AiW Guests: Isobella Norman, Leyla Mohammed and Leoni Fretwell.
Wanjeri Gakuru is a freelance journalist, essayist and filmmaker invested in gender equality and social justice. From 2018, Wanjeri has been the Managing Editor of Jalada Africa, a Pan-African writers’ collective and leading literary force both on the continent and internationally. In 2020 she was appointed Nataal magazine’s Nairobi-based Contributing Editor. Recently, she was the creative lead on the newly released Jalada 09: Nostalgia issue, an anthology of fiction, essays, visual art, films, and interviews on the subject of nostalgia.
She is a founding member and Partnerships Director of the Rogue Film Society, a multi-disciplinary collective of African creatives. Wanjeri also co-wrote feature films Supa Modo (2018) and Lusala (2019), and her directorial debut Get Laid premiered at the Shorts, Shorts and Shots Festival in June 2019.
Wanjeri was a joy to talk to, and we were excited to learn more about the Nostalgia double issue, her time more broadly as the Managing Editor for Jalada Africa, and the evolution of her film projects.
Isobella Norman, Leyla Mohammed & Leoni Fretwell for AiW: Congratulations on the recent launch of Nostalgia Volume 2. We enjoyed listening to your conversations with Saddiq Dzkogi and Carey Baraka. In what ways do you think this Nostalgia issue speaks to the ways in which we can rethink or re-imagine realities when looking back on memories?
Wanjeri Gakuru: We published poetry, short fiction, essays, and visual art, and each of these took the topic in really interesting directions. For example, the McMillan library in Nairobi looked at the history of the space itself. It was owned by a wealthy American settler, but now Book Bunk are reclaiming it and asking how do you make this space more welcoming without neglecting its colonial heritage? They are approaching things head on, saying we will not ignore this part of our history but we will make something new out of it.
In our poetry and fiction, there were a lot of pieces with characters who were either trying to reconcile with things that happened in their childhood or trying to recast themselves as more sympathetic or critical lovers/parents/siblings. It was very interesting where imagination took the authors and artists and how the approaches were so different.
That’s so interesting – looking back at history and tackling it without being insensitive. As a creative involved in multiple industries, how do you feel literature and film can enable creators to revisit dark moments to create complex beautiful art?
At the core of it, story is the thing that lives in both of these mediums. We can draw from the past and create something new or we can just present the past as it was. I had a conversation for the first volume with two documentary filmmakers, Jihan El-Tahri and Judy Kibinge, who both have presented the past in fantastic ways – as if pulling a thread through time. In that regard, it’s us taking these moments out of recorded text and making a deep dive.
There’s also a lot of erasure. We could talk about literature in the sense of fiction and the novel, but the books that we learn from in school – there is a lot that is either distorted or completely erased. Through documentary filmmaking your kind of examining those moments and saying that is not really what happened.
Your editorials that frame both issues make explicit reference to working through the pandemic – could you talk a little bit more about how much of the issue it influenced?
When the pandemic happened, it forced us all to have a very small life. When you’re in that small life you start thinking about who you really are – your experiences, value system and the choices you’ve made over time. There is a tendency to look back with rose-tinted glasses and I wanted to really engage with that. I pitched my idea and people were like let us complicate the question. So, at the heart of the project was nostalgia but we invited multiple ways of approaching it. It became not just about that immediate feeling of looking back with joy but criticism too.
One thing that really stands out about the whole issue is the rich representation of space, culture, and a sense of home. Could you speak a little more about evoking this sense of place?
In the second volume, we have ‘Saving the Railway’ which is a fantastic project done by our nonfiction editor Chao Maina. There was something really wonderful about how from her images there was a sense of standing still. Then I was introduced to a photographer who had gone back to his hometown and documented his village. It was the same idea of standing still: a snapshot of a moment. In Carey Baraka’s work, he’s talking about places that I know as a Nairobian but even in other people’s work – people writing about their cities, characters driving down a particular highway or road trip – you get a sense of place.
Could you speak a little bit more about your choice to include a range of different media, style, and genre within the double issue? Have you always been interested in mixing media, or is it something newer?
