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Feminism and Women’s Presses

I first began to identify as a feminist at the age of twenty. As a teenager I came into contact with feminist ideas from reading novels like Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and plays such as Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, but I didn’t yet realise that I could be a feminist or that I could contribute to this dialogue in some way. My relationship with feminism changed in 2001 when I stumbled across the Silver Moon Bookshop on Charing Cross Road and encountered my first literary, feminist space.

I think Silver Moon and the extensive selection of books it stocked altered my understanding of feminism, as it enabled me to connect what had been an abstract philosophy to a living movement which could potentially be a force for change. During this summer I visited the Silver Moon a number of times to buy novels and browse large art books, discovering the works of Judy Chicago and Georgia O’Keeffe in the process. Running my fingers along the spines I came across names of publishers I’d never heard of before such as The Feminist Press, Pandora Press, The Women’s Press and Virago. It was here I bought my first Virago title: The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler. I think as a newly identifying feminist I was drawn to the provocative title and plus it was the perfect reading material for the train to accompany my newly shaved head and pink Doc Martens!

Now, sixteen years later, my feminism is more often expressed in the petitions I share on social media than in my appearance, but reading feminist and women’s literature published by the presses I discovered at Silver Moon has remained a constant. I have also discovered a few more along the way including Honno Welsh Women’s Press when I moved to Wales. During a recent discussion hosted by The Women’s Equality Network Wales in partnership with Honno I began to think more about these different labels such as ‘feminist’ and ‘women’s’ and what they have come to represent in publishing.

At the end of the 1980s, not long after Honno was founded, Nicci Gerrard questioned feminist publishing’s narrow commitment to ‘books about feminism’ and suggested an increase in the publication of ‘books influenced by feminism.’[1] Fifteen years on Simone Murray asked: ‘[W]hen is a women’s press a Feminist Press?’ and ‘does a press’s feminism reside in its means or its ends?’[2] In 2014 Catherine Riley concluded that Virago’s takeover in 1995 by Little, Brown (now owned by the mainstream conglomerate Hachette Livre) means that they now ‘reach a wide audience’. She concludes that ‘Virago has certainly adapted its way of conveying feminist messages, but retains its quiet influence. This has kept it relevant, continuing the attempt to convey feminist politics through publishing’.[3]

Therefore, is a press only a feminist press if all aspects of its operations are feminist-minded? And can this only be achieved if a press remains independent? Or is it the case that the ‘feminism’ resides in the output? But then should the output be solely about feminism or can it be more broadly influenced by feminism? Should feminist presses only be run by and publish women or is feminism actually a mind-set, an approach to be actioned by individuals of any gender? If a press is subsumed by a mainstream publisher is it a compromise or a progression? Although these questions are too vast to answer here they do reveal a complexity of purpose and thought which needs to be engaged with when discussing the future of women’s and feminist presses. Since the period of second-wave feminism – when many of these independent presses were first established – the publishing industry has changed dramatically and, as a result, presses like Honno are navigating a constantly shifting landscape whilst still trying to fulfil their key founding principles.

Here We Stand book coverHonno can be labelled a women’s press because it publishes only women and even though not every title is explicitly about feminism Honno is certainly motivated by a feminist agenda. For example its commitment to publishing reprints of titles by women long out of print reintroduces the writings of our ‘literary foremothers’ to the reading community. This series highlights a distinct women’s canon and provides further evidence of a history of feminist consciousness pre-1970.[4] Alongside its fiction list, Honno publishes biographies of women such as the Jewish writer from Wales Lily Tobias. Books like The Greatest Need reveal a history of female activism and creativity in Wales often hidden from view. As well as bringing to light Wales’ feminist history Honno also strives to document contemporary women campaigners. A good example is Honno’s recent anthology Here We Stand: a collection of interviews and articles which give an insight into modern issues, highlighting why the feminist movement is still relevant today.     

