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Providing a New Space for African Voices: Talking to The Johannesburg Review of Books

Olivia Snaije By Olivia Snaije Published on July 3, 2017

This year an exciting new project launched in Johannesburg: The Johannesburg Review of Books, showcasing new works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and photography from Africa but also from beyond. The JRB hopes to provide a space for writers from South Africa, Africa and the rest of the world to examine culture, politics, history and the arts. The JRB's editor, Jennifer Malec, answered questions for Bookwitty about the magazine's genesis: 

How did the JRB come about—has it been years in the making? How did it become reality? 

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Ben Williams

The idea for the JRB brewed in our publisher Ben Williams’ mind for years, and we broke digital ground in January of this year and launched in May. We had an overwhelmingly positive response from our contacts in the book world, and it didn’t take long to find advisors and contributors. Our masthead includes a number of respected South African, African and international writers, such as Rabih Alameddine, Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, Patrick Flanery, Petina Gappah, Philip Gourevitch, Rustum Kozain, Bongani Madondo, Niq Mhlongo, and many others. Our patrons are the esteemed writers Achmat Dangor, Ivan Vladislavić and Makhosazana Xaba - all three very much associated with Johannesburg. With such a strong literary brains trust, we are confident we can grow the JRB into an internationally recognized publication, and in so doing encourage more, similar, enterprises across the continent.

There is a wide body of African literature in many languages. Will you also be covering literature in French and any other languages present in Africa and if so, how?

It’s wonderful to see more and more African novels being translated from English into other languages and from other languages into English, and there are more and more international prizes rewarding and encouraging these efforts. Our Francophone Editor, Efemia Chela, makes sure we’re on top of what’s happening in that world, and we publish news snippets on the latest happenings in each issue of the JRB. At the moment our coverage is solely in English, although we’d love for that to expand in the future.

Who is your audience or who are your audiences?

Our audience is mainly South African, but we’ve had strong interest from the United States, the UK and the rest of Africa, and it’s growing. We’re obviously still very young, and we’re quickly developing relationships with other parts of the world. One of our main aims is to amplify critical voices from Africa in global literary conversations, ‘writing back’ to global arbiters of taste, as it were. So we have a dual focus: to highlight the depth and value of African writing, and to offer an African perspective on international literature.

Will you be covering primarily contemporary writing or will you also cover the classic African authors?

Our main focus is on on new writing, but we do have a number of features that look back to the classics and under-appreciated African gems, of which there are many. In our first issue, Percy Zvomuya considered Bozambo’s Revenge, an obscure counterfactual novel by Bertène Juminer, published in the 1960s, which is set in a France that has been colonized by Africans. In our second issue, he reviewed Aminata Sow Fall’s 1981 classic novel The Beggars’ Strike: ‘a fascinating satire on the trashing of the rights of beggars in the city by its new black lords … [a situation] familiar to many who live in African cities today’. Also, in our first issue, our academic editor Simon van Schalkwyk considered the implications of teaching Things Fall Apart at a South African university in 2017.

In addition to these forays into the past, we also have a series titled "Temporary Sojourner", in which Efemia Chela will be reading the best fiction from around the African continent. Her first article in this series looked at Dambudzo Marechera’s The House of Hunger. Reading is the cheapest way to travel, after all!

How do you select your contributors and how do you select the authors you cover?

We are open to pitches from any writers with an itch to scratch. We can be contacted here.

How closely do you work with African publishers?

Both Ben and I have been in the book world for some time - Ben founded Books LIVE, South Africa’s equivalent of Publisher’s Weekly, which I edited for several years; and Ben was also the literary editor for the Sunday Times, South Africa’s largest weekly English newspaper - so we have a good relationship with South African publishers, and many African books end up on local publishers’ distribution lists. We are in contact with several African publishers, too, but we are still expanding that network, and would certainly welcome any publishers who are interested to get in touch with us as well.

Can you give me some examples of some of the best contemporary writers coming out of Africa today?

I must preface this answer by saying that there are far too many talented writers for me to mention them all. But let me mention a few rising stars. Masande Ntshanga’s debut novel The Reactive is currently travelling around the world - it has been published in the UK and Commonwealth and North America, an Italian edition has just been announced and the German rights have been sold as well. He’s one to watch, for sure. I’d also recommend Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees, a delicate and bold consideration of lesbian relationships in Nigeria, and Yya Gyasi’s Homegoing, an epic of race, war, slavery and exploitation that covers two continents and three centuries. Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83, set in a bar in an unnamed Congolese mining town, is an example of the translation trend I mentioned above, and we’re lucky it is: its magic transcends language. Finally, a shout-out to Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s wonderful Season of Crimson Blossoms, which won the $100 000 Nigeria Prize for Literature. 

Interest in African literature in the rest of the world has been growing exponentially. Why now?

I’m sure there are many reasons to mention, but the rising influence and popularity of African culture generally, around the world, must have something to do with it. There is a sense that Africa’s moment is coming - something similar to what Latin America experienced in the 1970s, which bore such fruit in so many different cultural spheres in the decades that followed. I think it’s also partly to do with redressing a former imbalance, and with the emergence of African markets for local books - markets which then become increasingly well-populated showcases for the tremendous literary talent on the continent. It’s our feeling that the new century’s teen decade represents the start of something much bigger for Africa, and that African letters are set to lead international literary conversations in the years ahead.

Olivia is a Paris-based journalist and editor.