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A scene from a performance organized by Jalada—a pan-African writers’ collective—in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo credit: Jerry Riley/Pacific Standard.

Founded in 2013, the pan-African collective Jalada is unarguably at the forefront of the reinvention of African literature. In this period of time, the group has published five important anthologies and one mini-anthology.

Their first anthology is JA00: Sketch of a Bald Woman in the Semi-nude and Other Stories. Their second anthology was groundbreaking: JA01: Sext Me Stories and Poems, which is an “attempt at fictionalizing sexual experiences in ways that were rare, in ways that our readers and critics thought broke the implied modesty of our fictional boundaries.” Their third is the much-acclaimed JA02: Afrofuture(s), which “sought to capture multiple and alternative ways of imagining futures – as Africans.” Their fourth, a collection of flash fiction, is a collaboration with Writivism: JA03: My Maths Teacher Hates Me and Other Stories. Their fifth is the game-changing JA04: The Language Issue which “celebrates language through fiction, poetry, spoken word, visual art and essays, in 23 African languages as well as English and French.” It has been called “the most ambitious and robust anthology on African languages on the continent to date.” Their sixth anthology is The Translation Issue 01, which published a short story by Ngugi wa Thiong’o in 33 languages, making it perhaps the single most translated short story in history. The story had since been translated into more than 60 languages, 40 of which are African languages. Their seventh anthology, a collaboration with Transition magazine, is forthcoming in June: Jalada 05/Transition 123 Fear Issue. This year, the collective embarked on another unprecedented event: Africa’s first mobile literary festival which covered five countries in East Africa.

The drive behind the formation of Jalada, why it began its mission, and its impact so far: these are the things that a new essay by Aaron Bady, editor of The New Enquiry, shines light on.

Here is an excerpt of the essay.

It began with a workshop for young writers in Nairobi in 2013, organized by the Kwani Trust and the British Council. As Moses Kilolo recalls, he had never attended a writing workshop before. Like so many of his peers, he had been toiling alone: Each day he would haunt his university library, struggling in his own writing to imitate the English-language classics that he found on the shelves. It was a remarkably well-stocked library, as he remembers it, the best a young writer could hope for. Yet while he had produced a few halting efforts at prose, he hadn’t yet “come out” as a writer. He stayed in the stacks. It was only after the three-day workshop with a dozen other young writers, he says, that the brilliance of his peers pulled him out of the library—helped him to realize what he could never accomplish alone. “I wasn’t as good as I thought,” he laughs. “They tore my work apart! It was moving to know that there’s so much more possibility.”

The feeling was general among the workshop’s participants. At first they stayed in touch out of a spontaneous desire to keep the conversations going. But after Okwiri Oduor—who would win the Caine Prize for African Writing later in the year—set up a Google group named Jalada, after the word for library in Kiswahili, the group began to evolve into something more concrete. As the members began writing, and editing each other’s work, they also began talking about what hadn’t been written yet, and what needed to be. They began building their own library: A few months after the workshop, they set up a bare-bones website (jalada.org) where they published an anthology of original work loosely themed around the notion of insanity, Sketch of a Bald Woman in the Semi-Nude and Other Stories.

It had been an easy choice to publish on the Internet: It was free, it was easy, and they had complete control. As the word spread—and as the inaugural anthology did the rounds on social media—they began hearing from writers across the continent, asking if they could submit to the next anthology. Jalada’s editors said yes. The second collection—Sext Me: Poems and Stories, on the intersections of sex and technology, and twice as long as the first—included a handful of participants from outside Kenya, as well as Jalada’s first official call for submissions. Exactly a year after the first anthology, Afrofuture(s)—a three-part shelf-buster of Africanist speculative fiction—had close to a majority of non-Kenyan writers.

As the library has grown from a roomful of young Nairobians to an ongoing conversation that spans the continent—with email, Skype, and social media allowing members in a half-dozen countries to stay in touch—it’s become clear that Jalada is where the future of African literature is being written. A project with a pan-Africanist scope might have drowned under the logistics of communication and distance, or lost its energy in fundraising. Instead, meetings have yielded true mentorships and editorial relationships, and correspondences have blossomed into long-term collaborations, as the contributors to each anthology have become a part of the broader network. The management team remains mostly Kenyan—allowing semi-regular face-to-face meetings—but the structure is as horizontal and outward-looking as possible. Members from Namibia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Somalia make up the core group, with an even broader network of contributors and collaborators. Richard Ali in Nigeria and Edwige-Renée DRO in Côte d’Ivoire have been crucial to the project’s expanding reach, for example, both for their editorial expertise and for connecting Jalada to new writers in West and Francophone Africa. Building connections with North Africa is the next hurdle.

Jalada’s “about” page is brief and to the point: a “pan-Africanist writers’ collective” whose goal is “to publish literature by African authors regularly by making it as easy as possible for any member to publish anything.” This tautology—their goal is to publish the things they are publishing—tells a story of its own: Jalada is just the work itself, without money, pretensions, or ego. The anthologies don’t have introductions, nor are there mission statements or manifestos; there is only the writing.

Read Aaron Bady’s “The Ongoing Revolution to Unite African Literature” in Pacific Standard.

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About Otosirieze Obi-Young

View all posts by Otosirieze Obi-Young
Otosirieze Obi-Young is a writer, an academic, and Deputy Editor of Brittle Paper. His fiction has appeared in The Threepenny Review ("Mulumba," 2016), Transition ("A Tenderer Blessing," 2015), and in an anthology of the Gerald Kraak Award for which he was shortlisted ("You Sing of a Longing," 2017). His work has further been shortlisted for the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship in 2016 and a Pushcart Prize in 2015. He attended the 2018 Miles Morland Foundation Creative Writing Workshop. He is the curator of the ART NAIJA SERIES, a sequence of themed e-anthologies of writing and visual art exploring different aspects of Nigerianness. The first, ENTER NAIJA: THE BOOK OF PLACES (October, 2016), focuses on cities in Nigeria. The second, WORK NAIJA: THE BOOK OF VOCATIONS (June, 2017), focuses on professions in Nigeria. He studied History and Literature at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, is currently completing a postgraduate programme in African Studies and Pop Culture, and teaches English at Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu. He has completed a collection of short stories, YOU SING OF A LONGING, and is working on a novel. He is represented by David Godwin Associates literary agency. When bored, he just Googles Rihanna.

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  1. Thursday Links! | Gerry Canavan - 2017/06/01

    […] * How Jalada Is a “Revolution Uniting African Literature.” […]

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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