An Archive Full of Voices: Wasafiri celebrates 35 years and 100 issues!

I had the great pleasure to attend the celebrations of Wasafiri Magazine’s 35th anniversairy and its 100th issue on Saturday, 9 November at the British Library in London. Founding editor Susheila Nasta together with editor and new publishing director Malachi McIntosh took guided us through their captivating programme entitled “An Island Full of Voices: Writing Britain Now”. The illustrious guests included Bernardine Evariso, Ben Okri, Imtiaz Dharker, Fred D’Aguiar, Bidisha, Caryl Phillips, Nikesh Shukla, Romesh Gunesekera, Rachel Long, Maya Jaggi – and a poet who with his surprise performance made us all leave with a smile on our faces.

Past, Present and Future

Throughout the programme we moved between the past, present and future – not least as so many fights that had already be fought seem to resurface, texts that were written decades ago appear contemporary, be it open hostility towards ‘people of colour’ or perpetuated assumptions that their work of art only appeal to a niche audience. Time and again we were reminded that many authors who are now quite famous (current Booker winners included) had their first appearance and reviews in Wasafiri because other publications did not care.

“One of its inaugural aims was to provide much needed literary and critical coverage of writers from African, Caribbean, Asian and Black British backgrounds who often struggled to get adequate attention in the mainstream press. The magazine played a pioneering role in reviewing the first novels and early poetry of writers who are now well-known, challenging the predominant assumption that their work would only be of ‘minority interest’.”

Have things changed? Certainly, admits Bernardine Evaristo, but she also adds that this doesn’t mean we all get to sit back and relax. Are texts by ‘authors of colour’ still perceived as niche? Do mainstream publishers see an audience for these texts? And do they expect POC to write “issuey” books as opposed to texts about any topic imaginable? Those are some of the questions that feature time and again in my own field research. The discussions during the event suggested that ‘authors of colour’ are still pigeonholed: Susheila Nasta referred to Margaret Busby who is only ever asked to review books by people of colour. Nikesh Shukla apparently sat on “one diversity panel too many” and was tired of the “anecdotes and opinions of an industry” that claimed ‘the audience’ was not interested in books like the one he was planning to publish. He then published The Good Immigrant via the crowdfunding publisher Unbound – and the rest is history.

By the way, in case someone was wondering how the name “Wasafiri” came about, their website explains: “Its name stems from the Kiswahili word for ‘travellers’ which reflects the magazine’s longstanding engagement with cultural travelling, diverse histories and its continuing commitment to extending the established boundaries of literary culture.”

The Archive and “the Centre”

When Wasafiri was founded in 1984, the texts and authors they published were largely ignored by the white cultural mainstream. So the magazine set out to make them more visible: “The stories nations tell, or rather don’t tell, was part of the motivations for the founding of Wasafiri”, Susheila Nasta explained. During the celebration, the performances and panels were interspersed with archive footage from authors who have contributed to Wasafiri in the past, e.g. Bucchi Emecheta, Beryl Gilroy and Sam Selvon, gave testimony to the magazine’s mission and achievements. So when founding editor Susheila Nasta announced that the Wasafiri archive with its recordings, videos, letters etc. is now part of the British Library’s collection and accessible to its users, that it has arrived “at the centre” of a nation that previously did not want to acknowledge that these voices and authors belonged, it felt like a very proud moment.

For all of those who didn’t want to wait till the British Library reopened and/or wanted to take home some of the books that we talked about during the day, Wasafiri issues as well as the Brave New Words collection were available on site – and the fabulous New Beacon Books (“Specialists in African and Caribbean Literature since 1966”) provided a book table loaded with so many amazing books that many conversations revolved around how annoying it is that one has to sleep…

Brave New Words

In addition to the 100th issue of Wasafiri, a collection of essays entitled Brave New Words was published as part of the anniversary celebrations. Fifteen authors explore “the power of the written word and the value of literature in our lives” in their contributions. The Guardian published an excerpt from Bernardine Evaristo’s essay “What a time to be a (Black) (British) (Womxn) Writer” shortly after her Booker win (great read – interestingly though with a capital “B” in the collection and a lower case one in the Guardian… What was going on there?). Now I’m curious to read the rest and find out what the other contributors – Githa Hariharan, Eva Hoffman, Romesh Gunesekera, James Kelman, Tabish Khair, Kei Miller, Blake Morrison, Mukoma wa Ngugi, Hsiao-Hung Pai, Olumide Popoola, Shivanee Ramlochan, Bina Shah, Raja Shehadeh and Marina Warner – chose to say.

