Worthy traveller: publication that reshaped the landscape turns silver

Wasafiri, a magazine that opened up literary studies to fresh voices, is 25. Matthew Reisz reports

September 17, 2009

A magazine of international contemporary writing that pioneered the study of literary voices formerly excluded from the academy marks its 25th anniversary this week.

Wasafiri - which has been edited since its inception by Susheila Nasta, professor of modern literature at The Open University - features interviews, review essays and articles by academics alongside memoirs, fiction and poetry.

The magazine's origins lie with the Association for the Teaching of African, Caribbean and Associated Literatures.

Responding to the common complaint among black and Asian Britons that none of the books taught as "English literature" spoke to their own experience, the organisation campaigned to get writers such as Jean Rhys and future Nobel laureates Derek Walcott and V.S. Naipaul on to A-level syllabuses.

In 1984, with the diversification of the curriculum well under way, Professor Nasta took up the baton by creating "a literary space for people to talk to each other", exploring "the idea of cultural travelling long before it became fashionable".

Early enthusiasts remember a time when Wasafiri - which means "travellers" in Swahili - was just "a thin stapled thing with a cheap front cover".

The magazine was edited from Professor Nasta's home and enjoyed no institutional support until 1992, when she was appointed at what is now Queen Mary, University of London. She told her new employer that it had to take on Wasafiri, too.

Shortly afterwards, it received more funding from the Arts Council under the general literature - rather than ethnic-minority - budget, something its founder considers her "biggest breakthrough, the most important in terms of public recognition".

Stewart Brown, reader in African literature at the University of Birmingham, had several poems featured in Wasafiri's first issue.

In its anniversary edition, published on 17 September, he pays tribute to the magazine's role in a "general opening-up of literary studies to a wider body of literature in English".

"It is a particularly crusty and 'traditional' English literature department that nowadays does not offer at least one 'post-colonial' option to its students," he said. "This was not so in the 1980s, when the magazine was founded."

Part of the "adventure" of the times was "the sense of challenging the established canon and status quo", he added.

A more unexpected tribute comes from Robert Fraser, professor of English at The Open University. Praising Wasafiri for its ability to reinvent itself every time it has come under fire as "an over-subsidised sop to multiculturalism", he adds that it is a magazine "staffed by beautiful and energetic women ... the sex of the mind".

Although proud of Wasafiri's role in providing pioneering coverage to African, Caribbean, South Asian and black British writing, Professor Nasta said that work remained to be done.

"There's still a pecking order, with the classics of the English tradition taught as the model by which we should judge others," she said.

"Courses on modernism often don't include writers from India and elsewhere. And black and Asian critics still mainly get asked to review books by black and Asian writers."

Professor Nasta's concerns may be valid, but her magazine has contributed to a major shift in the landscape.

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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