"We are a Magazine of Africa and the Diaspora...Interested in Roots, and Routes." A Chat With Alejandro de la Fuente, Editor of Transition
Interview with Alejandro de la Fuente—Editor of Transition
Transition defines its goal to be "a pivotal medium for discussion of the global predicament of the African Diaspora in an age that demands ceaseless improvisation." Publishing short fiction, non-fiction, poetry, reviews, and interviews with these concerns in mind, the magazine is an intellectual forum for reflection on identity. Alejandro de la Fuente writes in the magazine's submission guidelines, "in an age that demands ceaseless improvisation, we aim to be both an anchor of deep reflection on black life and a map charting new routes through the globalized world." Professor de la Fuente is the founding Director of the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at Harvard and the faculty Co-Chair, along with Professor Jorge Domínguez, of the Cuban Studies Program. He is the Senior Editor of the journal Cuban Studies and the Editor of Transition.
Interview by Catherine Fahey
Transition started in Uganda in 1961 by Rajat Neogy as a literary magazine. It was closed in 1968 after Neogy was arrested. It was revived in 1971, and Wole Soyinka took it over in 1973, but it folded in 1976. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. revived the magazine in 1991, and it is now part of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University. Transition is a robust and adaptable magazine. How do you see Transition changing and evolving in the future?
We are a magazine of Africa and the Diaspora, so we're always interested in roots, and routes. Being based now in the U.S., we are always looking for new ways to partner and collaborate with writers and readers in other parts of the globe—and especially, of course, on the African continent. Our next step will be to solidify some of these partnerships by creating "bureaus" on the continent and in other diasporic locations (the Caribbean, for example) where we can partner with local writers and editors who will join our team as associate editors. We also plan to increase our visibility at global writing festivals, conferences, and workshops. And we're looking at ways to distribute the journal to new international markets. As you may know, I am part of the movement bringing awareness to Afro-Latin American populations, and we see a lot of untapped potential for the journal to also reach into these communities. But our home is in Africa. We recently devoted the whole Issue 117 to new African fiction, and it is one of my favorite issues. The African continent is brimming with good writing, producing excellent literature. We want to showcase this new production and connect several generations of writers through Transition. We hear Christopher Okigbo's call: "We have tuned our raw hides / For a wakin."
Do you view Transition as an academic or a literary publication? Why?
An academic publication Transition is not. Many prominent academics publish in the journal, but our audience is not primarily an academic audience. The people who follow Transition are broadly interested in black life and black culture and we want to bring to them the very best that the letters of the Diaspora have to offer. We are not interested in narrow disciplinary debates or conversations, although some themes cross over from popular culture to academia and back. For instance, since the early 1960s the discussion about what constitutes African literature found frequent coverage in the journal. This debate has raged over the years and is a topic of interest to literary scholars. We continue to be interested in questions like these, which we think are relevant to our readers. Furthermore, Transition was never just a literary journal either. Prominent politicians, economists, and activists published in the journal and we continue to showcase and disseminate this type of production. One needs only recall the contributions of authors such as Julius Nyerere, Ali Mazrui, and Martin Luther King, Jr. to realize this.
How did you begin your association with Transition?
I made a mistake. When publishers Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and K. Anthony Appiah asked me to become the editor, instead of saying no, I replied that I wanted to learn more about the journal. Once I did this, there was no turning back. I never recovered from those readings. I was introduced to Neogy's vision, to the hopes, passions, and conflicts of a decolonizing Africa. I got to read Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer, Christopher Okigbo, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Chinua Achebe, Es'kia Mphahlele, Abiola Irele, and Okot P'Bitek. Who can walk away from that? How do you disentangle yourself from those writers?
Editing Transition was an opportunity to perhaps answer Robert Serumaga's 1966 question:
My facts are straight now
But where is the meaning?
How does Transition differ from other literary journals focusing on blackness and the black experience in America? What does Transition contribute to the conversation?
Unlike many other journals, we do not focus on the black experience in America. Our interests, our readers, and certainly our writers, come from the Diaspora at large. We just published a beautiful dossier on Afro-Asian points of contact and one of our most recent issues was devoted to celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela and to how he is remembered around the world. We do not believe in holy matters or figures, although the sacred may also feel at home in Transition. Some of the articles about Mandela were quite critical. They invited readers to come close to the complexities and failures of an imperfect man. Madiba was no saint—and that is exactly how we like him. At the same time, we provide a combination of perspectives and materials—from poetry, fiction, and essays to political pieces—that are difficult to find in other publications interested in black life and culture. Where else can you get the President of Niger's views about the challenges facing contemporary Africa, along with an essay on racial fantasies in Sweden, and an excerpt from Kaitlyn Greenidge's forthcoming novel, illustrated by Ayana V. Jackson's imposing photographs? Only in Transition.
Which writers would you say are the essential voices right now? Who is the main audience of Transition? Who do you wish would read Transition?
If a writer has a story to tell, and if that story connects somehow with the experiences of Africans and their descendants the world over, Transition wants to know. We take risks with young writers, just like Neogy did back in the 1960s. Some of the African authors who came to represent the best of the continent's literature published first in Transition. That is a tradition Transition is proud of, but we are not interested in looking "backwards in time [to] prospect in archaic fields for forgotten gems," to use Wole Soyinka's words. We strive to reach every reader interested in having a good read, and a good time, while being exposed to issues, styles, and writers that you do not find almost anywhere else. We are still heading for Mbella Sonne Dipoko's "very distant tomorrow"
From the cities before Timbucktoo
Past Athens and Rome
To something beyond them all;
Cultivating our memory
Cultivating our memory, you see? Because there's no tomorrow without it. That is Transition's purpose.
Catherine Fahey is a librarian at Salem State University, where she is also studying for an MA in English. She is the managing editor of Soundings East. Her poetry was part of Images 16, a collaborative artistic event organized by The Orchestra on the Hill.