Thursday, 10 June 2010

The African Pulse: Ivor Hartmann and Kola Tubosun

Ivor W. Hartmann in Conversation with Sentinel Nigeria's Kola Tubosun about the "African Roar" and his StoryTime Project.

KT: Tell me about your own writing history. How did you get into writing?

IWH: When I was fourteen, and heavily under the influence of Stephen King at the time, I wrote a short story for a class creative writing assignment. At the time I had been relegated against my will to a boarding school – as about as far from home as I could get and still be in the same country. So I took this opportunity to vent my anger and frustration in a creative and cathartic way, and ended up with a blood soaked story about werewolves that totally scared the crap out of my demure English Lit teacher. It was then I realised I was onto something as I had never attained that level of attention before in anything I had ever done at school. Thus started my love of writing and I continued to write for the next five years until I finished school. It was then I decided that a serious writer needed to experience life in all its messy glory before he could really begin to write about it (whatever the genre). So that's what I did for the next twenty one years. Then in 2007 I woke up one day and realised that I had indeed done what I set out to do all those years ago, and it was time to get back to what has always been my first and true love, writing.

KT: How much of life’s mess did you actually experience for the twenty-one years, and do you still recommend same for anyone hoping to seriously go into writing?

IWH: A lot more than I wished for that's for sure, ha ha, someday I'll write an autobiography when I know it will sell.

Hmm, that's how it was for me and it worked, but I could not go so far as to recommend it to anyone. Everyone is different.

KT: How did the StoryTime website idea begin?

IWH: As a new 'serious' writer, I was banging out loads of work but when it came time to get it published and I started looking around I was taken aback at the dearth of outlets for African writers. As of course, I wanted to rather get it published by an African outlet than anywhere else. So rather than just fruitlessly moaning about it I decided to take the plunge and start an African Lit magazine. Having now been reduced to the clichéd starving writer, I looked for ways I could do that as cheaply as possible and yet still be effective. Thus the StoryTime ezine was born in June 2007.

KT: How has it been since the site started, and how did you get the now many authors that have been published on it.

IWH: Like most endeavours of this nature it was slow going at first, but I was relentless in searching for and asking writers to join and publish their work in StoryTime. So slowly word got around and by the middle of the second year I was no longer praying to have something (anything) to publish, and was receiving a fair amount un-requested submissions. Though I do still harass the odd writer I really want to publish because I very much like their work. StoryTime was and still is a work in progress, with me learning as I go along how to best get it out and about and thus give maximum exposure to the writers I publish, which is the main aim of StoryTime. In the beginning and up to Jan this year I was only really proofing and doing basic editing of the work that was sent to me, but decided from Jan 2010 to fully edit every submission with the author (as I had now I believed, gained enough experience in editing to do this properly). So the fruits of that decision are now becoming evident with each new issue published and has raised the standard significantly.

KT: I remembered how you came to pick my story to be published on the website. I just don't remember if I'd sent it to you first, or you contacted me to send it to you. Did you have to do that for the many authors that you published initially? Were there those who turned you down? Were there false starts? What other things were memorable about that beginning of StoryTime.

IWH: You sent it to me to me in May 2009, after coming across StoryTime online, but yes, I still did a fair bit of chasing even then.

Sure, many have turned me down – and still do – but as optimistic as I am, I certainly don't expect everyone to be into publishing in StoryTime. So I don't take it badly at all, wouldn't be much of a writer if I did, there's always going to be writers who for whatever their reasons don't want to, and I respect that.

There have been false starts, for sometime I had this idea StoryTime should be a worldwide writers' ezine though with a focus on African writers. But I eventually realised that this was silly (there were plenty of those, though not many with that focus), and so I chose to only showcase African writers, and re-did the ezine's look, logo, the core goals, and submission guidelines to reflect this and have never looked back.

There have been many memorable moments, both good and bad, much like having a child. One in particular was when Emmanuel Sigauke responded positively to an email I sent him in October 2008 about possibly publishing in StoryTime (I had read an excerpt of a short story of his 'Mukoma's Marriage' at his blog Wealth of Ideas and really liked it). He was consequently (besides myself) the first already published writer to be in a StoryTime issue. And we have since then enjoyed a great friendship, and he has taught me so many things for which I will always be eternally grateful.

KT: How many authors have been published on StoryTime so far?

IWH: To date we have published fifty three authors, though there are many more scheduled, StoryTime is in fact booked solid, publishing wise, until next year January, and there are more new authors submitting every day.

KT: The big news is African Roar, an anthology of best short stories from 2007-2009 in StoryTime. Tell us what we don't already know about it.

