When Jalada Africa’s second anthology, Sext Me, came out last year, I shared on my Facebook Timeline Linda Musita’s poem whose title is an explicit sheng word for intimacy.
The comments section came alive with varied reactions, most of which bordered on shock, disbelief, and in some instances, disgust. One thing was certain though, Jalada was on to something interestingly different.
During the 2013 Kwani?/Granta writing workshop organised at the British Council, the attendants noticed an imbalance weighing against genre fiction in the region.
Publishers were either not scouting for diversity of stories out there or were receiving them but not publishing them.
So Jalada emerged as a panacea to this literary infirmity.
I spoke to three members of the group: Richard Oduku, Mehul Gohil and managing editor Moses Kilolo, to try and unpack Jalada in a quest to find out what it is really all about. Jalada means “archive” in Kiswahili, explains Oduku, but in this context, “it’s an archive of stories.”
On the website, Jalada describes itself as pan-African; that it seeks to publish African writers. So one wonders whether there is space for writers who aren’t African; which again takes us back to this brouhaha that has caused headache in the African literature scene — the definition of an “African writer.”
According to Kilolo, Jalada was formed to offer African writers from everywhere the chance to better their writing as they work with other African writers.
Pan-African, therefore, means the chance for all African writers to connect and work together on projects that would not only better their writing, but make connections that would result in a kind of support system.
African writers from anywhere in the world are welcome to participate in the different projects undertaken by Jalada.
He says: “Writers from elsewhere already have too many forums to participate in. Jalada therefore focuses its resources and energies on writers of African origin, regardless of where they are in the world. To us, what is important is the universality of the human experience, and the individual stories that people are willing to tell.”
And no, he says, Jalada is not a child, a partner or (God forbid) competition to Kwani Trust, which is a commonly held misconception. Jalada was formed at a workshop organised by Kwani?
They have a formal partnership with Kwani?, which, among other things, “includes discussions on the forthcoming publication of the print editions for our online anthologies. The group felt the need to branch out by themselves because of the new generation they represent.”
“A new generation means a new collective for better expression,” adds Mehul. “It also allows us more freedom in terms of the creative direction we want to take.”
This does not mean that they do not appreciate, and indeed have not received great support from Kwani? “It would be foolhardy to walk into a stranger’s house with a set of rules and try to force the owner of the house to begin living according to your rules. But we do believe we need more and diverse outlets,” says Oduku.
After Sext Me came Afrofutures — an anthology of sci-fi stories that explores what Africa could potentially be in a future we don’t quite yet know.
Mehul was responsible for the idea and quite insistent about it — although to date, he has not handed in his submission.
Speaking of submissions, the famed Binyavanga Wainaina’s "Boonoonoonoos" is not the most futuristic story in itself.
If anything, it sounds like it is set in the past. According to Kilolo, though, Jalada publications are always loosely centred on a theme, but writers are not constrained by it to a point that they do not tell their stories as they want to tell them.
He admits that some stories were not necessarily futuristic, but they contained a universality of the human condition that was true 30 years ago, and will remain true 100 years from now.
“Boonoonoonoos plays with alternative sexuality and makes it sound commonplace in the African setting. Perhaps that it is Afro-futurish — the shape of things to come?”— is Mehul’s best guess.
With this recent anthology, Jalada has been garnering a reputation for sticking to unconventional genres of literature.
“Only for the conservatives on the African-lit scene,” asserts Mehul. “The world has really moved on. If you take a look at say America and India, the contemporary writers there are working on far more radical fictional ideas and genres.”
Mehul continues by saying: “We need to move African fiction into areas where there is more freedom of imagination.
Afrofuture is one such landscape. Anything goes here. Ngugi talks about ‘decolonising the mind’, and so on. Now, if you look at his own works and the works of his contemporaries, most of it was white guy rehash of fiction techniques, forms and so on.”
To him, it seemed that time of the past was simply stuffed with writers who were colonised in their minds. “Now we have a whole new generation of writers: decolonised in the mind and decolonised politically and geographically. They need genres and literary landscapes that can accommodate their decolonised minds.” Strong words indeed.
A keen observation of the people in Jalada also reveals singular successes. Individually, Jaladans have done well for themselves this past year. A good number have featured in Africa39. Ndinda Kioko received the Miles Morland Scholarship, Okwiri Oduor brought home the Caine Prize and Clifton Gachagua bagged the inaugural Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets.
But what do individual successes mean for Jalada? Does it take any credit for them?
“We take pride in them. To have all these prize-winning authors as members of Jalada serves as an inspiration to the rest of the team,’ says Kilolo.
But pride does not pay bills. Jalada, at the moment, is almost penniless. As a result, unintentional delays are inevitable, and thus a quarterly anthology, as was the original plan, is near impossible — regardless of the fact that Jalada is published digitally. “Digital publishing has increasingly become very popular.
Eventually, we are thinking of print editions that would make some returns and allow us to reward the efforts of all those involved,” assures Kilolo.
In spite of financial strain, Jalada recently introduced a Jalada Prize to create even more spaces for Africans. Recognising the effort of all African writers committed to reimagining the continent in fresh and interesting ways ensures more growth in African literature.
And the winners of the Jalada Prize for Literature were announced last Tuesday and each of the winners will receive cash prizes courtesy of Kwani Trust, and will be invited to the 2015 Storymoja festival in September.
Where Pumpkin Leaves Dwell by Ugandan writer Lillian Akampurira Aujo was the winning story, followed by Discovering Time Travel by Suleiman Agbonkhianmen Buhari from Nigeria.
"Last Wave" by Zimbabwean writer Ivor W. Hartmann ranked third. Of note is that "Last Wave" has since been translated to Kiswahili as "Mawimbi Ya Mwisho" by Caine Prize 2014 laureate Okwiri Oduor.
Okwudili Nebeolisa won the poetry category with the line “water becomes silk becomes fumes curdling” from the poem "Mermaid".
With the fast pace that Jalada Africa is growing, receiving critical acclaim within and without the country, one might wonder whether there is a place for a Jalada Workshop/Lit Festival.
Oduku is cautiously optimistic about that.
He says: “We are still growing. We will get there in due time. Baby steps.”
The writer blogs at www.magunga.com