"We’ve Always Wanted Work That Stands Out."
A Chat With Dzekashu MacViban, Editor of Cameroon-based Bakwa Magazine
Bakwa’s website describes its purpose this way: “Bakwa, was founded to counter the absence of literary magazines in Cameroon; with a wide ranging remit that’s broader than the literary, Bakwa – is an eclectic, intelligent take on the dynamic cultural scenes often missed by mainstream, western media.”
Interview by Gaamangwe Joy Mogami
Let’s start at the beginning, what is the origin story of Bakwa Magazine?
The first place to publish my work was PalaPala magazine, followed by Saraba Magazine and Wasafiri. It was such a unique experience, especially PalaPala, which made me discover so many amazing Cameroonian writers. When PalaPala became defunct in 2011, this created a huge void for writers of my generation, thus Bakwa Magazine was created to fill this void and be a place where Cameroonian and African writers could engage in quality cross-cultural conversations, publish their work, as well as comment on the work of other creatives and document the times in which they lived in a way that wasn’t being done elsewhere.
What does Bakwa mean?
Bakwa is a dimunitive of Abakwa, a soubriquet of Bamenda, the chief-town of the North West Region of Cameroon.
Originally, you started the magazine to counter the absence of literary and cultural criticism in Cameroon. I wonder if there is a difference with the literary landscape of Cameroon now, as compared to when you started?
Much has changed indeed. There are more personal blogs and websites, Facebook pages and WhatsApp groups dedicated to Cameroonian literature today. Though these are never enough, they are a starting point and they show that there is interest in writing. Perhaps the most significant difference in the Cameroonian literary landscape is the shift from the academia. The academia used to be a literary stronghold in Cameroon but this is no longer the case with the current generation of upcoming writers.
Bakwa brings a refreshing and cutting-edge approach to literary and cultural landscapes. Why was it important for you to explore these two landscapes?
These two landscapes are interrelated, and from the very beginning of Bakwa Magazine, we intended to address the paucity of content related to literature and culture. Beyond that, we sought to be innovative in the way we covered these landscapes, thus our penchant for high-quality experimental content, which wasn’t being done in Cameroon.
How would you describe the kind of aesthetics you are drawn to in submissions?
We are drawn to personal writing which is innovative and literary. Reading magazines/journals like Chimurenga, Kwani?, The New Yorker, Saraba, and Granta, highly affected our aesthetics and taste.
We are attracted to writing that is serious, playful and original.
Even though Bakwa Magazine was initially meant to address the literary landscapes in Cameroon, you have through the years accepted submissions from all over the world. How diverse and wide are the submissions you receive?
Originally, our raison d’etre was to fill the lacuna of cultural and literary production in Cameroon, but we’ve long moved past that, and today our purpose is to boost the quality of writing in Cameroon and the continent, as well as engage in discussions on the cultural output.
Within months of our creation, we started receiving contributions from amazing writers, photographers, poets and thinkers from all over the world and we gradually broadened our horizon. A 2012 partnership with The Ofi Press magazine in Mexico, edited by Jack Little, greatly boosted our international (especially South American) contributions, and we ended up doing a collaborative issue with The Ofi Press. The Ofi Press published a special West African edition, with content in English and Spanish, which focused on West Africa, while Bakwa, in turn, published a special Mexican issue, focusing on Mexican art, culture, literature, and society, with most of the content in English and some Spanish translations. The project was lauded by several journals and outlets, especially the online website Heritage 1960.
Over the years, we’ve published international articles such as a photo essay on a mental hospital in Indonesia, an anniversary piece on Anna Politkovskaya, the late Russian journalist, a retrospective of the Bang Bang Club, and an introspective article on corruption in Bulgaria.
Just commenting on the “The six most read stories on Bakwa Magazine in 2016”, why do you think those six stories were the best stories? Essentially, what kind of stories are your readers drawn to?
Our readers have always been drawn to our reviews of books, albums, and movies. These always get read more than our other content, but being the most read does not necessarily mean that those stories are the best. Rather, it points to which stories are the most relevant at one moment or the other. For instance, the most read piece in 2016 was an opinion piece, “What is the Anglophone Problem”, which didn’t come as a surprise, given the riots which took place in Anglophone Cameroon last year. Our readers are attracted to in-depth analysis of cultural issues which focus on Cameroon and the continent.
