Twenty years on Wasafiri is one of the most stimulating and lively of UK literary journals and is unique in its approach to literary and cultural history, exploring a broad range of diasporic writing. Jonathan Barker and Wasafiri editor Susheila Nasti chew the fat over past successes and future triumphs.
JB Susheila, this year Wasafiri is 20 years old. You founded the magazine, I believe, in 1984. That is a long time in the life of an arts magazine and it also covers a formative period in literary and cultural history. What does the name Wasafiri mean?
SN The name in fact derives from Kiswahili (and is itself a hybrid of the Arabic word ‘safari’) suggesting the idea of travel. This name was chosen because many of those who created the literatures in which we were particularly interested – whatever their cultural origins, whether African, Caribbean, South Asian, Black-British or of other diasporic mixed backgrounds – have all in some sense been cultural travelers either through migration, transportation or else in the more metaphorical sense of seeking an imagined cultural ‘home’. Many of these writers have always negotiated questions of cultural difference and made important geographical and literary crossings, often straddling several traditions. We thought it important too to invest a non-English word with these kinds of meanings and to suggest a movement in process, a journey.
In a sense we were ‘naming’ for ourselves (long before the literary theorists really got on to it) a cultural phenomenon that has become increasingly prevalent in contemporary writing: the notion of migration and cross-culturalism. By traveling across these different worlds, many writers, whether within or outside Britain, have forged important links and connections which have enriched and diversified contemporary world writing. Today many of these writers are household names. I am thinking of people such as Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondaatje, Meenakshi Mukherjee, Kazuo Ishiguro, Hanif Kureishi, Meera Syal, Zadie Smith and so on, many of whom have won major literary awards. But this was not such a common phenomenon in the early 1980s when Wasafiri first began. Yes, Midnight’s Children won the Booker in 1981 and people were aware of course of figures such as V. S. Naipaul or Derek Walcott, but there were many others both young and of an earlier generation whom people were not conscious of and who are now better known as major international figures. There are many reasons for this and I am not trying to suggest for one moment that Wasafiri was alone in giving serious literary space to their voices. However one thing that Wasafiri did do from the outset was to always insist that such writers should be read alongside and as a part of the canonical mainstream, in other words, as key players in making important interventions into the traditional literary scene.
JB Can you tell me something, then, about the context in the 1980s when Wasafiri was first founded? What were its aims and what prompted you to start it?
SN When Wasafiri was first set up in 1984 we aimed to create a literary, cultural and pedagogic forum to enable cross-cultural communication between a diverse community of writers, critics, educationalists and publishers interested in African, Caribbean and South Asian writing. One of its fundamental concerns at that time was to raise the profile of these literatures in universities, schools and amongst government bodies involved with creating the national curriculum. It was initially published by ATCAL (the Association for the Teaching of African, Caribbean, Asian and Associated Literatures), which was a very active organisation located in Britain which held annual conferences and acted as a successful pressure group in the late 1970s and early 1980s to persuade exam boards to include figures like Jean Rhys or V. S. Naipaul on their Advanced level courses. This was the period before ‘multiculturalism’ as such or real policies for curriculum change had really begun to have much impact in schools. When ATCAL began to lose its force in the mid eighties – largely because in a sense its work had begun to be done by the school inspectorate and others—it seemed that it would be a good idea to found a publication that would enable some of these debates to go on and to continue to give prominence to the writers and their work which could so easily get lost.
JB I have noticed that while the title Wasafiri has stayed constant, the subtitle has changed and it is now called the Magazine of International Contemporary Writing. Could you talk about this and why you made this change?
SN In the early years we described ourselves as a magazine that focused on African, Caribbean, South Asian and associated literatures. This was partly due to our links with ATCAL (mentioned earlier) but was also and more significantly a strategic decision. At the time there was no other magazine that focused on these literatures in Britain. This period has passed and as many will know resulted in many heated debates during the 1980s and early 1990s about questions of cultural identity and how it should be represented.
