Ellah Wakatama Allfrey OBE on
Behind the Headlines

Interview broadcast 03 January 2011

On Behind the Headlines SW Radio Africa journalist Lance Guma speaks to Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, a literary editor and publisher from Zimbabwe who is set to receive an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) from the Queen in recognition for her services to the publishing industry. She joins a New Year honours list that includes England World Cup referee Howard Webb and ex-Eurythmics singer Annie Lennox. Lance finds out how all this came about.

Lance Guma: Hallo Zimbabwe and welcome to Behind the Headlines. This week, pardon the word play, we are honoured to have Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, literary editor and publisher from Zimbabwe who will be receiving an OBE – that’s Officer of the Order of the British Empire – from the Queen in recognition for her services to the publishing industry. Let’s start off by saying congratulations Ellah.

Ellah Wakatama Allfrey: Thank you very much.

Guma: OK let’s break this down for Zimbabweans listening in – what is this award all about?

Allfrey:   Well I think technically it is called an honour and what happens is that every year, in the New Year, on the Queen’s birthday, various members of the public and I guess the military and civil society are awarded an honour for services they have rendered to the wider community and it’s rather incredible because I think what happens as far as I can tell is that one is nominated by one’s peers and it goes through a process of vetting through various committees and then the honours are awarded and so more than it being really a recognition from the Queen, although it’s that and that’s rather wonderful, it’s also a recognition from one’s peers and that makes me especially happy and honoured.

Guma: And when did you hear the news? I take it you had a merry Christmas for sure?

Allfrey:   Well actually no it’s made me more anxious than anything else. I heard about it at the very beginning of December when they asked me if I would accept the honour if it was awarded and I said yes and then decided that actually it had to be a hoax because it is a huge thing, it feels like a huge thing to me and so I promptly forgot about it and I told my husband and my sister, purposely didn’t tell my parents in case my father called a press conference.

Guma: And your father, just to remind Zimbabweans – Ellah is actually the daughter of Zimbabwean writer Pius Wakatama.

Allfrey: That’s right.

Guma: How’s that – keeping it in the family hey?


Allfrey: Keeping it in the family, my mother thinks it is a disease, I’m sure she would much rather I was a doctor or a lawyer or something sensible and although I’m not a writer the way my father is, I’m definitely involved in the same business and have to say that it does all come from being lucky enough to grow up in a house full of books and where writing and a creative life was seen as something really important.

Guma: Now you are joining New Year’s Honours List which includes England World Cup referee Howard Webb, ex-Eurythmics singer Annie Lennox, I mean I could go on the whole day – how does that feel? I take it you’ll be in the company of several other great people?


Allfrey: Well I’m especially excited about Annie Lennox because I’m a huge fan and also David Suchet who plays Poirot in the Agatha Christie television dramas and that has my sister and I in various unbecoming giggles of delight. I didn’t know about the football manager…

Guma: The referee? He was the referee at the World Cup.

Allfrey: The referee?

Guma: Yeh.

Allfrey: It feels wonderful and I’ll tell you what, I moved to England after going to university in America and it’s a difficult thing to make your way in a country that’s not your own. I mean it is my adopted country because my husband and my children are of course half English and it feels to me as if all the different things I’ve loved doing in my working life, it feels like a wonderful recognition of that and it’s incredible to be lifted alongside people I admire so much.

Guma: And of course here at SW Radio Africa we are especially proud because you are of course married to our webmaster Richard Allfrey who we’ll give a mention.

Allfrey: No it’s great and I have to say that Richard handed over a considerable number of cows as roora when we got married and in the last couple of years he hasn’t really had his money’s worth because I don’t cook very much and don’t match his socks but so yes, I think it’s for him as well.

Guma: OK then, you getting this honour in recognition of your services to the publishing industry and I’ve just been doing my research and I was shocked at the number of things you’ve been doing, I mean you are a busy bee for sure.

Allfrey: You know I think this kind of thing isn’t given for your day-to-day job and I think that, you know I’m only guessing because I haven’t seen what the award was based on but I think that one of the things that I’ve been really interested in and have worked quite hard to do is to bring the work of African writers into the mainstream and I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve worked for publishing houses who were on the look-out for new things and were open to the kind of books that I wanted to bring in.