Although not a physical bookshop like Silver Moon was, Honno has also created a feminist, literary space which can potentially be a force for a change. It puts forward an alternative historical narrative which reveals a rich seam of feminist thought and action in Wales. This strategy continues to raise the profile of female writings whilst curating a historical foundation on which Honno’s contemporary writers can build. In her article on Virago press, Catherine Riley decries ‘the relative lack of published work on the important phenomenon of feminist publishing.’[5] Therefore, as Honno celebrates its thirtieth birthday is it now time for their contribution to feminism in Wales to be fully evaluated?

Biography

Calista Williams recently completed her PhD on ‘The National Library of Wales and National Identity c.1840-1916’ which was assisted by an innovative collaboration between the Open University and the National Library of Wales. She is currently researching the lives of the women who used the National Library when it first opened in 1909. Calista is now a Lifelong Learning Humanities teacher at Aberystwyth University.

caw52@aber.ac.uk

@Ca7ista

 

HONNO ARE CELEBRATING FEMINIST BOOK FORTNIGHT ON THE 20TH JUNE 2018, 6.30PM, AT THE BOOKSHOP, ABERYSTWYTH ARTS CENTRE.

 

[1] Nicci Gerrard, Into the Mainstream. How Feminism Has Changed Women’s Writing (London: Pandora Press, 1989), p.25.

[2] Simone Murray, ‘The Cuala Press: Women, publishing, and the conflicted genealogies of ‘feminist publishing’’, Women’s Studies International Forum, No.27 (2004), pp.489-506, pp.492-493.

[3] Catherine Riley, ‘‘The Message is in the Book’: What Virago’s Sale in 1995 Means for Feminist Publishing’, Women: A Cultural Review, Vol.25, No.3 (2014), pp.235-255, p.253.

[4] Cherie Kramarae and Dale Spender ‘Exploding Knowledge’ in Kramarae and Spender (eds.), The Knowledge Explosion. Generations of Feminst Scholarship (New York: Teachers College Press, 1992), pp.1-26, p.18.

[5] Riley, ‘‘The Message is in the Book’, p.236.

 

Honno Press – over 30 years of creating, publishing and companionship

An early Honno committee meeting with Luned Meredith, Althea Osmond, Rosanne Reeves, Leigh Verrill-Rhys (l-r) © Suzanne Greenslade

Back in October 1986 Honno was established as a Welsh Women’s Community Co-operative, the ‘Community’ being Wales. This was not a sudden event but a part and reflection of the enthusiasm and excitement which developed amongst women in Wales in political, academic and literary circles in a far-reaching campaign to draw attention to, and transform the sexist attitudes towards the role of the woman in the home and communities of Wales.

In the early 1980s Women’s Sections were established by Plaid Cymru and the Labour Party in Wales; a number of refuges were opened for women in Wales by Welsh Women’s aid; programmes on the history of women were broadcast, produced by new feminist independent companies; a series of articles were published discussing ‘the problems and aspirations of the women of our nation and other nations of the world’ in Asen Adda (Gomer 1975) edited by Ruth Stephens; the title Out of the Shadows (University of Wales Press 1981) by Deirdre Beddoe was published, creating a stir when she announced that Welsh women were invisible in the history of their country and in January 1986, to the great surprise of many, a special edition of the literary male-centered journal Y Traethodydd was dedicated to Welsh language literature and feminist criticism, written jointly by Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan, Kathryn Curtis, Elin ap Hywel and Marged Haycock. Around this time many students took an interest in, and specialised in women’s studies thus enriching the literary scene in Wales by presenting papers and books on all aspects of the life of women in Wales.

Caroline Oakley, Honno’s Editor, and Eurwen Booth, Committee member, toast Honno, at the 30th celebration. © Maria Wyles

 

In such an atmosphere, unsurprisingly, a group of women from different parts of Wales had the same idea at the same time, i.e. that now was the time to establish a publishing venture promoting writings by the neglected women writers of Wales. Numerous meetings and discussions followed and it was decided to assess the demand by writing to some hundreds of individuals asking them to buy as many £5 shares as they liked (with one vote for each shareholder at AGMs). We were encouraged by the response. We raised around £4000, and it became obvious that there was support for the idea. As a result Honno was founded, under the care of a voluntary executive committee including Kathryn Curtis, Ann Howells, Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan, Luned Meredith, Althea Osmond, Rosanne Reeves and Leigh Verrill-Rhys.

