SOURCE: The Conversation

Published in 1992, Daughters of Africa is a groundbreaking volume of writing by women of African descent. It was followed by an expanded second edition, New Daughters of Africa, in 2019. The mind behind the books is pioneering Ghanaian-born publisher, writer, and editor Margaret Busby. She became the first Black female publisher in the UK at 20 when she co-founded Allison and Busby in 1967. The company was the first to publish several significant writers during her two-decade tenure.

Busby has continued to nurture new generations of writers, academics, editors, publishers, and critics. In May she was in South Africa to give the keynote speech at the second Johannesburg Festival of Women Writers. I took the opportunity to talk with her about her publishing journey.

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers: It is a significant achievement, in editing Daughters of Africa, to bring such a large and diverse body of women together and keep them together. How did you manage that?

Margaret Busby: I do what I can do. What I can’t do, I can’t do. I don’t defeat myself before I start. When it was published in 1992, people would say, “How long did it take to put this together? That’s over a thousand pages.” And I’d say, well, it either took me maybe 18 months, or else it took me my whole life. Because, for as long as I was literate and interested in reading, I was collecting books and magazines. That first volume was what I resonated with, what I knew of, what I had access to. 

 And, back then you’d have thought there were only, you know, a few women of African descent who were writing, and they were all American. Because back in those days, you’d find anthologies that would be called “anthologies of short stories from the West Indies”. And they wouldn’t say by men, but then you wouldn’t find any women in them. Or there’s a volume of poetry from Africa; where are the women? It was as if women were not writing. I wanted to say, well, they are there, they just haven’t been given the potential. I was trying to share the space, I suppose, the literary space.

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers: You were feminist before feminism, and that comes out in your books. 

Margaret Busby: As you know, being a woman isn’t necessarily always easy. Historically, in terms of the way society has treated women, there’ve been all sorts of expectations of what you can do, and what you can’t do. And sometimes only another woman can understand that because it doesn’t happen to other people. Just as I don’t have to explain to another black person what it is to be black. 

The way things were in the 1960s and 70s was not the way things are now. There are possibilities now that women can tune into, and take advantage of, that work. 

But who is controlling what is put out there? Who is controlling the narrative? Who are the publishers? Who’s controlling what gets reviewed? Unless those gatekeepers represent us all, then we have to rely on their impartiality or knowledge or whatever. I think we have to be involved. Women of African heritage have to be involved at every level. 

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers: What do you still feel like you want to do? Because you’ve created a forest of all those women who write. You’ve conferred an authority on us. 

Margaret Busby: It’s lovely for you to say that – makes it worthwhile. Of course, I’d love to do another volume and another volume, because in both Daughters and New Daughters, I’m not saying these are the only people you should read. And in the first volume, there was a bibliographical section of other books at the end, which was probably a hundred pages, just saying “Go and find out more for yourself”. And now there’s the internet, so people can go and do their research and do their anthologies. I saw there was some anthology that came out of women of Hispanic descent in America, inspired by Daughters of Africa.

Then we created the Margaret Busby New Daughters of Africa Award, which means that a female student from the African continent gets a free course of study at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies. The first student who came through was (Kenyan writer) Idza Luhumyo, and she went on to Texas State University and then won the Caine Prize in 2022. So we’re all part of this chain and this ripple effect, and that’s what I like.

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers: What are some important things you’ve learned in your career? 

Margaret Busby: If you say to anybody, “Start a publishing company”, they’d say, “Oh, I haven’t got enough money”, “I don’t know enough”, whatever. There’s always some reason they think it’s going to be difficult. When I was 20, did I have any money? Did I know what the conventions were? Did I know I wasn’t meant to be doing this? No, I just said, that’s what I want to do, okay, I’ll do it. You shouldn’t be put off by somebody saying, “Oh, you can’t do that, it’s not done…”

That’s the great thing about youth. And I think sometimes youth has been stolen from the youth now because they know too much. They think they know too much. But also, it’s not real knowledge. It’s just statistics on the internet. It’s just projections. It’s simulations. The Sims. That’s not reality. You don’t know if that’s how it’s going to pan out. So you have to try anyway. You have to just try.

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