Life begins at thirty for Honno

Life begins at thirty for Honno

This year one of the oldest independent women’s presses in the UK, Honno Welsh Women’s Press, celebrates its 30th anniversary. Spurred on by a dearth of women writers in the Welsh literary canon and inspired by women’s presses such as Virago, The Women’s Press, Onlywomen Publishing and feminist magazine Spare Rib, Honno was established in 1986 in a bid to promote creative writing by women with a connection to Wales, past and present, in both the Welsh and English languages.

The list was set up because its founders felt that male-dominated publishing houses in Wales discriminated against women writers. Rosanne Reeves, one of the founding members, says: “None of the publishing houses in Wales were particularly interested in promoting women’s literature or women writers, especially not in English. There was a tradition of publishing Welsh-language material by winners of competitions by the traditional presses, who would then pursue these particular authors. But the thought of going out to look for new female talent and female voices was not a priority.”

According to Honno co-founder Luned Meredith, this was best illustrated by the publication of an anthology of 20th-century Welsh poetry in 1987: Blodeugerdd o Farddoniaeth Gymraeg yr Ugeinfed Ganrif (Gomer Press). Of the 170 poets included, only six were women. Seeking to redress that imbalance, and to reclaim forgotten and overlooked female Welsh writers, in 2003 Honno published Welsh Women’s Poetry 1460–2001, an anthology collecting 70 key Welsh poets, writing in both Welsh and English.

An early Honno committee meeting. Photo: © Suzanne Greenslade

In order to raise the funds needed to start the publishing venture, the founders wrote to women across Wales explaining their aims. Within weeks more than 400 women had invested in the company, buying (non- refundable) shares at £5 each—many had donated more. The founders raised £4,000, which enabled them to set up as a company and publish Honno’s first two titles, one in Welsh: Buwch ar y Lein by Hafina Clwyd and an English- language title: An Autobiography of Elizabeth Davis, a Balaclava Nurse by Jane Williams.

“The first few years were a struggle,” Meredith says. “We met every month or so in different women’s homes; we had no office or equipment, so the work was carried out from our houses at our expense. But since most of our titles received publishing grants, we broke even. As luck would have it, very soon we discovered a bestseller by the author Carol-Ann Courtney, Morphine and Dolly Mixtures; paperback rights were sold and it was also made into a film, directed by Karl Francis.”

Despite the lack of an office, equipment or belief that the business should operate as a co-operative with a distinctly Welsh flavour, and a core ideology, one outlined by Janet Thomas (former Honno editor and a long-time member of the voluntary management committee): “To produce a feminist perspective; to give Welsh women writers an opportunity to see their work published; to get earlier, important but neglected writing by Welsh women back into print; and to provide employment in publishing for women in Wales.”

Honno's staff today. Picture: @ Maria Wyles

Thirty years on, the press has a permanent office in Aberystwyth, four part-time staff and it has published more than 100 books. According to Thomas, the press’ strength lies in its ability, due to its size, to be “flexible and innovative rather than formulaic”. She says: “The press is able to stay closer to its committed readership, identify new authors, and offer individual attention and encouragement, with the result that the readers and writers of Wales benefit.”

Looking forward and considering its position as one of the longest-established independent women’s presses in the UK, Honno is looking to boost its recognition factor by forging links between women’s publishers in the UK and beyond. It also hopes to “raise the profile of the incredible work women do within publishing and creative writing, for women writers of the past and the future”.