‘Without warning, everything became possible’: pulp fiction and the rise of Jungle Jim

AiW Guest Alexander Howard. 

1.

As the author and editor Jenna Bass points out in the first instalment of her recent interview with Katie Reid of Africa in Words, the bi-monthly fiction magazine Jungle Jim arose out of a shared desire for creative independence and editorial control, as well as an appetite for that most precious of literary commodities: fun.  As Bass recalls, one of the main artistic impetuses behind Jungle Jim was “[t]he idea of creating accessible literature, free of angst and ego (relatively), which was narrative driven and allowed writers to get back into one of the reasons they probably felt the desire to write – to tell stories.”  These remarks should be read in relation to an earlier “mission statement” issued by the editorial team behind Jungle Jim.  In this online declaration of editorial intent, the editors of Jungle Jim make it clear that they want to facilitate the spread of “imagination and concept-driven African stories” via the pages of their visually arresting (and verily affordable) periodical.  At the same time, they emphasise the integral role that the tradition of pulp fiction plays in each issue of Jungle Jim.  Eschewing myopic literary elitism, and drawing liberally from the rich legacy of pulp writing, they aim to “publish short and serialized fiction that entertains and engrosses in dramatic genres (horror, sci-fi, crime, detective, western, romance, adventure etc.), accessible to all, but with a high quality of writing.”  This they do in order to “explore the collision between the visceral daring of pulp and the reality of living in Africa.”  Bass develops this point elsewhere in her aforementioned interview with Africa in Words.  Discussing the rationale behind the given title of Jungle Jim, Bass stresses the fact that she wanted to acknowledge “the role that Africa has played in western pulp and genre writing in the past – the exotic, the other, the place where anything happens – and sort of recolonize that, if that’s possible.”  This is a fascinating and far-reaching statement; it is one that needs to be understood in order to grasp the conceptual premise and aesthetic promise of Jungle Jim.

2.

But first, a few words regarding “those two-bit argosies of blood and wonder, the pulps.”[1] Filled with fantastic stories of drama, passion, and daring, the mass-produced and action-packed American “pulps” were the direct descendants of the mid-19th century American dime store novel.  Appearing in magazine form at the end of the 1890s, and with circulation figures soon reaching into the millions, the lurid, lascivious, and, above all else, low-costing pulps were, much like their dime store forbears, treated with utter scorn and disdain by the literary establishment.  Castigated as unreflective consumers of sensationalist trash, the devoted followers of imagination-driven pulp (or genre) writing fared little better; their personal reading habits were a cause for significant concern amongst those charged with improving the well-being of the American public.  As the contemporary literary critic Erin A. Smith reminds us, “librarians and social workers lamented that the proletariat read little else beside pulp magazines, and identified the improvement of their reading tastes as a major policy initiative.”[2]  This remark is pertinent as it hints at the underlying (and often overlooked) social dimension pertaining to the historical consumption of the readily available pulps – in part attributable to turnover rates – as they flourished in the first half of the 20th century.  Pulp readers were predominantly young, male, and, as Smith’s comment suggests, drawn from the working-class.  Often lacking in formal education, a significant number of these young men were also immigrants.  For these geographically displaced readers, repeated exposure to the pulps also provided a useful – if highly idiosyncratic – means with which to get to grips with the native tongue of their new environment.  In this regard, we can say that the viscerally daring pulps managed to delight and enlighten their excitable and receptive readers in a variety of ways.

3.

