This, part II of Katie’s interview with Jenna Bass at Jungle Jim, takes us further into the mag, opening up questions of genre – popular, pulp and science-fiction in Africa and South Africa – plus more on the mag‘s aesthetic, Constance Myburgh’s Caine Prize nomination, and the how why where and who’s of getting in to a Jungle Jim magazine.
Check out part I for introductions – to Jenna Bass and to Constance Myburgh, and the rest of the Jungle Jim team, to the mag itself and its general attitude to “conventional business sense”, and plenty more besides…
Our big thanks to Jenna for talking to us at such length! For now, to continue – part II …Katie, on behalf of AiW, doing some more catching up with Jenna Bass, for Jungle Jim…
Katie/AiW: We talked earlier about your decision to charge R15, the current equivalent of about £1, for Jungle Jim: you said that this involved a desire to “take the best from the pulp tradition”, including its downright cheapness, with the hope that “Jungle Jim’s craziness could also encourage reading, as entertainment”. How conscious are you of using a popular, as opposed to a ‘high’, literary form for Jungle Jim?
Jenna/Jungle Jim: This was a conscious choice, certainly – but it was one we made simultaneously with the decision to challenge the idea of ‘high’ and ‘low’ – we’re not the first to do this at all – but we feel that popular fiction – pulp included – has the ability and potential to reflect the popular concerns in a way which is not only powerful but also unique. We wanted to challenge the idea that ‘commercial’ and ‘popular’ have to be synonymous with ‘low’ or ‘bad’ – if anything, I see popular forms as having an even greater responsibility than their ‘high’ art counterparts. You cannot afford to put across a half-formed message or dubious idea – or a lack of any idea at all! Besides, who says that popular audiences, the working class or the young (to whom much of pulp originally appealed) do not deserve and require ‘good’ art?
Have you received any content that’s challenged your own concepts of what Jungle Jim might be about?
Certainly, it happens very frequently, and this is most often the most rewarding aspect of running the magazine. From the very beginning, we were sent work that we thought was great, but would have long debates about what it meant to publish it in the context of Jungle Jim, as ‘pulp’ and how that affected the story, or how the story affected what the magazine was. But that process has actually made Jungle Jim what it is – which is, without intending to sound vague, constantly shifting in its ideas, and hopefully challenging the notions about African writing and parameters that we catch ourselves, at the very least, falling prey to from time to time.
Do you think that, as a genre, pulp has specifically or peculiarly African resonances?
Yes – I use genre and pulp interchangeably often, as the lines between them become increasingly blurred (mainly through the criticism levelled at them as being ‘low’ art), but in this case they have their own individual resonances too. The formula which turned genre into such a successful marketing tool may have originated, or been refined in the USA, but the genres themselves are frequently a result of far broader human themes which are relevant everywhere (my favourite example being the Western, which one would think of as having no relevance outside of the USA, at least because it seems to purely be a product of American history. I would argue that this is not so, otherwise the various incarnations of the ‘national’ Western would not be nearly as prolific as they are) – so genre in Africa does not at all have to be a western stereotype or compromise. Genre can be a universal language, allowing us to share stories and challenge popular conceptions between the very different countries in Africa – and giving African stories a potentially broader audience internationally, allowing foreign readers a familiar access point to a culture they may not be at all familiar with.
I always have to follow these ideas with the caveat that I don’t at all think all writing should be in genre. But I think there is something very exciting when these possibilities are realised. Then of course, pulp being working class literature – dating back from the chapbooks of the 1600s – a way of circulating ideas and stories which were cheap, visually illustrated and dealt with popular concerns and dreams – I think this has huge potential in Africa, at least in South Africa which I know the most about, and where reading is still considered an elite occupation. Pulp has the ability to fight this conception – gets stories in print and out among readers in a way which is appealing and affordable. That’s the idea anyway.
Constance Myburgh’s ‘Hunter Emmanuel’ (JJ6) was nominated for the Caine Prize this year (2012). Did this, your nomination for a prize described as “Africa’s leading literary award”, and the surrounding publicity – like the series of events in the UK and the Caine Prize Blogathon – affect the magazine?
Yes, I think the nomination definitely made a big difference, in getting people to notice us, and of course encouraging the discussion – which I personally enjoy – around high/low literature – ‘Hunter Emmanuel’ being a fairly typical JJ story, but then put into a very literary context all of a sudden – I was definitely surprised, but of course very heartened that it had been recognised in this way.
Did you see 3Bute’s illustrations/mashup of the 5 Caine Prize nominated stories, including ‘Hunter Emmanuel’? (AiW note – 3Bute is an online anthology of African stories and journalism that allows for readers to engage collaboratively with content – a ‘mashup’ platform means readers are able to add context to the narratives via the “mashable” surfaces of the site.) What did you make of it, given the strength of Jungle Jim’s aesthetic content and Hunter Emmanuel as JJ’s resident detective?
It was very interesting! I think it’s a great initiative…
In terms of your coming to London and participating in the various public events required of Caine Prize shortlisted writers, how did it feel to discuss your story in detail with people who hadn’t seen it in context, that is to say, in the magazine?
I’d be very surprised if some people did not take it out of context and rather force it into the expectation/preconception of it being ‘another South African crime story’, instead of part of some greater experiment – or just a short story in its own right.
We have already opened up the question of geography in terms of content, and briefly touched on history: are you struck by any particular versions of history, either general or specific, both to pulp and the continent – broadly, antecedents, exploration narratives, that kind of range – coming across through the submissions you receive, and if so, in what kind of ways?
Specifically to pulp, yes – I’m not terribly qualified to take this answer as far as it could perhaps go, but I feel there is a distinct relationship between the moralistic fable style/purpose of say, Onitsha Market Literature, and the moral angle of some of the submissions we get, from other African countries too. It’s very interesting. Then, regarding more general history – yes! These are often my favourite stories, and I get very excited when we receive a submission which has an interesting relation to the past – this is also, being a South African, one of my own fields of interest, so I do look out for it. For example, we’ll soon be publishing a story by a very young writer from Lesotho, who has written a gripping adventure/escape story set during past conflict there. Looking at more recent history, or history-making events, Iheoma Nwachukwu’s ESCAPE TO HELL (Issue 12) captures Qaddafi’s final hours. My own story from Issue 2, A HOLE IN THE GROUND, was set during the South African Diamond Rush of the 19th Century – I think African writers realise there is a wealth of untold stories in the past – often within the sensational realm of pulp – we don’t need to make anything up! Notably of course, Rotimi Babatunde’s Caine Prize winning story BOMBAY’S REPUBLIC, is a stunning example of a writer accessing the past in an unexpected way.
Is there a particular relationship between Jungle Jim and other literary magazines produced through South Africa’s history? – and/or magazines or other forms of ‘popular literature’ from the rest of Africa?
We have definitely had our inspirations – and we’ve scouted around over the different publications that have appeared and disappeared through history. Some examples locally are the Fotoboekies (Photo Comics) – which were produced for readers of all races and were huge in the 60s and 70s, the Afrikaans Western Pulps by Hermie Hendricks and Braam le Roux – later on Bitter Komix which of course satirised much of the former. When we first got started, the only local genre publication was Something Wicked – for horror and SF – and they were very supportive of what we wanted to do. From the rest of the continent, though we have yet to get our hands on any copies – Onitsha Market Literature. Of course the contemporary literary journals, Kwani? and Chimurenga remain inspirational.
Exciting to see a cover, JJ16, with artwork from, as you say on the site, ‘Super-Hero of design’, Joey Hifi. (South African designer Hifi won Best Cover Art at the 2011 British Science Fiction Association Awards for the English edition of Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City.) How did this collaboration come about?
Shaun was doing some networking (he’s great at this) – Shaun says “Actually, this collaboration came about solely through twitter. After a few interactions on twitter I gathered he was a fan of the magazine. At first I thought it’d be a bit of a cheek to ask him if he’d be interested in doing an illustration for us, but after talking it over with Jenna, we thought, why not?” – (well, if you don’t ask…)
Why, for a magazine that publishes fiction from Africa, an issue dedicated to South African sci-fi?
