Legends of Suriname (1971)

Legends of Suriname is a collection of stories based on traditional Surinamese folklore. It formed an early step in New Beacon’s publishing work towards redressing the lack of interesting educational material for black pupils in Britain and in the Caribbean.
Breinburg moved to Britain in the 1960s and worked as a journalist and a teacher in London primary and secondary schools. Correspondence in the archive speaks of the difficulty and discrimination faced by black authors of children’s literature and of Breinburg’s personal experience of teaching in a London primary school in the 1960s. This was the period of ESN schooling, and Breinburg describes teachers’ complacency and her own sense of impotence faced with classroom politics or with parents who didn’t want a black teacher teaching their children. Breinburg wrote to La Rose:
A lot of these black kids are under emotional strain. Some of them feel terribly guilty and ashamed of being black so they react in one of two ways, they become either docile, or violent. They hate their white teacher for the teacher represent[s] ‘Those whities who wants all blacks repatriated’ when there is a black teacher around they expect her to help and allow them to insult and fight the whities. (17.10. (71?), PB to JLR, LRA/01/0145)
Legends of Suriname is testament to Breinburg’s and New Beacon’s resolve to contribute positively to educational resources in Britain and the Caribbean.
After this publication, Breinburg is perhaps best known for the My Brother Sean series, published by Bodley Head from 1973. Sarah White recalls how difficult it was to find books representing the urban experience of black children in Britain or in the United States by the late 1960s and these were among the first children’s books to feature positive images of black children in Britain. They remain in print today, with memorable illustrations by Errol Lloyd.
Legends of Suriname (1971) by Petronella Breinburg. 47pp.


The book contains five interlinked folktales inspired by African traditions in Suriname. As the blurb notes, these fables have appeal for children and adult readers, and present “the persistence of African belief, the organic unity between animals (including man) and nature, between the living and the dead” (backcover). Characters include Todo Sjaki (a boy who undergoes a series of bodily transformations), Ba-Aboma (a boa), the Liba (a sorceror and “snake-lady”), the flying slaves and Watermanna (a mermaid figure).


Breinburg sent the manuscript to La Rose in September 1968. She also enquired about the possibility of publishing her first novel, “Spring of Guyana” and a book of poetry, but New Beacon’s limited capacity was not able to take these projects on. La Rose accepted the manuscript with just minor editorial changes:
We have now got the illustrations as well as the jacket done. Art Derry has done some remarkable illustrations which I believe you will like. I have been re-reading the text these last few days before passing the material on to the printer, and there are a few small suggestions which I would like to make to you in this connection. I have been even more impressed with your work on further reading. I thought your work had the quality of poetic fables. What I also notice on re-reading was that the work was an illustration of a certain type of African Cosmology which had survived in the Caribbean. (LRA/01/0145) 
Fighting Man Trees by Art Derry. Archive Ref: GB 2904 NBB/1/9 (uncatalogued)
The Legends are illustrated by Art Derry, who also designed the cover, now using half-tone colours after the early years of black and white covers. A map and a brief factual introduction to Suriname explains the diversity of its population. Inhabitants include Creoles, Indians, Chinese, Amerindians, Javanese, and Europeans drawn to this region because of its rich natural resources in bauxite, gold, and now oil.