So for example, bringing in writers from the African Writers series, some of our greatest writers from the 1950s, you know that golden era of African writing, Drum magazine and the Heinemann African Writers series, being able to bring them into Penguin Modern Classics was because I had a boss who was really behind the project, who worked with me very early on in my career to help that happen and so I’m honoured to be able to say that I brought Ngugi wa Thiongo and Dambudzo Marachera into the Modern Classics series.

And the same thing happened at my next job at Random House where I had great support in bringing in writers like Peter Akinti from Nigeria, Biyi Bandele and our very own Brian Chikwava’s Harare North which Jonathan Cape, my former publisher published really well and really, really supported and I think that along with that, an interest in translation and really opening up the world of publishing to writers from other places because I know that I want my bookshelf to reflect my own heritage and the kind of things I’m interested in, but at the same time I read things that my peers, my British peers in the publishing industry and just friends read as well and just sort of bringing the world to a bookshelf and I feel really privileged and lucky to have been able to do that.

Guma: What do you think of young Zimbabwean writers? You’ve obviously dealt with people like Brian Chikwava, but in general what’s your take on the state of our writing?

Allfrey: I think that on one level we have a level of international success; there’s Brian Chikwava, there’s Petina Gappah, Irene Sabatini who won the Orange New Writer’s prize for her book The Boy Next Door and then there’s the whole genre of writing by white Zimbabweans who are writing about what they feel is a lost childhood and so on and I think that across the board, there’s so many different kinds of writing and writing at different levels which for me is really exciting.

I mean I publish on the literary end of the publishing scale but I’m a great believer in encouraging writing. You know we need chick-lit writing, we need people who are doing sports writing and I think there’s a wealth there. I also feel that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done – there’s brilliant Zimbabwean publishers like Weaver Press who are working hard and have been at it for a long time through really difficult circumstances to bring Zimbabwean writing to the world so I think it’s a good time.

I also think it’s time where we need to be quite rigorous in our, you know demanding the very best from writers because you only get world class writing if you’re really demanding on yourself and at the same time I think there’s a great need for support and collaboration for the publishers themselves because I think often you can focus in on the writing and neglect the kind of infrastructure and support and skills that publishers need because without good publishers and editors you don’t have a national literature.

Guma: Now as well as your main job as an editor, you’ve helped organise literary festivals in Kenya, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. Talk us through that.

Allfrey: Well just to correct that – I’m a great friend of Manuel Bagorro who’s the wonderful director of the Zimbabwe Festival of the Arts, HIFA, Harare Festival of the Arts which runs every year and seems to me to be getting better and better, and along with my friend Georgina Godwin, I started up a literature stand which we’ve only done once and I’m hoping that we’ll be able to do it again and that was a series of workshops that I did working with writers in Zimbabwe, going through their work and also doing confidence building and skills sharing through story telling and so that was my contribution to HIFA and it was a wonderful, wonderful experience meeting writers of different ages and different stages in their careers in Zimbabwe and it would be great to have the opportunity to do that again.

And the work that I’ve done in Kenya was very much the same as at HIFA and in Nigeria I was involved in a really interesting project with a Nigerian publisher called Mukta Bakaray and his publishing house Farafina and that was focussing on training publishers from east and west Africa in you know, really basic things like contracts and so on.

It was skill sharing and it was probably one of the most exciting weeks of my life having to put that together, write the programme and deliver it and really hear from people who were working in very different circumstances, but interestingly enough were facing the same issues that publishers all around the world faced and it’s a project that Mukta and I are hoping to roll out across the continent and maybe hopefully come up with some kind of guide book for publishers across Africa.

Guma: Now I see you’ve done, you’ve made several contributions of course to the work of the British Council in different parts of the world – is this similar to what you are talking about or it’s different projects here?


Allfrey: Well I think the contribution is really, I’ve felt up until now that it’s been one-sided because I’ve been lucky enough to have been flown out by the British Council on to concerts and projects and most recently to participate in an international festival in Istanbul, talking about the importance of translation and meeting with Turkish writers.

