Brittle Paper is one of the foremost literary journals in Africa. It marks its seventh year anniversary today, 1st August, 2017 and at Praxis, we are celebrating its excellence with this interview with the founder, Ainehi Edoro. Enjoy it.
Brittle Paper has come a long way from its first year. It’s more than a magazine, more like a hub for everything African literature. When you had the idea to start this up, what was the vision? What problems did you envisage it’d solve?
I started Brittle Paper in 2010 as a means of escape from my post-grad classes. At the time it was a general interest philosophy and literature blog. It gave me a space outside of the classroom to play with ideas. When it morphed into an Africa-centered literary site in 2012, the founding impulse hadn’t really changed. But this time I wanted to escape mainstream literary establishment. I didn’t like the way we talked about African literature. I didn’t like the gate-keeping that allowed only a select few access based on decisions being made by people who had lost touch with what was cool and amazing about African literature. There was need for a place where we could talk about African literature in a fun and meaningful way and a place where emerging African writers could find their voice and grow before venturing out.
And the name, Brittle Paper, how did it come about?
The brittleness of paper evokes the ephemeral nature of literary work and ideas within the digital space. It marks the shift from a literary model based on the longevity of classics to a literary model based on the disposability of texts and images. Brittle Paper is about documenting the life of texts within the social media space.
This act of documenting the life of texts sounds pretty easier than it really is. I am thinking about the hard work involved in starting and running a magazine. It goes beyond dishing out content, but appropriate and quality content capable of growing and sustaining readership. How would you describe the growth of Brittle Paper? What were the major challenges encountered along the way, what kept you going?
Readers and fans of African literature are always hungry for new content. They are always eager for more news about African literature. They want to be the first to know when a new book is out or when a new prizewinner is decided. Writers are always asking us if we know of opportunities for publishing, fellowships, residencies, etc. within the larger community. Keeping up with this demand for content on a daily basis is fun but also challenging.
What important changes do you see happening in (African) writing right now?
African literature is a girl’s club at the moment. Women are essentially in control of the global African literary scene. When I hear the phrase, the future is female, the contemporary African literary scene comes to mind. In the past year, Chimamanda Adichie, Nnedi Okorafor, Imbolo Mbue, Lauren Beukes, Yaa Gyasi, Warsan Shire, Ayobami Adebayo—the list is endless— have dominated the media for all the big things they are doing. Their voices are shaping what the world thinks about African literature. Their writing is inspiring a generation. And they are getting paid good money doing it. Such a huge and heartwarming break from an African literary past dominated by men.
It’s really amazing how we went from not being heard or seen to dominating the space. You have been the editor of Brittle Paper since its inception and have published emerging authors who have gone on to win and gain recognition for significant literary awards. It’s almost like Brittle Paper is the mother nurturing Africa’s future literary laureates. How does this make you feel? Is there anything that has surprised you about editing a literary magazine?
Nurturing writers is an endlessly rewarding work. But it’s also the work that no one wants to do. Everyone wants to publish big name writers because it affords their platform a quick and easy means to notoriety. At Brittle Paper, we believe that there is no shortcut to building community. Writers love our site because we give them a space to find their voice. We share their work with our vibrant community of readers. We give them a springboard to move on to the next level. And when they do move on, we continue to celebrate their success and promote their work.
Are there things you would like to see more or less of in the submissions to your magazine?
I would like to see more experimentation. Writers should not be afraid to break from the mold, especially when they are still in their growth phase. Try all kinds of different things. Brittle Paper is not the New Yorker. We will not judge you or try to police your style to conform to a pre-established mode of what “proper” writing is. Take risks with your writing!
That’s encouraging. How vigorous is your editing? What’s the process like? And more specifically, what’s a typical working day for you like at Brittle Paper?
Brittle Paper is split into two parts. We publish original work submitted by writers. That involves a separate editorial process. The other half is the curating work of telling people what’s happening in the global literary scene as it pertains to the continent. A typical working day for me and my co-editor Otosirieze Obi-Young is making sure that we have a mix of both kinds of content for our readers. People like to read new stories as much as they like to hear the latest tidbits about what authors are up to.
