Ellah Wakatama Allfrey on how she became an editor and why editing should be professionalised

Interview by Nyana Kakoma

Ellah Allfrey speaks at the recently concluded Editorial Skills Development Workshop in Kampala

Ellah Allfrey speaks at the recently concluded Editorial Skills Development Workshop in Kampala

African Writers Trust and Commonwealth Writers recently organised an Editorial Skills Development Workshop that I was lucky to be a part of. Lucky because one of the facilitators was Ellah Wakatama Allfrey who came along with another Editor, Vimbai Shire. I first met Ellah Allfrey last year at the Granta-Kwani?-British Council Workshop in Nairobi and I was extremely enthralled by how much information she gave us as writers and the questions that she asked that made me look at my work in ways I had never thought of.

Ellah Allfrey is the former Deputy Editor of Granta. Before Granta, she was Senior Editor at Jonathan Cape, Random House. She sits on the board of the Writers’ Centre Norwich, is Deputy Chair of the Council of the Caine Prize and a patron of the new Etisalat Prize for Literature. In 2011, she was on the judging panel of both the David Cohen Prize and the Caine Prize for African Writing. In 2012, she was chair of the fiction panel for the Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. Her journalism has appeared in the Telegraph and the Observer and she is a contributor to the book pages of NPR.

A Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, Allfrey was awarded an OBE in 2011 for services to the publishing industry.

Allfrey is series editor for Kwani?’s 2013 Manuscript Project. This year, she was the Chair of the judges for the Commonwealth Short story Prize where Ugandan writer, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi emerged winner with her story, Let’s Tell This Story Properly.

Allfrey also edited the Africa39 anthology that will be published in October this year.

Here is what we talked about.

Your father, Pius Wakatama is a writer. What was it like growing up in a writer’s house?
That’s such a lovely question to start off with. My father is not only a writer but he is a publisher as well. He started out selling newspapers and one of the journals he sold was Drum magazine that was a big deal in the 50s. If you were a writer, that was where you wanted to be published. He said he would read the stories and say to himself, I can do that! and he started writing short stories. He hadn’t gone to secondary school at that stage because his family could not afford it but he could write in English so he started selling his short stories and making money out of that. He ended up writing a number of them in Shona and a lot of them are used in secondary schools now or have been used.

Later on in life, he became a Bible publisher and it meant that in my house there were always books. There were moments when we had to be quiet because he was writing. It also meant that if you said you were reading, there was a respect in the family for that. So reading was not a running away activity it was ok be quiet she is reading. I was supplied with books and I was given an opportunity to find books. That probably fuelled something quite natural in me. It also meant that I understood the fact of writing as a way for someone to make a living; that someone can make books to make a living. Greatest gift that a child like me could have had! I initially did not set out to work in publishing, it is something I came to in my 30s but now when I look back it is completely a natural progression.

Have you ever edited your father’s work?
Yes. If he is worried with a piece he will send it to me.

How gentle/fair are you with his work?
Well, he is incredibly fierce and opinionated, my dad but he expects you to be fierce and opinionated back. I haven’t edited a big piece of his but we do go back and forth. It took a long while for him to send me anything. I think he was waiting to see if I was any good.

I read that you moved from Zimbabwe then America then Britain. Is that correct?
No. I was born in Zimbabwe and for the first four years of my life I lived with my grandparents in the village and when I was about five or six, my father was awarded the Iowa international Writers Fellowship so I travelled to America with my mother and my two brothers and we lived there for five years. It was where I learnt how to speak English because I was only Shona-speaking as I had grown up in the village. I did my initial primary school there and we then went back to what was then called Rhodesia. I studied there from the ages of 10 to 19 then I moved to America at 19. I moved to England when I was about 23 after doing my first degree.

Did that moving around different continents affect how you perceive culture and books?
I think it did and still does. My family surname –Wakatama- means they who moved. So I have an ancestry of travel and migration and the story is that my great, great grandfather and his brother left their village running away from some family feud and relocated where our family village is now. Wakatama was their nickname, as in those brothers that moved. The family surname was something else before. I mean these surnames are quite a new thing for many African countries. So everybody who is called Wakatama is actually related to him and so we can trace ourselves back. Whenever I meet a Wakatama I ask who their father is or how we are related. That is the family story and not too far way in generations.

