Ellah Allfrey is an icon of the publishing industry, managing to support both diaspora and local African writing projects alike and championing change, creativity and emerging writers. Tiah spoke to her about her latest editing project, new ways of thinking about African writing and naturally, what she's reading.
Thank you for sharing Safe House with me. It was slightly eerie, yet wonderful, to read personal stories from writers I know on a professional basis, but do not know in such intimate detail. As you say in the introduction, 'Too often, writing about Africa has been at a distance, a view to a place as far away….we developed the pieces in this collection, [a] personal voice that allowed the writer to become a part of the story.' These essays, very much, bring the writer into the story.
For readers who are unfamiliar with the collection, please tell us a bit about how the project started and what it is about.
ELLAH: This project has been in my head (actually, in my heart!) for over six years. I had the great fortune of being able to commission non-fiction books and long-form creative non-fiction in my last two jobs (at Jonathan Cape and at Granta) but found it was often difficult to get the backing to take a chance on writers living in Africa who did not have a proven track record. This kind of writing takes time, and that time has to be paid for – so it’s understandable that publishers are risk averse. When Commonwealth Writers offered to support a Creative Non-Fiction workshop (which was held in Kampala in 2014) and, subsequently, the anthology itself, I finally found I had the means to bring the book together.
The collection purposefully does not have a single theme. I was most interested in what writers themselves wanted to say – the subjects that were preoccupying them as they lived and worked in their own communities. It was interesting to me that even with this ‘open call’ approach, clear themes did indeed become apparent, and I used those to organise the pieces into sections. So, in short, the collection is about Africa now – stories by people writing about their own communities and, in some cases, their own lives.
Safe House came to my attention via your podcast with Chike Frankie Edozien, a must-listen piece. One aspect that impressed me with the collection is how it gives space to tell stories such as Chike's and others that address the lives of LGBTQIA+ individuals in various African countries. Do you think we might have reached a turning point where both publishers and readers are becoming open to widening their ears to broader voices and their stories?
ELLAH: If we haven’t yet reached that turning point we are near it and I am committed to do everything I can to make sure these voices are heard. The treatment of – and desire to silence – those of LGBTI orientation seems such obvious nonsense to me. It’s imperative that we are all viewed as human beings, deserving of respect, safety and dignity … and the freedom to love and give expression to that love, regardless of orientation or gender identification. So the pieces in Safe House on this particular issue were specially commissioned. I wanted to read these stories written without the filter of agenda and from a distinctly African perspective. The quality of the writing and the impact potential of each piece was supremely gratifying.
I like your phrase ‘widening their ears’.
How did the editing process work between you, the rest of the editing team and the numerous writers that contributed to the collection?
ELLAH: All of the editing was done via email. From the very beginning (concept, to open call, to initial responses and line edits through to completion), I shared all communications with my excellent assistant editor Otieno Owino and we also had meetings via Skype. Otieno took the lead on several edits as part of the apprenticeship and did amazing work.
It was a huge privilege to work with such a range of writers; I had worked with a handful of them before and admired several for their work. A few I met through this book for the first time.
It’s a challenge to work with writers who are starting off from such different places in their careers but I was always aware that robust editorial support was going to be crucial in this project. In the end, it was nothing but a delight.
How did your upbringing influence the editor you are today?
ELLAH: Nice question. I’ve spoken about my inheritance as the daughter of an author/editor/publisher elsewhere and think it directly influences everything I do. I also inherited a relentless curiosity from both my parents and grew up in a house where discussion and debate were daily bread. So I want to know about the world I live in and feel hugely privileged to be able to ask questions and have them answered in book form for readers to share with me.
You wrote a wonderful piece for The Guardian: "Writers Need New Ways of Talking About Africa's Past and Present". Following that, what conversations do the African writing community, with all its variety that a community of over 50 countries brings, need to be having?
ELLAH: I would never presume to tell writers what they ‘should’ be doing. The actual point of my piece was that publishers themselves and gate-keepers need to be more creative – bolder, readier to take risks – in enabling writers to tell the stories they want and to experiment with form. In the same way, I am not about to tell the ‘African writing community’ (whatever that is!) what conversation to have. To my mind, the writers are already having the conversation and it’s up to my tribe, the publishers, those who are able to put together support for the publication of books or to make connections between writers and agents, publishers, to step up and start making things happen. Having said that, I think there are already exciting initiatives about and publications that have been championing this kind of work for years. Now it’s about making sure we work together to keep momentum going and to continue encouraging writers. And, of course, making sure that this kind of writing provides a way for writers to make a decent living.
On Ellah's Bedside Table
I have just finished The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson and am still spinning from the experience. Her approach to memoir/non-fiction is stunning and I am deeply, deeply in love with her brain. I’m planning to re-read it this week.
I’ve just started a post as visiting professor at Goshen College so I am re-reading a couple of beloved books in preparation for discussions with my students. One Day I Will Write About This Place; The Orchard of Lost Souls; Lost and Found in Johannesburg; The Jive-Talker…
Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, OBE, editor, critic, and broadcaster, is former deputy editor of Granta magazine, series editor for the Kwani? Manuscript Prize, and the deputy chair of the Caine Prize for African Writing. She served as a judge on the 2015 Man Booker Prize panel. She lives in London, England.
Interview by Tiah Beautement a.k.a @ms_tiahmarie