Those with a serious interest in contemporary writing are depriving themselves if they don’t read it and are consequently missing out and unaware of a number of significant modern writers. So our move from ‘African, Caribbean’ etc. to ‘Contemporary Writing’ reflects not only our confidence now – we don’t have to signal who we are any longer – but also a shift in cultural perceptions both in Britain and abroad. Perhaps you could say that finally we have come of ‘age’ and are no longer just a magazine, as some would still like to pigeonhole us, for its promotion of ‘new’ and predominantly non-white writing. To promote the work of new voices is of course still what we often do but ‘new’ can be a dangerous word and often suggests something not quite there, not quite good enough, that has not arrived. It is therefore easy to dismiss writing under this label as either a youthful but not quite established branch of the old (i.e. the canon) or an upstart of some kind. We have also broadened our original remit quite a bit over the past twenty years and publish material now from a wide range of different cultural contexts.
JB What are the main areas of literature represented in Wasafiri?
SN The magazine covers five main areas: fiction, poetry, drama, critical essays and reviews. It also always includes an interview with a writer and a contemporary artist in every issue. Writers we have recently featured include Nadine Gordimer (Nobel Prize winner), Austin Clarke (Commonwealth Writers Prize winner for 2003), Courttia Newland, Jacob Ross and Caryl Phillips as well as many others. And of course in the current issue we are publishing discussions between David Dabydeen and Derek Walcott as well as Maggie Gee and Anita Desai. We have recently attempted to make links between what is going on in the art and literary worlds and have featured works by a number of major artists including Yinka Shonibare and Chris Ofili (Turner Prize Winner), Andres Serrano and Fred Wilson, who represented the USA at the Venice Biennale in 2003. We tend to produce quite a few special issues on areas that we feel merit attention. Our most recent one was on Translation; we have a film issue coming up this year, guest edited by Sukhdev Sandhu, a Fanon issue and an issue on ‘Arab literatures’. We do however always run several general issues to maintain our range and to cater to as wide a readership as is possible.
JB Wasafiri is a magazine which has always published criticism and reviews, but it has always looked to me as a magazine which has aimed to put the main accent on the work of writers of fiction, poetry and drama. Of course, criticism is a vital part of the journal and the best criticism is truly creative in itself, but how do you see this balance between imaginative and critical writing in the journal?
SN Yes, we have tended to give a great deal of space to creative writing because it is important for many writers to be able to publish in a magazine such as this which features the famous as well as the less well known, enabling dialogues to develop between them. Yet the critical is important too and provides a forum for debate. Wasafiri has often run features on important debates such as the discussion that took place over several issues initiated by Peter Hulme and the well-known Caribbean poet and historian Kamau Brathwaite on the location of Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea. Similarly the reviews section is an important resource for readers, writers and publishers as we are often able to give much fuller coverage to writers who would not manage necessarily to get seen elsewhere. In this sense we have often broken new ground.
JB Over the years you have published the first work of many writers who have since risen to prominence.
SN Yes and we have also published many now established writers who remain keen to support the magazine. Poets such as Jackie Kay and Fred D’Aguiar published some of their early work with us; Earl Lovelace wrote one of the first editorials, Ngugi wa Thiong’o was an early contributor as were David Dabydeen, Aamer Hussein, Mike Phillips, Vikram Seth, Wilson Harris, Ama Ata Aidoo and Nayantara Sahgal. We have also carried work by a number of writers who are no longer with us such as Attia Hosain, Sam Selvon and Beryl Gilroy.
JB I have always found the interviews with writers a very important contribution and these discussions again chart a history, as many of them took place around literary prizes or at significant events.
