A Brief History of Enkare Review: A Dialogue With Carey Baraka.
Enkare Review, founded in July 2016, is a collective of 12 twenty-something year olds based on the continent and un-ironically earnest in a shared vision for African creative production. Enkare Review is committed to seeking and cultivating radical literary production in Africa through its own creative working sessions, and in partnership with other institutions and artistic groups.
Enkare Review curates literary production online and through continued production of Enkare issues, with a deliberate focus on seeking and supporting emerging artists. Community is a defining characteristic of the Enkare vision. Through a series of collaborations, and the Enkare-Review-led working sessions, Enkare Review hopes to inspire experimental creation and foster relationships beyond genre.
(Enkare Review, here, is represented by Carey Baraka.)
This conversation took place between a green bedroom in cold Gaborone, Botswana and the beautiful chaos of Nairobi and the stubborn tranquility of Kisumu via email.
Gaamangwe: First, congratulations to the Enkare Review team for the incredible work you did curating your latest issue. Reading the issue was interesting for me. I moved between intrigue, shock, enchantment and pure bliss. Let’s start at the beginning. What is the origin story of Enkare Review?
Carey: June 2016, Troy (Onyango) texted me: “Oya! Let’s start a lit mag.” Immediately I saw the text, I was on board and after talking about it a bit with Troy, I texted another friend, Alexis Teyie, to ask whether she’d want to start a lit mag. At this point, it’s just an idea, an excellent one definitely, but still just an idea. A couple of weeks later, after the three of us have gathered some more people, we met in this cafe in Nairobi, seven people in total. So, we’re sitting in the cafe, cramped in a small booth, and everyone, even Alex, had this expectation that Troy and I had gotten further than “Oya! Let’s start a litmag,” but we hadn’t, so we spent a couple of moments looking at each other with these odd ok-what-next expressions on our faces. But things moved fast after that. We got a name (which took more time than one would expect), a functioning website, and that was it. The first things we ran were reviews of the Babishai Poetry and Writivism Short Story prizes, and something by Farah Bhaijee, fiction, and yeah, that’s our origin story.
Gaamangwe: You got the name and immediately started publishing incredible and renowned writers from all over the world. That is super impressive! First, how did you guys do that? Like what is the secret to getting the biggest writers and editors in the world to publish with a young literary magazine? Take me through your publishing brainstorming session.
Carey: “Publishing Brainstorming Session” makes it sound much more professional than it was. And it’s funny how people assume that there is an Enkare Review secret, that we have this secret way of getting content. Thing is, writers are nice people, wonderful people, and asking them for things does go a long way. And yes, while we do publish a lot of what you call “incredible and renown writers”, we are trying to move to creating our own content. And don’t get me wrong, curating work is important, and we are proud of the work that we have done and will continue to do in that area, but we are writers and poets and artistes at our core, and we want to put more focus on that than we have in our past. Our next issue is going to be purely our stuff, and while we might invite a few people we love to join in, we’re putting a deliberate focus on creating.
Gaamangwe: I look forward to reading your next issue. It promises to be interesting. On the dialogue of issues, let’s talk about your issues. To date, you have published two issues. How was the process of curating both the first and second issue? What kind of stories were you interested in publishing with each issue?
Carey: Do you read Jalada Africa? I think I have read all the content on Jalada, or at least most of it. Anyway, Jalada runs themed issues, which have brought them a lot of wonderful contents. I don’t know if you remember, but when we ran out first couple of things we simultaneously put out the call for our first issue, and one of the things that was very important to us about it was that it was not going to be themed. We felt that while, yes, having a theme may help bring out some very specific types of writing, it can also be very restrictive to type of story a person wants to write, the vista a writer wants to inhabit. So from the start it was no themes. And it’s crazy how many submissions we have gotten. First issue for instance, whose window closed when we were three months old, I repeat, three months, drew in around 300 submissions. Of course, the second issue was more than that, and, Gaamangwe, from this side of the curtain, maybe we should give those publications which take months with our submissions some more leeway. Kinda grating that we are one of these publications, and while we do try to do things as fast as we could, sometimes there’s only a certain speed at which things can proceed. Additionally, one thing we are very keen on with the issues is that all the pieces get read by at least three editors. That way, the choice on what gets into the issue is shared. The joys of multiple opinions. Inevitably, the sorrows of multiple opinions. Things can get intense on that end, and conversations, conversation here being the polite word, about what gets into the issue and what gets trimmed can morph into little tempests.
