Unheardwords of Writers of Colour

Tales from a Pirate Chest - Petronella Breinburg

Editorial: Tales from a Pirate Chest

To be honest, a Pirate Chest was where it all began, where the seed which would later develop into Petrojass Publications, was sown.

That 'Chest' was a gift from a young and struggling actor who had seen his mother’s writing and research material piled in cardboard boxes. As soon as that young actor got his first part in a play, he used some of his pay to buy a Pirate Chest for his mother; somewhere she could keep her work.

As the years went by, the Pirate Chest was almost overflowing with creative work: some research notes; half finished stories; scribbles on bits of paper; exercise books, backs of post cards; even bus tickets. Some were hand-written and some typed, later word processed. These were soon joined by a large number of rejection letters from mainstream publishers; though never enough rejections to overwhelm the rich and varied, sometimes controversial stream of creativity.

There came a time when something had to be done. The mother was getting on in years and the thought of leaving her collected work to rest - worse to be recycled by the bin men simply as scrap paper -, coupled with a desire to leave her writing in the hands of, "those who came after", spurred her on to act. That mother, who received and filled the Pirate Chest, was me.

In the year 2000, I began by tearing up some of the material I'd collected and selecting more promising work. 'INSTEAD OF ROSES AND RINGS' (2005) emerged from this. ROSES, as I now call it, had started life many years before and for me, held a sentimental value. I pulled it from the Chest and began work on a revised version. I worked long night shifts, often until two A.M. re-writing the manuscript.

In July 2002, with a synopsis and the first three chapters freshly re written, I started knocking on publishers' and agents' doors – 'based on contacts found in the 'Writers and Artists Year book'. Only one of the three agents I approached responded, returning the manuscript with a big "NO", though they did take the trouble to write a brief note saying the story was interesting but questioning its commercial viability. I then went to Macmillan because I'd had previous work published by them. One Imprint of Macmillan also found the book very interesting but was not sure that it would sell widely.

I began to read short pieces at meetings and to friends and got very interesting responses. One which came up several times was that it wasn't the sort of book black people normally wrote. Others felt that I should write about the racism in England. Others kindly warned that I would be accused of being in denial for not writing about the reality of white oppression. 'Instead you gwan write some stupidness,' one Guyanese friend told me and we both laughed. Regardless, I was determined to be free to write what I wanted to write and not what others were concerned about selling. An individual at one of Macmillan's Imprints was very supportive and told me to try their main office. In December 2002, I sent the synopsis and three chapters by recorded delivery to the main office. After waiting for a year with no response I wrote to them, no reply came. I checked with the Post Office and was assured that the parcel was delivered and signed for. After waiting for another year I wrote again in December 2004, no reply.

So in early January 2005, I began to explore other possibility. I had by then completed the rewrite and updated the entire book. Remembering what had been said about commercial viability, I explored Self Publishing, only to be horrified at the tricks that went on. Vanity Presses, using all sorts of fancy names, making glorified claims and charging authors as much as 1,000 pounds (UKP) to publish their work. For this, the author may get as few as three free copies, with additional copies having to be purchased. I personally couldn't get my head around that. I couldn't pay to have my work published then pay for copies of the publication.

I almost burst my brains trying to find a way to get the contents of the Pirate Chest into print; to save it from the recycling yard, to have something to leave behind. Then as if on cue The Writers' Guild, of which I am a long standing member (about 28 of my 45 years in UK) brought out a heaven sent booklet on POD (Print On Demand). The only rule was that the author took responsibility for their own editing.

-A word of warning here; if a story is culturally and ethnically biased, example non -Standard dialects, features or even place names or characters, giving the work to editors who aren't familiar with the subject matter, culture, etc., can end in disaster!-

I found a couple of POD printers, such as Antony Rowe, who were willing to design covers for an additional fee. Another had a service for editing and proof reading though this proved relatively expensive.

-Another word of warning; family and friends should not be depended on to purchase copies of your book, they usually expect them for free.

Next, I discussed what had begun to look like another 'non-starter' with my Artistic Director son. He spoke to a senior IT colleague, who spoke to me, later referring me to his wife (a freelance editor with a bilingual background). Discussions with my younger son and my granddaughter (both creative beings in music and writing) followed. There were meetings on how to have my thoughts rise up from the Pirate Chest and live on the page. I also discussed things with fellow members of The Writers' Guild. With their support work on publishing ROSES began. My close friends, my family and I, got to work on the book: Editing, IT, Cover Design, Artistic Direction, and ROSES was ready for a POD printer.

A publisher's name was needed, hence after various proposals we agreed on the name 'Petrojass Publications'. And so, a private family non –commercial concern came into being, with the aim of turning the contents of the Pirate Chest (and the other treasures still in my head) into print. Petrojass has had to rely a great deal on contributions in kind and good will. Once I wrote to the Arts Council of England -I was already known to them because some years before I had been supported when I wrote a play for L'Ouverture Theatre in Education- to see if they could help. The Arts Council has been very helpful via advice from my regional officer and a small grant to assist with book preparation.

With ROSES at the printers, 'THOUGHTS OF A CREOLE WOMAN '(Denken van een Krioro Oema ) (a non-fiction work, published February 2007) was on my mind. Also, I was recalling my 1961 arrival in Britain (hence a 45 year anniversary in 2006). So I developed a small book about my experiences, observations and thoughts whilst living in the UK. I began to look back, reflecting on the good and the bad, some hilarious some horrendous, others controversial. The result was, 'A LONG ROAD TO SALAMANCA'. It's told through the voice of Elena a 17 year old Londoner, who out of an horrendous situation, embarks on a journey of self discovery.

So my Pirate Chest begins to empty and the small family Press that is Petrojass has three publications. It's a pleasing start.

Titles so far by Petrojass Publications - all by PA. Breinburg:

  1. 'Instead of Roses and Rings' December 2005, ISBN 0-9549992-0-7, £8.99 (UKP) P/p £1.10
  2. 'Thoughts of a Creole woman' February 2007, ISBN 0-954992-2-3, £6.99 (UKP) P/p £1.10
  3. 'A Long Road to Salamanca' March 2007, ISBN 0-9549992-2-5, £7.99 (UKP) P/p £1.10

© P.Breinburg, February 2007 (all rights reserved)