But I think that moving around absolutely has an impact. It’s your connection with language. I remember moving from one language to another as a child and finding it deeply traumatic. The fact that people who looked like me could not understand the language I was speaking had a big impact on me so when I first learnt how to speak English I had a very bad stutter. Not only was I living with my parents for the first time, but we were also in a new country where everybody was white. In the Midwest, the weather is extreme; when it is hot, it is very, very hot and when it is cold, it is very, very cold. All that had a very big impact on me and my mother says I did not speak for six months while I was figuring things out and when I did start speaking English I had a stutter.

I had a wonderful speech therapist who used CS Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe to help me get over my stutter and I remember one day she said, if you can read this word w-a-r-d-r-o-b-e without stuttering we will have a Peach Melba (a type of ice cream). I remember thinking and thinking and then saying wardrobe without a stutter and then we had Peach Melba and it was a big turning point for me.

So I think that I have a very particular relationship with language. I know the importance of language on a very deep level. How our being in the world is defined by language. I’m a different person when I speak in Shona than I am when I speak in English. Fundamentally the same but there are things about me that are the different-you know the pitch of the voice, the way I stand and so on. I am obviously quite a bit more confident when I speak in English which is quite interesting to be more confident in a language that I learnt after my first language.

Also moving around a lot makes you constantly curious and I think that’s an important thing to be as a reader and a publisher. I read for information as much as I do for entertainment (and that includes fiction as well.) I am quite greedy about getting information and hearing people’s stories. I am also quite promiscuous with my reading. I read everyth-….wait actually no, I don’t read romance novels.

I actually had that question somewhere. Any trashy, guilty pleasures when it comes to reading?
Nothing is a guilty pleasure. I am a big science fiction junkie. I love crime fiction. But sometimes you reach the decision that life is too short. I have so many hours left to me and there are other things I need to read.

How did you come to the decision to become an editor or not a writer?
The decision not to write is an interesting one because I think I was really lucky to come upon publishing and being an editor as a job. I had worked lots of jobs before and by my early 30s I had been very unhappy in every profession I had tried. So my husband told me that I should think about working in publishing because a lot of my money and almost all my spare time was spent on books. Before I went into publishing I probably read four novels a week easily and that was just during the regular course of my day. Not making extra time but just reading on my way to and from work. That was just how I lived; I was constantly reading. He had the genius idea and I said, I don’t want to work in publishing I don’t know much about it and it did not seem interesting to me at all. But because I had been so unhappy and I ended up quitting my last job before publishing and just sitting at home, I thought I would give it a go.

So a friend of mine, Peter Godwin, a Zimbabwean writer gave me the name of his editor and I had drinks with her. She said why don’t you just go temp (and luckily I have great administrative skills and I type 80 words a minute) so I just went to the temp agency and said I want to work in publishing and these are the skills I have. I had no experience but they needed people who were well organised and could administrate and could type really fast (this was before everybody could type their own stuff). There were a couple of jobs that didn’t work out but I eventually got a temp job at Penguin. I remember walking into that building and thinking, Oh My God. This is my tribe of people and I temped there for almost a year before I got a permanent job.

What did you start as after temping?
I was first an Editorial Assistant but mind you this was after a year of working in different departments and I am not sure any young person starting out now would have that opportunity. I was Editorial Assistant for two editors. One worked on Penguin Modern Classics and he did History and Philosophy and the other was in charge of Law and Science so it was classics and non-fiction. Really good grounding in publishing and I love non-fiction work and I am mad keen on old books so it was really a good way to start.

Best advice you got starting out?
I don’t know. I think a lot of it was just absorbing. I am really keen on systems and consistency and that is something I learnt by going through the editorial process at Penguin. Just seeing the rigour with which everything was treated.

What would you tell an editor that is just starting out?
Read. And check everything.

How many times do you read a book before it goes to print?
A minimum of five.

Do you ever get tired of a book and want to just walk away?
Sometimes, yes but then you are reading for different things all those times. The first time you are reading to just enjoy the book before you commission it, and then you are reading really slowly three or four times to edit it and then the rest of the time it’s technical procedural stuff about the production process. Usually at that point I will have another book that I am working on but at a different stage. You do get fatigued but at the same time, the day a book comes out is just the most extra-ordinary day. I am a bit sappy and I always cry when I hold that book in my hands because it is the fact that you have helped realise this dream that somebody had. It’s just an amazing thing.

When do you know that as an editor you are splitting hairs and just doing your job?
As an editor you always have to split hairs. It’s your job. And then with experience you will know when it is a bit too much. When you start with the attitude that the author is the talent and you are the technician, you will know how to get that balance.

Before you became known, did being behind the scenes bother you?
I love being behind the scenes. It’s like you have the secret. You will look at an author and know, I helped her do that. I do things that end up in the public eye but a lot of the books I have worked on, no body has any idea that I did. It is different when you are a series editor because then you have your name on the book but most of the time you don’t. If I am a bad editor then everybody will notice because then there will be problems with the book but a good editor stays invisible.

I love that back room stuff and if nobody ever knew what I edited, I really wouldn’t care.

How much do you read for pleasure?
For this past year, I have been listening to lots of audio books. I am now working independently and I do lots of other things besides editing but I always have at least one editing project on the go. Because I teach editors I think it is always important to remain a practitioner myself and also because it is the one thing I love doing the most, what my being is made for. So I always have one project but it means that if I am working on my editing project and my other work life things during the day, at the end of the day my eyes are quite tired frankly. So what I have been doing which has worked well for me is I listen to audio books. When I take a break from my desk and I go for a walk, I listen to an audio book.

Ellah Allfrey and Vimbai Shire go through the editing process of Kintu, a novel by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi with workshop participants.

Ellah Allfrey and Vimbai Shire go through the editing process of Kintu, a novel by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi with workshop participants.

Is it the same experience as ruffling through pages?
I don’t know. I have had some experiences where I actually find the audio book too difficult but there are some other books that I have enjoyed, books that I have listened to and been quite absorbed. And it just means that in that down time, I can still be reading as well. My family laugh at me because unless I am actively talking to somebody I am either reading a book or I have got a book in my ears and I like living that way. It’s like a constant feed of stories so I would say I read quite a lot for pleasure.

And also if I find myself getting worn-out with listening, I can just stop and read a book. I can easily read a novel in a day so I can take a day off and read a book just to remind myself why I do what I do and that is all it takes. I have a couple of authors whose entire collection of works I own and I find myself slowly reading my way through them and going back to the beginning. Those are sort of my comfort reads and that way I know nothing will disappoint me and it will be perfect.

While you read for pleasure, are you ever tempted to edit some parts of certain books?
Sometimes I wish things had been done better but I try to switch off that side of my brain but you will know yourself, it is impossible to do that. And if I want to change too much then I will stop reading the book. I used to have a rule that I would finish every book I started but if it is not good enough I will stop because now I realise I have got limited reading time so it has to be really good.

As a self-confessed promiscuous reader, do you have favourite authors?
I do! They change every single day so if you ask me tomorrow they will be different. I mentioned that I have comfort reads earlier: Thomas Hardy, I haven’t read all of Hardy but I will pick one off my shelf in desperate times; Julian Barnes, both fiction and non-fiction so I am carrying a collection of his essays with me right now; China Mieville, British Science fiction writer; Octavia Butler, American Science Fiction writer; the late Iain M Banks who wrote both fiction and Science Fiction; Toni Morrison, I think I have read all of her work and I am now going back and there all these new authors I am discovering.

I am a huge fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie especially her last book that is so funny and wicked and I think NoViolet Bulawayo is a revelation. There is also a book on the Etisalat shortlist called Finding Soutbek by Karen Jenning that is very special. As I said, tomorrow will change but Hardy, Barnes, Morrison and Iain M Banks those always stay on my list.

I also like Philip Roth but I can never really figure out what it is. I mean he is a New York old, Jewish man writing very much of his own life and yet I feel that every book he has written except, Sabbath’s Theatre, he has written for me. Never figured that out but I would rather not analyse it too much but I love his work.

