By Belinda Otas
LONDON: The Southbank is one of Europe’s largest arts centers and is celebrated worldwide for the diversity of its artistic programs. Similarly, a wide diversity of races, ethnicities and nationalities gathered in late October to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Wasafiri, the acclaimed London-based magazine of contemporary international writing.
Wasafiri is a Kiswahili word and translates as “travelers.” Susheila Nasta says the name was chosen “because many of those who created the literatures in which Wasafiri was interested have all been cultural travelers, either through migration, transportation or else in the more metaphorical sense of seeking an imagined cultural ‘home.'”
The magazine’s journey reads like a short story you might find on one of its pages. In its early days, it was was edited in various living rooms in London and Kent, while back issues were stored in an Islington pub; people routinely asked about the name, “Wasa what?,” as it sounded funny to the ears. Today, Wasafiri is regarded as Britain’s premier magazine for international contemporary writing, and it continues to expand and break new ground within the international literary and publishing landscape.
The magazine’s championing of literary voices like Vikram Seth, Abdulrazak Gurnah—shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1994—and Buchi Emecheta has led to many of those names becoming “established writers.”
“Wasafiri kept saying this is serious stuff and you should read it and it percolated through,” said Nasta.
When she founded the magazine in 1984, Nasta was responding to the lack of availability of writing that came from outside the standard British tradition. “Though Britain was a multicultural society, generations were being deprived of these books,” she says. “One of the things that drove me was the desire to make real to everybody, and not just a niche market, the sense of significance of these writings, the fact that they could stand up alongside any contemporary British writer, and publishing houses should bring them into their fold,” she says now. “This is what has happened but it took a long time because people were prejudiced about race and to some degree, totally ignorant.”
Of course, this cultural gap still exists and Wasafiri’s aim remains as it was at its beginning: to serve as a platform for “serious literary and critical coverage of writers who often struggle because of their cultural and ethnic backgrounds to get adequate notice in the mainstream press.”
The Southbank celebration was given the theme “Everything To Declare,” which Nasta explained was a deliberate choice, “We no longer feel we have to make a statement about what Wasafiri is. We can just be what we are, which is an international magazine, a term that we have tried to define. It has arrived and there is no question about it.”
The anniversary featured words of praise for Wasafiri from a variety of literary luminaries, including Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Kiran and Anita Desai, Nii Ayikwei Parkes and Fred D’Aguiar, among others.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, the renowned Kenyan author, spoke about the ability of writers from different parts of the world to write in their native language without being alienated from mainstream publishing world. Thiong’o famously wrote his last novel, Wizard of the Crow, in his native Gĩkũyũ, which was subsequently translated to English. He spoke of language being like “the hard drive of a computer” in which the memories and stories of a generation is stored. The death of a language in a lifetime, he asserted, is the death of any generation.
Speaking of Wasafiri, Thiong’o said the “The most important thing is that it’s giving visibility to writers from India, Africa and the Caribbean, enabling a dialogue. The distance it travels is very good.” He added, “It’s very difficult to sustain a literary journal for 25 years. So lasting 25 years is a big achievement.”
Authors Anita Desai and Kiran Desai, mother and daughter, sat for a conversation with each other. Kiran, in particular, stressed the importance of having her mother as a companion in the writing world, while praising Wasafiri for its focus on international literature. “It’s one of the first, if not the first, to put a focus on this. Not a fake focus.”
Still, many of the speakers emphasized that while Wasafiri had achieved much in its more than two-decades of publication, there was still more work to be done.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, for example, stated, “We need more conversations among writings of different communities. Obviously for Africans and Asians, our base is our languages, and we want visibility without becoming invisible in our own languages. At present we are visible by being invisible in our own languages. So how can we be visible in such a way that becoming visible in English does not necessarily mean becoming invisible in one’s own language and culture?”
In reply, Nasta, who has plans to step down as Wasafiri’s editor sometime in the next few years, acknowledged there are areas of writing she still wishes to cover. “We did an issue once on Pacific writing which I would like to do again. And I would like to look at North African, Middle Eastern writing and Palestinian writing more than we have,” she said.
Nasta’s immediate goal is somewhat more pragmatic—trying to entice a new generation of readers and extend the audience even further. Her plan calls for an emphasis on more creative writing than scholarly discussion: “I want to make it more focused on creative writing and feature and essay writing, which should make it more accessible to the general public without dumbing it down.”
VISIT: The Wasafiri Web site
READ: Susheila Nasta’s blog post about the anniversary
VIEW: More photos from the 25th Anniversary event
BONUS: Are African and Asian Writers Compromised by Writing in English?