I have known Emmanuel Iduma, a Nigerian lawyer-cum writer, novelist, essayist, poet, critic and journalist, since 2011. Through Iduma, I learnt of Saraba Magazine and of his colleague Dami Ajayi. In 2012, the three of us were part of a six-member team that won the Short Story Day Africa chain story challenge. Rooted in Nigeria, at the campus of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Saraba Magazine has published most prominent contemporary African writers of a certain generation. Kenyan writers Okwiri Oduor, Keguro Macharia, Clifton Gachagua, Zimbabwean Novuyo Rosa Tshuma; Nigerians Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Chika Unigwe, Ukamaka Olisakwe and Elnathan John; Ugandan Moses Serubiri, to mention but a few, have had their work published by the digital periodical.

The first edition of Saraba Magazine was published in 2009 and was focused on publishing emerging Nigerian writers, a mission that has diversified to encompass African writers liberally defined, photographers, poets, illustrators and visual artists in general. The magazine publishes four editions a year, each around a specific theme. Saraba also publishes poetry chapbooks and collaborated in 2011 with the UK-based Poetry Translation Centre to produce a chapbook of translated poetry from around the world. It is impossible to talk of the contemporary African literary landscape without mentioning Saraba. And yet, the establishment does not publish in print.

Dami Ajayi, a Medical student at the time Saraba was founded, has since become a practicing psychiatry resident, while continuing to write poetry and prose, review books, and write music criticism. He remains a Fiction Editor at Saraba. His poetry chapbook, Daybreak, was published in 2013 and his first full-length poetry collection, Clinical Blues, was shortlisted for the 2012 Melita Hume Poetry Prize, longlisted for the Erb-acce Poetry Prize, and published by WriteHouse Collective in 2014. Below, I talk to him about Saraba and digital literature.

The cover or Clinical Blues, a collection of poetry by Dami Ajayi. Image: Konga.com
The cover or Clinical Blues, a collection of poetry by Dami Ajayi. Image: Konga.com

bwa Mwesigire: How did you meet Emmanuel Iduma, the man with whom you cofounded Saraba?

Ajayi: In 2008, Iduma and a couple of his friends in Ife organized a colloquium of New Writing which I applied for. I met him then during a three day workshop that ended with a book-reading event that featured Kaine Agary, author of Yellow Yellow. Subsequently we ran into each other at the Department of English foyer where there were several news bulletin boards run by fellow students and we started a conversation about literature. Let’s just say that conversation never ended.

What was the original dream for Saraba? And now that you have run it for over six years, do you see what it has turned into as what you had in mind?

The original dream was to publish ourselves and a few others. We were frustrated from the rejection letters we kept receiving; we thought our works deserved to be read and we started Saraba with the selfish impulse to be published. After we satisfied our desire of self-publishing, we realized that we now had a responsibility to keep the magazine afloat. That was when the real work set in.

We realized that we had committed ourselves to that byline, to create unending voices. So this is where we are now. Still in the business of keeping our own word, making creative echoes.

The cover of Saraba Magazine's 11th issue, The Africa Issue. Image: sarabamag.com
The cover of Saraba Magazine’s 11th issue, The Africa Issue. Image: sarabamag.com

In publishing the themed quarterlies and independent poetry chap books, Saraba has published exclusively online. Will Saraba ever branch into publishing in print?

Yes. We have been flirting with the idea for a while now. But these things are not quite easy to accomplish without support or structures. Saraba thrives on personal, non-literary earnings and volunteer services. We are able to boycott the heavy financial implications of print by being on the internet. Distribution is also not a headache in so far there is word of mouth, social media and a ready fan base. To print will mean to consider and integrate these concerns to our present model. We are willing to make it happen if we find that needed support. We love the physical book as much as we love the virtual one.

The cover of Saraba Magazine's 12th issue, The Justice Issue. Image: sarabamag.com
The cover of Saraba Magazine’s 12th issue, The Justice Issue. Image: sarabamag.com

We do not pay to access Saraba publications. Yet we know costs are involved in the production of this literary beauty. How do you do it?

I think I preempted you in my earlier answer. Saraba is a labour of love. We have a small staff of volunteers and I always wait for this question to reel out a vote of thanks. Adaudo Osigwe, Biyi Olusolape, Ayobami Adebayo, Arthur Anyaduba and Uche Akumbu have been volunteering their services for so long now. Temitayo Olofinlua, Tosin Afolabi, Yemi Soneye and Damola Mogaji have been our help in ages past. Many times we have had to sacrifice our food money to host the website as broke students. Now we are better off slightly, but the money still comes out of our pocket.

Let’s talk about the staff, the people you work with. How many did you start with, and how have you attracted new people? I ask because running a new literary establishment in my experience is usually a tale of high staff turnover as good volunteers easily get snatched by paying employers. And this adversely affects the professionalism of a number of institutions as the dream bearers stay on for lack of committed successors. But Emmanuel lives in the United States, you are now in a more senior position and Adauda Osigwe and team are in charge. How have you managed to professionalise?

The thing about being on the web is that you see your competition and you can appraise yourself. Saraba started as a collective. Two friends, Iduma and I sold the idea to friends from the colloquium in a small restaurant in OAU Staff Quarters. It was met with some delight and some skepticism; we started with Iduma and myself, Biyi Olusolape, Ayobami Adebayo, and Arthur Anyaduba in the beginning. That list has only slightly altered. Although we are all now scattered in various geographical locations, Saraba is still our locus. We have had a few hands on deck in the past. We parted ways with them for several reasons but never acrimoniously. Sometimes we recycle key positions so that Saraba’s autonomy is assured. And we are also not daunted by our constraints as a volunteer commission; our watchword is still to aspire to a world-class quality. I guess that is how we have not compromised so far in our professionalism.

Take me through the process of selecting themes for your issues, and how you get chapbook manuscripts published.

Every year we decide amongst ourselves for possible themes, then we agree on a list of themes that best suit that year. With thematic concerns, we strive to achieve some kind of original content and seek out a confluence where all the creative impulses in each issue flows from.

The Chapbook selection is much more deliberate. The first couple of chapbooks were solicited for. However, these days, we are open to queries. We hope that writers send us their best pieces and if we find it worthy of publication, we make them an offer.

Let us talk about your poetry. How has holding an editorial position at Saraba affected your writing?

I work as a fiction editor. I write poetry. Poetry and fiction are, well, friends. By editing fiction for Saraba, I am exposed to a large range of works of differing qualities. I always have to pick out the better stories for each issue. Somehow it helps me pick out what works in fiction but, then again, writing is hardly as mechanical as we hope it to be. Theorizing is quite different from practice but I am indeed sure it makes me better.