Jalada Africa So Far

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Originally published by The Sunday Nation Newspaper


When the Jalada Africa’s second anthology, Sext Me, came out last year, I shared Linda Musita’s Kudinyana on my Facebook Timeline. 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; that Jalada was on to something interestingly different.

During the 2013 Kwani?/Granta  writing workshop organized at The British Council, the attendants noticed an imbalance weighing against genre fiction in the region. Publishers either not scouting for the diversity of stories out there or receiving them but not publishing them – intentionally or otherwise.

So Jalada emerged as a panacea to this literary infirmity.

I spoke to three Jaladans (sounds like members of an army/cult, yes?): Richard Oduku, Mehul Gohil and the 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 Moses Kilolo, Jalada was formed in order to offer African writers from everywhere the chance to better their writing as they work with other African writers from the collective. 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 resource and energies on the writers of African origin, regardless of wherever 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, Jalada is not a child, a partner or (God forbid) competition to Kwani Trust, which is a commonly held misconception. Jalada was formed in at a workshop organized by Kwani Trust. 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 for our literature,’ acknowledges Oduku.

After the Sext Me came Afrofutures – an anthology of sci-fi stories that explores what Africa could potentially be in a future we don’t quit 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 Little Bit 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 centered 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 thirty years ago, and will remain true a hundred years from now.

Boonoonoonoos plays with alternative sexuality and makes it sound commonplace in our African setting. Perhaps that it 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 of these two countries are working on far more radical fictional ideas and genres when compared to us.

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 ‘decolonizing 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 me it seemed that time of the past was simply stuffed with writers who were colonized in their minds. Now we have a whole new generation of writers. Decolonized in the mind and decolonized politically and geographically. They need genres and literary landscapes that can accommodate their decolonized minds.’

Strong words indeed.

A keen observation of the individuals 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 broke. Surprising, donge? Well, being penniless has not been kind them, resulting in 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 announced a Jalada Prize to create even more spaces for African writers. Recognizing effort of all African writers committed to reimagining the continent in fresh and interesting ways ensures more growth in African literature. There are many prizes that already exist, as everyone knows, but the fact remains that any writer alive will be happy to win a literature prize, and especially if it comes with some money and other benefits that make the harsh writing environment a bit easier.

‘The problem is that we have an estimate of a million active writers in Africa, well, say about a thousand really serious writers, and about ten prizes of consequence each year. To write with winning a prize in mind is like to set oneself on a destruction path. Writers should write, concentrating only on the beauty of the art they create.’ Or at least, that is the ideal for Kilolo.

The most recent development by Jalada happened last Tuesday evening, when Jalada announced the winners of the inaugural Jalada Prize for Literature 2015. Each of the winners will receive cash prizes courtesy of Kwani? Trust, and be invited to the 2015 Storymoja Festival in September.

Where Pumpkin Leaves Dwell by Ugandan writer, Lillian Akampurira Aujo, was crowned as 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 the fact that Last Wave has since been translated to Swahili, Mawimbi Ya Mwisho, by Caine Prize 2014 laureate Okwiri Oduor.

In the Poetry category, the winner was Okwudili Nebeolisa’s line of poetry: ‘water becomes silk becomes fumes curdling’, from the poem Mermaid.

Sadly, and quite glaringly, despite Jalada being composed predominantly by Kenyan writers, no Kenyan name featured in the awards. But then again, I doubt nationality is a factor considered in rating Jalada stories.

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.’

Tell us something about Jalada Africa that people do not already know, I asked Kilolo in conclusion, to which he said, ‘Jalada is two years old.’

Oh please! Who didn’t know that?


Visit the Jalada Africa website for more exciting stories


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