Words From the Root

It’s been a bit over a year since I was introduced to Tanya Baston-Savage. Though we had never met personally, I met her revolutionary debut play Woman Tongue centerstage at Kingston’s Courtleigh Auditorium. The anthology of plays explored topics of motherhood, feminine sexuality, death, ageism and other topics less spoken about. It was everything my inner rebel feminist wanted to see on a Jamaican stage. After some aggressive googling I found the brilliant playwright and realised she was piloting many other literary art projects that I was already in love with, including her own publishing company Blue Banyan Publishing and Caribbean arts and culture magazine Susumba Magazine.

Since then, I’ve been secretly stalking her and her work on social media and had a chance to speak with her about her latest projects working with the National Library and reviving works of Jamaican Feminist Playwright icon, Una Marson.

BASHY: Tell us, who is Tanya Batson-Savage and what is your dream for the Caribbean literary world?

Tanya Baston-Savage.jpg

Tanya Baston-Savage

Photo: Sharine Taylor

Tanya Batson-Savage: I think the verdict on who is Tanya Batson-Savage is still out, but I think I might be able to tackle my dream for the Caribbean literary world. I want us to have awesome libraries, and thriving bookstores that don't have annoying signs like 'leisure reading'—as though that's a thing—and I want us to have more book clubs because, what I want most of all, is to see more Caribbean people reading more Caribbean books and not just the sexy ones that are winning farin awards, but other great local titles. Truthfully, I think that we are going through a truly great time for Caribbean literature, with writers copping major international award and the birth and growth of regional awards also helps. The presence of literary festivals across the region has also helped to boost interest in the written word. I would love to see more local publishing. The region has been so focused on producing textbooks for so long that it has left holes in the infrastructure—including in bookselling, which is currently heartbreaking how local books are treated in many bookstores (God bless Bookophilia for all that they do!), and it's even hard to get the titles published elsewhere that's getting buzz. In April I went to and/or called every bookstore in Kingston to get a copy of Augustown and could not find it. This is problematic. We can’t keep accusing people of not wanting to read when they can’t even get the books.

What inspired Blue Banyan Books?

I chose this name because I think the banyan tree is so awesome because it has aerial roots – I mean isn’t that just awesome – roots that begin in the air. I love this as a metaphor and I think books are something that can take you places but can also keep your grounded, keep your rooted, whether in your culture or in your humanity. Similarly, when I was looking for an imprint for my YA and adult titles, I went for Blouse & Skirt books, because that's what I want to produce, what I think our region deserve—books that when you read them you say: blouse and skirt!

Did you always see yourself getting involved in the publishing side of literature?

Not really. To be honest, growing up, I didn’t think of publishing as a possibility. I wanted to write, but I didn’t think I would be publishing books—it never even crossed my mind. When I left the University of the West Indies, I applied to Ian Randle for an editor post and they sent me a nice rejection letter and that was that for me. I didn't really think about publishing anymore. Then I got my first goddaughter and I wanted some Caribbean folktales for her and I couldn't find any. I finally found a book, and the quality was poor, but it had Caribbean stories, so I bought it. I then realized that if I couldn't find the books I wanted young people to read, I needed to publish them. At the time, I was also admittedly starry-eyed and didn't know how truly daunting publishing is. The good thing is I have a hard head, so I haven't run away yet.

Blue Banyan has a focus on diverse Caribbean voices, what does that mean and why is this the focus?

The Caribbean is the epitome of diversity—different and differing people sharing a space. For me diversity is simply recognizing that no single story, no single person, no single archetype can capture everything. Regardless of what you think of the politics behind the origins of the Jamaican motto, you can’t get past the fact that we are a space featuring a diverse racial spectrum, and when these varying races and cultures mix, interesting stories emerge. or example through Children of the Spider I learn that there were Indo-Guyanese practicing obeah —I mean that’s just fascinating! So although we in the Caribbean are rarely unified, even that unifies us. I wanted to create a press that expressed that diversity. I also didn't want to just focus on Jamaica because I think the region's future is dependent on our getting over our petty squabbles and be able to create together, do business together.

Blue Banyan publishes a lot of what I think is feminist literature, is that deliberate?