 

Over 30 years later we are delighted that these determined and passionate women have been recognised, with the Honno founders being included in WEN Wales’s list of 100 legendary Welsh Women.

Some of WEN Wales’s 100 legendary Welsh women with Honno founders Sheleagh Llewellyn, Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan and Rosanne Reeves (back row, 6,7,8 from left).

However, much more needs to be done, since there are many other female writers waiting to be taken out from the shadows – historical personalities, who worked tirelessly in their communities, and who portrayed their experiences in fiction and fact. As well as continuing to give a voice to the great contemporary women writers of Wales. Without doubt, we still need a publishing house like Honno, the only independent women’s press of note still remaining in the United Kingdom. And so, we look forward confidently to another 30 years!

 

 

 

 


 

Rosanne Reeves, is one of Honno’s founding members, Editor of the Clasuron Honno, and author of Dwy Gymraes, Dwy Gymru: Hanes Bywyd a Gwaith Gwyneth Vaughan a Sara Maria Saunders; Caerdydd: Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, 2014 .

The fascinating Margiad Evans

Margiad Evans (1909-1958) was Peggy Whistler’s pen name. She was born in Uxbridge, but claimed the Welsh Border country around Ross-on-Wye as her spiritual home from her first visit to an uncle and aunt’s farm as a child. The Whistler family moved to a house just outside Ross later when Peggy was twelve. That is where her writing career began, the towns and landscapes of the area a barely disguised backdrop to her fiction.

Her first novel, Country Dance (1932) has a beautifully balanced structure representing the movement across the border of Ann Goodman, a young woman with a Welsh mother and English father, and the rivals for her love, Evan ap Evans whose name proclaims his heritage, and the Englishman, Gabriel Ford. The autobiographical fiction The Wooden Doctor came out in 1933, and Turf or Stone the year after that. Creed (1936) was her last and most ambitious novel, not remotely autobiographical and yet curiously representative of the total passionate commitment she displayed towards her beloved countryside, to her lovers, and to her writing.  Evans also wrote short stories, collected as The Old and the Young (1948), Poems from Obscurity (1947), Autobiography (1943), and finally the brave and heart-breaking Ray of Darkness (1952), an account of the onset and treatment of seizures caused by a brain tumour, the illness from which she eventually died at the age of 49.

Throughout her life Evans wrote incessantly. Her husband Michael Williams donated many of her letters, journals and diaries to the National Library of Wales after her death. The 1930 years are written in bound volumes; later exercise books, or scraps of paper document her frenetic emotional responses to relationships, as well as always testifying to her abiding love of nature. A picture of an emotionally intense family life emerges in the earliest entries: quarrels with her mother, sometimes bitter rivalry with her sister Nancy, spats and arguments with friends. In The Wooden Doctor (1932) the narrator’s detached but shocking comment ‘our home among the quiet fields became a cage of savagery’ neatly sums up one aspect of her family’s relations documented in her journal.

The narrator and protagonist of her novel The Wooden Doctor is Arabella, significantly a name Evans often used to refer to herself in her journals. She burned the early ones from her adolescence, but the novel tells the story of the years of her obsession with the family’s real life G. P., Doctor Dunlop, who becomes the fictional eponymous ‘wooden’ Dr Flaherty, a middle-aged man unresponsive to her adolescent declaration of love. The painful self-exposure evident in the fiction is the more remarkable once one reads in her diary that Dr Dunlop even failed to acknowledge the copy she sent him.

A picture also emerges in the journals of Evans as an unconventional young woman who took great sensual delight in her body. Several times she records swimming naked in the river Wye with her sister Nancy, on one occasion ‘two astonished men’ stared at them from the opposite bank’; elsewhere she says ‘we looked white and sparkling like jewels when we climbed out of the water and crouched under the banks drying ourselves on our knickers in the wind and sun’.  She was proud of her body and observed that nakedness changes one’s behaviour, ‘One acts strange when one’s naked: the shoulders swing, the arms glide, the back arches and the breasts expand in the air…’ The sisters shared a lack of inhibition.  One afternoon Peggy, in the kitchen making coffee, heard Nancy calling from the garden, ‘Sister…sister, come and dance for Harry’. ‘Harry’ was flying dizzy circles above their garden in his monoplane. Peggy picked up her skirt and chased ‘slowly and ridiculously about Nancy’ who was already ‘whirling and twirling in her chintz coat and her bushy hair floating’.  Peggy remarks in her diary that ‘Last time he flew in our sky I remember we were washing up on the grass, and the time before we were naked’.