“Individual success does nothing for us”

Making a case for collective action: Susheila Nasta, Bernardine Evaristo, Rachel Long (left to right)

I think my favourite panel was the one on collective activism – alongside the performance by Scottish poet Imtiaz Dharker and her poem “They’ll Say: She Must Be From Another Country” (highly recommended, link below) and the surprise guest I shall mention later. The panel “Authorial Activism: Literary Collectives from ATCAL to Octavia” brought together Bernardine Evaristo, Susheila Nasta, Rachel Long and Nikesh Shukla and it was skilfully chaired by Malachi McIntosh. The stories of the collectives that were created were remarkable: e.g. the Theatre of Black Women founded in 1982 by Bernardine Evaristo, Patricia Hilaire and Paulette Randall when there were no roles for Black British actresses (“We weren’t really radical, just practical” – and Jackie Kay wrote her first play for them); or Octavia, the “Poetry Collective for Womxn of Colour”, founded by Rachel Long in 2015 to see “what happens if it’s just us”; The Complete Works (ran by Nathalie Teitler and founded by Bernardine Evaristo), an initiative for poets that went to change the appalling underrepresentation of Black or Asian British poets (from less than 1% POC in 2005 to two digits). And not least the work by the Wasafiri editors and authors and their attempt to get African, Caribbean and Asian stories into schools and libraries.

It was Bernardine Evaristo who emphasised the need for a community to make a difference: “Individual success does nothing for us”. Without a critical mass and a community, the system just ends up perpetuating itself. And Rachel Long added that she not only found a space to be and write through her collective, but that there are some poems she “could never have written without the conversations and poems of the others.”

So we were all encouraged to lift up each other, buy books, read books, write reviews, and make some noise about books or authors who we admire. And educate ourselves about those who have fought the fight before – beyond the first result site on google (did I hear some frustration in the voices of the more experienced activists?!) – and visit archives such as the National Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre or the Wasafiri archive at the British Library (nudge, nudge). Or as Jeremy Poynting, publisher and founder of Peepal Tree Press in Leeds, put it in the Wasafiri anniversary issue: “whilst each generation must find new ways of responding to the recurrent forces of reaction, it ought, too, to know what came before, to learn from the past about what worked and what didn’t, and also to avoid the hubris of imagining that it was the first into the field. This is where Wasafiri is such an important resource.”

Literary Collectives from ATCAL to Octavia: Malachi McIntosh (chair), Susheila Nasta, Bernardine Evaristo, Rachel Long, Nikesh Shukla

Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize

The day culminated in the announcement of the winners of the Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2019. The judges – Louise Doughty (fiction), Warsan Shire (poetry), Nikesh Shukla (life writing) and Susheila Nasta (chair) – were beaming with joy over the “dizzingly high quality” of the entries and decided to highly commend a piece in each category in addition to the winners. Passages of the texts of the winners were read out to us – and absolutely backed the jury’s claim. The texts by the three winners will be published by Wasafiri  (in the magazine and online) and the authors receive a £1,000 cash prize.
Here are the shortlisted authors and their works:

Susan Hunter Downer, “Gathering”
Alicia Mietus “Third Person Female” (winner)
Prateek Nigam, “Less Than Perfect”
Erica Sugi Anayadike, “How to Marry an African President” (highly commended)
James Young, “Hard Borders”

Life Writing:
E.S. Batchelor, “Human Resources” (highly commended)
Muthoni wa Gichuru, “The Perfect Handspring”
Ruby D. Jones, “Natural Causes” (winner)
David McVey, “A Losing School Team”
Janet Olearski, “Smokers”

Emily Franklin, “Japan, Autumn“
Miriama Gemmell, “family tree”
Joanna Johnson, “Pantoum of Soldiers” (highly commended)
Desirée Seebaran, “Picaong” (winner)
Thomas Waller, “Diaries from the Third Millenium”

Malachi McIntosh sent them off asking them to continue their writing and support each other. “You are a new generation of writers following in the footsteps of what Wasafiri has started.”

Frustration and Celebration and Open Questions

John Agard performing “Remember the Ship”

Next to all those reasons for celebration, a number of reasons for frustration were shared: that the publishing industry is still full of networks that exclude ‘people of colour’. That we talk about diversity so often – instead of talking about racism. That there are young people who act as if they were the first to experience this struggle and as if they were the first to write in such an environment.

A really interesting question from the audience remained unanswered and I’m just going to rephrase it a little bit to make it less focused on authors and more general: How much of our work is preaching to the converted? I’ll take this on board as this is a question I’m asking myself in my current work as well. How can we reach those who are perpetuating the problems and who might not even understand what their actions (or inactions) cause – and not just the people who are already interested, questioning themselves, checking their privileges and trying to make a difference?

In any case, Wasafiri has created an amazing legacy. When Susheila Nasta handed over the torch to Malachi McIntosh, she 2.000 authors plus reviewers, so many countries – invitation to check out the archive at the British Library.

And instead of a clip from the archive, the one and only John Agard gave a surprise performance of his poem “Remember the Ship”; a call to “kinship” and a joint voyage.

Happy Birthday, Wasafiri – and many more!


Recommended Links

Website Wasafiri:

Wasafiri issue #100:

Brave New Words:

Imtiaz Dharker’s poem “They Say: She Must Be From Another Country”:

John Agard’s poem “Remember the Ship”: (but you should really look for a recording of one of his performances)

New Beacon Books:

Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize:

The Complete Works:

Octavia Poetry Collective: