Welcome to the Jungleby Kavish Chetty / 08.06.2011
Jungle Jim is a new South African pulp fiction zine launched by Jenna Bass and Hannes Bernard. The aim is to collect a wide range of African fiction in an affordable bi-monthly format. Their self-produced inaugural issue was released last week and features five stories, some serialised, others sharp injections into the consciousness of Nikhil Singh and Somali writer Abdul Adan. We spoke to the editors about their interests in pulp fiction and its early 20th century affectations.
If “pulp fiction” can be said to have survived the 20th century, it has emerged ultimately in a form quite distinct from its origins. When we speak of pulp now, we speak of mass market thriller paperbacks with passionless sex scenes; or exotica which converts foreign misery into bourgeois spectacle. These elements, to be quite fair, were all present in pulp’s shock/horror days. But there is another referent which pulp fiction recalls: short story magazines with ragged edges and lurid covers, popular digests which circulated energetically between 1896 to the 1950s. This is the incarnation which Jenna Bass and Hannes Bernard pay tribute to in their new bi-monthly magazine: Jungle Jim. It acts as platform to collect instantly readable and entertaining fiction from the African continent. Predictably enough, we should ask firstly what pulp fiction is, means and how it operates in this country.
“The magazine has ultimately not ended up being ‘pulp’ in the strict sense.” Says editor Jenna Bass. “You know, the ‘golden era’ of strictly genre-based, churned-out mass entertainment. Not all of which was bad! But we’ve got a much broader interpretation of what that is. Also, we’re much more excited about taking those conventions and putting them in an African context. We like general imaginative and narrative writing much more than ‘it’s a western because of A-B-C and D’. When I started this I had a cursory understanding of what African literature is. But I hadn’t never read an African sci-fi, and I thought surely that had to be out there somewhere. People said, ‘that’s a ridiculous concept, you’ll never find that stuff’. But in our upcoming issue we have a sci-fi set in Accra, Ghana. It’s wonderful. It’s a different perspective on a country I’ve never been to. It gives me a whole new appreciation of the continent that we live in, and establishes connections with countries we don’t have a connection to. I think we’re still quite segregated as a continent. This unites us through storytelling and narrative, and certain genre conventions which we all understand.”
The migration of Western literary forms to Africa is a gruesomely complex issue, but one which helps animate Hannes’ interest in the project. “From a visual point of view I’m interested in how Africa corrupts – in a positive way – Western images. I find something like this happening in this genre-based writing. You start off with an idea that might be quite Western like the ‘western’ or the ‘sci-fi’, but the end product is so much more interesting and sophisticated than what you would expect.” Jenna continues, “I loved how in the early days of pulp Africa was the ‘exotic Other’. It was perfect ground because it was so different – it was a sci-fi universe because no one reading it had actually been there. It was really cool for us to take those conventions and set them in a way which was authentic: African characters who actually live here are the heroes. It’s an interesting clash. We don’t know what will happen from that, but we’re interested to see.” This clash gives the magazine a unique and fertile territory for critics – Jenna herself remarks on pulp’s addiction to violence and “what that means” in this context where overt political violence might share a more intimate relationship with reality.
Nostalgia and Heritage
The very veins of hipster culture are slashed open to nostalgia; they are soaked through, jacked up, high on such a tendency. This is manifested in its anachronistic social quirks, its looting of thrift stores for decades-old relics, its art which enacts a perpetual pastiche of the past. But ultimately, we should ask – is this not the most romantic of impulses? Dejected and bored by the delightless, technocratic soul of our modern lives, we desire to escape into a romanticised past – a past of typewriters, Mustangs, long-lapelled jackets. A whole middle-class generation of youths slakes itself on this nostalgia. Doesn’t Jungle Jim answer quite precisely to this desire? Aesthetically, it has all those cheap, old-world charms – bond paper, DIY-design, dramatic tri-colour illustrations. The whole of its being is the disposal of modern technologies to effect a time-warp to the early 20th century. How has this “nostalgia” (as a kind of shorthand for a fully more complicated thing) been formative in the creation of Jungle Jim? Does the presence of this “nostalgia” suggest a certain escapist attitude, one which wishes to navigate the despairs of our liberated era?
This is a global phenomenon, but Hannes has a particularly insightful take on its relevance to South Africa. He says, “It’s something that functions on two levels. It’s an international thing related to fashion, trends and image-making. In South Africa specifically, because of this abrupt Apartheid ending in ’94, we had to reject everything our parents stood for (or supposedly stood for), and there was a kind of complete denial of any cultural production within that system. Suddenly, it’s not just nostalgia. For the first time since the end of apartheid, as an Afrikaans designer, I can look at that culture and its artefacts and not have to necessarily engage with all of the political bullshit. I don’t feel I have to qualify it, or deconstruct it, or to see it in the light of some kind of identity theory. It’s just a pulp magazine. That’s really awesome on its own, regardless of everything else that was going on. In general, it also has to do with the perception that publishing is declining. There’s an idea that everything that’s twenty years old is vintage and cool.”
