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Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Thank You For Coming Home, Valerie Brandes

I'd like to tell you a bit about publisher Valerie Brandes, founder of independent publishing house Jacaranda Books. Valerie is actively tackling the lack of diversity in British publishing, and in doing so has given great opportunities to me and many others like me in our careers.

Life is full of parallels. Far too often it requires seeing something great expressed elsewhere to realise that the very same greatness can be found right in front of you. That is what happened when I listened to my author Frances Mensah Williams' TEDx talk "Where is home?"  at the Africa Writes Festival this past weekend where she was in conversation with Margaret Busby. Delivered in December 2014, the talk looked at the concept of 'being at home vs feeling at home' in our globalised world, an issue that is explored in her debut bestselling romantic debut novel From Pasta to Pigfoot, published in May 2015.

The moment came 6:57 minutes into the TEDx talk when Frances tells us that during a workshop in Ghana, after being raised and spending the majority of her life in the UK, a colleague said to her "Wow, you've worked for some big companies, you've got great experience. You must have had a good life in London, but we need people like you here in Ghana to help us develop. Thank you for coming home."

London-born Valerie Brandes, a self-professed 'Hackney girl', returned to the UK after 20 years living, working and raising a family in the beautiful, sunny city of San Diego, California. On completing a Masters in Publishing at City University and working for the prestigious Profile Books, she made the brave decision to address a glaring yet much ignored issue in the publishing industry: the lack of diversity in our workforce and literature. Following on in the footsteps of great women such as Margaret Busby and Verna Wilkins, Valerie's new publishing house Jacaranda Books, would positively affect not only my life but those of many people to follow: a publishing house that puts diversity at the forefront of its mission, promoting diversity in publishing "from bookshelf to boardroom"*.

Two years on Jacaranda Books has published nine wonderful titles and launched the writing careers of some very talented, diverse authors including Irenosen Okojie, author of Butterfly Fish, one of the best debuts of 2015, Caine Prize shortlistee Pede Hollist, author of So the Path Does Not Die, Obinna Udenwe with his political thriller Satans and Shaitans, and artist Maia Walczak and her novel The Colour Black. I have the experienced of helping build a publishing house from the ground up, of acquiring some great titles (The Colour Black, Satans and Shaitans, and From Pasta to Pigfoot) and of realising my ambition of editing a novel, alongside my role as Publicity and Digital Manager. I have the pleasure of working in an environment where my differences are not seen as negative, where I do not feel like an outsider, a company I believe in and where I can show the best of my skills.

At the Africa Writes Festival Margaret Busby honoured Jacaranda Books by pointing out the great work that Valerie is doing - never had I felt so proud. It has taken a lot of hard work and a great deal of serious financial investment to build Jacaranda, and it is still early days, yet Valerie Brandes has seen it through.

Thank you Valerie Brandes. You must have had a good life in San Diego, but we need people like you here in the UK to continue the forgotten legacy and develop a more diverse publishing industry. Thank you for coming home.

*as my colleague Cynthia Hamilton likes to say

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