On a warm, spring Easter Day afternoon, I visited the offices of Black Rose Books to speak with the members of the collective – Dimitrios Roussopoulos, Nathan McDonnell, Clara-Swan Kennedy, and Dan G. Reid – about the past, present, and future of this Montreal literary institution.
Su J Sokol: You’ve been around now for fifty years and have published over 500 books. Can you tell us how Black Rose Books got started?
Dimitrios Roussopoulos: I was a prominent activist in the 1960s, and because of this, I was invited by a major Toronto publisher to write a book on the New Left. As happens more often than not with major publishers, the editing part took forever. I was extremely impatient, because I wanted to get on the road to do organizing work across the country. A group of friends said, “Listen, why wait, let’s put out the book ourselves.” So in late 1968, we began [talking about] creating a publishing company that could publish [mine] as a first book. At that time, a very renowned radical ecologist – Murray Bookchin – was in Montreal, and he participated in our discussions about founding this non-profit company. He proposed the name of Black Rose Books.
To make a long story short, we published this first book. If you find a copy, it looks pretty unsatisfactory in terms of design and so on, but it came out, and we sold six or seven thousand copies, which in Canada then and now is considered a bestseller. We just mailed flyers out to bookstores. This was before the internet revolution.
SJS: What was the idea behind the publishing company?
DR: First of all, we wanted to articulate the very best ideas that were at the heart of the radical youth movement of the sixties: participatory democracy and community organizing.
The second part of the mission statement was to publish the best radical analysis of Canadian society and to also see what other research about industrially advanced capitalist societies could be published to help us understand what we could do in Canada to change our society.
A third component of our mission statement was to publish the forgotten democratic and libertarian literature that had been suppressed on the left because of the domination of social democracy on the one hand, and Marxism-Leninism on the other. And that tradition is the libertarian socialist tradition, which includes anarchism. So those were the three components of our mission as we set up to “conquer the world of radical publishing.”
SJS: Can you explain the origin of the name “Black Rose Books”?
Clara-Swan Kennedy: You can find the legend of the black rose, as related by Murray Bookchin, in the overleaf of some of our earliest books. It reads as follows: “The black rose was used as a symbol for freedom during the many peasant uprisings in the Middle Ages. The black rose does not exist in nature, and the anti-authoritarian peasant rebels symbolized their pursuit of it in much the same way as the Christians pursued the Holy Grail. Mankind has yet to find freedom, and when we do, we will have found the beautiful Black Rose…”
In the last couple of years, a black rose has been found, not in nature, but in the Bakur region of Kurdistan. They’ve managed to cultivate black roses, which they grow in coffee cans.
DR: But I’ve seen images, and they’re not black.
CSK: No, they’re very dark purple.
SJS: What draws you to publishing non-fiction as opposed to fiction?
Dan G. Reid: Fiction is often like the sugar that helps the medicine go down, but sometimes the bitter medicine is more effective.
CSK: The media is so unreliable these days. Having a volume about, for instance, free public transit […] I mention free public transit because we published one of the only books on the subject, though lots of people, lots of pundits, have had things to say about it in the news or in opinion columns over the years. In Free Public Transit: And Why We Don’t Pay to Ride Elevators, we get a compendium of facts that are actually backed up by research, and being able to get that research out there – on any of the topics we publish – is really important.
SJS: You have published books about political struggles all over the world and are internationally known. I am interested in hearing, though, about some of the books you’ve published about local issues.
DR: First of all, Black Rose Books became renowned for publishing translations of the best Francophone Québécois non-fiction writers, and the manifestos of the trade union movement, the FTQ [Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec], and the CSN [Confédération des syndicats nationaux], during the turbulent ’80s. So we brought to the attention of the Anglophone world – Canadian and American, if not internationally – what was happening in Quebec. We tried to overcome the language barrier, and say, “Look, something significant is happening here,” which was a very unique thing [to do] at the time, as a publisher.
Nathan McDonnell: Also, our publishing has always had a strong theme of urbanism, so as part of that, we’ve got some books here that are specifically about urban issues in Montreal. For example, there is this one published in the late ’90s: People, Potholes and City Politics, which basically looks at how politics work in Montreal. In the last two years, we’ve published two other books that look at Montreal, including the recent Villages in Cities: Community Land Ownership, Cooperative Housing, and The Milton Park Story.
CSK: We also, very early on, published an important book about something that was in the news again this year. It was about racism in Canada and the Sir George Williams affair that happened fifty years ago. We were the publisher of one of the most important recountings of that event.
DGR: It’s basically a Canadian Black manifesto, and the manifesto of the people who were involved in that protest at Sir George Williams and it […] also tells the story of the West Indian population in Montreal.
CSK: This is a specific episode in Montreal history that’s an important one not to be forgotten. This book has been out of print for a very long time and the academics who were involved in the conference at Concordia this year in commemoration of that event were excited to see it coming back. We’re hoping to have some course adoptions at universities across Canada with this book.
SJS: Black Rose Books is a not-for-profit. How does that affect your publishing project?
DR: It has not affected the quality or quantity of what we have done over the past fifty years, but it has taken a tremendous amount of self-sacrifice.
CSK: We publish books so that we can help our communities organize, so this is part of the mission […] and not having a profit motive allows us to spend our time and energy in that way. All the profits go back into the project and into helping our communities thrive.
SJS: If you could choose a subject for a book that you would really like to publish if someone would write the book, what would it be?
DGR: A term that keeps coming to my mind is eco-futurism, investing in ecologically sound technology. This means developing a society from the ground up with directly democratic institutions that also put our technological creativity towards an ecological society that benefits everybody in the world. I think that’s the only way we can go forward, because right now we’re up against a wall. We have to stop pushing at that wall; we have to go in another direction.
CSK: Since working here, I’ve learned a lot more about the Kurdish movement. One of the things that excited me the most was what the Kurds call “Jineoloji,” literally “women’s science” in Kurdish. It’s the basis upon which they built their revolution in Kurdistan. It goes way beyond feminism; in fact, feminism is just a subset of women’s science. They look at every discipline of science, building it anew from a woman’s perspective. It could offer us some solutions to problems that women face despite one hundred years of feminist or women’s movement organizing, and maybe we could gain more from a decolonial perspective. There is no book in English right now that describes this important movement in Kurdistan.
NM: I think a very important and interesting book would be one by Indigenous activists that critiques the mainstream reconciliation movement in Canada, which I find is very co-opted by liberalism.
DR: A book that I would like to forecast into the future is about Red Vienna, 1918-1934. This “Red Vienna” elected a left-wing municipal government that did some of the most extraordinary things, in housing especially, for the working people of the city, for social services, for public transportation, for economic security. I would like to have such a book published because people who are working on the ground in these areas and in important cities on urbanism are looking for models, in the past as well as in the present.
SJS: Any final thoughts?
DR: Being around and celebrating your fiftieth anniversary is not a small feat in a society dominated by market capitalism and a book market that is completely controlled in this country by foreign (U.S. and U.K.) publishers –
NM (laughing): You see, we’re a nationalist publisher.
DR: And in spite of all of that, and in spite of the prejudices of the review media against dealing with serious non-fiction, and on and on and on, we are here and I think we are doing as best as could be expected under the circumstances. And proud of it. We’re the David to the Goliath of the industry.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. mRb