What is distinct or unique about your high-quality writing— fiction, long-form journalism and reviews?
We’ve always wanted work that stands out. Work that engages readers and leaves readers breathless. Good writing and good stories are a product of hard work. As a magazine, we seek top notch work that reflects a high dedication to the craft.
Collaboration with other magazines are important to you. One of your recent collaborations is with Goethe-Institut in Lagos and Yaounde, and Saraba Magazine, for the Literary Exchange Project. Why are collaborations important to you? And what do you hope to achieve with the Literary Exchange Project?
We’ve always been fascinated by collaborations between like-minded initiatives and individuals. Collaborations are important because they make us less dependent on traditional models of publishing and funding, and each partner leverages their networks to achieve a goal that they couldn’t do on their own.
The Nigeria/Cameroon Literary Exchange project exists for two reasons: to strengthen the bond between Cameroonian and Nigerian writers, which has been hitherto inexistent, and to explore the possibilities of creative nonfiction by giving selected writers the necessary tools to explore and reinvent the world around them.
You are always having initiatives/projects. Can you tell me more about what inspires you to create all these various opportunities for writers?
What we do on bakwamagazine.com is hardly enough. So much needs to be done for the writing and publishing ecosystem and we try to strengthen it as much as we can by organizing outreach events such as workshops, readings, and competitions.
We’ve learnt from some really amazing magazines why such projects are important, and writers usually need these kinds of opportunities which challenge and push them to grow.
Can you tell me more about The Bakwa Magazine Short Story Competition? What set apart the shortlists, and the winner from all the other submissions?
The competition was born out of the need to discover a new generation of Cameroonian writers, because we believe that by molding young writers, we will change the future of Cameroonian writing. The Bakwa Magazine Short Story Competition is a one-off competition, because it is a long-term project during which we will mentor, edit, publish, and translate the writers involved.
The shortlisted stories were really original and showcased unique and powerful voices and we are really excited about what the final versions of these stories will look like. The winning story, "De passion et d'encre" by Bengono Essola Edouard, was very experimental and showed a unique mastery of style and tone.
Tell me more about Bakwa Magazine Reading Series. What do you hope to achieve with this offshoot project?
The Bakwa Magazine Reading Series is very crucial to fulfilling one of our core missions; that is to be a place where writers, thinkers, translators and editors can publicly engage in important discussions about literature, art and culture. The Reading Series pushes this further by including communities in these conversations, which is why it will be mobile, and made available via podcasts. Literary conversations are very few in Cameroon and there is a widening gap between writers and the public. We intend to change this.
The Reading Series is barely the beginning of our experiments with podcasting. We intend to do much more podcasting which will focus on culture and tech.
What kinds of lessons/skills do interns gain with your annual editorial internships?
Our interns gain editing, organizational, and professional skills, as well as day-to-day experience in the organization and running of a literary magazine.
What is your most important and favorite anthology/issue?
We’ve done many interesting issues in the past, all of which we are proud of. Nevertheless, keep an eye out for our two forthcoming anthologies; one on new fiction from young Cameroonian writers, and another anthology with the best writing (mostly essays) from Bakwa magazine.
Are there any forthcoming special issues or sections that you would like to make readers aware of?
We are currently redesigning our website and our readers can expect to see new columns on cuisine (food/restaurant reviews), and tech, as well as expect to listen to really entertaining, funny and serious podcasts, and finally, get to know more about the team that works behind the scenes to make Bakwa what it is.
Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer and filmmaker from Gaborone, Botswana. Her poetry has been published in Brittle Paper, Afridiaspora, African Writer, Kalahari Review, Poetry Potion and Expound Magazine. She is a Writivism Literary Initiative 2017 Short Story mentee. Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is the Founder and Managing Editor of Africa in Dialogue and the curator of The Brunel International African Poetry Prize 2017 Interviews electronic book published by Praxis Magazine for Arts and Literature.