Flexible Forms and Publics: Moradewun Adejunmobi and Stacy Hardy on Small Magazines

AiW Guest Penny Cartwright

A place for ‘extended curiosity, new adventures, critical thinking, daydreaming, socio-political involvement, partying and random perusal’: so Stacy Hardy, of South Africa’s Chimurenga, imagines the small magazine.  Speaking as part of a closing keynote conversation hosted by Kwani Trust’s Billy Kahora at the third meeting of the AHRC network, ‘Small Magazines, Literary Networks and Self-Fashioning in Africa and its Diasporas’, Hardy testifies to the spirit of alterity that characterised much of this symposium.

For the network convenors, Madhu Krishnan (University of Bristol) and Chris Ouma (University of Cape Town), this project aims to explore African small magazines’ ‘alternative claims to the modern’, as well as the ‘local cultural logics operating beside and below the nation’. However, conversations across this two-day symposium held in Bristol last January also spoke to alternative ways of doing and conceiving the magazine form itself, something the Chimurenga brand exemplifies. Originally a biannual print magazine Chimurenga now encompasses a newspaper, The Chronic, a radio station, the Pan African Space Station, the Chimurenga Library archive of historical periodicals and a research/design consultancy service, the Chimurenga Lab. It is therefore indicative of the malleable and innovative approaches to form that African small magazines are now adopting in light of increasing digital penetration on the continent and major funding pressures – the PDF publishing strategy of Saraba, for instance, was a key talking point across the two days. If the major journals of the decolonization period – Black Orpheus, Lotus, and Présence Africaine – dominated many of the conversations, it was clear that this second generation of small magazines – Kwani, Chimurenga, Saraba and Jalada – are stimulating new debates about the challenges and possibilities of sustaining this form on the continent and in global circles.

The symposium’s first keynote address by Professor Moradewun Adejunmobi (UC Davis), titled ‘African Writing and the Forms of Publicness’, addressed this challenge from the perspective of visibility, focusing on the asymmetry between ‘visibility’ and ‘publicness’, or, as she termed it, the different ‘ways of being in public’. Arguing that being in public is not the same as being intelligible or legible, Adejunmobi called for a rethinking of the politics of African cultural production that does not understand cultural activity as, in itself, impactful and effective. While other papers, notably Kate Wallis’s (University of Exeter) charted the activities and, specifically, material presences of organisations such as Kwani Trust and Kachifo, Adejunmobi sounded a cautionary note that the public existence of these activities does not guarantee their significance. Instead, she drew on Steve Sherlock to stress the ‘citability’ of cultural objects as a key component of their visibility and value.[1] In this respect, her talk chimed with concerns voiced by Femi Osofian, among others, about the quality of African cultural visibility.[2] This is not simply a case of supplementing ‘the single story’ (as Adichie would have it) but of questioning the form in which any story exists and is apprehended in public.

Where Adejunmobi sounded a more optimistic note was, however, in her consideration of publics as civic bodies, recalling that the traditional eighteenth-century notion of the public (as theorized by Jürgen Habermas) was of a sphere of ‘citizen debate’, in contrast to elite and professional authorities. It is this kind of public, the public of citizen-critics, she argued, that is being currently endangered on the continent, with the increasing incorporation of small magazines and literary production into elite spaces such as the university, and the folding of citizen-run magazines such as Dapo Adeniyi’s Glendora Review. (Indeed, this was a theme that was reprised throughout the two days, with Billy Kahora’s fascinating reflections on the infrastructural difficulties of running Kwani? and discussions on the collapse of journals such as Farafina). Yet it is also precisely this public, she suggested, that is perhaps best served by, and might be rejuvenated through, the small magazine form, with its assembling of multiple contributors and its traditional associations of anti-institutionalism. Adejunmobi’s talk thus became a kind of rallying cry for the, perhaps as yet unrealised, potential of small print publications in reasserting the citizen public and extending the visibility of African cultural production beyond the twin figures of Achebe and Adichie.

Stacy Hardy renewed this call in the second keynote of the conference. Musing on the common South African phrase ‘Angazi but I’m sure’ (‘I don’t know… but I’m sure’) she outlined Chimurenga’s ethos of intuitive knowledge – that knowledge ‘that we don’t really realize is knowledge’ – which though unrecognised or undervalued is often vital for everyday survival. She described the commitment to a communal logic of ‘learning by practice and participation’ that informs both Chimurenga’s research and composition methods, and even more logistical aspects such as distribution, for instance drawing on South Africa’s network of Somali corner cafes to help circulate The Chimurenga Chronic. In this estimation of alternative, everyday kinds of expertise Hardy thus struck a chord with Adejunmobi’s discussion of the importance of small magazines’ relationship to a citizen public.