Jenna agrees, adding, “What we don’t want to do is just have this ‘looking-back nostalgia thing’ from a purely stylistic perspective, as if we have no stylistic contributions of our own; as if we’re just plundering for want of ideas. I hate the idea of kitsch or vintage for purely aesthetic reasons. We’re looking back at pulp because it had a lot of exciting things which are lacking now, like reading as a popular medium.” She also thinks that ‘pulp’ writing has achieved an undeserved reputation as being necessarily shit, of poor quality, exploitative, cheap, aimed at dumb audience. “Fitzgerald wrote for pulps,” she says. “It’s nice to know that the heritage is of great writers too. I do think, at the same time, there’s something romantic about these guys holed up in little offices churning out fantasies without identity crises and massive angst… it was just ideas, ideas, ideas.”
To reiterate Hannes’ point she says, “We have the global trend going on in South Africa, but our situation is added to by our past political situation. At some point, it was made very clear that you disconnect from your past – just to prevent you from bringing any of that baggage with you, you should rather cut it off clean. I think you can’t just do that to people without generating a certain uncertainy and curiosity. A kind of, “well, wait a second – what’s actually there? We want to know about it.”” Hannes says, “History is so badly taught. There’s a natural impulse to reconstitute the past in whatever form, whether it’s something hipster or something in any other industry.” Jenna comments finally on an irony, “looking to the past to create new challenges.”
I open this section with what has become possibly the most gangfucked word in contemporary art circles: “process”. All aspirant novelists, journalists, playwrights, artists, musicians and film-makers are aware that these roles come with a special aspirational trauma in South Africa – market, money and their mutual absence. Jungle Jim is self-funded and self-produced aiming at a twice-a-month publication. Its initial print run gave rise to two hundred virgin issues, of which only around seventy are left. Jenna and Hannes possibly have something to say to other local artists who dread the first hurdle of putting their ideas into practice. How much work was involved in actually getting this issue, and are they optimistic they can meet the prolific twice-per-month quota they’ve set themselves?
With regard to sourcing stories, Jenna says “I don’t want to simplify it, but there was a lot of Google-time involved. The whole thing was a big online search, finding out where people were publishing their stuff and how I could get hold of them. I’m an obsessive letter writer, so I just wrote millions of letters to a ton of people. Most of the time they actually wrote back.” There was surprisingly little resistance to getting African authors to relinquish their stories to this magazine, although occasionally there was a certain suspicion involved in what these editors would do with them. “I very seldom, if at all, encountered any ‘no, this is our turf; our story’ attitude,” continues Jenna, “although at first people were skeptical. As soon as you say ‘pulp in Africa’, they’re like ‘Oh, Western idealisation!'”
And, inevitably, what of the money story? “We tried to do a business plan,” says Hannes, “but everytime we got close we were repulsed because there is no logical business reason to do this. We just made a decision then and there that we would ignore the question of viability. Jenna adds, “We really had no idea how this was going to go down. When I motivated this to people they said it sounded like an excellent idea, but at the same time, no one could have bought it. We couldn’t set out to make x amount back, because we just didn’t know. Self-funding was really cheap. If we do get money, it’ll really be to start paying the writers and re-establish that thing of writing pulp for money.” Writers might also be interested to hear that while Jungle Jim’s present gang of scribes are previously published and prestigious, the magazine could also function as a platform to get the work of unknowns into the public domain. Their interests are very much not rooted in profit.
What the hell is a Jungle Jim?!
The debut issue of Jungle Jim is available at the Book Lounge (Roeland Street) and Church Gifts (Spin Street) at fifteen clams per copy. The name is quickly demystified. “Well, you know back when we were in the jungle…” jokes Jenna. “We went through a bunch of names,” says Hannes. “We wanted something that was postcolonial and African, but also reference something that was vintage so people would get it. We really wanted to use the world ‘Jungle’. It’s quite loaded and we knew that, self-reflexively. We thought it was a great word to use, and so much of this writing is African from this African perspective, you know reclaiming genres and ‘taking it back’. We tried a bunch of suffixes – Jungletopia, Junglerama… Jungle Jim just seemed really South African, in a way.”
Finally, the editors are looking for “writers, illustrators, money – if you have money, send us money! – help, supplies, any kind of contribution. We not going to stop without those things, but they would really help out.”
Jungle Jim is exciting, relevant and entertaining – it refreshes in an accessible and (let’s not fuck around) inexpensive way, the pleasures of the written word on the retina. Any kind of evaluatory comment regarding a work with multiple authors and contributors is bound to remain provisional, but the debut episode appears to be a suitably splendid read. Not just that – its avenues of exploration, some more implicit than others – are worth hours of debate in themselves: representation, “taking back”, the possibility of corrupting western forms, simulation and simulacra, amongst many others. An important first move in self-published literary compendia, this magazine merits, at the very least, the twenty minutes it’ll take to read the first issue.