Bitter Eden

A Book's Long Journey From Rejection to Acclaim

 

By Stephen Morrison

A publisher remembers his grandmother when he finally publishes a special book

 

When she was in her 60s, my grandmother Mimi (Mary C. Morrison), who'd always written for herself, began to write a column for a religious magazine, and then she started writing books for religious and scholarly publishers. When I came to know her in her 80s, she'd written a pamphlet on aging for the Quaker center where she taught; it sold well in the Philadelphia suburbs where she lived.

 

When I was in my 20s and new to publishing, I, humorously, literally 'sold' my grandmother, finding her a wonderful agent in Liv Blumer, who placed an expanded version of the pamphlet with Doubleday, where it was published under the title Let Evening Come (from the Jane Kenyon poem) when Mimi was 89. Soon she was giving talks, and even flying out to San Francisco to promote the book. The late-life acclaim was thrilling for her, and being involved in the publication of   an actual book was thrilling for me.

 

Mimi had also, in her 60s, taught herself ancient Greek. One of her favorite pairings of words was chronos (clock time) and kairos (the 'right' time). Let Evening Come's publication was an expression of kairos. I didn't fully understand the concept then, but with Picador publishing the autobiographical novel Bitter Eden by South African poet Tamakhulu Afrika, set in WWII POW camps, chronos and kairos have been on my mind.

 

I first read Bitter Eden in 2002. I was wowed by the way it charts the intense emotional interactions between a group of prisoners; at root, it's a love story, but I was unsure how to publish it. The author had a difficult-to-pronounce name and was then in his 80s, and the book had strong homoerotic themes. Not an easy sell. For perspective, Brokeback Mountain wasn't released as a film until 2005, and even then it seemed daring. I wrote an impassioned rejection email to the book's fiercely loyal agent, Isobel Dixon.

 

Then I moved jobs and forgot about the book, though I carried it with me to my new job. A few years later, I emailed Isobel to follow up, only to discover sadly that a month after I had turned the book down, Africa was hit by a car and died. The book had been published in the U.K. to glowing reviews.

 

Afrika was a figure of mystery and inspiration: the child of an Egyptian father and a Turkish mother, he was orphaned at age three; raised by a Christian family in South Africa; wrote a novel before turning 20 (accepted for publication in the U.K., but the manuscript was destroyed in a WWII bombing on the eve of publication); fought in North Africa; was imprisoned in POW camps; converted to Islam; and was again imprisoned during the fight against apartheid. He became an acclaimed poet in his 60s and wrought Bitter Eden in his 70s, based on his experiences as a young man.

 

I hemmed and hawed, and Bitter Eden went back into a box as I moved jobs again, coming to rest at Picador. Last winter I tackled a chore that I'd put off for years: cleaning out boxes in the basement that I'd carted from job to job, from living space to living space. The basement had just missed flooding from Hurricane Sandy, so I figured I'd best get to it before a future flood washed it all away. In one of the boxes, I found the original U.K. edition of Bitter Eden.

 

Maybe now the time was right. I wrote to Isobel to make an offer; she sent me my 'personally passionate, professionally cautious' 10-year-old rejection email and told me that Afrika had read it before he died, pleased, despite the rejection. I found that comforting. And so, finally, in March, Bitter Eden was published in the U.S. in Picador's newly resurrected hardcover program; and with blurbs from Andre Aciman and Elizabeth Gilbert, the book is inexorably finding admirers, along with some wonderful reviews. Whether the book will resonate with a few or many readers, I still have no idea. What I do know is that publishing Bitter Eden feels like a manifestation of kairos; while I regret that I didn’t publish it while the author was still alive, it feels very much like the right time.

 

Originally published in Publisher’s Weekly, 21 March 2014. Reproduced by kind permission of the author.