THE HISTORY OF ANANSI
House of Anansi Press was founded in 1967 by two young men who were both graduates of the University of Toronto. David Godfrey and Dennis Lee were in their late twenties. Godfrey had been away from Canada for a while, having done graduate degrees in the U.S., and then taught in Ghana for two years before returning home. He had been writing stories, which were being published in Canadian literary journals. He was invited to be a part of the annual anthology The Best American Stories but declined the offer unless the publisher agreed to change the title to The Best American and Canadian Stories. The publisher refused.
At U of T Godfrey was distressed to find that Canadian literature was taught as the end-of-term adjunct to the American literature course. And when trawling the shelves of the U of T bookstore, he realized that Canadians had authored less than 2 percent of books on those shelves. At the time, U.K. branch plant publishers dominated the market; the only all-Canadian house of any size was McClelland & Stewart, which acted as the Canadian distribution partner for Little Brown & Company out of Boston.
Godfrey shared his distress with his pal Dennis Lee, who was then teaching at Victoria College. Lee was also writing poetry. He showed his poems to Godfrey, who declared upon reading them that they needed to be published but that no publisher in town would take on this avant-garde work! And so in the spirit of youthful enthusiasm fuelled by the nationalism of the day — remember, 1967 was the 100th anniversary of Confederation! — they founded their own publishing house. It was a place where they could publish their work and the work of their friends.
Dennis Lee’s Kingdom of Absence was the first book that Godfrey and Lee published in the spring of 1967 under the new imprint, complete with a snappy new logo:
We’re always asked where the idea behind the name “Anansi” came from. When travelling in Ghana, Godfrey learned about Anansi, the spider God, who created the world and then proceeded to play tricks on humans. And the first trick the spider god played appeared on the first run of 300 copies of Lee’s book: the name of the press was spelled wrong — with an “e” (Ananse) instead of an “i”! And then there was the issue of the stylized spider logo — designed with only six legs! Spiders, of course, have eight legs. When asked why there were only six, the designer replied the other two were up its ass! Bold and irreverent seemed to be the mood of the founders.
The biggest issue they faced was that they had no money to keep the press going. How would they publish their next book?
By 1967, the Canada Council for the Arts had been in existence for ten years. It had been funding performing and visual arts, but it was interested in expanding its program to help encourage outlets for Canadian writing. It was open to funding publishing. David and Dennis assembled a list of four books and a rudimentary budget and went off to Ottawa and applied for funds. And they were successful. This contribution from the Canadian taxpayer augmented Anansi’s start-up capital to a whopping $2,500. But they were back in business. With these funds they were able to publish four books: Death Goes Better with Coca Cola by David Godfrey, a reissue of Kingdom of Absence by Dennis Lee (with the publisher’s name spelled correctly), George Jonas’s collection of poetry The Absolute Smile, and last but not least The Circle Game by Dennis’s friend, the one and only Margaret Atwood. From this modest beginning, an independent Canadian publishing house was born. Godfrey and Lee had as their guiding conviction the idea that Canadians needed to see themselves and their times reflected in their literature. They perceived a void in the literary market place and Anansi was there to fill it.
The next major publication was the Manual to Draft Age Immigrants to Canada, which was brought to the house by David. The book had eighteen printings and more than 100,000 copies were sold! This was the late sixties, during the height of the Vietnam War. This bestselling pamphlet brought much-needed cash to the enterprise, which was being run out of the furnace room of David and Ellen Godfrey’s house beside the Wing On Funeral Chapel on Spadina Avenue. It also brought a lot of media attention. Maclean’s compared the location to “a bunker in the siege of Stalingrad,” and went on to say: “Here, guerillas of the new writing plot daring forays. Here, at dawn, a young novelist rolls up his sleeping bag from the concrete floor of the furnace room and shouts that at last he understands his central character.”
The media attention the book generated was not limited to Canada but also spread south of the boarder. The book was being imported into the U.S. at a great rate by potential draft dodgers who were seeking handy tips on how to reside in the nation to the north.
Meanwhile, Dennis was acquiring fiction of a more experimental nature, books that were in opposition to what he saw as the “barrenness of fiction in Canada — a fiction that was wedded to mainstream realism.”
A number of these works were impressive debuts: Five Legs by Graeme Gibson, Matt Cohen’s Korsoniloff, Marian Engel’s second novel The Honeyman Festival, and perhaps most significant of all, Michael Ondaatje’s prose and poetry fusion, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. Novels from French Canada were also published by House of Anansi in English translation; the first of these was Roch Carrier’s La Guerre, Yes Sir!
