Interview with Valerie Brandes of Jacaranda Books

Valerie Brandes

At the beginning of the New Year in 2015, Afrikult. caught up with Valerie Brandes, the founder of Jacaranda Books, in the quaint and green suburbs of West Hampstead. Jacaranda Books is an independent publishing house that aims to create a platform for underrepresented voices from a wide cultural heritage, but with a particular focus on works related to Africa, Caribbean, and the Diaspora. Jacaranda was founded on January 2012 and judging by the wide array of subject matter, distinctive and diverse artistic provenance of its books, it’s safe to say that this small and young independent publishing house is certainly worth watching out for.

A. Could you tell us your motivation for setting up Jacaranda?

When you see lots of bloom it attracts lots of bees

V.B It is sort of threefold – l love books, reading and writing, I have always had the desire to be somehow involved in that world, whether through book selling or taking teaching courses. However, Jacaranda Books came about as a result of wanting to combine business with my passion for books.
Also as a black girl growing up in London in the 80’s the city was experiencing an explosion of radical black female writing, therefore it was surprising upon noticing that as we entered into the 21st century, black women writers and publishers have almost become extinct. In addition, whilst I was living in California I had access to a world of black books spread across black book shops in Santa Cruz and San Francisco, whereas as in London even big bookshops such as Waterstones holds, a depressingly low number of black books shelved under the black interest section, as if a weird phenomenon has caused black people to no longer read or write. The natural realisation was that, it is a case of a garden of opportunities. If you don’t see lots of books, it is difficult to imagine a young British child aspiring to read something beyond the English canon or school’s curriculum. Therefore without inventing or re-inventing the wheel, Jacaranda Books hopes to revive and add to the rich tradition of black female publishing in the UK. We aim to honour and continue the tradition of black publishers who came before us, figures such as Margaret Busby and Verna Wilkins. However, after having savoured a steady literary diet of the Bronte’s, Hardy’s and Austen’s, I have come to develop a hunger for more works of literature from a diverse cultural background.

A. It is interesting that you mentioned your race and gender. Have they played a huge factor in your participation and engagement within the publishing world?

Being black and a woman has been a motivation

V.B In my experience being black and a woman has been highly motivating. First of all, it is not a natural progression for a black person to think of entering the publishing world. So, that in itself was a motivation, especially when you finally find yourself in the publishing environment and observing how lovely everyone is, kind and polite except for the fact that nobody looks like you. Nevertheless, it is these same people who hold power on what we read and what finds its way to us and how we receive it. Working in publishing, I came across several cases whereby you would have white, middle class publishing professionals with very little knowledge or interest on the black experience or culture making decisions on how works from black writers were represented and promoted, which oftentimes was degrading, and this is why I felt that I can and must make a difference.

A. How is Jacaranda Making a difference?

Not being mainstream

V.B I think we are making a difference through the devoted support that we offer to writers and the opportunity for underrepresented voices to be heard. In doing this our books, bring to readers rich and unique stories often overlooked by mainstream publishing. We hope to create an opening so to speak within the publishing terrain for writers of colour, not exclusively but primarily to writers of colour. However, we select works to publish based on the distinct nature of the narrative and quality of writing, rather that of the colour or background of the writer, and the writers on our list are evidence of this. We also offer a variety in terms of the works that we publish; besides novels we also publish non fiction and illustrated books on fashion and music.

A. What is Jacaranda’s ambition or aims for the foreseeable future?

There is no exit strategy

V.B Simply Jacaranda is here for the long term. I will like to set up a writing school at some point, given my writing background. I think that writing is a skill just like painting, and therefore requires training to harness and hone one’s skills and talent.

A. Now tell us, how would you like to spend your retirement?

Not working to death

V.B (Chuckle….and laughs) I am not one of those people who wish to work into their final years, I would like to write, travel and have more dogs.


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