What do you do when you have to edit a writer you love and admire. Would you edit Toni Morrison for example?
If I was asked to? Absolutely yes! I would be terrified but you know, terror is not a reason not to do something infact that is a good reason to do something. And I believe that I know her work really well. If I was asked to, I am pretty confident that I could do it. I would give it my very, very best and I think that those big famous writers need the respectful and critical eye of an editor as much as anybody else does. Obviously they are really experienced and their style is really established so it’s not going to need the same level of intervention as an author starting out but still that is a really important relationship. It is often a disservice to a writer if you don’t give their work the attention it deserves and every author needs to be spoken to with the same respect regardless of their status. If she thought I was good enough, then yes!

What’s your experience working with African authors?
It’s vast and varied. You know the term African author is quite problematic because you know, my writer who is born in Zimbabwe and lives in Brixton is one kind of  African author and my writer in Liberia who has left his country only once is another. It’s not that different or dissimilar from my experience working with my American or British authors except that often there is a connection that can be made and a sense of safety the writers have when the editor looks like them. For many of them it is the first time being published or it is the first time working with an editor who looks like them. For me there is a specific passion because I want to make books that I want to read.

There is a lot of pressure on Uganda to produce a novel. There are lots of short stories that are being written but no novel. What do you make of this?
I love short stories and I think they are brilliant and they are a good way of accessing the literature of a country. I am interested in your phrasing “Pressure on Uganda”. Thing is Uganda is not going to produce a novel. A writer is going to write a novel and that writer may or may not only be from Uganda. I think too often when people are thinking about writers from the continent, there is this huge responsibility to produce some kind of great African book and that is nonsense. One writer writes one book that does or doesn’t succeed and that book will not necessarily be a Ugandan novel. Kintu forexample can be categorised to death but in the end it is one woman’s astonishing imagination and a story that is really well told.


What is the one thing you would do to improve the reading culture in Africa?
You know there are big things that have to happen like education systems and availability of books. But I personally think that the one thing that needs to happen is that editors need to be trained and professionalised. Because then if publishing is recognised and treated as a business and one that has commercial value then you can produce really good books in your local markets that are inexpensive. People may say there is no reading culture but people always read newspapers, we are always in conversation and people spend money for example on locally produced DVDs in Nigeria. Making books affordable is the biggest thing because for example if someone produced pulp fiction that is written really well and was not costly, that would improve the reading culture.

AWT's Goretti Kyomuhendo thansk Vimbai Shire and Ellah Allfrey at the end of the workshop.

AWT’s Goretti Kyomuhendo thanks Vimbai Shire and Ellah Allfrey at the end of the workshop.

And so we can demand this but often this comes down to affordability and we are not going to have affordable books if you do not have good editorial practices and if publishing is not treated seriously as a business. You can’t always change a government or stop the government from taking resources that should be dedicated to education but you can as editors work together to professionalise and set up standards and to attract all this to you.

What was your experience editing the Africa39 anthology?
The project was really interesting for me because I wasn’t one of the judges. So my only job was to read the stories and work with the authors. It has been amazing. With these lists, everybody is going to look and think, why isn’t so and so there but that is always the case because these lists are always subjective to the judges that chose. What we should really celebrate is that there are 39 young writers who are going to get a lot of attention and that can only benefit other writers. I like watching these discussions happen but it is nothing to get worked up over. Somebody will do another list and they will have another 39 writers. Somebody complained that they were all under 40. Well if they feel so strongly about it then they can do a list of over 40, you know. It’s a free world in most places, at least in this realm it is.

For me these are 39 writers, some of them are extra-ordinary talents. I have worked with them and it has given me a wider range of writers that I have worked with. Some I will actively be pursuing to make sure that their careers are progressing and see if I can help in recommending them for other things as well and I may never have come across them if it wasn’t for this.

How would you describe the anthology?
Really varied and diverse and quite exciting. What I loved was that a lot of these things that people think are African fiction should be concerned about for whatever reason were just kind of irrelevant. People were just writing what they wanted to write. I love that there was a Science Fiction story, a couple of Crime Fiction and a lot of experimental stuff. It just shows you the wide range of writing from across the continent and should be exciting.

Nyana Kakoma is a Ugandan writer and literary blogger. Her blog, Sooo Many Stories showcases Ugandan Literature.


3 Comments. Leave new

Emmanuel Monychol
July 2, 2014 4:22 am

love this-inspiring story


Nice interview. It’s an eye opener.

Leila Aboulela
July 11, 2014 12:56 pm

Really enjoyed this. Excellent interview.


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