in French was dominated in the post-war period by publishers based in the metropolitan capital.  Présence Africaine, the ground-breaking journal founded in 1947, and its publishing house, founded in Paris in 1949, was the symbolic hub for black writers and artists in the francophone world. John La Rose admired the work of its founder, Senegalese intellectual, Alioune Diop. Although they worked in a very different historical and national context, Présence Africaine played a similarly instrumental role in opening up new possibilities in the French book market for writing by black authors (Mudimbe; Salgas). Alioune Diop had strong links with the earlier négritude movement and maintained connections with the Senegalese poet and later President, Léopold Sédar Senghor, in particular through his role in co-organising the 1966 Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar. By the late sixties, Senghor’s dream of négritude as a practical political ideology was seen as out-dated by many, in particular by young anglophone African intellectuals. 

In November 1968, Wilson Harris wrote to La Rose:
 
There are interesting articles though I must confess I have many reservations […] Now in the so-called Third World there is a new fashion – an African package […] if I were asked to trace something in the history of man which corresponds to freedom or revolution I could only find it in certain 'enigmatic' works of sensibility – enigmatic because they refuse to be packaged and therefore they [play] witness to the profound 'dispossession' of man. (WH to JLR 10.11.68, NBB/1/3)
 
This interesting passage reflects Harris’ aversion to any contained or homogenous notion of “Africa”, and his desire to step outside any overbearing categorisation when it came to imaginative work. 
 
There is more extensive archived correspondence at the George Padmore Institute regarding a possible publication of Léon Gontran Damas’ poetry by New Beacon in the early 70s which includes a signed agreement with Présence Africaine releasing the rights for his fiercely-voiced collection Pigments (1937). This volume had been banned in francophone Africa during the war, perceived as a threat to the loyalty of French African troops to the French army. Its first English translation was by the Trinidadian writer and academic Merle Hodge (author of Crick, Crack Monkey) who had completed a dissertation on négritude writing and also gave a talk on Damas for CAM in 1969. Merle Hodge’s unpublished preface to the translation recuperates the value of Damas’ work at a universal level. She is alert to accusations of essentialism faced by négritude writing in the English-speaking context after the euphoria of the independences and concludes:
 
One must beware of seeking to force the whole of Pigments into the frame of Negritude or racial revolt. One out of four of these poems is inspired by the themes which inspire all poets – night, war, dreams, woman, the passage of time – there is for example the touchingly beautiful poem 'Regard' where Damas steps out of his skin as it were and contemplates with a wistful smile the old age that befalls all men. (Preface, p7, unpublished manuscript)
 
The CAM newsletters contained extracts from Merle Hodge’s presentation and translations of several of Damas’ poems. Yet the complete translation did not appear: a translation was published elsewhere, and the project seems to have broken down over questions of rights. La Rose described this wrangling over rights as a “very unnecessarily difficult nonsense” (5.4.73 JLR to Merle Hodge, LRA/01/0386). 
 
In the same period, La Rose pursued the project of publishing work by Brazilian playwright Abdias do Nascimento which explored links between Yoruba culture and Brazil. This followed the success of Nascimento’s production of his play Sortilege with the Black Experimental Theatre Troupe at the 1966 Dakar Festival of Negro Arts, a landmark event organised by now-President, Senghor, and the founder of Présence Africaine, Alioune Diop. Over the next decade, La Rose sent Nascimento books concerning political activity in Portuguese-speaking Africa, and suggested edits for the translation of Sortilege by Peter Lownds. Nascimento sent photographs and paintings to be used in the publication (21.1.75 AdN to JLR, unpublished manuscripts file), but the project appears to have foundered at that point. The play eventually appeared in 1978 with Third World Press in Chicago, the largest independent black publisher in the United States, founded in 1967. 
 
Hispanic traces in the archive include correspondence with Roberto Marquez, an editor of the Massachusetts Review with whom La Rose made contact via Brathwaite in April 1973. La Rose planned to publish poetry by Pedro Perez Sarduy and essays by Rogelio Martinez Fure, whom he had met during an informal meeting in Havana during the 1967 Cultural Congress (Walmsley, 138). As the campaigning work around the Black Parents Movement took off, there were only limited resources to pursue translation projects. Nonetheless, these are some of the frequent signs of imagined possibilities at New Beacon, which expand the horizons of an emerging radical publishing space.