IWH: What a lot people have missed in our descriptions of the project is that after we (Emmanuel Sigauke and I) chose the final stories for African Roar. We then spent a good eight months carefully and stringently editing each story with the authors to bring it to it full promise (with one exception being the established author Chuma Nwokolo whose story was masterfully written, edited and ready to go). Also, that all the stories are now only available in the book, (apart from one exception published elsewhere online, but not in its current form in the book). I have great hopes for the future of African Roar. As you know this book is just the first in what will be an annual anthology, so hoping big (and why not I ask) that it may become in its own way a benchmark of current African Literature much like the famed Heinemann's African Writers Series was from 1963 to 2003. Though of course, limited to a short story anthology drawn solely from StoryTime.

KT: Beside the process of voting on the StoryTime website for stories to be included, was there anything else you were looking for when choosing the eleven stories in African Roar? Was there a theme at the outset that the stories had to conform to? Was there any particular directions you (the editors) agreed on before coming up with the final selection?

IWH: The voting process (which will happen every year) is more to engage the readers and get a larger picture of what they have liked, and not liked, a rough guide so to speak from a readers point of view.

For me choosing the stories was a very subconscious thing, like music, I knew what I liked instantly regardless of its genre and condition of writing at the time. So I looked for works that really stood out and spoke to me (as an avid long time reader). From this I compiled a list and Emmanuel did the same (using his own process). We put our lists together taking what coincided, and then defended and argued our other choices with each other until we agreed on a final list. So no, there was no theme and there never will be, African Roar is about selecting the very best of StoryTime and then taking those stories to an even higher level with the authors, in the editing process.

KT: But with benefit of knowledge of the wide range and genres now already published on the site, are there particular genres you’re still looking out for?

IWH: Nothing specific, I would like to eventually see every single genre that exists covered and perhaps create a few new ones too.

As one of the StoryTime authors, is there any genre you think StoryTime might have tempted you to try?

KT: I’m for sci-fi, not because I’ve read much of it as a kid, or watched much of it in the movies, but precisely because I haven’t, and because people like Nnedi Okorafor and yourself are venturing into such fields (as well as fantasy genre that has Okri and Rushdie) with so much vigour, I’m beginning to develop some interest in it.

IWH: That's good to hear Kola.

KT: Who were the authors that influenced you when you were growing up? Have you ever been influenced by writers writing in indigenous African languages, and what is the future of fiction-in-translation in future publications that you might want to edit.

IWH: Like most children growing up in Zimbabwe in the 70's as there was not a lot of local African publishing going on (under the racist Smith Regime), and even less that was put into libraries and schools, so I dined on a stock of imported authors, mostly British. I ploughed (I was an avid reader from the age of six) my way through Roald Dahl, Edith Nesbit, etc. However, in 1980 all that changed with independence, and suddenly there was an influx of African writers into the libraries. So I leapt eagerly into the likes of Dambudzo Marechera, Charles Mungoshi, Chenjerai Hove, Ben Okri, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, etc. to name a few. As here were, finally, African writers that wrote about the real Africa I was living in and very much a part of, and could relate too in a very personal way. This is not to say I didn't read other authors, I was and still am a real book slut – I read anything I could get my hands on. So too pinpoint any one or even group of, authors that influenced me is a truly impossible task.

I am all for writers writing in their first language, but do feel that to achieve the world wide exposure, these works need to be translated for the world at large into the mainly read languages i.e. English, Spanish, Chinese, etc. At StoryTime I am all for publishing the original work accompanied by a translation, though so far none of the authors have taken me up on this endeavour.

KT: As a linguist, I’m also for literature in translation. Original stories written in African languages translated and published. Or maybe you can even publish special edition African Roar issues with stories written only in African languages. Imagine a collection of eleven stories in eleven different African languages. A special edition publication, I said, and even I realise how ambitious and risky that could be for publishing which is first of all a business. But I like to think that it is possible, and could be exciting.

IWH: That would be a truly amazing project to do. In terms of cost maybe the original language used could be accompanied with an English (or other depending on the country it's being sold in) translation accompanying each story? Or, the other way around with African Roar being translated into the countries local language but also with the original language. Either way whilst it would make a far bigger book, it could well be worth it, and something I will look into for the next one.

KT: Considering now that there are very many more stories in the StoryTime ezine now, will the next African Roar have more than eleven stories? Will the selection process be the same? And will there be much more African Roars in the next year, or will it just be another one.

IWH: Yes, there will be more stories in the next one, as there are more that will be eligible this time around, and in my opinion there are and will be, some extremely good works in the set time period (Aug 2009-Aug 2010), from which to choose. Yes, we will do a readers vote and repeat the aforementioned process, As far as I can see there will only be one African Roar published every year, I am not looking for it to become a quarterly (or otherwise) print magazine, which publishing it more than once a year would probably mean.

