Q&A: Jalada – pan-African writers’ collective

cropped-jalada_logo_final-01New pan-African writers’ collective Jalada formed last June and published their first anthology ‘Sketch of a Bald Woman in the Semi-Nude and Other Stories’ in January. Heralded by Binyavanga Wainaina as a new generation of writers producing exciting and original work, Jalada is already achieving significant critical acclaim and success.  Members of the collective – Clifton Gachagua, Mehul Gohil, Linda Musita, Kioko Ndinda, Okwiri Oduor and Novuyo Rosa Tshuma –  were named as 6 of the 39 most promising fiction writers from Africa under 40 as part of the Africa39 project.  Okwiri Oduor has this week been announced as one of the 5 writers shortlisted for the 2014 Caine Prize (alongside Billy Kahora, Managing Editor of Kwani Trust – the institution that hosted the writing workshop Jalada was formed out of and where many Jaladians have their roots).  It therefore seemed like a very good time for Africa in Words to ask Jalada some questions about their origins, vision and plans for the future – and to share with you an extract from Clifton Gachagua’s beautiful title story to their first publication.

Okwiri Oduor

Okwiri Oduor & Ella Wakatama Allfrey at the writers’ workshop organised by Kwani Trust, in partnership with Granta & the British Council

Could you tell us a bit about Jalada, its aims and how it started?

Kate Hampton: Jalada started with a group of around twenty writers from Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Nigeria who met at a writers’ workshop held by Kwani Trust, Granta and the British Council in Nairobi. The workshop was led by Billy Kahora of Kwani?, Granta’s then Deputy Editor Ellah Allfrey, and writers Nadifa Mohamed and Adam Foulds from Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists list. The group wanted a way to carry the relationships they formed and the work they started forward, so that they would have a life and meaning outside the few days of the workshop.

Jalada has lots and lots of ideas and goals in embryo stage. We aim to be much more than a literary journal, and for members to benefit from participation in the collective in as many ways as possible, from workshops to networking to finding ways to support our writing and ways for members to be able to write full-time. If any member of the collective has an idea of a project they’re passionate about and want to begin, they need only take the initiative and pitch the idea to enough other members.

Anne Moraa: Jalada started very organically. A group of writers met at a workshop and discussions began on how to foster these relationships and writing careers. We all found working collaboratively to be beneficial and so Jalada was formed with that in mind. It aims to further each individual writer’s goals by having us work together for common success, such as creating publication opportunities and challenging creative spaces, as with the anthology Jalada #00. We have bigger goals from writing workshops to funding higher education, but every goal is sourced from the writers in Jalada and their needs.

Alexander Ikawah: The success of its members, as writers, is in my opinion the wider aim of the collective. However, success is defined individually by each writer so that every writer is free to engage in the activities of the collective only in as much as these activities contribute to their (personal definition of) success.

You identify as a ‘pan-African writers’ collective’ rather than a ‘network’ or a ‘literary magazine’. Why is the word or idea of a ‘collective’ important to your vision?  Are there any other writers’ collectives, spaces or publications that you take inspiration from?

Alexander: We found the idea of a collective appealing particularly because a lot of us felt that the few avenues for publication in each of our local spheres were all curated by gatekeepers of some sort or other and as a result ‘African Writing’ was being shaped and directed by these gatekeepers. We wanted to write outside these restrictions and expectations and so we decided on a collective within which each writer would be free to present her or his writing as they saw fit, rather than try to fit some predetermined mold or please some predetermined audience and/or gatekeeper. It was not an idea inspired by anyone but rather a solution to a problem which may or may not resemble other solutions to similar problems elsewhere.

Anne: When we were defining who “Jalada” is, collective was the most fitting.  More than just a publication space or magazine, more than a network where we share connections, Jalada aims to support its writers and allow itself to evolve with its writers, matching their needs. We have elements from all sorts of literary ventures – magazine, network or otherwise – but at its heart, Jalada seeks only to benefit is members: the collective.

Kate: Jalada is a collective because it is non-hierarchical. The part of Jalada that is a network and the part of Jalada that is a literary magazine are only two parts of our larger, long-term vision. We want to support our members in executing any literary project they initiate.