Not really. It's kind of like a tiger publishing books about tigers. You didn't necessarily set out to, but you think tigers are great and so books of tigritude end up in your collection. So, it comes from what interests me, and again, the books that I think are important for the region. So I'd read about Una Marson but couldn't access her plays. I think that's a travesty so I was glad I was able to join with the National Library and correct that. Similarly, when I read the manuscript for Girlcott, I thought it was fascinating that Bermuda (which is a part of the West Indies, but not a part of the Caribbean) had segregation, and I thought—more people need to know about this. Therefore, in a lot of ways, the feminist slant hasn't been deliberate. Even while Blouse & Skirt Books doesn't have a feminist agenda, I'm also not likely to publish a book that belittles women. I've also published books that don't fall easily into that category. There is the poetry anthology In This Breadfruit Kingdom that offers such a broad range of voices. It's no single thing. And then there is A-dZiko Simba Gegele's novel All Over Again which is about a young man's coming of age - although I guess you could also colour that as feminist because a part of the feminist agenda is raising boys who are willing to access all their emotions, not just anger and who don't see women as the enemy.

Earlier this year you published Una Marson’s Pocomania and London Calling. What inspired this and what was the process of publishing a play written half a century ago?

When I actively started thinking about what I wanted to publish, Una Marson's Pocomania was on the list. I had been coming across the name of that play as a quintessential Jamaican work since I was doing my BA. I then learned that it was housed in the National Library of Jamaica (NLJ)  and I thought, that needs to change. If that play was so important, why don't more contemporary people have access to it? One of the key things to know is that without the printing press, we would probably have forgotten Shakespeare by now. We need to give more of our playwrights similar access. Publishing the works of our playwrights is a part of how we acknowledge, celebrate and keep good work from disappearing into the ether. I, therefore, made my first proposal to publish the works more than a few years ago and the timing wasn't right. But finally, last year it came to be, and the more I learned about Una Marson, the happier I was that we had managed to publish this.

Do you have any other plans of ‘reviving’ some of our lost literature?

That was the original plan. I'm not sure I will still pursue it though, as it will require funding and that’s a whole other kettle of chicken.

You’ve been working closely with both the National Library and Jamaica Library Service (JLS), what has that been like, and what are some of the challenges and opportunities working with both entities?

I've worked far more closely with the National Library than the JLS. My work with the JLS has largely been surrounding the Lignum Vitae Writing Awards, which they support. Collaborating with the NLJ was a great, worthwhile experience. Most of it happened under the watch of former National Librarian Winsome Hudson. It was great working with someone who was committed to developing a national collection and who viewed the national library as important to the literary ecosystem. In the short time that I've worked with the current head National Librarian, Beverley Leyashly has been supportive.

How important are public libraries in Jamaica today where do you see the future of our public libraries in Jamaica?

That is a complicated question. I don't believe they are as important as they should be. Though not a lending library, the NLJ has put tremendous effort into making itself more relevant to the public not just researchers. They [are] finding different ways to engage and remain relevant. There is still a lot more work to do—not because they are not trying hard enough, but because there is always more work to do—the minute you get complacent you risk irrelevance and extinction. The JLS has found a core audience, and I think it's been doing a lot of work to keep that core audience, but it has not been building on this. In the current landscape, libraries that are not dynamic are on the endangered species list. While I think it is awesome that the library is a space where John Public can go and access a computer, they need to do more about engaging with and driving a reading public. You cannot have a literate society without great libraries. Writers and publishers and most importantly, readers, need them. There is so much that is awesome about Jamaica, but our libraries are not on that list and that is telling—and no, it’s not because we are not a society that reads, it’s because somebody decided that we don’t need to be a society that reads. The state of our library is a deliberate policy decision—it’s a deliberate decision about the kind of society we want to be.

In addition to literacy, you also do a lot of work in promoting the arts in general. What drove you to create Susumba?

A lifetime ago I used to be an Arts and Culture journalist at The Gleaner. When I left (and by that I mean when they asked me to leave) I was still interested in writing for the arts, because I think: a) arts need criticism (I totally agree with Edward Baugh that criticism is the greatest compliment a society can pay its artists) and b) there needs to be a space where thought is allowed and news is not just hype and c) yes, I have that regional agenda thing—so rather than do a magazine for Jamaica, I wanted to do one that had regional relevance.

I imagine you’re not doing this all alone. What’s, your team like and support system?

I'm probably more alone than you think. I have been lucky to have a really supportive family though and that helps. I also happened upon an awesome designer, Michael Robinson, who heads up Ion Communications. They have designed most of my books. Also in the design realm, I've met illustrator and designer Staysean Daley—she's illustrated my collection of stories for children as well as our recently released Jamaican alphabet flashcard set. One of my 2018 goals though is to build a team for Blue Banyan because in order to grow the company needs a team.

When you’re not out preserving and promoting the art world, what do you do in your down-time?

First, I'm trying to get more downtime, I hear it's good for you. I'm trying to write more (although writing time is not downtime) and I'm trying to read more. I also have a friend who keeps asking if I want to go to the beach. For 2018, I plan to say yes more often.