- Interview by
- Kangsen Feka Wakai
I have never met Dzekashu MacViban in person, but I first read his work over a decade ago when I founded PalaPala magazine. The site—a digital platform for new writing and the politics of art—was created to amplify new Anglophone Cameroonian writing and writing from the African diaspora. During the four years of its existence, MacViban along with the likes of Patrice Nganang, Tolu Ogunlesi, Belinda Otas, JKS Makokha, Minna Salami enlivened the platform with poems, essays and perspectives that undermined the notion of the paucity of “our” stories, while highlighting the intersections that animate African and diasporic experiences.
I stopped publishing PalaPala in 2012, and months later MacViban launched Bakwa Magazine to continue the task of showcasing new writing from Cameroon and across. Since its founding, Bakwa Magazine has evolved into a hydra-headed institution with a publishing arm (Bakwa Books), a podcast (BakwaCast), and has recently launched its creative writing and literary translation workshops in collaboration with the likes of the Goethe Institute Kamerun and the University of Bristol.
Over a series of emails, we discussed Bakwa’s vision and the state of creative writing in Cameroon among other subjects.
First of all, congratulations on the release of the Limbe to Lagos anthology, which you and the founding editors of Nigeria based Saraba co-edited. What inspired that production and how has the reader response been so far?
The idea grew from a passionate conversation at the 2016 Ake Arts and Book Festival between Dami Ajayi, Safurat Balogun and myself. We compared notes on literary eco-systems and opportunities in Cameroon and Nigeria and agreed that there weren’t as many opportunities for nonfiction writing as there were for fiction.
We wanted to rekindle (literary) collaborative endeavors between both countries reminiscent of the past, give writers the necessary tools to enable them to grow (via workshops sand mentorships), and change the mainstream narrative that pervades conversations about both countries. As stated in the introduction to Limbe to Lagos: Nonfiction from Cameroon and Nigeria:
At some point during the project, a pattern emerged in the kinds of questions we were asked. “Why didn’t we use this as an opportunity to explore pressing political issues such as Boko Haram or Bakassi?” Despite the legitimacy of these questions, they inadvertently hinted at how history, in relation to Cameroon and Nigeria, is invested in the inglorious. This makes the premise of the exchange program all the more urgent, as it not only seeks to give the opportunity to young writers to explore humanity through nonfiction, but it also intends to reinforce the hitherto little known aspects of our shared history.
Interest in the book has been overwhelming and reviews favorable. So far, the book has been launched in Lagos and Yaounde, and there are forthcoming launches and readings planned for different countries. It’s currently the second most bought book at Ouida Books bookstore in Lagos and schools in Cameroon are beginning to show interest in it.
You said some schools in Cameroon have shown interest in your recent publication. Along those lines, how would you describe the current curriculum and how it reflects the state of our literary arts?
The curriculum, more often than not, is stifled, and though it has a few gems, it is usually marred by “academic gangsterism” and it is very reluctant to incorporate work by young writers. The curriculum doesn’t reflect the state of literary arts; far from it, it is elitist and barely captures a fraction of Cameroon’s literary output.
Bakwa Magazine that you founded has emerged as a nexus in literary production in its relative short lifespan; based on your experience, how would you describe the state of Cameroon literature today? How would you describe Bakwa’s role in the ecosystem of literary production?
Cameroonian literature today is more vibrant and visible than it was five years ago. There are more opportunities for mentorship and the writing quality is getting better and competitive. Nevertheless, there is still much groundwork that needs to be done.
Bakwa’s mission has always been to nurture a new generation of Cameroonian writers and provide a space where their work can be published in its best possible form. Though Bakwa’s primary target audience is Cameroon, its reach and influence surpasses Cameroon by far—young writers published early by Bakwa Magazine have gone on to win significant prizes: Abiola Oni won the Guardian and 4th Estate BAME Short Story prize in 2016; Bengono Esola Edouard (winner of the Bakwa Magazine Short Story Prize) won the Concours Litteraire Nationale Jeunes Auteurs 2017; Socrates Mbamalu was awarded the Saraba nonfiction manuscript prize and longlisted for the Writivism Nonfiction Prize; Munachim Amah won the Writivism Short Story 2017 Prize; Howard Meh-Buh Maximus was shortlisted for the Morland Writing Scholarship in 2018; and Nkiacha Atemnkeng (Runner-up for the Bakwa Magazine Short Story Prize) was longlisted for the Short Story Day Africa Prize 2019.
The fluidity of Bakwa’s projects, from the written word online, to podcasts, and print books enables us not only to properly curate stories, but also to own the means of production, thus we midwife multiple stories which reflect different realities.
In addition to providing a platform for writers, publishing their work and exporting Cameroonian writing, I think one of the most important contributions that Bakwa has made to Cameroonian literature is providing regular workshop and mentorship opportunities for writers.
How much work will need to be done for the effort being made by outfits like yours to translate into a grassroots reading culture that prioritizes Cameroonian writing?
A lot. Everyone has a role to play: publishers need to pay more attention to books and treat them like well-curated works of art with proper editing and robust marketing; newspapers and magazines need to dedicate more space to books; writers and publishers need to understand how to use social media; writers and publishers need to go to the public; parents need to introduce children to books at a young age; the list can go on forever. Nevertheless, one of the things with the greatest potential to change the book infrastructure is online payment.
In the past few years, you have travelled extensively across the continent and beyond in your capacity as a leader in Cameroon’s literary scene. What lessons have you drawn from your experiences in places like Ghana, Tanzania and Namibia? Did you identify any common threads in literary production that bind these different places?
My travels in the past years have been both as a leader in Cameroon’s literary scene, as well as a researcher/artist for a couple of projects. Each country I visited has a very unique and energetic scene, and what marked me is how literary actors are able to leverage existing networks and see solutions where others see problems.
The Pa Gya festival in Ghana is doing great work by curating literary conversations as well as bringing together communities of writers and fostering international conversations, all of which improve book sales.
In Namibia, within the framework of the Goethe-Institut’s Literary Crossroads program, I had a very enlightening conversation with Jan Yan, editor of Felsgrafitti, a Namibian literary magazine in German with decent readership within Namibia. The magazine makes a strong case that sustainability can be found in a home-grown market.
In Tanzania, Mkuki Na Nyota publishers which exists since 1991 was able to leverage its experience and network to tackle the lack of local high quality independent publishing outlets and is today one of the main publishers of Kiswahili on the African continent. They currently publish trade books, general books, educational books and children’s books in Kiswahili and English.
What all these literary initiatives have is common is the ways in which they circumvent the difficulties associated with publishing and literary ventures by leveraging their networks and partnerships as well as paying attention to the local markets.
You recently launched Bakwa Books and BakwaCast. Could you talk about how these projects fit into your grand vision?
We’re always interested in solving problems and circumventing existing monolithic structures at Bakwa. Bakwa Magazine, Bakwa Books and BakwaCast are our way of disrupting the existing status quo. Bakwa Books is a pop-up bookshop and indie publishing house that publishes literary fiction, creative nonfiction and translation. The desire to replicate Bakwa Magazine’s vision, as well as the absence of innovative local publishing channels in Cameroon, necessitated the creation of Bakwa Books. This grew out of the need to curate contemporary unique Cameroonian stories, and publish books by Cameroonians, making these books available in Cameroon and abroad. The challenges and constraints of running a physical bookshop have led us to adopt a more experimental format of book sales and distribution—the pop-up bookshop. This mutable approach will enable us to leverage existing networks (both at home and abroad) in our approach to book sales and distribution.
The first title under Bakwa Books is Of Passion and Ink: New Voices from Cameroon (2019). It is a collection short stories longlisted (and commissioned) from the Bakwa Magazine Short Story Prize. This is partly a translation-based project, as it includes stories written in English, as well as stories translated from French. What we do is mid-way between curation and archival work, such that we can shape the present and create an envisaged future, while archiving every part of the journey.
BakwaCast draws from Bakwa Magazine’s vision to challenge the way culture is produced, consumed, and documented in Cameroon. Additionally, it is driven by the desire to evolve in spaces beyond the written word, already explored by the magazine, and to connect with a generation enamored with radio shows, the internet and podcasts.
Season one included in-depth conversations with bloggers, techies, curators and poets wherein the focus was on key incidents that shaped their evolution and worldview, as well as we sought to understand what makes them tick. Season two, which drops later this year, will be just as experimental.
The interrelation between all out projects cannot be overlooked. Our experiments with Bakwacast will eventually pave the way for us to explore audio books, which will become one of the formats offered by Bakwa Books.
Given the ongoing crisis, I’ll be remiss if I didn’t ask how you think this crisis will color the writing coming out of Cameroon in the immediate and not so distant future.
Much of Cameroonian writing has been protest writing and socially engaged writing, thus it comes as no surprise that the current crisis will influence the literary output. I am particularly interested in seeing how, or if, this writing would distance itself from propaganda because of the ways in which the crises has escalated and the lives that have been affected.