Some time last year, the internet was awash with the news of plagiarism of a certain poet who’d won the Writivism and Babishai poetry prizes. I think Brittle Paper carried the news too. It was a bit worrying that same poem had passed through African literary structures but wasn’t discovered to be plagiarized until it found its way into a foreign magazine. Zukiswa Wanner captured the feeling well in her article on Daily Nation. In her words, ‘I could also not really help feeling a tad sad that it took a non-African publication to discover the plagiarist we had been lauding and publishing. We failed in due diligence on this one, fam.’
Are there ways in which Brittle Paper check for and prevent publishing plagiarized works? What suggestions can you give as an editor, on curbing plagiarism?
I haven’t read Wanner’s piece so I don’t fully understand why it matters that he was outed by a western platform as opposed to an African platform. What matters is that once it was found out, the response was swift and condemnatory across board. Plagiarism is endemic to every system and sometimes it can be difficult to spot. When celebrity blogger Jonah Lehrer was caught fabricating Bob Dylan’s quotes it wasn’t his high profile publisher that discovered it, in spite of all money and time they had to have spent fact-checking. It was a journalist who knew Bob Dylan’s work that raised the first alarm. Addressing plagiarism is a collective effort. As an editor you do the best you can and hope that writers are ethical and smart enough to know that plagiarizing is an awful thing to do.
What’s your response rate like in acknowledging entries? Do you give helpful feedback for rejection letters?
Our response rate is pretty good. We respond much faster than a traditional literary magazine. And we do give as much feedback as we can. We would love to give more but lack the time and resources to do so. The more we expand the Brittle Paper team the more we’ll be in a position to give more detailed feedback.
I used to visit your magazine often just to scroll down to your bio where it says ‘I’m currently rounding up PhD studies in African Literature from Duke University’ or something similar. Oh, how happy it made me. Then you announced your graduation on your Facebook, I quickly rushed back to the site to check your bio and saw you’ve subsequently joined Marquette University as associate professor. Your passion to not only promote African literature through your website, but also to teach it is infectious. But I also wonder how you manage to combine your career as a blogger and an academic, both of which are time consuming.
Thanks for sharing in the joy of my PhD. It was a rewarding but challenging experience. You asked about mixing blogging and academic work. I’ve done both for so long that I can’t imagine them as two separate entities. My academic work and research informs the things I write on Brittle Paper and also deepens my understanding of why a project such as Brittle Paper is necessary.
My blogging has helped me grow as an academic writer and given me access to a powerful community of readers and thinkers who have helped shaped my thinking on the burning issues affecting African literary discourse. I’d say there is a nice little dialectical relationship between the two. Blogging and academic work combine to make me a much better thinker and writer than I would have been doing just one of the two.
Generally, what’s the experience like teaching African literature as an African in a western country?
It is exciting. Students are always so open to new ideas. I do feel a bit like an ambassador of African literature sharing the wonders of the African literary archive with students, teaching them what is brilliant and groundbreaking about these texts and helping them situate these texts within a global literary history.
Do you often engage your students in Brittle Paper related work?
Not really. Brittle Paper is its own thing. It’s too different to inhabit an academic space. Or as they say, it’s way too cool for school.
What is the future like for the magazine? Are you looking at something entrepreneurial? How profitable is Brittle Paper now?
Right now we are focused on building the site and expanding our communities across all the various social media sites.
I think you’re doing quite well with the social media coverage really. I doubt if there’s hardly a lover of African literature who doesn’t know or hasn’t heard of Brittle Paper. But of course, there’s always a room for further growth. I’m envisioning a time when graduates and interns will be submitting CVs to Brittle Paper. You know, giving employments et al and then I can get the tithe for predicting that here. What do you think?
You’ve essentially written our future for us. Brittle Paper started out as a personal blog but has since grown into a news/media platform. The idea is to keep growing it into an organisation that could really open doors for people and reward innovation in the culture and production of literature.
Fantastic and best wishes with the plans. May I add that for a magazine that writes and publishes controversial topics, both good and ugly news about writers and literary happenings you should be getting some criticism and maybe attacks? Has any aggrieved author come for your head yet?
Come for my head yet? Lol. Well, everyone knows that Brittle Paper is the biggest fan of African literature and African writers. If you think otherwise, you’re just hating. On a more serious note, I have to say that the goodwill we receive far outweighs the few salty individuals we encounter once in a while.
And what are your favourite African literary blogs?
Praxis Magazine. What you do there is inspiring. I read your interviews all the time. Your chapbook projects are great.
Thank you, Ainehi. Means a lot.
Advice for start up magazines?
Stick with it!