2024 Bocas Swanzy Award honours Arif Ali, founder of Hansib Publications

Honouring his role in preserving generations of Caribbean culture, thought, and art in print, the Guyana-born, UK-based Arif Ali, founder of Hansib Publications, has been named  the recipient of the 2024 Bocas Henry Swanzy Award for Distinguished Service to Caribbean Letters.

Founded in 2013, the Bocas Henry Swanzy Award is named for Anglo-Irish BBC producer Henry Swanzy, whose tenure at the Caribbean Voices radio programme from 1946 to 1954 was transformative for West Indian writers of the time. Following in the footsteps of Jamaican Una Marson, the first Caribbean Voices editor, Swanzy played a crucial role in promoting Caribbean writing to regional and international audiences at the start of the postwar publishing boom.

Created by the Bocas Lit Fest in Swanzy’s memory, this award celebrates the contributions of editors, broadcasters, publishers, critics, and others who have devoted their careers to developing Caribbean literature. These champions of Caribbean letters often worked behind the scenes and without fanfare. Bocas Henry Swanzy Awardees are chosen by the festival’s organising committee and honoured annually at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest.

Arif Ali, the 2024 awardee, entered the arena of publishing without any formal training. The world of 1950s England, which Ali faced as a migrant from then–British Guiana, did not predispose itself to the basic circulation, far less adulation, of West Indian stories. Ali, who sold his greengrocer’s shop in north London to fund the creation of Hansib Publications, stood against the careless and wilful erasure of Caribbean perspectives. At Hansib, he vowed, such stories would not only be afforded space, they would be allowed to shine.

Born in the village of Danielstown in British Guiana in 1935, Ali arrived in London in 1957 intending to launch his studies in economics. Marriage and other practical pathways presented themselves before the publishing bug bit. Ali used a Gestetner printing machine to reproduce articles from the various Caribbean newspapers he brought into his greengrocer’s shop. This hands-on, frugal venture, which he dubbed The Westindian, sparked into a success, spurring him on to found Hansib Publications in 1970, which he named for his parents Haniff and Sibby. Ali’s acumen as a newspaper producer grew, with his 1971 launch of The Westindian Digest, a weekly paper.

Hansib’s first book publication, Westindians in Britain (1973), was edited by Ali himself. It functioned as a “Who’s Who” of the migrant communities whose efforts and achievements received little to no fanfare elsewhere. The publication proved so popular that several editions were issued, up to a fifth collection in 1982. As decades progressed, Hansib’s attention turned more and more to full-length book publication in every conceivable genre.

The publishing house’s cadre of authors includes Guyanese and Caribbean luminaries Frank Birbalsingh, Brinsley Samaroo, Patricia Mohammed, Ian McDonald, and Jan Carew, alongside younger accolade-earning talents such as Joanne C. Hillhouse and Anna Levi. Now over fifty years old and going strong, Hansib Publications boasts a catalogue of over 300 titles, and remains open for submissions.

Arif Ali, retired from the day-to-day business of his publishing house, remains indomitably at the centre of its mission: to make publishing accessible, educational, and within reach to Caribbean citizens at home and in the wider diaspora.

Ali and Hansib will be celebrated on Saturday 27 April as part of the 2024 NGC Bocas Lit Fest’s prize ceremony, and the award will be formally presented at a special event in London later this year.

The 2024 NGC Bocas Lit Fest runs from 25 to 28 April.

The National Gas Company of Trinidad and Tobago is title sponsor of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest; OCM, First Citizens, the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts, and the British Council are main sponsors; Massy Foundation, UWI, and the JB Fernandes Memorial Trust are sponsors.