Wasafiri is Britain’s premier magazine for international contemporary writing. Published quarterly, it has established a distinctive reputation for promoting work by new and established voices across the globe.
Wasafiri was launched in 1984 at the University of Kent, the brainchild of Susheila Nasta. It derived initially from the activities of ATCAL (Association for the Teaching of Caribbean, African, Asian and Associated Literatures), an association formed in 1978 to bring about a much needed change to curricula in universities and schools and get writers like Derek Walcott, Jean Rhys and VS Naipaul onto school and university syllabuses. At that time, an inaugural aim ofWasafiri was to provide serious literary and critical coverage of writers who often struggled, because of their cultural or ethnic backgrounds, to get adequate notice in the mainstream press; in other words, the work of such writers was frequently deemed to only be of ‘minority interest’ and not part of the mainstream. Wasafiri sought from the outset to contest this assumption and to demonstrate the interconnections between different cultural traditions. In providing a dynamic forum for debates about migration, diaspora, global modernities and contemporary literature,Wasafiri’s writers and editors have always highlighted the complex histories and interwoven traditions that make up the diverse body of international writing today. Writers who have contributed to such conversations include now well-known figures such as Leila Aboulela, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Amit Chaudhuri, Maggie Gee, Romesh Gunesekera, Aamer Hussein, Tabish Khair, E A Markham, Valerie Mason-John, Daljit Nagra, Courttia Newland, Ben Okri, Caryl Phillips, Vikram Seth, Dorothea Smartt, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Sujata Bhatt, Anita Desai and Kiran Desai. Seeking to tell the ‘whole’ story, rather than the ‘other’ story, Wasafiri has highlighted the long multicultural history which lies at the heart of ‘English’ literature and constitutes the body of contemporary modern writing.
The title of the magazine sought to capture this ethos. ‘Wasafiri’ is Kiswahili for ‘travellers’ and, as the Editor explains, ‘the name was chosen because many of those who created the literatures in which [Wasafiri was] particularly interested … have all in some sense been cultural travellers either through migration, transportation or else, in the more metaphorical sense of seeking an imagined cultural “home”’. As she says elsewhere, ‘Stories have always travelled ... literature has always been a mishmash of different influences and ideas that have migrated across continents.’
A ‘mishmash’ and ‘imagined homes’ could just as well describe the transformations that Wasafiri itself has undergone over the past 25 years. Produced between living rooms in London and Kent, and stored in an Islington pub in its early years, Wasafiri eventually found a more permanent home at Queen Mary’s, University of London, before it outgrew its tiny office and relocated to its current residence at the Open University in Camden Town, London. A tri-annual publication from 2002, it became a quarterly in 2008, two years after entering a co-publishing partnership with Routledge. Its subtitles have also gone through various metamorphoses. Starting with ‘Perspectives on African, Caribbean, Asian and Black-British Literature’, it shifted in 2003 to become ‘The Magazine of International Contemporary Writing’. These changes chart the signposts of a specific cultural history and mark the significance of the magazine’s interventions as a compass of literary debate. The first title had always been strategic and was intended to raise the profile of works by African, Caribbean, South Asian and Black British writers beyond the sometimes narrow confines of the traditional canon. Now, as Susheila Nasta notes, it is clearly more widely accepted that the writers we publish are equal ‘participants in a more general cultural phenomenon.’ Our writers form, ‘a literary community linked by the world of words ... the world of the imagination and write across the boundary lines denoted by national/ethnic identities’. Indeed, Earl Lovelace’s editorial for the first issue in 1984 anticipated such thoughts:
I have this impression that this literature of Africa, the Caribbean and Asia is viewed as a thing apart, that it belongs to Africans, Asians and Caribbean people and not to the world … We have to get rid of these postures, comforting as they may seem, for whether it is as supervisor of civilisation or as victim of oppression, both prevent us from the responsibility for the far more exiting and essential task of building in these times a new and human society. We can only do this from where we are, with the experiences that we have; what we share is language, imagination. Nobody is born into the world. Every one of us is born into a place in a culture, and it is form that standpoint of that culture that we contribute to the world.
Wasafiri has always transcended the boundaries of established canons and cultures, whether academic or political, and played a pioneering role in bringing new voices to light. Wasafiri was a place where you could find reviews of the first novels and early poetry of writers who are now considered part of the mainstream, from Hanan al-Shaykh to Biyi Bandele, from Andre Brink to David Dabydeen, from Mimi Khalvati to Rohinton Mistry. More recently Wasafiri was also the first place where you could read the first English translations of a selection of contemporary writing from China (‘Writing China’, issue 55). Many writers published in Wasafirihave been nominated for major literary awards, not only Abdulrazak Gurnah (shortlisted for the Booker in 1994) and John Haynes (winner of the Costa Poetry Prize in 2006 and the Troubadour Poetry Prize in 2007), but also Segun Afolabi who won the Caine Prize for ‘Monday Morning’ (published in issue 41) and later Orange Prize nominees Bernardine Evaristo and Kamila Shamsie. Significantly too, Wasafiri has started to expand the space it has always provided for dialogues across different literary constituencies and local neighbourhoods. Clearly many of the writers Wasafiri has published now belong to a recognisable global and international literary scene. This, however, does not mean that Wasafiri’s work is done. As Susheila Nasta, writes in her editorial to the 25th anniversary issue, ‘Wasafiri is no longer a newcomer on the literary stage but strangely enough it still feels like one. Perhaps this is a good thing. Literary magazines can only ever continue to perform a useful role if they continue to forge new connections’. Today – with growing reinforcement of national and political borders, with increasing restrictions on our movement and thought – the work of Wasafiri seems more vital than ever. As ‘Everything to Declare’, the title for our 25th anniversary year suggests, Wasafiri remains committed to the unbounded vision of writing across worlds with which it began.
Read Jonathan Barker's interview with Susheila Nasta here.