Something similar might also be said about the sort of mass-produced, pamphlet-based form of writing once published and traded at the bustling Onitsha Market of Nigeria.  Dominated by lively depictions of crime and romance, and for the most part written in creole and pidgin varieties of English, Onitsha Market Literature achieved great levels of popularity in the 1950s and 1960s.  Largely ignored by mainstream critics during its heyday, Onitsha Market Literature is now regarded as an invaluable source of information regarding the historical socio-economic conditions in West Africa. As Donatus I Nwoga notes in his seminal essay on the subject, the decades-long phenomenon that was Onitsha Market Literature appealed to a vast reading public who had “enough knowledge to be interested in reading novels, but not enough interest, or time, or even reading ability, to tackle the major novelists who were, in any case, in most of the novels available in the markets, talking of an environment that was most unfamiliar to the people under consideration.”[3]  Bearing this analysis in mind, it should come as no surprise to find that the success of many a producer of Onitsha Market Literature depended on what Nwoga describes as “their closeness to their subject and their audience.  They know what their audience wants.  They too are part of that audience and they share the same problems, and in the mode of expression, they also know how to put things to catch the interest of that audience – bombastic words, pidgin English and the point of view.”[4]  In other words, the Onitsha Market writers sought recourse to shared points of view and personal experience in order to entertain their audience.  But this is not all.  Nwoga also makes it clear that the writers of the Onitsha Market viewed themselves as more than mere entertainers.  In his estimation, the very best of the predominantly male pamphleteers of Onitsha conceived of themselves as moral educationists; they wanted to warn their impressionable readership about the dangers of women.   As Nwoga makes plain, the overtly moralistic – and plainly misogynistic – stance of the male Onitsha Market writers proved highly problematic.  Here is what he has to say on the matter: “[t]he writers are men and most of their readers, after all, are men.  And women, since the time of Eve, have caused most of the troubles in life.  It appears they haven’t yet paid for it in the volume of derogatory literature addressed against them.  In most places, and Africa is no exception, the man is always right.”[5]

4.

It is at this point that we can begin to posit a tentative comparison between the historically and geographically divergent categories of pulp writing and Onitsha Market Literature.  To recap: both categories share a passion for genre writing, favour material formats with low production costs, and rely on rapid turnover.  Beyond these similarities, it is also important to address the underlying instructional elements in both kinds of writing.  In the case of Onitsha Market Literature, the instructional agenda is intentional; it takes an explicitly moralistic – and prejudicially gendered – approach.  In pulp writing the (unintentional) instructional element is not moralistic: it can be said to engage young (male) immigrants and to broaden their sense of the American language.  Despite this apparent divergence, however, it is important to note that misogyny persists as an issue for pulp writing, especially when we consider the case of hardboiled detective fiction.  To say that women rarely fare well in the hard-boiled narratives of first- and second-generation American pulp writers such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Jim Thompson would be something of an understatement.  John G. Cawelti picks up on this point whilst discussing the figure of the hard-boiled detective in Adventure, Mystery, and Romance.  He posits that important characteristics of the hard-boiled detective – namely personal integrity, overt masculinity, and a clearly demarcated sense of honour and justice – reflect a number of well-documented and problematic fantasies often associated with masculinity.  According to Cawelti, these wishes include “the desire to escape from the anxious tension between conformity and resentment; the desire to replace the sense of inner corruption and insecurity and to avenge oneself upon the successful by psychical force; the desire to completely dominate women and therefore overcome their sexual and social challenge.”[6]

5.