KT: I know that editing and publishing short stories is enough task in itself. But do you have any interest in poetry, as a person. Do you write/read them? Any thoughts?

IWH: I do love poetry, though I prefer spoken to reading, and do very occasionally actually write one myself. Poetry to me is the highest art-form of writing, like absolute rose essence that takes 10 tons of petals to make a single ounce, so it should be with poetry. When I do write a poem it's normally because there's an idea or thought or collection thereof, which has been banging around my head for years. Slowly developing until one day out it comes, and then the real work starts, agonising over every word for months on end. So needless to say I have an incredible respect for poets who achieve great works, as it is truly the most demanding form of writing.

KT: What is the response so far to the publication of African Roar?

IWH: So far, three weeks in now, the reception has been fantastic with a far greater reach and interest than I had hoped possible. Especially as we have been dealing with a zero budget for promotion and marketing, which has certainly been interesting, along with the fact that it is at present only being sold online. Like StoryTime itself African Roar has been entirely dependant on word of mouth, word on the net, etc. through the authors' enthusiastic participation. As, whilst writing may be solitary, publishing is most definitely a team effort, and though this holds true for all publishing it takes on even more significance when applied to African Roar. It truly has been a team effort from the beginning and continues to be. And we, the authors, are starting to see the benefits of our hard labours as our African Roar is slowly but surely being heard world-wide.

As one of the authors in African Roar, how do you feel about it? Do you think is has put you forward as a writer?

KT: Yes it has. Like I wrote in one of my old, and another recent, blog-posts about the evolution of writing and my connection with the online medium, it has been a love-hate relationship. I grew up sneaking up to my father’s old typewriter at night to learn how to type from when I was eight. He would inevitably wake up from the noise and send me to sleep. But he always encouraged my interest because he knew that I always wanted to write, even if what I was writing then didn’t make much sense. He eventually handed me over to a professional typist who taught me how to type. Coming from such a background, I had a special relationship with the paper as a bearer of my thoughts. The sight of a pristine white page filled me always with such delight that always made me write. Or draw. Or simply scrawl things on it, just to fulfil what seemed like the ultimate mandate of its pureness: to be defiled. Then I met the computer and everything changed. I fell in love with it in a different way. The ease with which a blank document page of Microsoft Word inspired writing became impossible to surpass by the hard sheet of paper.

So I started a blog and started leaving my ideas there. Then I wrote poems, many of them inspired by the blank post page on the blog. My story in African Roar was inspired in some sort of way as well, and if not for your immediate acceptance of its prospects, it might just have ended up as just another Facebook note. Being published in this maiden anthology has thus given me more confidence in the power of the book to charm, just as much as the internet does, but with more permanence. And of course, it has added to my resume, for no matter how many words a blog contains, it can never be called a book, and the author – though still a writer – will not be called an author, at least by today’s indices.

IWH: Yes, I had a dalliance with publishing stuff on Facebook, until I realised how precious all my stories really were (in terms of one day paying me). So now I hoard them for a collection, and occasionally publish in magazines to keep my resume turning over while I finish the collection and work on the novels.

KT: I'm for localisation. Is there a chance of seeing a Nigerian/West African edition of African Roar anytime soon, published by a local publisher to make it easily physically available?

IWH: Yes, I would like that very much too, and I am (as the creator and anthologist, sole holder of the African Roar rights and copyrights) in the process of approaching local publishing companies. As it stands the deal with The Lion Press only included UK printing and distribution online at and B&N. So while we are working towards this it will take time, but through the connections we are making now, we will certainly see the next anthology being far more widely physically distributed as soon as it is published, rather than after the fact.

KT: Since you got into serious writing, have you ever been under pressure to let the politics of Zimbabwe reflect in or condition your creative process in any way?

IWH: Yes the current condition of Zimbabwe has influenced my writing. I am living in economic exile away from my home and this has many effects on me personally, which of course influences my writing. But to answer you question, no, I have not felt directly pressured to write about it, and even if I was I would probably buck it, like Marechera said, "If you're a writer for a specific nation or a specific race, then f*** you". A writer must be, and feel, free to write whatever they want to.

Though I could ask the same of you, do you feel that current Nigerian politics has influenced your writing? And if so to what extent?