Moreover, Hardy engaged with the conference’s wider attention to the practical issues of sustaining print publications (both small and large-scale) on the continent, a situation that Dan Ojwang and Michael Titlestad have characterised ‘as local literary institutions and publics [being] eroded […] the primary site of African literary production has shifted to Euro-America.’ [3]  As Billy Kahora observed in his conversation with Hardy, Chimurenga has moved increasingly into the events and hospitality worlds in recent years, hosting visual arts exhibitions and live broadcasts of music and spoken word performance – and Hardy acknowledged that this is an increasingly vital channel of fundraising for the publications: ‘people want spectacle’. However, this kind of accounting was expressed less as a limitation than as a form of creative innovation, a means of reimagining the media – magazine as project not object. Appropriately her talk opened with a thrilling run-through of historical ‘libraries’ from the Grand Vizier of Persia’s 400 loaded camels to Ho Chi Minh’s memorised mental archive; her approach to  magazine form, it seemed, is similarly flexible.

Hardy’s and Adejunmobi’s keynotes, and the individual papers across the symposium, testified to the pragmatic challenges of sustaining print culture in contemporary Africa, as well as the challenge – and necessity – of sustaining the (genuine) visibility of the continent to global audiences. In addressing these challenges, the keynotes raised difficult questions about the possibility of meaningful communication across cultural, infrastructural and economic barriers; they also drew attention to the considerable formal innovation and DIY-ethos with which African small magazines have already begun surmounting these barriers. The network will convene at the Africa Writes festival in London this Sunday, in conversation with Dhaxalreeb Magazine, AFREADA, Bakwa Magazine and others, to discuss the work that has been done, and the work that vitally needs to be done, for the future of the African small magazine.

Penny Cartwright is a second-year AHRC funded PhD student at University of Bristol. Her project looks at spatial and affective representations of ‘the global’ in contemporary Anglophone African fiction and memoir. She has also worked with University of Bristol’s Centre for Black Humanities and with Africa Writes festival, and taught courses on postcolonial, modernist and contemporary fiction. She previously completed her BA in English Literature at Oxford University (2015) and an MPhil at Cambridge University (2016).

This is the fourth in a series of articles published by Africa in Words that come out of conversations between a new interdisciplinary network of researchers and literary producers examining the circulation and production of small magazines in Sub-Sahran Africa. This AHRC Research Network, ‘Small Magazines, Literary Networks and Self-Fashioning in Africa and its Diasporas’ is convened by Dr Madhu Krishnan (University of Bristol) and Dr Chris Ouma (University of Cape Town) and has hosted events in Cape Town (April 2017), Kampala (August 2017) and Bristol (January 2018) to explore the relationship between small magazines and the construction of affiliation, identity and civic participation. 

Read the first piece in the series: Sarah Smit ‘Finding Affiliations: Reading Communities, Literary Institutions & Small Magazines’.

Read the second piece in the series: Nathan Suhr-Systma ‘“A secret history of the nation”: Small Magazines at Writivism 2017’.

Read the third piece in the series: Aurélie Journo ‘Archiving Small Magazines: AWA Digitisation and Exhibition in Montpelier‘.

These conversations will continue this Sunday 1st July at the Africa Writes festival in London when the network hosts a conversation exploring magazines in contemporary African literary culture with Dhaxalreeb Magazine, AFREADA, Bakwa Magazine and others.

See more details and book tickets for the festival here.

[1] Steve Sherlock, The Performativity of Value: On the Citability of Cultural Commodities (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013).
[2] Femi Osofian, ‘The Terror of Relevance: Reflections on Theatre Practice in Contemporary Nigeria’, in Insidious Treasons: Drama in a Postcolonial State: Essays, by Femi Osofian (Lagos: Opon Ifa Readers, 2001).
[3] Dan Ojwang and Michael Titlestad, ‘African Writing Blurs into “World” Literature’, Mail & Guardian, 4 April 2014 <https://mg.co.za/article/2014-04-03-african-writing-blurs-into-world-literature&gt; [accessed 22 February 2018].


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