Gaamangwe: Yes, I read Jalada Africa. They are doing amazing work there! It’s quite impressive that your call for submissions received that much submissions. It speaks to how there is a huge need for publishing platforms in Africa. I can definitely see how it can get intense when you select the final stories. What are the kinds of things that the editors highlight when they select a story. Essentially, what are the elements/aspects that most of the stories that usually end up in the issues have?
Carey: Alex wrote this wonderful guide about what we look for in poetry. With our fiction and nonfiction, we require, obviously, that they should be of a certain technical quality, but even more importantly, that they should be enjoyable. The internet is awash with lists of what pertains to good prose, and what doesn’t, but one thing that is, I think, uniform with all these lists is the enjoyability factor. We are not concerned with themes, the what you write about; what we think about is the hows: Is it well-written? Is it an enjoyable read? And as with everything we publish: Is it an important literary resource? Is it something, we, Enkare Review, would talk about with pride? We don’t look for a particular element/aspect; we are quite happy to publish 8000 word stories as well as stories written in such forms as bank statements. And if we find that none of the things we receive as submissions are at the level we want them to be, we are quite happy to reject all of them. We do not, forgive the cliche, scrape at the bottom of the barrel.
Gaamangwe: Alex’s guide is too wonderful! Someone should also write another guide for fiction and non-fiction. I always enjoy reading your editorials! You are all incredible writers and editors. How is a typical day for an Enkare Review editor, especially after submissions week for your issues? How wide and diverse (in geography and genre) are the stories you receive with your issues?
Carey: First thing that happens after receiving submissions is that one of our editors will go through all the submissions and sort them out. And about the diversity, a lot has been said about the Nigerians, and I’m about to be one of those people who say things about how a lot of Nigerians write. Then we, of course, have a lot of submissions from Kenya. Uganda, Ghana, Zimbabwe. And a surprising amount of submissions from the US. But should it really matter where the submissions are from? Should we actively push to publish say, Kenyans, over people from other countries? Africans over non-Africans? We don’t think so. While we’ve had conversations about whether we should seek writers from certain nationalities, we don’t do that, because in the end it’s the writing we are after, and not the writer.
Gaamangwe: I think the dialogue of who to actively publish will depend on the origin story of Enkare Review and the vision that you have for the magazine. Of course, most of the development are organic, and the drive should be the quality of the writing.
I am aware that the answer to my next question is ever-evolving but what is the current vision for Enkare Review? What kinds of issues do you dream of creating and how would you ultimately like to participate and engage with the literary world?
Carey: What is our vision? When we started out, we were, to be honest, mostly just winging it; We had a thing going on that people liked and we tended to go with the flow, do whatever we felt like. We still do, and I feel that this spontaneity is one of our biggest strengths. At the same time, we have gotten into a position where people are asking about the importance of what Enkare Review does. Somewhat cool, all kinds of scary, that we are in a position where whatever we do is looked at from certain prisms. And what people forget is that we are just a bunch of young people who figured what they wanted to do and did it: No questions, very little thinking, just a good old “oya, let’s start a litmag.” Still, we have to face up with questions of long-term sustainability. Saraba is one of Africa’s most important spaces and a reason they have survived so long is because of the current of friendship that runs through them. And we’ve got that going for us, quartered as we are in Nairobi and Dar and Marsabit and Nigeria and all kinds of shifting locations. Right now, we are trying to find a way for Enkare Review to sustain itself financially. Paying writers, paying editors, no advertisers, and our content remaining free, that’s the ideal. So we are talking about this. We are also having conversations with other organizations, mostly in Kenya, but elsewhere too, about partnerships, and what these would look like. Like what we have with Writivism. With certain bookstores. Festivals. Other journals. We are trying to link our writers & poets to publishers. These are some of the things that are important to us. Also, fostering conversations on certain issues that are important to us. This is why we had the Inclusivity call. And as always, having fun with whatever it is we decide to do. That is the Enkare Review vision.
