“We think it’s important that the world becomes more aware of what readers in Africa are thinking” – a Q&A with the Johannesburg Review of Books editor, Jennifer Malec
By Carla Lever
Originally published in the Sunday World: 28 January, 2018; Daily Dispatch: 29 January, 2018; Herald: 1 February, 2018. (Nal’ibali Column 3: Term 1).
The Johannesburg Review of Books was introduced to local (and international!) bibliophiles in May 2017. Carla Lever recently conducted an interview with editor, Jennifer Malec, discussing the impact of an African critical voice, why they don’t italicise South African languages in their stories, and how we can get more South Africans to start reading for pleasure:
What is The Johnnesburg Review of Books and how did it come about?
JRB is an independent monthly literary review based in Johannesburg. We publish reviews, essays, poetry, photographs and short fiction from South Africa, Africa and beyond. You can subscribe for free at http://bit.ly/thejrbsubscribe.
There are many hugely respected reviews of books globally – the Paris or New York reviews spring to mind – but this is the first African city to claim a space. What kind of impact does the presence of an African critical voice have?
When a new ‘big’ international book is published, we know very quickly what the ‘big’ literary centres of the world think of it. But there is no city-based literary review in Africa, so we don’t hear the opinions of Lagos, Cairo, Kinshasa and so on. We think it’s important that the world becomes more aware of what readers in Africa are thinking.
What role do you see The JRB playing in global and African cultural debates?
In a global context we like to think we are writing back to centres of power as well as demonstrating the value of African voices.
You have an interesting editorial policy about not italicising South African languages in stories. Can you tell us a little about the thinking behind that?
In South Africa most people understand two if not three or four languages, so the question becomes, to whom are these words ‘foreign’? In South Africa, non-English words are not adding ‘flavour’, they are simply a demonstration of how we speak.
We want to give our writers and readers the opportunity to inhabit the story. And our philosophy is, if you don’t understand something, you can always ask. We’re readily available on Facebook and Twitter, and on our website comment section.
What has reader response been like?
Very positive! It’s great to see people responding to longer writing online, when the dominant view seems to be that people want their reading shorter and simpler.
Tell us a little about the kind of work you’ve been able to feature.
We have a number of established literary voices as regular contributors. Soweto-based author Niq Mhlongo is our City Editor. In our June issue he wrote about how he was the one to name Joburg’s famous Maboneng district, inspired by a line in one of his novels. Bongani Madondois a Contributing Editor, and we’re very proud of his explosive review of Koleka Putuma’s debut poetry collection Collective Amnesia, which we featured in our first issue. Other regular contributors are Percy Zvomuya, who is our literary detective, finding fascinating and obscure African books to highlight, and Efemia Chela, who writes a regular series called the Temporary Sojourner where she ‘travels’ throughout Africa by reading the best fiction from around the continent. We also regularly feature Wamuwi Mbao, who we count as one of South Africa’s top reviewers, and have published some wonderful poetry, curated by our Poetry Editor Rustum Kozain.
What have been some of the most exciting moments or stories for you personally?
Some of our biggest thrills have come from publishing new and emerging voices. We were delighted to be the first to publish Love Back – a short story by East London-born writer Julie Nxadi in our July issue. It’s truly remarkable, and was extremely popular with our readers. We since featured Julie again in our December Fiction Issue, and she’s currently working on an anthology. One of the stand-out moments was publishing our first piece entirely in a language other than English, namely Fred Khumalo’s first-ever published story in isiZulu, which we featured in our January Conversation Issue. We hope to be able to do more of this in future.
How do we get more South Africans reading for pleasure?
We’re starting to see if that if stories are good, people will read them. Now it just remains for us to establish what ‘good’ is for a current South African reader, because it may not be what has been considered ‘good’ in the past.
Also, the importance of reading aloud to children and introducing children to books they enjoy cannot be overstated. A common thread in many of the interviews we do with African authors is that they fell in love with reading as a child, usually through reading ‘popular’ books like Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl or Sweet Valley High, and then solidified that love when they were teenagers through books they could relate to in some way. What that says to me is that if we create children’s books that children can relate to, we can get them hooked on reading.
Help Nal’ibali read aloud to one million children this World Read Aloud Day, Thursday 01 February! Visit the Nal’ibali webpage at www.nalibail.org to sign up and download the brand-new story by acclaimed South African author, Zukiswa Wanner, in any official South African language. You’ll be joining a wave of adults across the country reading to children and raising awareness of the importance of this simple yet effective activity.