We literally went through a period where we received a large amount of SF submissions from South Africa, and seeing as I had been contemplating themed issues for a while already (and still want to do more) thought this may be a good place to start, seeing as we’re based here, and I didn’t feel it was in conflict with what we stand for overall. I think it’s very interesting to highlight a theme in the context of nationality – we could have done an overall African SF issue too, that would be great in a different way.
Does being based in South Africa bring anything specific to the magazine?
I’m sure it affects our perspective on things, for better or worse, I’m not sure. Most of our illustrators are based in SA – and many of our submissions come from South Africa. I’m definitely proud of this, and it’s due to the circles closest to us, certainly – our distribution is based here too. But I see this as part of what the magazine is, and will be – we try to keep our sights continental, that’s why we started it initially.
How important is it that the mag is alternative and what are the best and worst things about how this places the mag in terms of its reception and sales, etc?
It’s difficult to say – I’m very ineffectual at monitoring sales – but I think many people’s attention is grabbed by the ‘new’ and the ‘different’ – to my knowledge (and I’d be happy to be corrected) we’re one of the only publications like us in Africa – we do go to some lengths to spread the word online, and the response we get is that people are very excited to find out what pulp and genre mean in an African context.
Any other media forms that you make use of or that inspire you?
Personally – cinema. Other than my bias because that is where most of my work and ambition lies, I do think there’s a lot of cross-over between genre in literature and movies – and writers in either form can learn from both. I also think that some of the most interested challenges to genre boundaries are occurring in international independent film. Comics and graphic novels too (which we’re currently trying to incorporate into Jungle Jim) – Alan Moore is always the model for me for intelligent genre-writing that uses a popular medium to challenge society in a subversive way.
I see Jungle Jim is now available on Kindle. Do you find this method of distribution suiting your ethos and aesthetic?
Our priority has, at least until recently, been mainly on our print editions – so our Kindle version is very, very basic – we just haven’t had the time to take it to the next level. But then again, I see the roughness of the kindle version as being some kind of weird translation of the print version’s zine quality – it’s kindlepulp! Or that’s what I tell myself.
How does your advertising/marketing go? AiW loves your site – thinks it’s great – and loves your blog. And here we are, on another blog – how do you work with social media, or how does it tend to work with you? Nationally, internationally?
We try do a bit of everything – it can become a full time job very quickly – so I’m sure there is always more we can do. What’s gratifying is that there seems to be a good mix in our online community between South African, African and International fans – and internationally it’s not even restricted to the USA and the UK – Jungle Jim has had some great publicity in Australia, and in Thailand. So we’re just going to keep trying to spread the word – of course interviews on blogs like this always help – thank you! I’ve recently started a sort of side-blog on our facebook page called ‘Pulp of the Day’ which tracks down images and forms of pulp from around the world!
How do you distribute? Nationally, internationally? Are you up for global domination, and if so how and why?
We don’t have nearly as a good a sense of our readership as we should, but we know that it’ growing, and there is an international readership, which is super. We’re always up for global domination – but most specifically we’d love to expand within the continent and get distribution there. I think we’d be relying on a strong partner coming on board though – doing this ourselves may be difficult – so we’re always open to ideas. We have great dreams of establishing a Lagos office – maybe something for the future
Where can we get it? When – how often does it come out? And can we have more, please?
In Cape Town we stock at: The Book Lounge, Clarkes Books, Church Gifts, Blank Books and The Book Shoppe. Internationally we sell through blankbooks.co.za and Amazon Kindle
In theory, Jungle Jim comes out twice a month – sometimes we’re a bit late – please don’t kill us if we are.
Yes! More is definitely possible…
How’d we get into it again? (this info. having already been generously provided in pt I, gets itself a second airing…)
“If you’re an African writer, submit a story! Alternatively everyone can draw for us! Become our friends! Spread the word! And buy the magazine! Whichever you choose, our website should have most, if not all, the answers: www.junglejim.org
To get into the magazine itself – expect the unexpected, and have a scissors handy – the mag has to be cut open at the top!”
Pt I of this interview.
Again – big thanks to Jenna Bass at Jungle Jim!
Read extracts from Jungle Jim (9-16) here.
And click here for the first in our series of guest reviews.