Yes! We had actually wanted to create a multimedia project on the question of identity but that didn’t work out. However, for this issue I started out interested in how many other ways we could approach the theme. We always have poetry, fiction, and nonfiction but what else could we bring to the conversation that would add a richness to it? So that’s how perspectives from libraries became quite an important inclusion as well as the ‘history and truth-tellers’ series looking at creatives countering revisionist history and telling the stories we owe ourselves to tell.
We would love to take a step back now and think about the work you have done as Managing Editor for Jalada. Given Jalada is a writers’ collective, how have you worked to build that sense of collective energy through your role as Managing Editor?
When I first took over, we had just collaborated with Transition magazine on the Fear issue and that was an exciting project for us. It was the first time Jalada existed in print. We have put out four issues and a bonus edition since I became editor. The themes were proposed internally by members and then put to a vote. As a collective all our work is built around collaboration. With Diaspora (which arose out of a visit to the Edinburgh International Festival on the Momentum international delegate programme where I met the folks from Digital Writers Festival based in Australia who connected me with citizens of African descent). Our then Arts Editor Marziya Mohammedali who is based in Perth, was the right person to lead the venture. I feel like my role as Managing Editor has been fostering partnerships that move our work
forward. The brand belongs to us all and when I bring people in it is to work with all of us as a collective and in collaboration. Our energy goes toward the brand and toward each other. Jalada’s successes belong to all of us.
When you took on the role in 2018 you talked about your ambitions to “continue Jalada’s tradition of progressive thinking regarding what literature by African writers can be.” Would you consider the aspirations you approached this role with have been achieved?
I am really proud of what we have done as a collective. There have been a lot of domestic and international collaborations in my time but I have tried to be careful not to cede our power. Whatever project we have embarked on, we came to it as ourselves. We kept this frame of mind even as we built our anthologies. In making our story selections we were conscious of things like the promise of the writer and the uniqueness of their voice and perspective. We’re not interested in fomenting caricatures or tropes. We aimed to go further than publishing for the sake of publishing and this fed into the development of our thinking regarding what an African writer could be.
It has been fantastic to be a part of it all and I am confident that we now have the structure to keep moving forward. I can now sit back as part of the collective and appreciate these wonderful opportunities and ideas that come to light.
You must be so proud of all that has been done and achieved, looking back on the aspirations that you started with – I was wondering what memory has left the most lasting impression on you?
I would have to take it back to the period before I was Managing Editor in 2017 when we travelled the Greater East Africa on the Jalada Mobile Literary and Arts Festival which myself, Richard Oduor, and former Managing Editor Moses Kilolo two years to design. We travelled for 28 days and it was so exciting to be a part of the conception and the fundraising, and to be a producer on the road. It’s one of my favourite memories. Oh, there is also this bicycle behind me which I purchased on the road in a small-town in Tanzania – great memories.
I am also a big cheerleader for my colleagues. They are all so uniquely talented and the work they do within the Collective (leading workshops, cross-cultural projects, chairing conversations with leading voices) and as individuals is astounding.
We would love to hear a bit more about the Jalada Mobile Literary and Arts Festival. Can you talk about the most important things that you took from that experience and the thinking behind it?
The idea for the festival came from the Language and Translation issues which featured the publication of stories in multiple languages and one particular one by Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o that inspired dozens of translations. We were curious about where these languages were spoken and cultural productions outside of literature that were important to give attention to. I realised that I did not have to be the first audience for a piece of text or performance – that was kind of the point of this festival. I remember being in Kampala and there was a poet performing in Luganda and I had no idea what was being said but the audience loved it. I was so grateful we could create that space for people to gather and have that experience that. It was not about us – us English speakers, us Kenyan people, us Jalada – it was all about moving beyond that. That became something we tried to do wherever we went even in places like Mombasa where we had performances in Swahili and tried to think about the local. As curators we had general points of interest but once there, we sat back and listened. It is so exciting to learn what is out there in the world of literature and to be curious about all these other cultural productions that exist and are equally as important. To give them some attention through our platform.
With your term as Managing Editor coming to an end, what are your next steps?
Last year I had the great privilege of being accepted to a publishing and digital media course at Yale School of Management that was postponed because of the pandemic. I wanted to go get these innovative ideas that I could feed back into the collective. We are but one of a handful of literary publications and if we can make these chances work for us then we can give back to the people who have donated their time and their stories to us. I am hoping that the pandemic lets up (somewhat) and the programme resumes in the summer. I intend to pursue more of these opportunities in the future.