The first print run was 2000 copies. In terms of distribution, Breinburg passed on some contacts in the Surinamese capital, Paramaribo, hoping for a large order from the Education Ministry. This had some success, as one letter notes: “LEGEND... has won something in Suriname. It won a ‘Honorable Mention’ from the Linguistic Bureau there” (PB to JLR, undated, NBB/1/9). As a result an extract was printed in the journal for Dutch schools and teacher training colleges in Suriname. Several large orders were received from Suriname including one from a teacher at the Shri Vishno School in Paramaribo “intending to use those books in our school as readers” (Franklin de Bies to SW, 6.10.72, NBB/1/9) and asking for more guidance on Caribbean-specific reading material.
Letter from Franklin de Bies, dated 7 October 1972. Archive Ref: GB2904 NBB/1/9 (uncatalogued)
Elsewhere in the Caribbean however, a review in The Gleaner noted that: “These are pleasant enough little tales but not of much relevance to Jamaican children” (undated, NBB/1/9), suggesting this reviewer’s resistance to the project of building a regional Caribbean aesthetic. It was notoriously difficult for small independent publishers to enter the general schools’ market in the Caribbean, which remained dominated by larger publishers with specialist series such as Longmans and Heinemann. Several bulk orders were received from British schools, however (SW to PB 1.2.74, NBB/1/9). Breinburg suggests the stories were well received by her own pupils: “In fact, it was the only way I could get them to do any work; After I tell them a story I let them do some written work on the subject we just heard.” (23.5.70 PB to JLR, LRA/01/0145).
As well as My Brother Sean, Breinburg wrote several other stories and plays. La Rose remained a mentor figure: he recommended Errol Lloyd as illustrator for My Brother Sean and recognised the effect that the weight of the larger publisher, Bodley Head, could have in the success of this book. Breinburg describes the response in Britain with some ambivalence:
It is the SEAN books which are giving me the publicity but I agree and my eldest son says it at regular interval, that ‘LEGENDS’ is a better book. But people here are obsessed with racial issue[s] so they see SEAN. It was on Nationwide, I heard, but the woman choose it from a racial angle. The Dutch Newspapers are the only one to see it from a literary point and highly praised the writing and the art work! (16.8.74 PB to JLR, LRA/01/0145). 
Letter from Breinburg to John La Rose, dated 16 August 1974. Archive Ref: GB2904 LRA/01/0145
La Rose also offered advice on funding and a supportive ear when Breinburg faced challenges the mainstream publishing world:
Thanks for your praise on my work. I do need encouragement for at times I feel that I am wasting my time in the writing business for I now have tons of unpublished work. Perhaps I’m too stubborn because I may have got my ‘Spring of Guyana’ published if I did not refuse to change it to please the editor. Even in Holland I am now in trouble because I did make some changes in the book but refuse to do the changes which I thought were suggested only because the firm did not want to ‘offend’ the ruling class of British Guyana. (4.11.69 PB to JLR, NBB/1/9)
While success led to further work, it also at times compounded Breinburg’s sense of being pigeonholed as a black writer, as shown in the frustrated tone of this letter:
Since my little publicity on the Sean books, editors etc have been phoning and asking for work. I since have had a number of little school stories accepted. And someone who does school play-script wrote to me yesterday. I think she wants to do a collection of short plays for primary schools. Of course, my adults work is being (still) rejected because for these editor wants books ‘Putting across a racial message’. They say that it’s white people who buy books and white people like to read about black people having a rough time in Britain – Emotional sadism? Anyhow, according to editors these books sell and it is these they are trying to restrict me to writing. (4.8.74 PB to JLR, LRA/01/0145)
The general, misconceived, expectation that “it’s white people who buy books and white people who like to read” is echoed by others who were active in the British literary marketplace in this period (Interviews with Margaret Busby and the Huntleys). Such assessments inhibited the growth of black literature within mainstream publishers’ lists, encouraging instead the development of an autonomous publishing space for both production and distribution.
The file also contains correspondence surrounding Breinburg’s story, “Us Boys of Westcroft”, which attracted criticism in the right-wing press for its depiction of interracial violence in East London and rural settings. An article from The Telegraph described how the story had been withdrawn from a fourth form class in Derby by the school head because of its “bad language and content” (10.11.77, LRA/01/0145). The reception of literary representations of race in British schools in the 1970s was extremely limited. This example suggests that such books faced discriminatory criteria of judgement concerning language, style, and morality. Such moral concerns over social norms were not restricted to writing by black writers, following the well-publicised obscenity trial that surrounding Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960. Yet on this occasion the proposed contrast was made explicit by a local Conservative MP: “They would be better off reading ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover – at least that is literature” (Telegraph article 10.11.77, LRA/01/0145). Yet again Breinburg found herself categorised as a writer on racial issues, rather than the broader social issues, neglect and “deprivation of all kinds” she was confronted with in her work as a teacher (PB to JLR, 13.5.78, LRA/01/0145).

Further reading

Breinburg, Petronella. My Brother Sean. London: Red Fox, 1995 (1973).