Other members would have completely different answers, but I take inspiration from publications like Chimurenga, Kwani?, McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, Tin House, Granta, N+1, The New Inquiry; creative organizations and collaborative spaces like the Poetry Foundation, the Kelly Writers’ House and Kuona Trust; many, many websites and blogs like AfricaIsACountry, GradientLair, BringMeTheAfricanGuy, PostSecret, ASofterWorld; from the massive success of a huge spectrum of collectives in the Basque country in Spain, from collective work done within the Occupy movements and from work I’ve done with collectives in the past like with CLASE, the student-workers union at American University in DC.


jalada-00_2-01Could you talk us through the process of putting your first anthology of short stories together? At what stage did ‘insanity’ emerge as a theme?

Anne: From the first set of conversations, we knew an anthology would happen. A number of loose themes were suggested, voted on, and the ‘insanity’ theme won out. We then set deadlines for first drafts and final submissions and began conversations with artists. Throughout each stage of the process, the writers were involved.

Kate: Members proposed and then voted on themes. Insanity emerged as the theme about which members were most enthusiastic. A lot of the members already regularly exchange writing with each other, so some feedback was given that way. Those writers who turned in pieces in time for substantive edits and rewrites did them, and all the stories went through copyedits. Simultaneously, we were in touch with two artists – Danelle Gallo and Kimberly Li – about the cover, and we were sending feedback and edits for that. Yet another artist – Marziya Mohammedali – went through and developed story covers for every piece.

Alexander: Nothing out of the ordinary there. We procrastinated, wrote, procrastinated, edited, submitted, read (each others work), edited and eventually published.

Mehul Gohil insisted on it, at the very first discussion we had about the anthology, and he is a very convincing salesperson. Plus, isn’t every writer drawn towards insanity like a moth to a flame? Writing is a form of insanity. In fact, we were vain picking insanity for the first anthology.

The anthology was published online and looks very beautiful.  How would you describe the readers you want to reach and the aesthetic you are trying to create?

Alexander: There is an experimental part of Jalada that is curious about what sort of readers will be drawn to our stories, a process from which we hope to learn and be surprised. The other part I believe is made up of an amalgamation of every single writer’s desired readership and was actually part of the justification for the formation of a collective; the hope that we will attract to each other’s work those readers who already follow us individually, and in so doing, widen the circle. This is general though. I believe each writer will give a different answer to this question and rightly so.

Kate: It was important to me that the publication be aesthetically attractive because I think that is something a lot of young publishers overlook when they’re starting out and that can really shortchange the publication. No matter how good the work is, people are less likely to read it, even online, if it is not encased in an attractive package. People have always judged books by their covers and they always will. We wanted the aesthetics to represent the work as well as possible—its quality and its sensibility.

Anne: Jalada’s goal is to help its writers so, aesthetically, I believe the primary goal was to put the writers’ work first. Complimented with the incredible art, each story stands out and fits as part of the collection. Our writers are incredible, and we want to provide a venue where their creative minds are not only freed, but challenged. The readers will get incredibly diverse and unique writing that is both original and experimental. From the feedback, each reader has their personal favourite story or writer because they are all so different, as they should be.

Is Jalada open to new members?

Kate: We’re still finalizing our membership process. In the meantime, there are submissions call-outs on our website and anyone published in Jalada becomes a member. I’d encourage anyone interested in getting involved with Jalada to get in touch with any member, to email letters@jalada.org, or contact us through twitter @JaladaAfrica. Soon we will refine and launch a different method of membership.

Alexander: Yes, very much. There is a structure of sorts to handle editing and coordination but in as far as accepting work for the journals and publication are concerned we are very open to other writers and interested in people submitting work and joining us in meetings and activities.

What are your plans for future projects?

Anne: Our immediate projects are two anthologies: Jalada 01, with the theme of Afrofuturism and Afro-science fiction, for which we are open for submissions through June 15th, as well as an anthology of short fiction which is in the works and is themed around porn/ sex and guest edited by Keguro Macharia.

Kate:  Jalada has a penchant for formally innovative, imaginatively daring work, and for good writing of every stripe. With both of these new issues we were tempted to explore “genre fiction” and thus resist the dichotomy of high versus low literature, genre fiction versus literary fiction. Personally I hope that, in the sex issue for instance, we will publish well-written erotica alongside pieces which are not erotic at all but have porn/sex as central themes. I hope both issues will challenge their respective genres and genre limitations, as well as the very idea of genres. Generally, I think Jalada is challenging ideas and myths about writing from the continent.