Conceptions of sexuality – and patent sexual inequality in contemporary society – feature prominently in the various African genre fictions contained within the pages of Jungle Jim.  This becomes startlingly clear in contributions such as Victor Alao’s “The Things God Allows,” as well as in powerful detective stories like Constance Myburgh’s Caine Prize nominated “Hunter Emmanuel.”  Appearing in the sixth issue of Jungle Jim, Myburgh’s detective narrative features a fairly self-explanatory subtitle: “Case #1: Saws and Whores.”  As well as detailing the trials and tribulations of the bumbling contract worker (and nascent private investigator) Hunter Emmanuel as he tries to solve the mystery of a women’s vicious mutilation, “Saws and Whores” provides a running commentary on unequal gender relations (and demeaning economic realities) in early 21st century South African society.  Elevating (if that is indeed the correct term) the conventional hard-boiled detective narrative to the level of social commentary, “Hunter Emmanuel” highlights the underlying critical potential of popular creative forms.  In this fashion, “Saws and Whores” also serves to validate the express opinion of Jungle Jim’s founder Jenna Bass (aka Constance Myburgh).  In the second part of her interview with Katie Reid, Bass espouses the view that genre fictions have the potential to reflect “popular” (i.e. widespread and pressing) “concerns in a way which is not only powerful but also unique.”  This interest in the “unique” and “powerful” critical and conceptual merits of popular genre fiction helps us understand just what it is that she and the rest of editorial team behind Jungle Jim are striving to achieve with their pulp magazine.  Desiring social equality, they seek to creatively highlight existing contemporary ills in order to more completely overcome them.[7]  However, this critical endeavour represents only one facet of the aesthetic and conceptual task undertaken in the various issues of their periodical.  Consider the previously cited editorial rationale that resides at the conceptual core of Jungle Jim.  I have in mind here the notion of “recolonization” evoked by Bass in the first part of her interview with Katie at Africa in Words.  As a critical term, recolonization carries with it a host of stimulating and suggestive connotations.  In the case of Jungle Jim, it refers primarily to the attempt to challenge long-standing Western literary assumptions about Africa (and to the historical role that Africa has often played in the construction of Western literature).  This comes to the fore in Constance Myburgh’s gripping “A Hole in the Ground.”   Published in the second issue of Jungle Jim, “A Hole in the Ground” revisits the 19th century colonial scene depicted in canonical Western texts such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  Narrated by the retired British colonial army officer John Warren Harris, “A Hole in the Ground” takes place during the South African Diamond Rush of the 19th century.  Accessing traumatic history in a uniquely creative manner (via the subtle formal appropriation of the archetypal American frontiersman narrative), “A Hole in the Ground” provides a textual vantage point from which we can contemplate the legacies of colonial oppression and the horrors of untrammelled capitalist expansion; it is a wholly admirable gesture, one that is repeated time and time again in the various pulp fictions published in the complex magazine that is Jungle Jim.


The quotation appearing in this article’s title is a line taken from Rotimi Babatunde’s “Bombay’s Republic.”  Jenna Bass expresses her admiration for Babatunde’s 2012 Caine prize-winning story in her interview with Africa in Words.  She suggests that Babatunde’s piece “is a stunning example of a writer accessing the past in an unexpected way”: in my estimation, something similar can be said of the various pulp fictions featured in Jungle Jim.

1. ^ Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (New York: Random House, 2000), 4.

2. ^ Erin A. Smith, “Pulp sensations,” David Glover & Scott McCracken (ed.), Cambridge Companion to Popular Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge UP (2012), 146.

3. ^ Donatus I Nwoga, “Onitsha Market Literature,” Transition 19 (1965), 26.

4. ^ Nwoga, “Onitsha Market Literature,” 29.

5. ^ Nwoga, “Onitsha Market Literature,” 27.

6. ^ John G. Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1976), 160.

7. ^ Manifesting itself in a variety of ways, this desire is also felt in the defamiliarized scenes of utopianism evident in the Science Fiction themed issue of Jungle Jim (16).

Alexander Howard is an associate tutor at the University of Sussex.  He recently completed an AHRC-funded DPhil in American Literature.  Entitled, “The Life and Times of Charles Henri Ford, Blues, and the Belated Renovation of Modernism” (2011), his thesis focused on American Surrealism, Modernist Little Magazines, and Queer Aesthetics and Poetics.  He has published on modernist poetry, periodical culture, and contemporary American fiction.  His work has appeared in U.S. Studies Online (Spring 2011), Transgression and its Limits (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012), and the second volume of the Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012).  He is currently working on two projects.  The first is a monograph on the queer second-generation modernist editor and Surrealist poet Charles Henri Ford; the second focuses on the relationship between far-right political extremism and Ezra Pound’s pedagogy in the 1950s.
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Read more reviews of Jungle Jim content by AiW guests: the previous post is by Ed Charlton, ‘Jim in the Urban Jungle: South African Print Culture and Jungle Jim’; the next is Graham Riach’s ‘From Roswell to Rosebank: South African SF and Jungle Jim’
AiW’s Q&A with Jenna Bass – co-founder and editor of 
Jungle Jim pulp fiction magazine
Extracts from 
Jungle Jim stories (9-16), including Bass/Myburgh’s ‘Twin Sisters’
Jungle Jim website


