“Where are the scenes of our gathering now? And how do we gather?
How do we hold space for one another? But first, who are we?”
Excerpted from “Questions on How we Gather” by Ndinda Kioko
Bodies. We are far from the first to grapple with the question of the body, and that is what the body, my body, has always been to me. A question. An endless series of questions. I, we, are far from the first to be asking it. The oldest philosophies and religions in the world have been asking, what is a body? What is the body? When does a body become bodies? What is it to (dis)embody?
Jalada in its very formation was an answer to a question – where can we write as we are? – even as it posed another: what is our body of work? In a small writer’s workshop, a bunch of writers dreamed of a space where work could be published. Between coffee and readings, urgency: we need to build that which frees us to do the work we want. A perfect name was pitched. It meant archive. Perfect. That is the name of the body we want. Then, frantic. Writing, editing, calls and favours for a logo, a site, conversations across time zones and continents, a small editorial team pulling all of it together through sleepless nights. And then, there it was the first anthology, published online, in a brand new body: Jalada. As the lead editor of that, I thought, there it is. A body. A brand new body called Jalada (archive).
It was only as I was editing this anthology, our 10th, that I realised the question Jalada had been posing is the same: What bodies deserve presence and remembrance?
This infinite question of Bodies inspired the issue. It was a project that I – selfishly and foolishly – hoped would provide an answer. I, we, had no answers: We only knew two things in the beginning.
- Literature of the highest quality can only exist when many different bodies are empowered to tell many different stories; stories they themselves wish to tell. As such we had to recognise the importance of marginalised voices and strongly encourage submissions by members of historically underheard groups.
- To invite these voices meant it was imperative to pay people for their work. Through a grant from the Hivos Foundation, I am incredibly proud to say that we were able to achieve this goal.
This exploration of all things “Bodies” became a multidisciplinary project that includes an anthology, a visual exhibition and podcast series. We began work in July 2019. (The audacity of 2019. Remember that?) Our small editorial team – each of whom are talented, driven and gifted – sorted through over 250 submissions and worked with the authors to get the anthology ready. They developed the various podcast episodes (with Kali Media) and even built the new Jalada website.
To celebrate the issue’s launch that December, we held a free and public event with readings, live conversations and powerful artwork hosted by the Kioko Art Gallery. We’d put in six months of work but there was still more to be done. Episodes to be edited, admin work to be completed and on and on. So we pushed, we paused, we recalibrated and, well, we were burning out. Even in early 2020 there was that slow trudge when you just can’t anymore. Our bodies were tired but it would be fine, we said…it can be fixed…it will soon go back to normal.
Then, of course, it didn’t.
It took a virus to remind the world, to remind us, to remind me, that the most fundamental unit is the body.
Now as we release more episodes from the Jalada Conversations: Bodies Series, nine months after the recording, it is an odd and poignant reminder of the audacity of 2019, seen through the care necessitated in 2020. Moderated with depth and care by Aleya Kassam, each conversation unearths wisdoms we are excited to share with you. This four-part series explores how the body interacts with the erotic, language, art and writing. The episodes feature a blend of theorists and practitioners, all exploring what the body means to them. I would try and explain it all but how dare I condense insights from the likes of Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah, Professor Ananya Jahanara Kabir, Peninah Mwangi, Marziya Mohammedali and so many others? I can only encourage you to listen (or read the transcripts) because these conversations, these many months later, revived me. I am certain it will be the same for you.
And in re-listening, I had to go back and re-read. I am beyond grateful for the thought, care and exploration that each author took. I found myself learning new lessons each time I went back.
We have works that deeply consider harm, from Ndinda Kioko’s essay reminding us of communities, and the damage the Kenyan literary space has forced upon women’s bodies to Busamoya Phodiso Modirwa’s poems that are a revelation of harm done under the guise of correction and finally Kharys Ateh Laue’s work which takes you into a body with a prose as unrelenting and urgent as life itself. From the political shapeshifters in Alison Ojany’s piece to Sofia Ezdina’s strange hungers, we are confronted with what it means to be in a body.
We have works that ask questions. Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu seeks to find what the body remembers, or perhaps, can never forget? Frances Ogamba asks what happens when a body changes. Lornah Afoyomungu Olum asks about a life after one’s body is dead. Tope Adebola wonders what happens when your body doesn’t feel like your own. Wanini Kimemiah’s world asks what happens when you can change your body entirely. Ugonna-Ora Owoh asks what happens if your body transgresses a binary society, just by being its truest self?
And throughout, we find so much love. A planet’s forbidden and dangerous love of humans in Filip Wiltgren’s tale and a lilac-skinned alien in Melissa Martini’s piece who shows us just how intimate and delicate love is. Sitawa Namwalie, in cutting humour, takes apart a woman’s body. Jennifer Bradpiece connects, with grace, Adam and Eve, and masochism. In their poems, Alain Jules Hirwa mourns and searches himself, Chisom Okafor seeks and finds truth and Tumello Motabola dissects and remembers desire. Makena Onjerika reminds us that, even in our most difficult choices, we are not alone.
Even now, even after all this, I still wonder about the body and I am glad to. It is a question whose answer will never be found, but in that asking comes wonder, a wonder I wish never ends.
As we mourn, as we heal, as we revolt, as we change, I hope that these fresh conversations and long published stories, remind you of that wonder and that, even in isolation, still, we gather. Still, we hold space for each other. How, I cannot answer, but 2020 taught us why: because we must.
Lead Editor, Jalada 08
What's Your Reaction?
A pan-African writers' collective and publisher