Dennis believed that “to change the climate for Canadian fiction we needed to attract the best young writers, get them into print, find an audience, and let them get on with their next book.” What is truly fascinating is that in 1969, a mere two years after its founding, Anansi was responsible for publishing one-third of all the Canadian novels that year — which totalled only twenty-five titles.
By 1970, Margaret Atwood came on board to work at the press (she had edited Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid). She was then married to Jim Polk who also joined Anansi as an editor. It was at this time that Godfrey, wanting to pursue his own writing, went off to France on a sabbatical for a year. Ultimately, Dennis and David parted ways.
What was true then still holds true today: to make a publishing house work you need to invest more sweat equity than you’re going to see returned to you in profits. The huge amount of personal energy and his mostly volunteer staff put into the press would prove not to be sustainable over the long term.
In 1972, Dennis Lee’s last year with the press and exactly five years after first opening, Anansi was struggling to make ends meet (despite publishing Five Legs, La Guerre! Yes Sir!, Power Politics, and The Bush Garden in the preceding years). The year before, in 1971, the building where Anansi stored most of its books caught fire. Although the inventory wasn’t touched by the flames, much of it was damaged by the water used to fight the fire, and only a small portion of the recovery costs were covered by insurance.
Knowing the situation surrounding Anansi’s finances — coupled with Dave and Dennis’s desire to bring more Canadian literature into schools — Margaret Atwood decided to help by turning her notes about Canadian literature into a book. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature was considered to be the most startling work ever written about Canadian literature at the time, and it has since continued to be read and taught and shape the way Canadians look at themselves.
Thanks to Survival, Anansi survived. For the next seventeen years, the company, run with great enterprise and energy by Anne Wall and Jim Polk, carried on, publishing titles like Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje (1976), The Hockey Sweater and Other Stories by Roch Carrier (1979), and Basic Black with Pearls by Helen Weinzweig (1980).
In 1989, a year after Furious by Erin Mouré (1988) won the Governor-General’s Literary Award for Poetry, Anansi was sold to Jack Stoddart and General Publishing. While this meant a loss of independence, operating under a parent company was intended to provide more financial stability. Under Stoddart, Anansi published titles that included Like This by Leo McKay, Jr. (1995), These Festive Nights by Marie-Claire Blais (1997), Queen Rat by Lynn Crosbie (1998), This All Happened by Michael Winter (2000), and The Middle Stories by Sheila Heti (2001). But throughout this time, Stoddart was struggling financially and ended up filing for bankruptcy in 2002.
Thankfully, businessman and philanthropist Scott Griffin ended up buying Anansi, which restored the company’s independence.
In the spring of 2002, Anansi was comprised of three staff members. Martha Sharpe, Adrienne Leahey, and Matt Williams moved the company to a new office in Toronto’s garment district, saw Lisa Moore’s collection of short fiction Open make it onto that year’s Giller Prize shortlist, and won the Canadian Booksellers Association Small Publisher of the Year award. Bill Douglas refreshed Anansi’s logo to the now-iconic circular A, which is still in use to this day. Thirty years after Margaret Atwood published Survival, and after barely escaping the Stoddart bankruptcy, Anansi started hitting its stride.
Since 2003, Anansi has experienced significant growth under the direction of President and Publisher Sarah MacLachlan and the growing Anansi team. In the last thirteen years, the company has published The Big Why by Michael Winter, Alligator by Lisa Moore, The Outlander by Gil Adamson, the Scotiabank Giller Prize–winning story collection Hellgoing by Lynn Coady. Three Anansi poets have won the Griffin Poetry Prize: A. F. Moritz for The Sentinel, Karen Solie for Pigeon, and Ken Babstock for Methodist Hatchet. Peter Behrens’ debut novel, The Law of Dreams, won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, as did Patrick DeWitt’s international bestselling novel The Sisters Brothers. Debut novel DeNiro’s Game by Rawi Hage won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The accolades garnered by the press are almost too numerous to mention.
With no time to rest, Anansi started expanding its line of imprints, beginning with Spiderline and Anansi International (2011), A-List (2012), and then Astoria, Arachnide, and Anansi Digital (2013). In 2016, Anansi announced a new lifestyle imprint, Ambrosia.
Now, in our new office at 128 Sterling Road in our soon-to-be 50th year, House of Anansi Press continues to help shape the landscape of Canadian literature. Our mandate still remains the same: work by Canadian writers will find a home with us and a space on bookshelves from coast-to-coast.
We’ve survived for 50 years, and can’t wait for the next 50 years to come.