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21Jan

When Belinda Met Susheila Nasta

Susheila Nasta Giving The Opening Speech At The Wasafiri 25th Anniversary

Susheila Nasta Giving The Opening Speech At The 25th Anniversary of Wasafiri

In the final of my three part interview series about Wasafiri, meet Susheila Nasta. Susheila Nasta is the Editor of Wasafiri, the internationally distinguished literary magazine, which she founded in 1984 at a time when there were few publications which featured the work of writers from African, Caribbean, South Asian and Black British diasporic backgrounds. The magazine is today, one of Britain’s key literary magazines to focus on contemporary international writing which crosses the borders of traditional literary canons and national identities. Susheila is also a well-known critic, literary activist and broadcaster; She has remained at the helm of Wasafiri, championing writing from different parts of the world. Giving people the mainstream media may overlook a platform to showcase their work. Interestingly, the theme for the day was Everything To Declare. This is what she had to say about Wasafiri turning 25 when I spoke to her last year.

Belinda: How does it feel to see your idea and baby grown to be 25?

Susheila: Well it’s fantastic, to have this here at the Southbank, to have a broad audience, we are no longer a niche magazine which appealed to some people who knew the world. It’s called ‘Everything To Declare’ because we no longer feel we no longer 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.

Belinda: Looking back, what was compelled you to start Wasafiri?

Susheila: One of the reasons I started was the complete lack of availability of writing that came from outside the standard British tradition although Britain was clearly a multi-cultural society. The other thing was that generations were being deprived of these books, that there were writers who had been writing since the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and there was no sense of a history there. It was almost like after the Second World War, African people and Indian people migrated to Britain and they were immigrants and there were no traditions or culture that people were interested in. So, one of the things that drove me was the desire to make real to everybody and not just a niche market, the sense of the significance of these writings, the fact that they could stand up alongside any contemporary British writer and schools and universities and publishing houses should bring them into their fold and this is what has happened now but it took a long time because people were prejudiced about race and to some degree they was ignorance, total ignorance. And Ngugi was saying today, English was a dominant language and these writers were off-shoots of the English tradition but people who were writing of their own right and doing different things with the language as if they were using English.

Belinda: And how has that vision along with the aim and the objective that you had; how has it evolved in the last 25 years?

Susheila: It started off as The Journal of African Caribbean and Asian and Associated Literatures and it is shifted now to general, the magazine of international contemporary writing.  So, that shows you the shift because in the 8os, we felt there was a political and strategic need to highlight those writings whereas now, this is not to say we still don’t have a politics to highlight but that strategic need to highlight the writings of those communities has changed and we also want to diversify our own position and not be seen as simply ethnic minority writing magazine. We actually want to bring voices of writers from all over the world and Wasafiri as I said earlier on today is one part of that story. There have been many reasons why these changes have happened, not just in Britain but in the world at large and Wasafiri has been part of that. Also, it provided a forum for a critical discussion of these works because these writings were not being seriously reviewed in newspapers, you will just get like, you know, in terms of Chinua Achebe, talking about the authenticity of his portrayal of the Igbo’s in Things Fall Apart similarly is there a real Indian? Are these people trying to describe India or when Abdulrazak Gurnah, the African writer who is from Zanzibar and lives in Britain, when he was shortlisted for the Booker prize, a lot of the reviews suggested it was a magical book and it was not about European Colonialism. It was about other types of Colonialism; Arab Colonialism, slavery in East Africa which was not necessarily anything to do with Europe at all. And it’s this kind of ignorance, where things have to be slotted into a particular kind of pocket. So, we were trying to open that up.

Belinda: With the aim of trying to open up these various diasporic voices different mainstream outlets tend to box up. Which is still happening on some level, would you say being at the helm of this magazine for 25 years that you have succeeded with that craft?

Susheila: Oh yes, I think so and I am sure we have our failings, everybody does and I think we should publish more in translations but that is expensive because you have to get the things translated and its difficult to assess them initially unless you have a board of editors who can translate them. So, that is a complicated practical issue. I think yes, we should publish more in translation and we are continuing to break boundaries by linking up with Chinese writers and writing for example. Written in Chinese and not diasporic and they are translated from Chinese into English. We have looked at African-European writing and we are doing an issue on Indian Ocean and we are doing children’s writing and to encourage readers and young writers before their own view get stuck.

Belinda: Is there an area of literature from any part of the world or a specific story that you still want to cover as an editor?

