Q&A – #ReadingAfrica: African Literary Magazine Editors on Curating for the Continent

With AiW Guests: Nzube Nlebedim – The Shallow Tales Review, Mazi Nwonwu – Omenana Magazine, and Kenechi Uzor – Iskanchi Magazine, interviewed by SarahBelle Selig of Catalyst Press.

AiW note: #ReadingAfrica Week is an annual celebration of African literature held the first full week of December every year. Kickstarted by Catalyst Press in 2017, the campaign began as a way to spotlight the diverse and genre-spanning work writers across the African continent are doing by encouraging readers, writers, publishers, booksellers, and book lovers of all kinds to shoutout their favorite African authors and publishers with the hashtag #ReadingAfrica on their social media pages. Now in its sixth year, the campaign has grown to include a full week-long program of virtual events and roundtables, daily challenges, campaign ambassadors and more.

All this week, use the hashtag #ReadingAfrica or #ReadingAfricaWeek on social media to celebrate your favorite African authors and stories, and tune into Catalyst Press’ pages to keep up to date with live panels and other #ReadingAfrica events.

Indie publishers would be nowhere without the extraordinary literary magazines whose passion for sharing and supporting indie books gets readers around the world excited about what we do. At Catalyst Press, we know we’re indebted to these brilliant curators who, in these crazy times, make time to read and review our titles, often while managing their own busy writing and editing careers. And as a publisher of African literature, we at Catalyst have the special privilege of working with magazines on the continent and beyond whose dedication to elevating African voices echoes our own.

In honor of #ReadingAfrica Week 2022, I sat down with the creators of Iskanchi Magazine, Omenana Magazine, and The Shallow Tales Review to talk about what it means to be a literary magazine from Africa and for Africans, and what they expect for the future of the industry.

We hope you’ll join us this week for #ReadingAfrica Week 2022, where we’re celebrating all things African literature—including creators like Kenechi Uzor, Mazi Nwonwu, and Nzube Nlebedim who keep the industry growing and thriving.

– SarahBelle Selig, publicist and South African office head, Catalyst Press

SarahBelle Selig: Hi everyone, thanks so much for joining me! Let’s start with something that’s long been a topic of conversation at our press (we even hosted a panel about it earlier this week). You’re each publishing African writers, but how do you define who is African? 

Nzube Nlebedim: An “African writer,” for us at The Shallow Tales Review, is any writer, from any part of the world, who crafts writings that interrogate African problems. These writings could be against or for us, but what’s important is that they are about us. We select and publish the best of these.

Mazi Nwonwu: At Omenana, we do not hold a restrictive view of the who can be identified as African. This is because we share the definition of who an African is as expressed by the African Science Fiction and Fantasy Society (ASFS), which sees an African as including citizens of African countries, migrants to an African country, people with an African parent, people from the continent who now live abroad, and people born on the continent and grew up there.

Selig: So how much of what you do is for readers within Africa—to give Africans a place to read and publish new literature—and how much of it is for non-Africans, to experience a truer representation of the continent?

Nlebedim: That’s all we stand for: the publication of writings and art that reflect, and if possible, change the impression those living outside Africa have of us. There are a whole lot of misconceptions about Africa, and we are using our literature to correct these anomalies and hopefully right the wrongs, and at the same time give writers an opportunity to have their voices amplified.

Nwonwu: Everything we do is for the readers in Africa. One major example is us holding off putting a paywall because we don’t want to add an extra hurdle for the reader from Africa who might have struggled to get access to the Internet. We felt that battle is hard enough. We do get a lot of non-African and are happy they find us, but our primary focus is to tell the African story to the African. One positive fallout of this mission is that our non-African reader get to taste the authentic story that not diluted for their consumption. This, we believe, serves literature well.

Kenechi Uzor: Authenticity—telling our stories as they ought to be told—takes primacy over any delineation or specificity of audience. Because, within or without Africa, our ideal audience are those interested in the authentic and best expressions of African realities. I am interested in building a platform where the African realities can be showcased as they are experienced, without interventions or explications. 

Selig: Do you find yourself making editorial changes to the works you receive, or making curatorial decisions, based on how relevant the context would be to non-African readers? 

Nwonwu: In truth, what we do is ensure that stories are accessible. This is irrespective of where a reader hails from. Africa is a very complex continent and the diversity in culture is palpable. We, however, see similarities in almost every context and this makes it easier to approach the editorial process, especially as it relates to audience accessibility. 

