BY THE early 1950s there was a burgeoning group of Caribbean writers living and working in London: among them the novelists George Lamming of Barbados; Andrew Salkey of Jamaica; Edgar Mitelholtzer of Guyana; and V.S. Naipaul of Trinidad. Lamming's first novel, In the Castle of My Skin, was published when he was 27, soon after he had arrived in London. His novel showed promise and was rooted in Caribbean life. But when Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir told him he was an existentialist writer, Lamming's later novels pursued this philosophy, alienating both Caribbean critics and his Caribbean reading public.

In 1958 V.S. Naipaul outlined the complex situation of the Caribbean writer in an article published in The Times Literary Supplement. He wrote that his then three published novels (which had earned him $525 in five years) were misunderstood and ridiculed by British literary critics. He outlined three ways in which liberation could be sought from the limiting definition of regional-foreign writer: the use of sex, racial conflict, and situating the principal characters, Euro-American, in the Caribbean. Naipaul dismissed all three options, but after 15 years he emerged with two novels, A Bend in the River and Guerrillas, the former set in Africa and the latter in the Caribbean, both using the rejected ingredients of 1958.

A Complex Situation

THE EXAMPLES dramatize the complex situation in which the Caribbean writer living in Britain finds himself: his subject-matter is non-British and so is the language of his characters. Unlike the Afro-American, who writes in a language peculiarly American, the Caribbean writer, who may be more directly connected to the British literary tradition, has used this tradition to express the condition of his characters in a Caribbean setting. Thus there is a double alienation for the Caribbean writer: His reading audience is primarily British, yet his characters are West Indian.

Because most Caribbean writers in the 1950s and early 1960s had a middle-class orientation and wrote primarily about the Caribbean, there was little difficulty in being published by mainstream publishers such as Victor Gollancz, Faber & Faber, Michael Joseph and, later, Penguin. By the late 1960s, however, there were a number of younger Caribbean writers who had experienced the era of increased black consciousness and were writing in different tones about their lives in Britain. They were primarily from the Caribbean working class, and expressed this experience in a use of language, character and point of view that was in distinct opposition to that expressed by middle-class writers. These writers had a more difficult time finding acceptance by mainstream presses.

In 1966 John La Rose and his wife, Sarah White, started New Beacon bookshop in their living room, later bought a house and began a larger bookshop on the ground floor and inaugurated the New Beacon imprint. Most of their early books were reprints and concentrated on academic poets (the Jamaicans Mervyn Morris and Dennis Scott) and better-known writers such as Wilson Harris of Guyana, who had been touted by the British press and admirers such as Anthony Burgess.

Over the last three years New Beacon has begun to publish young black writers based in Britain and the Caribbean, and is soon to publish Heartease, Jamaican Lorna Goodison's follow-up to her Commonwealth Poetry Prize winner of 1986, I Am Becoming My Mother. Among other publications due this year is the second novel by Jamaican writer Erna Brodber, Myal (a word that means African magical arts used for good). Brodber's first novel was Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home, an exploration of a woman's attempt to come to terms with her sexuality, within a colonial society characterized by its striving for colonial respectability. New Beacon usually does a first edition of 2,000 to 3,000 copies, which is standard in Britain for new novelists, even among major publishing houses.

In addition to running New Beacon, La Rose and White, in conjunction with four other publishers, hold the annual Book Fair of Radical Black & Third World Books. Now in its seventh year, the fair has become a gathering of about 150 publishers from Africa, Europe, America, the Caribbean and Britain.

"Over the years," said White, "there has been a tremendous development in black publishing, and the Book Fair actually brings together a wide variety of people -- librarians, booksellers, teachers, writers, etc. The forum {lectures by writers like Amiri Baraka, Edward Brathwaite and Ngugi Wa Thiong'o} is a focal point and the international participation is important."

A Proliferation of Presses

SINCE New Beacon started there have been a number of other black presses, among them Bogle-L'Ouverture (which takes its name from the Jamaican national hero Paul Bogle and from the Haitian Toussaint L'Ouverture) whose biggest success was with the publication of the late Guyanese author Walter Rodney's How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. The firm also developed an active poetry list and publishes the well-known Jamaican dub poet, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and some lesser-known poets. Dub is poetry that is meant to be spoken, similar to American rap music. In existence since 1969, Bogle-L'Ouverture now publishes about three or four titles a year.