It may seem quite odd something, an African publisher based in England off to Istanbul but I think that the whole world of translation and writing across cultures, there are things that you can learn regardless of what part of the world you are in and really focussing in on the importance of bringing voices outside your own culture into the English language or bringing English language writers into Turkey – it’s one of the very best ways to learn about it so I’m lucky enough that the British Council has funded several trips like that for me and I love working with them, they are an amazing bunch.

Guma: Now in the course of our work Ellah, some of us have discussed the advantages and disadvantages of broadcasting versus the print media, that is the newspapers and one thing that has always come out is that sometimes things like newspapers are considered a luxury item. Does the book industry in Zimbabwe suffer from the same problem? You know, people would think of buying food first before they think of buying books.

Allfrey: Absolutely, I think across the continent and it’s a huge thing I think that the books that are imported, the price point is too high. If you have to make a choice between shoes for your children, food for your children, school for your children and a book, the book is what is going to suffer because people just can’t afford it, it is a luxury item. That means that publishers across the world have to work harder to make books by Africans available at a price point that becomes affordable.

I mean it’s not a publisher’s business to, well actually it is a publisher’s business to worry about the state of politics and the economy because if your economy is collapsed, people won’t be able to afford books and that makes us a poorer nation culturally and I think that it’s a big deal and something that’s really important but I have to emphasise that I’m really against wholesale donation of books.

I think that donating to public libraries and to schools is great but we have to remember that writers have to get paid. A writer is somebody who feeds their family by their work and somebody who was educated on the salary of somebody who’s essentially a publisher and a writer, I know that it’s really important and if books are always free then it alters the perception because we’re willing to pay for a record for example or a DVD but for some reason I think often people think that something like books should just arrive.

And that’s one thing I’ve worked quite hard in my career to date and continue to be really concerned about is how do we make writing profitable and encourage people with good brains to be involved in writing and the publishing industry. So I think the point you are making is incredibly valid and I think it’s something that has to be discussed and we have to work towards ameliorating.

Guma: Is this something that technology could take care of? We’re seeing books being presented in different technological formats, is that a bonus for you or a disadvantage for publishers.

Allfrey: You know I think we all spend a lot, too much time debating the place of the e-book for example because I think that if you are in a village in Wedza you can read a print book by candlelight, you don’t have an e-reader. One the technological know-how isn’t there necessarily yet and two, if you haven’t got electricity, how are you going to download the books, you know forget about an internet connection and so I think the print book continues to be really, really important because it is something that can be accessed anywhere, it can be shared in a way that the digital format can’t be shared.

Having said that, I’m a huge fan of technology that brings the books into a new format and love e-readers and reading on my iPhone and all of those sorts of things but I think it’s really important to remember that for the vast swathes of the world’s population that isn’t an option and it won’t be for a very long time.

Guma: Now you are one of the judges at the Caine Prize for African writers, just quickly tell us about that?


Allfrey: The Caine Prize has been going for just over ten years and has done a lot to sort of bring African writing to the world stage. I think African writers have been published internationally for a long time and many have had success but it’s been a wonderful showcase for emerging talent and it’s really a democratic way for people to get their stories heard because it has an open submissions policy – anyone who has been published in print or on-line and that includes newspaper publications, magazine publication, e-mag publications, on-line magazines and it was a huge privilege and Terry Olufemi who won this year was from Sierra Leone was a wonderful winner, a really good example of really edgy innovative writing coming from the continent. I’m a huge fan of the work that they do and have to say that several of the writers I published as a book publisher came from the Caine Prize list so it’s one to keep an eye on.

Guma: Well it’s been a pleasure having you on Behind the Headlines Ellah, just one final question – so what happens from here? When is the big day and what happens?

Allfrey: I’m not sure when the big day is, I’m told that we get notices six weeks beforehand to hear when the investiture is and from here on I’m currently deputy editor of Granta magazine which is a literary magazine that publishes in book format four times a year and we publish an exciting range of African authors amongst all of the writing that we publish and that’s my day job and remains one of the most important things for me.

Guma: Well Zimbabwe, that was Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, a literary editor from Zimbabwe who will be receiving an OBE from the Queen in recognition of her services to the publishing industry. Ellah, thank you so much for your time.

Allfrey: A pleasure, thank you Lance.

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