Meeting Dominica and Phyllis Shand Allfrey for the first time. 

Forty years ago last month I first visited Dominica – in my capacity as a journalist – to interview writer and politician Phyllis Shand Allfrey (and Prime Minister Eugenia Charles) for a UK newspaper. Indirectly, that visit led to the creation of Papillote Press and the publication of three titles by Phyllis: her one published novel, The Orchid House; It Falls into Place (short stories), and her poems, Love for an Island. She was, I felt, extra pleased to see me because I had come to interview her – about her life and writing – rather than quiz her on her relationship with her fellow Dominican writer, Jean Rhys.

On my first day in Dominica I set out to walk from Roseau (I was staying at the Continental Inn) to Copt Hall where Phyllis lived in the “Old Mill House”, a tiny stone building with a pool outside the front door and a stream running beside it. There were few houses in Bath Estate and even fewer in Copt Hall. The ground was strewn with the pink flowers of the coralita vine.

I had wanted to meet Phyllis because The Orchid House, first published in 1953, had just been re-issued by the feminist publisher Virago Press. There was something intriguing about this white Dominican whose novel ‘predicted’ the creation of a political party that she herself would lead: for her key characters Joan, the rebel daughter of troubled parents (unmistakably Phyllis) and Baptiste, the son of the family cook, scheme the formation of a political party in support of the poor and landless. And so it came to pass that, in 1955, on the steps of the Trade Union building in Roseau, the Dominica Labour Party was founded by Phyllis and Emmanuel LoBlack, a trade unionist.

She had learned her politics in England – at the feet of the Fabian Socialists of the inter-war period – and knew a thing or two about rallying support from the grassroots and her moral compass focused on serving the needs of others and defiance of the established order. She was also brave: having been expelled from the Dominica Labour Party after her return from serving in the Federation of the West Indies in Trinidad in 1961 – she became a journalist, editing two Dominican newspapers as a way of having a voice albeit outside politics. Years later I learned that many young Dominicans had had their first poems and short stories published in her newspaper The Star and that others had learned about politics from delivering the newspaper to their communities.

I will always treasure that meeting with Phyllis. And so, 20 years after that first visit to Dominica, I published Phyllis’ short stories, It Falls into Place, as a tribute to the woman who first brought me to her island home. This would be followed by Love for an Island (2014), with an introduction by her biographer, Lisa Paravasini-Gebert), and a new edition of The Orchid House (2015), with an introduction by the Dominican academic Schuyler Esprit.

This is the original cover for the Orchid House, Published by Constable, London, 1953

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The first of the Virago covers, published in 1982

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The second of the Virago covers was redone in 1990 in line with the Channel 4 TV / Picture Palace Productions miniseries on the Orchid House. It was directed by Horace Ové and featured Madge Sinclair, Diana Quick, Elizabeth Hurley, Nigel Terry, Kate Buffery, and Frances Barber.

Book cover for The Orchid House, Papillote Press, Dominica
The current cover for the Orchid House. with an introduction by Dominican scholar Dr Schuyler Esprit. Published by Papillote Press, 2016.