Nlebedim: Every society has its communicative norms. Africans, too. We understand this, and so our editors try as much as possible to stay true and not have to explain what writers say or mean. Our work is not to come down but to have our readers from outside Africa come up to understand what we mean when we say things. An American writer wouldn’t naturally explain what marshmallows mean when they use it in their works. They expect readers to know what they are or at least research them. I move that African editors keep up the same energy.

Uzor: Since the goal is the story in its most credible rendition, our editorial changes at Iskanchi would be to preserve the authenticity of the realities being expressed. We will not italicize words written in an African language. We will not explain who the Queen of the Coast is and whether she is related to Mammy Water. Matatu is matatu. Danfo is danfo: not a minibus. Akara, moi-moi are not bean cakes. If filet mignon is filet mignon, Suya should also be Suya, and Garri should be Garri. If our words are not on Google, someone should put them in. If not, let the ignorant remain ignorant still. But readers are smart; acquisition editors and publishers should stop making assumptions on what readers would understand. 

Selig: Your publications all place great import on fluidity, unruliness, wildness, disobedience. Where does that stem from? What’s the history that’s implied there?

Nwonwu: What we place import on is authenticity. If it is real, express it. If you feel it, say it. If you think it, let your characters live it. However, we do place some limitations. Everything must be in context. 

A story from the Fall 2022 issue of Iskanchi.

Uzor: Perhaps the history is that because the lions were not telling their side of the hunt, the hunter began to tell it as he pleased and told it for so long that the lions even began to accept these stories as facts, as the norm, and began to repeat them. We were not telling our stories, so they told them for us in their language, in their own style: the dark continent of ancestral savannahs and huts and heat and flinging breasts and guttural grunts. And now we, too, tell our stories just like they do, in their style. The same old single story. We who seek to change the narrative, to combat the stereotypes, must first miseducate ourselves from the prevalent narrative. If we must tell our stories true, then we must be nonconforming. We must disobey and deviate from the norm. 

Selig: Speaking of education, how did your literary educations determine your path towards publishing?

Nlebedim: I studied English at the University of Lagos, Nigeria. That opportunity opened me up to the realities of African literature, and perhaps, what was needed to try to push it forward. 

Nwonwu: I don’t know if I can say I have received a literary education yet! Omenana came as something I felt would fill a need in a niche I had deep interest in and which, sadly, the Nigerian literary landscape at that point wasn’t interested in platforming. Even now, we are still seen as the fringe part of the literary community. 

Uzor: I was exposed to a lot of experimental writing during my MFA at the University of Utah. Of course, most works we studied were by white authors. I wanted to know the African writers working in the experimental mode. What would experimental writing look like in the African literary context, and where would such works be published? This was how the magazine arm of Iskanchi Press was born. I saw a need for a platform for experimental writing by Africans. 

Selig: Each of you has ongoing writing commitments to other outlets— Nzube, you’re Editor in Chief at Afrocritik; Kenechi, you’re a contributor to multiple outlets including Catapult, Electric Literature, and The Millions; Mazi, you’re a journalist for the BBC. What feels different about running your own magazine? Could you do this work of curating without a background in writing? Which of these do you foremost consider yourself: a writer, a journalist, or a publisher?

Uzor: I began as a reader, and the reading led to writing because some books captivated me so much that I had to write my version. The writing forced me into editing, and as an editor I saw so many manuscripts I knew readers would find amazing if someone would just publish then. So I became a publisher. 

Nwonwu: I tend to consider myself a writer first. However, I made the beautiful mistake of falling in love and starting a family and then had to fend for them. As such, I exist more as a journalist now. It is super difficult dropping the journalist hat to focus on Omenana. So the magazine does play the second fiddle, even though, if I could, it would be number one. I do like the control to make decisions and not have to wait for someone to okay my next steps with the magazine. But no way I could have done what I’ve been able to do with Omenana without my background as a writer. 

Nlebedim: I believe every editor should have a firm foundation first as a writer. I don’t think you can coach a football team if you never played. 

Selig: You all hail from Nigeria. Could you explain the major delineations between the “three generations” of Nigerian literature? How does this delineation play out in the curation of your magazine?

Nlebedim: Each of the dispensations in Nigerian literature came with their own uniqueness: from the first which had at its core the realignment of our colonialist constructs, to the second which focused mainly on the corrupt civilian and military governments, to the third which, I believe, extends to now and focuses on more interpersonal motifs such as sexuality, introspection, ennui, and in a large sense, migration. The writings we receive at Shallow Tales revolve around these Third Force constructs. It’s a privilege documenting this dispensation through digital forms of publication.