Your time as Managing Editor and as part of the collective has highlighted the importance of artistic collaboration in your work. As a founding member and Partnerships Director of the Rogue Film Society, how important is it to provide a space for creatives to network?
I was actually discussing this with my friends and members of the collective earlier this morning. What we really wanted to do with The Rogue Film Society (RFS) was to disrupt how things operate. Currently in our films industry power is not vested in the creatives. Producers have all the power and make super profits from all the things creatives do, and we hate that. But with the possibilities of the internet and all these wonderful courses available online, there’s a mass of people trained in basic filmmaking who are also learning the true value of their effort and imagination.
Film is really big on collaboration; it may be one person’s specific vision, but it really takes a community to make films. When people are at a stage where they have an idea to make something but have limited resources, we’ve created a space called the Story Factory. The concept involves sharing pitches and getting feedback and creating a safe entry point into an artist’s work. This space is very precious, and everything given is a gift. And so we support one another in that way, from concept to execution. We also work with each other. For instance, when I am directing a short film or documentary, I have RFS members working with me on set or later in post-production. In this way we support each other and build our portfolios. Opportunities for education on the continent for film are there but are very limited and expensive, so we’ve made the film sets our education.
Your directorial debut Get Laid, a mockumentary short film following an interview for a dating app, is full of humour and satire. Having premiered in 2019 at the Mzalendo edition of Shorts, Shorts and Shots Festival, where do you plan for it to go now in terms of distribution outside of the festival circuit?
To be honest, my primary goal was making the film and bringing a crazy idea to life but I quickly learnt that you have think about its life beyond the hard drive – including where you want to distribute it and who is the best audience for it. It has been shown a couple of times locally as well as at the Urusaro Festival in Rwanda but I am still thinking about distribution as a whole. Because everyone is so hungry for African content, the thing that’s working in our favour is that a lot of platforms are accepting films made within a span of five years. As I’m making more films, I’m realising I do want my work to be in the world and to provide the same comfort that film has given me.
You mentioned a conversation earlier with documentary and feature filmmakers Jihan El-Tahri and Judy Kibinge which explored the urgency and importance of countering historical silences. How could future African cinema represent the intricacies of experience more accurately?
For a long time, we were really pigeon-holed. I think it’s a credit to the time we are living in now and the internet that film is showing our diversity as individuals. We are code-switchers, we are shapeshifters. We have multiple identities, we are multilingual. And that’s what we are, as much as we are victims of Britain and its conquest of the world. All this complexity defines us as Africans.
What I have found with cinema that my friends and I are making and consuming is it’s very much the everyday. There’s an increasing interest in making films in local languages. Taking the “might” of the camera and focusing its lens on a particular place and story that’s not typically featured. That is what we did with my first feature film Supa Modo which unfolded in Swahili and Kikuyu, the language of my culture. It did not centre English at all. The more we are in the driving seat the more the world is interested in us but we are also trying to make work that doesn’t compromise on who we are in order to be palatable for an international audience.
As part of your role as the Managing Editor for Jalada Africa, you have been in conversation with so many creatives over the years. What has been your favourite question to ask?
I’ve always been curious about knowing the why, and I like to ask it in a way that honours someone’s creative work. I think the perfect example was with Saddiq Dzukogi and asking the why of his poem – I’m even getting emotional now just thinking about – and learning that it comes from such a deeply profound place.
We often don’t ask and honour where things spring from, maybe we are too embarrassed at how personal or emotional a question that can be but I’m always very happy to hear when someone opens up and tells me that their work has come from such a real place.
You can find the second volume of Jalada Africa’s Nostalgia issue here, an exciting continuation of the concept of looking back on memories with new lived experiences.
Leyla Mohammed is a final-year English student at the University of Exeter, interested in literary modernism, creative censorship, and African literature. Currently working in marketing alongside her degree, she is hoping to progress her career in the creative sector once she graduates.
Isobella Norman is a final-year Classics and English student at the University of Exeter whose interest in publishing and editing drew her to the African Narratives course and its opportunity to talk to creatives like Wanjeri Gakuru.
Leoni Fretwell is a third-year English undergraduate at the University of Exeter, drawn to African literature and cinema. Interested in the connections between creativity and sustainability, Leoni is hoping to become a filmmaker after graduation.