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Black Arts, Literature and Women‘s Issues: An Interview with Literary Activist Kadija Sesay

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Kadija Sesay is founder and publisher of SABLE, a literary magazine that focuses on new writings by writers of African and Asian descent. She is also the series editor for the Inscribe imprint for Peepal Tree Press.

In addition to this, Kadija Sesay edits anthologies. So far, the anthologies she has edited include: Six Plays by Black and Asian Women Writers; Write Black, Write British: From Post Colonial to Black British Writing; IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain; Dance the Guns to Silence: 100 Poems for Ken Saro Wiwa; and the forthcoming, Dreams, Miracles and Jazz: Adventures in New African Fiction.

She spoke about her writing and the work she is doing with writers of African and Asian descent.

How do you find the time to do all the things you are doing and still be able to write?

At the moment, I am doing too much. But I don't like abandoning things that aren't complete unless it's for a very good reason. I'm trying to phase some things out – it's difficult and taking longer than I would like.

For the past few years, I've really only written if someone asks me to contribute something that will definitely be published. I don't have much time to concentrate on my craft as a writer. Or I go away on a writer's workshop, which always motivates me to write; stimulates new ideas etc.

I'm trying to create more time for me, to dip into writing now and then in a much more relaxed way as well as have more time for reading. But I've never really been like that – that constitutes a wholesale lifestyle change and I'm convinced that what the problem really is is that the days are much shorter than they used to be!

I don't mind this right now, as it is a choice I have made. I enjoy working with other writers in the way that I do; when I am ready to focus on me, I'll do that.

A lot of the work that you are doing focuses on black arts, literature and women's issues. What motivated you to focus on these issues?

It happened naturally, really. About 15 years ago, I read a book called Live Your Dreams by Les Brown. I then made the decision that whatever I had to do, to earn my daily bread, should be something that I love so that it didn't feel like work. Here I am! It can be dangerous though, as it is very easy to do that and not get paid and so only earn daily crumbs.

If I had had more confidence in myself at that time, I probably would have gone to journalism school, or if I had known about the Creative Writing M.A. at the University of East Anglia (UEA), [I] would have gone to do that.

I grew up in an era when Creative Writing wasn't a degree choice. Wasn't even an "A Level Choice." I told my teachers that I wanted to study "English Language" as an A Level subject, as that was the subject in which we wrote poetry and prose, wrote non-fiction, had to write précis, learnt English grammar, and I loved it. But they said it didn't exist as an "A" Level course. When I asked them why, they said they didn't know.

I ended up doing Economics instead because my Dad said so! Yuck! Of course, I was hopeless at it. Never really enjoyed it.

Anyway, I took a different route to be where I am now and I don't regret it.

You have also worked with young people both inside and outside of the school system. What did this work involve?

In the U.K., this involved summer universities and after-school Journalism programs and Creative Writing workshops.

I worked with three young people to start Nang!, the Tower Hamlets magazine in 2001. I'm glad to say it's still being produced.

Abroad, I have worked on leadership programs, primarily the Youth Quest program at Morehouse College in Atlanta. I really enjoyed the people I worked with and the young men I worked with.

I am still working with young people, in various ways. I did a workshop as part of the Youth Slam Festival in Leeds, around the work of the poet Sonia Sanchez – they really enjoyed it and so did I and I'm going to use my experiences during that workshop as part of an essay I've been asked to write on Sonia Sanchez.

The biggest challenges I've met were in America. It's a different culture and I spoke differently to them! Sometimes it worked to my advantage; sometimes they really tried to play me. I was working with teenage boys – joy and pain!

What is Sable Litmag?

Sable LitMag is a literary magazine for new writing by writers of African and Asian descent. It was started in 2000. The first issue featured Linton Kwesi Johnson on the cover.

We've been trying to bring it out quarterly. For various reasons that hasn't happened; but we should be able to achieve that next year. It's distributed online and through specialist bookstores in the U.K. and U.S. and mainly by subscription.

What is its readership like?

Very broad – our subscribers range from age 20 upwards and include academics, published writers, new writers, and other interested individuals who like to read and are interested in cultures others than their own.

It is different from the other magazines on the market in that it is aesthetically as strong as the content. My primary editors are published writers. It is black and white throughout. It is beautiful to look at and read. An orgasmic experience, visually and intellectually. It has an online presence and we are planning to do some major overhauling of the site.

I went to a commercial magazine conference and it opened my eyes to how much we could do and how much we still need to do. So now I think it is pretty basic at the moment, and I need a dedicated web editor.

What are some of the challenges that you are facing with the magazine and how are you dealing with them?

The main challenge is me doing too many other things to focus on the magazine properly, and doing too much of the work myself. This has affected how the magazine is marketed. But that will change shortly.

The production schedule has also been difficult. We need to publish four times a year to meet the schedule. We are working on this.

The infrastructure of the organization needs to be stronger. That's the main thing I'm working on.

Where do you see it in, say, five years' time?

In five years' time, I want and expect it to be a major litmag on the international circuit, selling sufficiently. But the magazine in itself is just the tool, the umbrella for other SABLE products.

For example, in the mid-'90s I set up the writer's hotspot – writers' trips abroad. We went to the Gambia, New York and Cuba. These will re-start next year in the Gambia and Senegal and will be linked to the litfest that I also piloted in 2005 and we are going to launch an award… In five year's time no writer will want to be without Sable.

What is Dreams, Miracles and Jazz: Adventures in New African Fiction?

It is an anthology of short stories by new African writers, on the continent and in the Diaspora. One criteria was that writers should be born on the continent or be of African parentage. I co-edited the anthology with novelist Helon Habila. It is being published by Picador Africa and will be out in 2007.

In your own work that has been published and broadcast locally and abroad, what do you tend to explore most?

In fiction, I tend to write a lot about the dichotomy of being an African in the Diaspora and an African at home (in different scenarios).

I thought about this a few days ago actually and decided that I need to do some radically different stuff! Well I had kind of thought about it before as I want to put together a short story collection and the theme of it will take me away from this topic. I may include it somewhere, but not entirely. Immediately I thought, it would make a great anthology – to include other people's stories under such a theme. I had to stamp my foot though as a little voice in the back of my head said, "there you go again – why do you have to put other writers in it? If you like this idea for yourself, and think it is a great one, just go for it, for you!"

In poetry, I'm more adventurous. Absolutely anything goes.

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