An interview with Robert Lee for T&T’s Newsday.
Papillote Press is a small publishing house based in London and Dominica. It started publishing books exclusively about Dominica and by Dominicans, but more recently has expanded to include writings from TT, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, St Vincent and now St Lucia. Its list includes a range of genres from children’s picture books to history and memoir. Three of its books are winners of the Burt Award for Young Adult Caribbean literature, which is associated with the Bocas Lit Fest of TT.
The founder of the press is Polly Pattullo. She speaks with St Lucian writer John Robert Lee, whose bibliography Saint Lucian Writers and Writing: an Author Index she recently published.
JRL: Before we chat about Papillote Press, tell me a bit about your earlier career as a journalist in the UK.
PP: I was a journalist in the UK for many years, mainly as an editor on national magazines and newspapers, including the Observer and the Guardian.
During that time I also worked for the monthly political/economic journal Caribbean Insight; there I learned about the Caribbean and first travelled to the region.
That led me to write Last Resorts, about the Caribbean tourism industry, and later Fire from the Mountain (2000), about the Montserrat volcano crisis.
In Last Resorts (2005, 1996) you took a hard look at what was happening in our tourism, its impact on the people and landscape. How prophetic has your book proven to be when you see where we are today with mega-cruise ships, all-inclusives and so on?
I’m not sure if it was exactly prophetic, but I sigh a little in noticing how little has changed over the 20 years since the first edition was published. All the problems that I reported on – environmental, cultural, economic and so on – seem to me to be essentially in the same place. There is the continued destruction of the environment: the unequal – and unaddressed – struggle of local crafts against the largely tacky and ubiquitous Chinese goods; the growing numbers (although not everywhere) of all-inclusives, which are divisive.
Some individuals in tourism are creative, on a very small scale, but the “industry” as a whole is not, and flaunts visitor arrival numbers above all else.
The address of Papillote Press is London and Trafalgar, Dominica. Somewhere in there must be the story of Papillote and its founding, its vision, your aspirations for it. Tell me about them.
I am a Londoner, but for many years I have spent important chunks of my life in my home at Trafalgar in Dominica. I first went there in 1984 to interview the politician and writer Phyllis Shand Allfrey, whose novel The Orchid House had just been re-issued.
I kept returning, and the island has become my emotional and geographic hub.
At some point, I wanted to write a book about the gardens of Dominica. But who would publish it? I couldn’t find a mainstream publisher so I decided to publish it myself.
Having realised “I can do this,” I was then asked to publish Allfrey’s short stories by her biographer the Puerto Rican academic Prof Lisa Paravisini-Gebert. And so Papillote Press was born.
Papillote Press is still very small: originally I envisaged publishing books from Dominica and by Dominicans, but a few years ago I started to branch out into the region; most recently, your book, Saint Lucian Writers and Writing, from St Lucia.
And last year I was particularly pleased to publish a Young Adult novel by the Trinidadian writer Lisa Allen-Agostini. My list is probably considered a bit of a hotchpotch but I like it that way. And I hope it’s a rich bouyon.
Papillote Press, “the small and invaluable Papillote Press,” has made a significant mark in small press publishing regionally and internationally with the important authors you have published and the awards that some of the books have garnered. As a result, are you overwhelmed by manuscript submissions, budgetary and other constraints? Have you set yourself a tight selection policy and publishing schedule?
I am essentially a one-woman band, so I do have some difficulty in making sure that manuscripts don’t pile up. I am well aware how frustrating it is to have to wait for a response, and I would hate to have such a reputation.
Even so, I welcome manuscripts – in a way you can never have too many, because you might miss a gem and I always ask someone else to get a second opinion.
It is very much a labour of love and I think I am a bit choosy, but you have to be true to yourself.
What is your sense of the writing – poetry, fiction and non-fiction – emerging especially from the OECS islands like Dominica, land of Jean Rhys and Phyllis Shand Allfrey? How does the writing compare with that from the larger islands and in fact, internationally?
Both Jean Rhys and Phyllis Shand Allfrey had to go to the UK to get published – that was many, many years ago but things have largely remained the same.
Fortunately, there are a few small publishers emerging in the Caribbean who are doing what they can, but there is the sense that to hit the big time you still have to go to New York or London.
If you look at the nine books longlisted for this year’s prestigious Bocas prize for literature in Trinidad, only one (in the non-fiction category) is published by a press based in the Caribbean. The authors, though, are much more diverse; as are the judges. So that’s good news.
Outlets for self-publishing have now made it much more feasible for people to publish their own books. Traditional publishing did exclude people, and I welcome the democratising that self-publishing has allowed.
However, writing is a craft and it is hard craft. Writers need to read, to write, to polish, to re-write and often publishers can play a constructive and collaborative role in enabling a book to shine to the benefit of everyone, and that includes the readers.
Can you share news about forthcoming publications and your plans for the future of the press?
In the pipeline is a major work of non-fiction by the scholar Schuyler Esprit, from Dominica, a former director of the Nature Island Literary Festival. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the manuscript.
I am also working with an author whose work I have published before: it’s a historical novel set in England, but with a Caribbean connection.
I’m not very good at thinking strategically about the future; but I am keen to continue to support emerging Caribbean writers in any way I can.
Thank you, Polly, and all the best to you and Papillote as you continue to do this excellent and needed work for Caribbean writers and writing, especially for us in the smaller islands.