Nwonwu: I am one of those who just see writers doing their bit in their time. I do not see delineations. In essence, what we have are writers who are influenced by their times and used the realities to their advantage. For example, we can see how much the digital landscape has made publishing easier and how it serves as a great source for muse. In the past, writers met up physically to debate and critique each other’s work; now we do that via email, and social media. 

Selig: Many African writers, and writers around the world, strive to get published in international (primarily North American and European) journals and presses. What benefits would they see in getting published by African outlets over Western outlets?

Nwonwu: This is a battle we didn’t fight from day one. My co-founder, Chinelo Onwualu, and I are writers so we understood that desire to be published in the West. We see ourselves now as a discovery platform. We find the writer, help them get their stories to the best place we can get it, publish them, and celebrate with them when they become a buzz in the West. That said, the major benefit African writers get from us is that we understand their story’s context. So you don’t need to explain “nyama nyama” to us.

Nlebedim: Well, sustainability, continuity and exposure are the core offers we give. Quality magazine productions and amplification should be a given for every self-respecting African literary channel. 

Selig: What’s your favorite interview or feature you’ve done? Who would your dream interview be?

Nwonwu: We do this feature where we highlight artists and creatives. We call it “The World According To…”. I think my best so far is the feature on writer, journalist and artist, Abdulkarim Baba Aminu. The guy is shocking with what he has done, where he has been and where we will see him in the future.

Nlebedim: All of them have been favorites. They come with their different challenges and uniqueness that make them beautiful. I might call it a day on my interview beat when I speak with and publish Wole Soyinka. It’s always been a dream, and we’ve been working to make that come true.

Selig: Tell me one thing you’re most excited about in the African literary industry right now.

Nwonwu: I am excited abou the Sauúti Universe, which recently launched. It is a partnership between Syllble and some ASFS members like Wole Talabi and Stephen Embleton. I like where speculative fiction is going on the continent. 

Nlebedim: The genuine amplification and humanization of queer writings and writers. That’s a big step forward.

Selig: Alright, to wrap this up, make a prediction about African literature in the next 10 years.

Nlebedim: African literature will take a firmer place in global literature, and African writers publishing outside the continent will not have to parrot to any Western or European dictates.

Nwonwu: It will be here, only louder!

Nzube Nlebedim is a Nigerian writer, critic and editor. He is the Editor-in-Chief of The Shallow Tales Review, and managing editor of Afrocritik. He lives in Lagos. Find Nzube on Twitter, and follow The Shallow Tales Review on their Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Read the latest issue of The Shallow Tales Review here.

Mazi Nwonwu’s real name is Chiagozie Fred Nwonwu. He is a Nigerian speculative fiction writer and journalist. He co-founded Omenana speculative fiction magazine with Chinelo Onwualu in 2014. His fiction work has appeared in two AfroSF anthologies, the African Futurism anthology, Jalada, Brittle Paper, African Roar, African Writer, It wasn’t Exactly Love anthology from Farafina, Lagos 2060 anthology, and elsewhere. Narrative Landscapes Press will publish his collection of speculative fiction in 2023. Find Mazi on Twitter and Instagram, and follow Omenana‘s Facebook and Twitter accounts. Read the lastest issue of Omenana here.

Kenechi Uzor is the founder of Iskanchi Press & Mag. He has a B.A in Philosophy, a B.Sc. in English/Creative Writing, an MFA in Fiction, and a Graduate Certificate in Publishing. Kenechi’s writing has been included in anthologies and has appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, Catapult, and others. He is a Tin House Scholar, a winner of the Scowcroft Prose prize, and second place winner of the Open border Fiction Prize. He has received residency and fellowship awards from Ebedi International Residency and the Dee Artists’ Colony, Montana. Kenechi Uzor is an Associate Instructor of writing at the University of Utah and seats on Portland State University’s Book Pub Advisory Board. Find Kenechi on Twitter, and follow Iskanchi on their Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Read the latest issue of Iskanchi here.

SarahBelle Selig is Publicist and South African Office Head at Catalyst Press. Having relocated from the USA to South Africa in 2018, SarahBelle recently completed her Master of Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town and her writing has appeared in places like World Literature Today and Odyssa Magazine. You can find out more about SarahBelle’s writing on her website

Catalyst Press started Reading Africa Week in 2017 as an annual celebration of African literature. Each year, during the first full week of December, they ask book-lovers of all kinds to use the hashtags #ReadingAfrica or #ReadingAfricaWeek across social media on posts that spotlight African literature.

#ReadingAfricaWeek runs December 4-10, 2022, and you can follow and join in with Catalyst Press’s socials: FacebookInstagram & Twitter.

And you can read all of Catalyst Press’s 2021 #ReadingAfrica posts here!

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