Gaamangwe: I resonate with that spontaneity and organic unfolding of things. That’s what happened with AiD. And yes to how scary it is trying to formalize structure. But it seems to be the natural course of activities that shifts culture. It is easy to want to insist that work is just being created from passion, but I have learnt that every work has a purpose bigger than its original intention. Enkare Review is an inspiration particularly because, yes, it’s just a bunch of young people doing this. It totally blows my mind sometimes!
I know this process of discovering what Enkare Review does is ever folding but what are these issues that are important to you? And tell me more about the Inclusivity call?
Carey: There is a lot that goes on in Africa’s literary scene, and art scene, that so often goes unreported. You hang out with a bunch of writers, and you hear things, things about how this and that happened to this writer, things about how this and that writer did this and that thing. So, we are hoping that with our inclusivity call, people are going to talk about these things. We, as Enkare Review, have had incidences that we are not proud of, and having this call is part of our telling ourselves that, hey, we have done badly, or not too well, and we need to do better. Plus, Gaamangwe, as much as we tend to shy away from thematic writing, and while we are ostensibly a literary journal, there are some things that we just can’t ignore. Last year, we had problematic elections (in Kenya), and we had to talk about that. It is alright to publish the cool poetry and the mind-blowing fiction and all that, but yo, this was intense. Sanya Noel, one of our editors, from his balcony, could see and hear people being shot at. Alex was in Kisumu, and being assailed by gunshots all day long and police and military choppers being hovering around, and you don’t expect her to be like, “hey Carey, I think, let’s shift these lines in this poem this way, and do you think this comma works well here?” Commas are important and all, but sometimes some things dominate everything else. Heck, not gonna lie to you, submissions for our second issue closed in August, but we didn’t start working on them until late November. And, so, back then we did our A Sense of Where We are series. Because it was important that we do something like that. Right now we are doing Inclusivity, because it is important to us. And we will continue to do the issues. Plus, the solicited content on the website. And whatever else we, in future, decide is important to us. All these, that’s who we are.
Gaamangwe: I definitely understand this pull to want to do something far beyond publishing great poetry and fiction. I think eventually, every curator realizes that they are what my friend, Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire of Writivism calls “Culture Politicians”. Literary curators in Africa eventually come to the understanding that their work can also be used to engage, interrogate and possibly shift culture. We can use our platforms to engage or explore the politics of our daily existence as Africans! I hear you and I know that the Inclusivity Call will be an important and relevant work. I look forward to reading it and witnessing how Enkare Review will unfold along the year (s).
Carey: Yes! And Bwesigye is right. But a word of caution here. Even in using these platforms to “engage, interrogate and possibly shift culture”, we must always be conscious of our intellectual blind spots. Writers are, too often, placed by society in positions where they are expected to be experts in all sorts of things. It’s one thing to ask, say, me, my opinion on IAAF’s new ‘Caster Semenya’ rules. I know something about athletics and a bit of how IAAF works. However, if you ask me about, say, the experiences of trans-women, I should be able to concede that I know nothing about this, and listen to what someone who does has to say. So, yes, use our platforms, Enkare Review and Africa in Dialogue and all the others to talk about these things, but always to be wary of our intellectual and cultural blind spots.
Gaamangwe: I completely agree! This is why I am obsessed with dialogues actually. I know that different individuals can bring different and vital understanding to different narratives. Carey, thank you so much for joining me in this dialogue. I had so much fun.
Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker, interviewer and founding editor of Africa in Dialogue.
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