SN I think in the forty-one issues we have published we have included over fifty interviews. Some of these as you know appear in a celebratory birthday book published by Routledge entitled Writing Across Worlds. Interestingly when I came to put that book together I found that we had covered an enormous spread of writers and contexts ranging from V. S. Naipaul or Salman Rushdie to Moyez Vassanji, Wole Soyinka, Kazuo Ishiguro, Lorna Goodison, George Lamming, Caryl Phillips, Bernadine Evaristo and Andrew Salkey. These writers lived or live in different moments of history and their conversations are still relevant. Often, as in the current issue, such interviews took place between two writers in discussion. Early on in Wasafiri’s history we had Wilson Harris as an established writer from Guyana talking to Fred D’Aguiar, then a young poet and not well known. In the birthday issue we have Anita Desai talking to Maggie Gee as well as Derek Walcott with David Dabydeen. I suppose the significance of the interviews is not only the fact that readers get to hear writers talking about their own work but that such dialogues set up a much broader conversation which has important reverberations in terms of how traditions are formed and influences work
JB Wasafiri has had a number of different editorial homes over the years and has been with Queen Mary College for some time.
SN I think as with many editors of literary magazines both in the past and today, Wasafiri has followed me around. It is older than my children and ran initially from my house, then was stored in a pub basement in Islington, later moved briefly to the University of Kent, then to Randolph Vigne of Instructa and finally to Queen Mary College at the University of London where it is still based. It moved there in 1992 when I was appointed to the Department of English and Drama and remained after I left. The department there has also been very supportive by providing us with office space and facilities as have the Open University more recently in terms of my editorial time and small amounts of funding. In reality Wasafiri runs from a small office (at the moment in the East End of London) and is supported on a day-to-day basis by a very small number of part-time editorial staff.
JB You have maintained an editorial distance from publishers over the years and have always published Wasafiri independently. Is there a reason for this?
SN I have often thought about going over to a publisher. It would be much easier in some ways as they would handle all the production and subscription management which would mean far less hassle for me and my staff at the Wasafiri office. We have in fact been approached by two or three and I am thinking about it again. But one of the main reasons we have remained independent is rather similar to what I was saying earlier about fashionable orthodoxies. I have always been a little nervous about how cultural diversity is marketed. Particularly recently amidst the razzmatazz of prizes such as the Booker and others. That is not to say such prizes are not important; they have of course made careers and obviously literary taste has changed. The kinds of writers we have been publishing for years are now much more popular and are generally better known. Yet I still resist being marketed as one kind of thing and feel slightly reticent about adopting the postcolonial label which I know sells very well in catalogues and the net.
JB How do you see the future as far as the magazine is concerned?
SN I hope that it will continue to flourish and that it will continue to change with the times it finds itself in. It has always been a delicate balancing act to create a history, to make a real place for literature to be published in rather than just create an imaginative space. And one will always be tied up with literary and cultural politics however hard one tries to avoid it. Given that more and more readers and writers across the globe are becoming interested in the issues we are concerned with, issues of cross-culturalism and the need to sustain an international community of literary voices which speak to each other across the pages of their books, the future should be bright. Let’s hope so.
Wasafiri is edited by Susheila Nasta and published three times a year, in March, July and November. Readers of Literature Matters can subscribe online at www.wasafiri.org and will automatically receive two back issues free this year.
Dr Susheila Nasta is a critic, teacher, editor and broadcaster. Born in England, she was educated in India, Germany, Holland and Britain. Currently a Reader in Literature at the Open University, she has also taught at the Universities of London and Cambridge.
Jonathan Barker is Assistant Director, Literature within the Film and Literature Department of the British Council. Prior to this he was Assistant Secretary of the Poetry Book Society and Librarian of the Arts Council Poetry Library in London.
Writing Across Worlds: Contemporary Writers Talk is available to readers of Literature Matters from Routledge publishers at a special discounted price of £9.99 (usual cost £10.99 + postage). Postage is free on all orders of three copies or more. For other quantities, please add postage (UK, no charge; Europe, £3; all other areas, £4). Call +44 (0)1264 343 071 and quote 0415345677 / WAWBC04 to place your order. Publication: July 2004. Offer ends 31 October 2004.