Categories: Art and Artists, Literary magazines, Prizes, South Africa, Writers

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

12 replies

  1. See Sean O’Toole’s piece on Jungle Jim and the evolution of African pulp fiction for the Mail & Guardian: http://mg.co.za/article/2012-12-07-00-the-evolution-of-african-pulp-fiction
    As well as tracing links between Jungle Jim and Onitsha Market literature (as Alex does in his post), O’Toole’s piece acknowledges the lack of historical overview and academic contexts for African/South African pulp; not, though, ignoring Lily Saint’s chapter ‘Not Western: Race, Reading and the South African Photocomic’, that appears in Andrew Van der Vlies’ recently launched text, Print, Text and Book Cultures in South Africa, O’Toole seems to suggest that these contexts of analysis for pulp mags are ripe, are beginning, emergent… (as in AiW’s series of guest posts? Ahem…), with a timely reminder, and through judicious use of his own, that a critical eye must be carefully selective, be properly critical (there are some pretty clear words here about JJ’s “offerings”), and need not overdetermine value in the effort of recognition. OR justification of guilty pleasure! – which comes up time and again with pulp (Jenna Bass talked about this with me in the first part of our interview when we discussed the inspiration behind the magazine https://africainwords.com/2012/11/13/qa-editor-and-co-founder-of-jungle-jim-magazine-jenna-bass/). The question begs – what, then, might be a worthy topic for literary analysis (O’Toole mentions the debates about crime as literature), particularly in the ‘local context’? (nb the title of Van der Vlies’ book – Print, Text and Book Cultures in South Africa – does not contain the word ‘Literature’.)
    The article also includes a fascinating series of references to the ways in which pulp has traveled, and a line of pulp mags or comix in the South African context – Drum-owned comics such as The Spear, the character of Lance Spearman – the “black James Bond”, the blatancy of Afrikaans pulp productions at the height of apartheid – plus potential sites of archival material and future directions. Worth checking out (especially with AiW’s other Jungle Jim guest posts…)

  2. Thanks to The Great Pulp Magazine Index (http://pulpdust.wordpress.com/about/ ) – a blog preserving and cataloguing information related to Pulp Mags – for recent mentions on their site of Alexander Howard’s post on Jungle Jim and pulp fiction.
    Their website also put Jungle Jim’s FB ‘Pulp of the Day’ page in mind – http://www.facebook.com/junglejimmag?sk=wall for all those amazing pulp-related images (there’s more to be had on Jungle JIm’s Pulp of the Day in part II of AiW’s Q&A with Jenna Bass).

Trackbacks

  1. Startling Stories Vol. 7 No. 3 May 1942 | The Great Pulp Magazine Index
  2. Planet Stories No. 4 (British Edition) Aug. 15, 1950 | The Great Pulp Magazine Index
  3. West Monthly Vol. XXXV, No. 3 November 1932 | The Great Pulp Magazine Index
  4. Live Stories Vol. XLIII, No. 2 (Feb. 8, 1924) | The Great Pulp Magazine Index
  5. Saucy Stories Vol 13, No. 17 (March 15, 1923) | The Great Pulp Magazine Index
  6. Dime Detective Magazine Vol.30, No. 3 June 1939 | The Great Pulp Magazine Index
  7. The Avenger, Vol. 2, No. 6 (September 1940) | The Great Pulp Magazine Index
  8. Dime Mystery Magazine Vol. 17, No. 1 (April 1938) | The Great Pulp Magazine Index
  9. Adventure Vol. 30, No.1 (July 3, 1921) | The Great Pulp Magazine Index
  10. All Around Magazine Vol. 12, No. 1 (May, 1936) | The Great Pulp Magazine Index

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