AiW Guest Ed Charlton.
As an intervention into the formal space of South African print culture, Jungle Jim is certainly daring and distinctive. If not an entirely unique mode of literary production, its pulp ’zine format is, nonetheless, a marked departure from the high literary, quarterly review—think New Contrast or Current Writing– that the earnest Cape scholar might welcome in the morning post as a stimulating accompaniment to their customary breakfast of fresh fruit, natural yoghurt and strong coffee. Jungle Jim’s striking and, more often, contentious prints along with its similarly disquieting short stories are designed, it seems, to be consumed alongside a more meagre morning fodder of Jungle Oats or crooked up with a herbal tea in the corner of one of the small cafés that characterise Cape Town’s Observatory district. Of course, to delimit Jungle Jim’s readership to any such primitive a typecasting is somewhat unfair and, no doubt, misses the specific intercession the publication is trying to make into the otherwise stubborn boundaries between high and popular fiction, particularly in the South African marketplace. Nevertheless, it seems equitable to note that in its determination to restyle from the formal literary sphere, the ’zine makes similarly conscious demands upon its readership, pressing them to design an alternative space in which to consume this type of literary stock.
Indeed, Jungle Jim appears intent on distinguishing itself from the comforts of the formalised sphere as much by way of its poor, Grotowskian aesthetic– a poverty of production conditioned to a degree by the limited finance available to its small, independent production team– as by way of its varied, experimental content. The rough, light-weight paper, consistent colourway and matte finish all suggest a curious but welcome reluctance to compete with the glossy, embossed hardbacks and magazines also on display sections in retailers such as The Book Lounge and Clarke’s Books. Profiting instead from the particular allure of a distressed design, Jungle Jim appears to be pitching itself towards a modish readership that eschews the glamorous in favour of the peculiar and the individuated. As such, it is unsurprising that its editors appear far from eager to develop its electronic distribution— the ultimate appeal to the mass market— and remove much of this fringe appeal. To lose the materiality of the ’zine would seem to divest, too, much of its deliberate diacritic.
The idea of taking a pair of scissors to the top of each new issue before its pages can be unfurled is typical of this idiosyncratic appeal. It is characteristic, too, of the irreverent attitude Jungle Jim exhibits towards the inherited colonial conventions that still underpin much of the South African literary sphere. Playing with an idealistic investiture in the history of the book and the paper-knife that was for centuries part of the procedure of reading any newly-printed text, the cutting of each new issue with a pair of those ubiquitous, bulky kitchen scissors points to the manifest absurdity of any such romantic an imagination. Any of the residual charm perhaps conjured up in the act is quite literally cut across by the vastly differentiated context, both temporal and geographical, of this type of reading practice. This is not to say that this particular feature adds nothing to the experience of reading an issue of Jungle Jim; most obviously it acts as a positive record of consumption. Marking the reader’s primary compulsion to discover what lies beneath its intriguing title pages, it is an act that might even verge on the ritualistic, as an induction into the alternative literary arena supposedly opened up by the ’zine. I wonder, however, whether this feature might also leave Jungle Jim open to accusations of breeding a sense of exclusivity and self-satisfaction among its readers, wilfully closing off its content to the slightly less curious and, as yet, uninitiated? Although at just R15, Jungle Jim can hardly be thought of trying seriously to encourage a restricted readership.
If I were to add one last reservation to my enthusiasm for this refreshing intrusion into the South Africa’s print culture, it would centre precisely on this manifestly localised character. Its submission guidelines state an enthusiasm for stories that intervene into the realities of life in Africa at large but in the ’zine’s conscious reformatting of the European literary review model in favour of an irreverent and cheap, pulp mode of dissemination, Jungle Jim appears to be making a rather direct challenge to the residual Little Europe proclivities of Cape Town’s established literary circle. While the residues of an imported European print culture are, no doubt, in evidence to a lesser degree beyond the Cape, this palpably localised act of dissent threatens to dilute its national, let alone continental, appeal. How Jungle Jim’s wry attitude and playful materiality would figure in the cafés and bookshops of Harare or Lagos, for instance, I can only imagine, but I do think it legitimate to question whether its idiosyncrasies travel with it. Might Jungle Jim, despite its professed ambitions, ultimately impede itself from reflecting incisively upon an Africa beyond the borders of the Cape’s particular urban jungle?
Ed Charlton is currently juggling the realities of completing his PhD thesis on contemporary South African theatre and film with his dreams of a life crooked up with a good book in the corner of a Cape Town café. Along with a number of fellow postgraduate students at the University of Cambridge, he is endeavouring to establish a blog dedicated to all things literary in South Africa. Watch this space: http://writingsouthafricanow.wordpress.com/
Read more reviews of Jungle Jim content by AiW guests: the next in the series is ‘‘Without warning, everything became possible’: pulp fiction and the rise of Jungle Jim’ by Alexander Howard.
AiW Q&A with Jenna Bass – co-founder and editor of Jungle Jim pulp fiction magazine.
And extracts from Jungle Jim stories (9-16)