Karnak House, another small publisher, for whom I serve as a director, started as a cultural organization in 1975 and began publishing four years later. In 1983 Karnak House published Grace Nichols' I is a long memoried woman, which won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize that year, and made Karnak House the first Britain-based black publisher to win the prize. Last year, Marc Matthew's Guyana, My Altar, also published by Karnak House, won the Guyanese Poetry Prize.

Despite the seeming proliferation of small houses devoted to publication of black literature, many feel financial constraints.

"Our major problem is capital," says Buzz Johnson of Karia Press. "Distribution wouldn't be a problem if capital was available. This has forced us to be flexible. We cannot commit ourselves to definite targets. There are financial, personnel, space and other problems which make it necesary for us to adopt a flexible position."

What compounds the situation for these publishers is what they perceive as their inability to get media attention. Black writers published by black and small presses do not, as a rule, get reviewed, and now neither New Beacon nor Karia Press sends review copies. Distribution has always been a main problem as well, not only for black publishers, but for independent white ones. Recently, the black-owned Bladestock Distribution went into liquidation; it was followed by a major distributor of independent presses, whose annual gross income had been more than $24 million. Allison & Busby, a mainstream publisher co-owned by Margaret Busby, a black woman, also fell, then was quickly bought out from the receivers by multi-millionaire record tycoon Richard Branson's W.H. Allen publishers.

Writers and Their Work

GIVEN THE fragile nature of independent publishing, how do the writers and poets living in London see their own situation? Marc Matthews came to Britain in 1959 with few expectations, except to continue writing, which he had begun to do in Guyana when he was 12. He was, however, well-versed in European and American writing.

"My father had a big library, so I read Blake, Shelley, Browning, Hemingway, etc.," he said. "I also read Frank Yerby, who I didn't know, at the time, was a black man. His characters were not the classical European types because they were always kind of misfits. Yerby's storytelling was impressive. I had also read in Guyana Khalil Gibran, Omar Khayya'm, and {Rabindranath} Tagore, who had more influence on me in terms of language, etc., than the European and American writers. But my first writing in Britain was a response to Britain."

Matthews' Guyana, My Altar, his first book of poetry, contains some of these early responses. In the poem "Pilot," there is the story of a man waiting for a friend in a pub. The friend doesn't turn up and the man instead gets a dose of "a bad day," and memory:

I think of Guiana

I look for Guiana & find

night workers making the

day

I try to think of Guiana

Throughout the poem, there is an emotional detachment from the environment that is observed in the poet's sense of description. For him, Britain becomes a dream, and the images of his reality peep out from that dream. The more concrete experience for the poet is the memory of Guyana.

While Matthews' poetic vision of Britain and his responses reflect a personal approach, the Trinidadian Faustin Charles, author of The Black Magic Man of Brixton, a children's book about an old man with magical powers who takes a group of children to the Caribbean, holds a more materialist vision of his relationship to this island. A wiry, intense man, Charles said, "I suppose living in Britain makes me see that the people I live with here -- the British -- are the colonizers of Trinidad and the Caribbean. And this has forced me to recognize a difference in spirit. Caribbean people are stronger, not in the physical sense, but in terms of spirit. And this has made me much more spiritually strong -- a better man and a better writer."

His novel, he said, was written in response to what he saw as the threat of British cultural socialization of black children.

"The idea behind the novel," he said, "is that although you are here, you keep your Caribbean experience with you. It's not just like the turtle carrying a house on its back -- but that your house can travel with you in spirit. It's deeper than eating your saltfish or playing cricket; it's something about spiritual sustenance which is the conscious renewal of the spirit. Then it can't go away. Not, as John Herne has said, 'A romantic thrill of being African,' but a deeper, more profound appreciation of who and what you are."

This concern for the continuity of Caribbean culture in a new environment is a concern for many black writers working in Britain. This does not necessarily mean that cultural continuity implies conscious copying, but a renewal of tradition -- a changing same.

Whatever the problems that have confronted the black press in London, it has injected into the mainstream an imaginative and dramatic body of diverse literature. Mainstream publishers now seem to do more publishing of black writers, and black American writers such as Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker all have been on the best-seller list. Perhaps, then, indigenous black publishers have stirred the imagination of the mainstream and created an atmosphere, through conferences, forums, book fairs, etc., in which the black writer can be seen as an economic asset to a previously flagging British publishing industry. Amon Saba Saakana's latest book is "The Colonial Legacy in Caribbean Literature."