Evans expended a great deal of emotional energy on writing her final novel Creed. Her diary entries for the period of its composition have none of the fun evident in the episodes described above.  Life was hard and emotionally exhausting, and it is difficult not to see some of that leeching into the fiction. Creed was never reprinted after it first appeared in 1936, so Honno’s new edition is especially welcome. It is not a polished novel, it conveys a sense of being deliberately rough-hewn, as rough and uncompromising as its characters. It takes on and challenges ideas about love, belief and wickedness, and although the rain is practically incessant throughout, the descriptions of drenched nature are acutely and imaginatively observed, powerful testimony to Evans’s attention to detail, to her imaginative and unusual perceptions, and her skill as a writer.

Sue Asbee

 

 

Margiad Evan’s novels – The Wooden Doctor and Creed have been republished by Honno, with introductions by Sue Asbee. You can buy them both through our website.

With thanks to Jim Pratt (nephew of Margiad Evans) for the pictures of Margiad Evans.

Q&A with Editor Caroline Oakley

We will be featuring interviews with members of the Honno staff and committee on a regular basis – starting with our Editor/Publisher, Caroline Oakley.

 

Caroline OakleyHow long have you been working at Honno?

I’ve worked at Honno since January 2005 – at first I worked two days per week reading the submitted manuscripts and editing contracted titles. From 2008 I’ve combined editing with a publishing role, which includes some budgeting, scheduling the publications list, writing funding applications, rights management and liaison with the Welsh Books Council from whom we receive revenue funding towards the production of books and staff costs. I’ve done as little as two days a week as a freelance sub-contractor and as much as five days a week as a salaried member of staff. It’s been an interesting journey, and in 2011/12 Honno were good enough to grant me a sabbatical year to study for a Masters degree in the Teaching and Practice of Creative Writing.

What did you do before you worked at Honno?

Initially I worked simultaneously for Honno and my previous employer the Centre for Alternative Technology [CAT] in two part time roles. Before joining CAT’s publications team I was with the Orion Publishing Group for five years working as an Editorial Director for Orion Paperbacks and the Millennium imprint. I’ve also worked for Headline Books, WH Allen and Grafton Books (now part of Harper Collins). I worked my way up in publishing from Editorial Secretary to Publisher over the course of rather too many years than I’d care to mention.

What is the most important part of your job?

Ooh – that’s a big question. They’re all important in different ways, without any one of them it would be hard to publish successfully. But certainly without submissions Honno wouldn’t have authors and books to print, so it’s probably both assessing submissions and taking part in other initiatives that bring in titles and authors such as our regular meet-the-editor sessions and writers’ workshops.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Finding new writers, helping them hone their writing skills and sharing their delight when their books are read and loved.

Tell me about the difficult aspects of your job?

The most difficult bit of my job is finding the time to do all parts of it equally efficiently and fully – time is always short and in publishing there is always something more you could do. More reading, more polishing, more coming up with pitches to potential rights purchasers from foreign language rights scouts to film and tv producers. And now, with the rising importance of social media there is a whole new field of endeavour into which book promotion could venture – and we all know how much time can be spent in the wormholes that are Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

What do you like to do outside of work?

When there’s time I like to sew my own clothes, grow my own food and read something that someone else has edited. I also try to spend time outdoors looking at the horizon as an energising change from screen or paper.

What do you like to read?

Anything from SF and Fantasy, to crime, garden writing, memoir and general fiction – even the back of a cereal packet if there’s nothing else about. Recent favourites include Just Kids by Patti Smith and The Digby Cynan Jones; one I couldn’t get into: I Saw A Man by Owen Sheers.

 

You can find Caroline on Twitter @Caroline_edits

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