A man sits in the dark and feels a rush of power and evil surge through him. He removes his everyday clothes, stands naked for a moment and then dresses in all black, enjoying his transformation. In a wooden box he finds three metal blades and attaches them to the fingers of his left hand. He has killed like this before, and if the lady detectives sipping their red wine across town don’t figure out something fast, he will kill again. Soon.
Claws of a Killer, by Lauri Kubuitsile, a writer living in Botswana, has been serialized over several recent issues of Jungle Jim, a pulp-fiction magazine published bimonthly out of Cape Town. On a continent where fiction—its creation and consumption alike—is frequently seen as a pastime for elites, Jungle Jim is reshaping the conversation, harnessing unsung talent to challenge perceptions of African writing and grapple with notions of African identity along the way.
Jungle Jim’s birth, in May 2011, is a somewhat improbable story. Two South Africans—she a filmmaker, he a designer—quit their jobs and threw themselves into the fraught world of magazine publishing, ignoring flashy, high-tech trends and instead immersing themselves in a storytelling style inspired by American genre fiction from the 1930s.
“We were interested in the golden era of pulp, when writers were writing without ego,” says Jenna Bass, the filmmaker who became the magazine’s founding editor. “Also something that’s imagination-driven. And fun. Kind of the opposite of the mainstream literary scene in South Africa, which is very dominated by our literary icons.” The tales of murder, sexual fantasy and the supernatural indeed have more in common with Raymond Chandler and Stephen King than Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee.
So far the results have been impressive. In its first two years, Jungle Jim published 21 vividly designed issues, featuring writers and illustrators from 15 African countries. In 2012, one of its stories was short-listed for the prestigious Caine Prize. And in April of this year, Jungle Jim was featured prominently at Milan Design Week, hosting a publishing workshop and taking over the display windows of La Rinascente department store.
Bass and Hannes Bernard, the magazine’s designer and cocreator, chose a name for the publication that would be a playful, ironic wink at the popular clichés of Africa that helped drive pulp fiction’s success in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s in the United States. Alex Raymond’s Jungle Jim comic strip, about the adventures of a safari-suit-wearing hunter, ran from 1934 to 1959 and spawned more than a dozen films starring Johnny Weissmuller, who picked up the Jungle Jim role after hanging up his Tarzan loincloth.
The hard-boiled private investigators of classic American pulps were an inspiration for Crispin Oduobuk, a former journalist from Abuja, Nigeria. They showed him how to explore the “decadent heart of the Nigerian cityscape” through stories of crime and drugs and sex. The 1980s and ‘90s saw a surge in illicit wealth in Lagos, providing Oduobuk the perfect canvas.
“You started hearing of things like Cocaine Avenue—there was a lifestyle that evolved,” he says, reflecting on his story “Kiss Yesterday Goodbye,” which appeared in Jungle Jim’s third issue. “Friday night, half a million in the boot, drive in a convoy of seven cars and 21 girls to the casino, burn a couple hundred G’s, roll over to the club, burn the rest, stay up till the early dawn and then get into a fight over a deal gone wrong, or a girl, or both.... Of course, as a writer of fiction you take certain liberties, but such things did happen.”
Oduobuk sees the magazine as an outlet allowing him to escape the reportage style of so many of his contemporaries. “Nigerian writers, like almost all African writers, feel a tremendous amount of pressure to ‘report’ the ills of society,” he says. “I pursue the degenerates in my writing—they are more interesting to me than starving kids on the street.”
Bass and Bernard are exploring ways to make the magazine more accessible throughout Africa, including a potential Cape Town-Lagos collaboration that would link up two of the continent’s most important—and most vastly different—cities. Meanwhile, it sells through Amazon in Kindle format, and hard copies are available for less than $2 in stores in South Africa.
Abdul Adan, a writer who was born in Somalia, raised in Kenya and now lives in St. Louis, Missouri, isn’t just happy to be published in Jungle Jim—he sees the magazine as an essential contribution to the complexity of African literature. “Some say that the African story has shifted toward themes of poverty, war and bad governance such that there’s little to celebrate,” he says. “Others write protest stories, against either their governments or their former colonizers. And now there’s writing that seeks to excoriate these sad, clichéd stories. All I see is that we Africans are stuck in a perpetual protest of sorts.”
Nonetheless, Adan feels African literature is on the verge of a renaissance. “Jungle Jim transcends all the protests that are afflicting African writing,” he says. “These diverse and creative voices have always been there. What wasn’t there was access to them.”