When Aaron Bady asked if I’d be interested in editing for Popula, I demurred. “I am not an Africanist,” I threw out. But, I said, give me a few days to think about it. I accepted because I realized the work would entail listening to and for African stories, not framing myself as an expert on Africa. I wondered if it would be possible to solicit and model the kind of stories that modeled how we Africans experience and navigate structural forces. I wanted the kind of stories that might be told by friends sharing a cup of tea or strangers sharing a bottle of wine. Stories that had moments of recognition and wonder. I hoped writers would trust me to shape their stories, and I’m so glad many of them did.
For the past decade or so, many famous African writers have tried to describe an African ordinary. Often, this ordinary has amounted to, “I was raised by professionals and I am a professional, so recognize my professional credentials.” Sometimes it has been labeled Afropolitan and other times it has simply gone unlabeled. I have found this version of the African ordinary boring and dangerous. Boring, because little is interesting about people asserting class privilege. Is one a more interesting African because of an undergraduate or graduate degree? Dangerous, because an African ordinary tethered to middle-class qualifications and experiences truncates the many ways Africans experience the world and, worse, uses class to minoritize fellow Africans.
Offered the chance to edit African writing, I didn’t want the African ordinary of “we are doctors and lawyers and architects and engineers and business titans and techies.” I wanted textured lives, not anxiety-ridden performances directed to a judging white gaze.
I had a few personal guidelines: I wouldn’t edit anything about corruption or state violence, those staples that fill many African newspapers and minds. Second, I insisted that writers not explain their lives and societies to a white gaze. “Write for me,” I urged: I am curious and interested, and I can use the internet to look up what I don’t know. Don’t explain. Conversate.
Here I am, a fellow African. Tell me a story.
My favorite Popula stories about Africa are for the Me Today column, brilliantly managed by Sophie Haigney. Each piece from Africa offers a small slice of life: drinking camel milk tea, holding a pool party and then going to a strip club, singing karaoke, seeing a camel on the beach, attending an art show, and navigating a terror attack. It takes a lot of guts to pitch anywhere, and I am grateful to the many Africans who trusted us to treat their work with integrity.
I enjoyed reading and editing Lutivini Majanja’s series of nature walks, which went far beyond the very banal “Kenya is beautiful.” In walks that featured birds and animal poop and too much development and possible hidden snakes, Lutivini told a story of how Kenya can be engaged on regular walks, with friends and strangers.
I enjoyed editing M.L. Kejera’s description of his niece adapting to life in the U.S., the anxiety about tradition and belonging, and learning how to parent in unexpected ways. Aleya Kassam wrote beautifully about becoming a Masi and how women are assessed based on whether they are married and reproductive. Both of these articles illuminated how we navigate social and cultural expectations in our everyday lives, and also how we invent new ways to engage with each other.
I was excited when Nana Ama Agyemang Asante pitched a story about how Ghanaian feminists are pursuing freedom by challenging sexism and misogny online and offline. I was especially thrilled by the final paragraphs of her article, where she points out how other African feminist actions in Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa have inspired Ghanaian feminists. How refreshing to read an article that focuses on how African feminists are learning from and inspiring each other, how wonderful to read about the diverse strategies developed to address specific local conditions in local idioms.
I hope that the Africans who read Popula about other parts of Africa experience moments of recognition and wonder.
Over and over, I urged writers to put more of themselves into what they wrote. I imagined this as grounding the writing, settling into it, claiming a space within language and on the page. Claiming a space by populating it with scent and sound, texture and vibration, movement and stasis, quiet and noise. I followed Frantz Fanon, who desired to put aside the “livery” prepared for him by white supremacist expectations. Over and over, writers responded with generosity and openness, teaching me new choreographies, different ways to think about language and culture, self and society.
Yet, class barriers remain.
It is easier for those fluent in internet to pitch. It is easier for those who already write for other publications to pitch. It is easier for those trained by colleges and universities to pitch, especially when English is the publishing language. If you’ve been through some kind of higher education, it is likely you understand the connection between the personal and the structural, no matter how tenuously, and that makes it easier to write for Popula. Too, if your networks—friends and colleagues—are published, it’s easier to pitch and to work with an editor.
I like much of what the personal essay has permitted, but I worry that in becoming the preferred genre for minoritized groups, it has also impeded experimenting with other genres of writing. I said no to exquisite writing by many people, and it was tough to explain that I wanted them to broaden their writing repertoires, so they could write and publish those exquisite personal essays AND write and publish their experiences of the structural. Crudely put, the personal essay reflects on the self and tends to have some kind of epiphanic turn, whereas the experience of the structural maps how the infrastructural, historical, cultural, and political shape quotidian experience. And even this sounds abstract, but as an editor, it was something I could shape.
I don’t have five handy tips how for African writing should be edited. I would say with care, listening for and to what’s important to those writing. I didn’t always get it right. I’m glad I had the chance to edit for Popula. I’m grateful to the writers who trusted me with their work. And the next time I appear on these pages, it will be as a contributor, not an editor.