An extract from ‘Sketch of a Bald Woman in the Semi-Nude’ by Clifton Gachagua 

Enough about cats.

This is about a semi-nude woman. It is really about this one moment she stood in my bathroom, barefooted, taking a shower. I know that’s not especially breaking news, the listening post on Al Jazeera would not be interested in that. Unless she videotapes herself and calls it citizen journalism but what she really means is that it is a noir film called citizen journalism and she goes on to win a Pulitzer for a newly created category. The special thing about this girl is that she was standing in my bathroom using my hot water, it’s possible to see how the water touched her pale skin, and she was standing there and the bathroom door was open.

An open bathroom door.

Her hair the color of crematorium ash.

I don’t know if this is true for you, but I find bathing a very intimate thing. Bathing is like sleeping, that’s why I was so in and out of my head with those cats making their awful noise. Bathing and sleeping, forget about the motions. Think deep tissue. Just like I like to sleep alone, uninterrupted and with no one and no sounds and no light in the room, I also like to bathe in private. I believe people should also bathe in private. I want to treat people as I want them to treat me although I am giving this mantra up because no one really knows me, no one knows about the masala men under my tongue, no one knows the girl with the bald head and the sketches I made in my sleep, O God no one knows. Bathing is just one of those things, you know. You want to do it in private. Just you and God. It’s just the way it is. I don’t know what psychoanalysts think about a notion like that but I’d sure like to find out some day. Maybe they might even explain the thing about the cats too.

Cats haven’t always been a pervasive and recurring theme in my life but for the past few weeks they have terrorized my sleep. It bothered me so much, their oblivion did, it made me angry they were not aware they were keeping me up.

The most striking thing about this girl is the way her soul is in the striking curve of her big toes. They are the biggest and most beautiful toes I have seen. On both women and men. Just like everything has a center, everything must also have a soul. Check in the digital library of any place and you will see.

I was on my desk trying to work and this girl was in the shower, her toes on the linoleum not afraid of the fungus even though I have expressly warned her—by way of fifteen brands of scouring powder—but like with everything else she does the opposite of what I say, with the bathroom door wide open, O God just wide open like Noah’s door in the preceding hours and there she is peeping even when the door is open and there is soap almost getting into her eyes, foam inside her ears and collecting in the bellybutton, foam in the middle, foam picking apples in between her youknowwhat where she is all naked, O God all naked like betrayal in Golgotha, I don’t have the proper tears or the proper education, and trying to tell me things. I don’t know why she thinks she has to tell me things. Why? I’m a fair man. I don’t assume she always want to hear things and that’s why I am always silent even during the sex doing and undoing, church mouse if you want, I just nibble and nibble with all small teeth and language mapped on my lips but the cells have collapsed because they are the towers of Babel and little men in charge of time (previously accused to be in charge of masala) are in conversation with her lips from mine and I’m just silent while she is taking photographs of my neurons and sexing me like she had just watched mick jagger, that splendid god even in small letters, and I am inside her while at it and I am rediscovering that while inside her is like a remembering of the rules of a childhood game, a remembering of my mother walking on glass and cussing, coming out is like waking up in the body of an elephant. And silence. If she looks into my eyes during sexing, and I highly suspects she looks, she finds nothing there. “Nothing there” is so much I’ll not get into that. Thank you. She finds nothing there in the sense that night is nothing and color is not color until the sun is out making its way through flecks of dust and human breath in the air. Nothing is silence. A void is a silence and when you make sex with silence this is truly terrifying.

Read the full story here

Clifton Gachagua (@CliftonGachagua) is the recipient of the 2013 inaugural Sillerman Prize for African Poetry. In 2013 he was longlisted for the 2013 Kwani? Manuscript Project and his debut poetry collection, The Madman at Kilifi, was published in 2014. His work has appeared in publications including Storymoja and Kwani? He is currently an editor and television scriptwriter.


Read the first Jalada anthology, with stories from Tuelo Gabonewe, Jacque Ndinda, Orem Ochiel, Nyana Kakoma, Alexander Ikawah, Anne Moraa, Kiprop Kimutai, Novuyo Rose Tshuma, Moses Kilolo, Clifton Gachagua, Wambui Wairua, Idza Luhumyo and Linda Musita here.

Follow Jalada on Facebook and Twitter @JaladaAfrica

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