Susheila: I think there are lots of areas. We did an issue once on Pacific writing which I would like to do again, I would like to look at North Africa. Middle Eastern writing and Palestinian writing more than we have and there are so many areas. It’s difficult because you have to do some special issues and you have to do keep the magazine to the general requirement of the reader who is not interested in Palestinian writing. But we tend to cover reviews that stretch across many different constituencies.

Belinda: With the advent of the internet, how has the internet revolutionised and has it in any form, shape or way affected the way you publish the magazine?

Susheila: We were independent for 20 years and we published as an independent publisher for over 20 years. Now we are co-published by Routeledge. They have no editorial control which we do but they distribute it all over the world. And what they have done which we couldn’t have done is this that they have retro-digitised it back to 1984. So it tells this whole cultural history and you can now read it online. Obviously, you have to be a subscriber.  And in the countries where we want readers to read it like in Africa, the Caribbean and countries where we want the readers to have it but cannot subscribe to it because of the UK sterling, there can reach it another way, Epscale. And of course we have developed the website and want to do more with the website. In that sense, I think it has opened it even further to a new readership though it quite difficult to tell who is reading it unless you look at the number of downloads in comparison to before when it was easy to tell with subscribers and you could tell who was reading it.

Belinda: Was there any particular reason why you remained an independent publisher for 20 years and why did you change your mind?

Susheila: Not really. I think we wanted to keep our own counsel and be free and actually, it happened at the 20th birthday because Routeledge who helped me because I published a book, which I wrote, ‘Crosswords’ which was a whole series of interviews from Wasafiri which was across the ages because it tells the story. One of the editors said to me after seeing me do all the subscriptions and all that, you really just need a publisher do all of this and get on with the commissioning and editing.

Belinda: You have notable writers, who contribute to the magazine but are there any writers out there that you have got your eyes set on to do something for Wasafiri?

Susheila: I think the answer to that is that I never know. Quite often, people come and you pick them up because they write well. Yes, there are people there that we would like to work with but it is no longer a question of the weight of someone who is particularly famous. It really depends on what we are actually doing. For example, for the birthday issue, yes it’s full of some of the biggest writers in the world but it’s because what we were doing with that issue fitted in the same way what we are doing at the festival today.

Belinda: Strictly from the founder and editor’s point of view, would you say Wasafiri has had an impact on the literary scene in the UK?

Susheila: I think so, I think so. It’s been funded for us by public funding for us since 1994 by the Arts Council of England. We have worked with the British Council, taking art overseas and I think what it has done is it has continued to keep pushing new writing which has often become ‘Established Writing.’ We published the likes of Vikram Seth who has become a major writer, Abdulrazak Gurhner, we published his early reviews, and we published interviews with Tony Morrison. We published so many people at that point, like Buchi Emecheta, who at that point were known but not necessarily well known. So, I think the point is because it has kept on saying this is serious stuff and you should read it, in that sense, it has percolated through. But it’s not the only thing. Obviously there have been lots of other moves but we are lucky because most magazines don’t survive more than 5 years.

Belinda: And being in your custody, do you have any plans to step down soon?

Susheila: well, I am 56 now, so in 25 years, I might be getting on a bit. But I am going to carry on for the next two or three years but we are trying to get in a pool of editors now but slowly I want to handover and new blood should come in?

Belinda: Where do you see Wasafiri going from this point on?

Susheila: Well, I want to make it, perhaps more focused on Creative writing or feature or essay writing and making it more accessible to the general public. The impact of it is important without sort of dumbing it down. At the moment it’s got a few scholarly essays in it and I think while those are good because you want some serious discussions in it, you can have those scholarly essays written in a more creative way. We are going to move more towards creative writing and at least in the reviews focused on writings rather than critical writings because there are so many other magazines doing that now, we don’t need to do it.

Belinda: Are there any new audiences/audience group you would like to reach?

Susheila: Yes, we would like to do more with young people who are much more on the internet than reading magazines. So, we have created a Facebook page, we are trying to create a Wikipedia thing and there is a Facebook fan club.

Belinda’s Note: Wasafiri is a fantastic literary publication. If you are a writer or you one day dream of becoming a writer, I advice you to get the magazine on a regular basis. Make it one of your literary bibles among the other great ones out there. I have the anniversary edition and it is so meaty, I never get tired of reading it when I pick it up, great content, excellent writers.

Wasafiri Website

Wasafiri Blog

Image of Susheila Nasta by Graham Fudger

Please, do not use without permission.

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