KT: No, but that is as far as my deliberate rebellion will allow, and I have tried as much as possible to fuse much of my own outlook in the speech of the characters I create. I cannot control the unconscious however. If I’m a writer at all, I’m one because of my upbringing and influences all tainted with patches of Nigerian history and my own upbringing in the many cultures that I’ve interacted with. The rest are my own questing polemics. In essence, I don’t write so as to be patriotic except to defy and to question, but mostly to locate the common humanity in my characters as well as in those who read and connect with them. I like the simple, small, family things, not the grand “national” political ones, and I’ve dedicated myself to exploring the small ones. I’ve discovered that they’re often even more fun than big politics. And as a writer, you get the liberty of imagination. Politics is more restricting. In that, Marachera was right. But overall, we are still a sum of our individual experiences, and are conditioned by our environments whether we like it or not.

IWH: Sure, I agree with you there, I'm also not into the grand political novel (or even short story). What interests me is the ordinary lives of ordinary people, because as soon as you look deeper no one is ordinary. We all have extraordinary things that happen to us at some point in our lives and how we deal with them is fascinating. The average Zimbabwean living in Zimbabwe now, is an everyday hero, you have to be in order to just survive.

KT: I know that you like Science Fiction. What is that about?

IWH: Well, its more the broader umbrella genre Speculative Fiction that I have a great interest in, which does include Sci-Fi, but also Fantasy, Horror, Supernatural Fiction, Superhero Fiction, Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, Apocalyptic and Post-apocalyptic Fiction, Alternate History, and Magical Realism. This is because I feel that in Spec-Fic there are no limits to the imagination and what you can do as writer, anything goes, and that is a tremendous freedom. I do write Contemporary Fiction too, it's really just a case of whatever will serve the story best. Though in terms of African writers, I am a big proponent of us moving into Spec-Fic and other genres, for the simple reason that we seem for the most part to be stuck in Contemporary Fiction. It seems as if every African writer wants to be the next Soyinka or Marechera, and I'm saying hang on a minute we can't all be that so what about the rest, the whole breadth of fiction? I want to see bookshops stocking us African writers under all these other genres too, and we can do it, we have massive amounts of talent here.

KT: Who are your influences in the Sci-fi fiction category, and for people meeting you for the first time, which of your stories in that genre would you encourage them to read first?

IWH: There are so many excellent Sci-Fi writers, but my top all time influence is undoubtedly Frank Herbert, and the six Dune books he wrote. What he showed me was that sci-fi could go to another level entirely, one that was as deep as the writer could make it. I re-read those six once a year, and every year I discover new insights and subtleties, things that make me go Wow! Frank you are the Man!

Hmm, well I haven't published that much yet (but have quite a bit unpublished including shorts and novels in progress), but I think to date my favourite is Earth Rise (actually a novel but I have only published the first chapter so far). After that it’s The Last Wave and Mr. Goop. So those being my favourites are what I would recommend reading to anyone interested in getting into Sci-Fi solely from reading my works, but there is so much out there I would recommend rather plunging into all of it.

KT: As a sometime sci-fi/fantasy writer. A few decades ago, getting a book
of this nature published would have cost an arm and leg, and several weeks of postage costs. Can you paint me a picture of African writing in the next fifty years from your own creative crystal ball. A little sci-fi fantasizing is welcome, if you feel like it.

IWH: Hard to say with any surety exactly how things will develop. But given the rising popularity of eBooks and the devices to read them on I suspect that this will undoubtedly become the main way of reading books, quite a lot sooner than fifty years from now. There are however some problems with this especially in Africa and third world countries, given that the average internet access in Africa at present stands at 8.7%. And as Nadine Gordimer pointed out recently printed books don't need batteries or internet access. So there is still a great need for the publishing and distribution of printed books, and indeed an ever widening gap technologically between the first and third worlds. So while it's great to be able to publish books electronically, if you want to ensure all-round distribution printed books are a still a necessity. This will certainly change in the coming years, and smart cellphones will drive it I believe, as there is certainly a far wider cellphone coverage and penetration into Africa than there is internet access alone. So with cellphone providers including more services in their packages, this could pave the way to greater eBook reading. Fifty years from now, I think print books will be nostalgic curiosities, and much like gas guzzling cars, only bought by for those who can afford the expensive luxury of having them.

KT: When you’re not writing, what would you likely be found doing?

IWH: Editing other authors more than likely, it takes up a fair amount of my time, and of course creating graphics and other stuff which keep me alive and able to still write. I'm a bit of a workaholic, but do occasionally find the time to attend book launches, hang out with other writers and friends, and of course I do religiously end every single day by reading for at least an hour before I sleep, but usually it ends up being quite a bit more.

KT: Finally, what’s your final word on the current progress of writing on the continent?

IWH: I am so impressed I can't even express how much and more so with every new submission I receive. We have a vast amount talent in Africa, so much so that when it truly starts to hit the world scene in a big way, we will be unstoppable.

KT: Thank you for this chance to talk with you.

IWH: Thank you Kola, it's been a pleasure talking with you.


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