Transition: An International Review

There were a time, back in the late-1990s and early 2000s, when I was of the opinion that Transition was the finest, smartest, most perpetually surprising publication on earth.  In truth, there weren’t many who believed this because there weren’t many who read it or had even heard of it; but those who did generally shared the same giddy, fanboy feeling about it.  Transition liked to say that it had been founded in Kampala, Uganda in 1961 by a Ugandan Asian (that is, Indian) named Rajat Neogy and there was, indeed, a publication of that name at the time that published writers like Wole Soyinka, Paul Theroux, and V.S.Naipaul and played a tremendously important role as a forum for debate within Africa about decolonization and independence.  But that magazine was shut down a couple of times and the final time (in Ghana) lasted many years.  The Transition I was reading was a reprise of that earlier magazine, this one started (or re-started, depending on your view) in 1991 by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Kwame Anthony Appiah at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard.

So, what was Transition?  The editors then included Michael Vazquez, Trevor Corson, and Kelefa Sanneh and even they seemed a little uncertain, or perhaps just coy, about how to articulate Transition‘s editorial focus, though each issue they produced was so absolutely identifiable as Transition-y that it had all the self-evidence of pornography.  In a recent interview in the 50th anniversary issue, Mike Vazquez — now at Bidoun, another favorite of mine and a kind of Middle Eastern version of Transition — explains that Transition in its first iteration was about Africanness, in its second iteration about blackness and in its third, which is the one I was reading:

we liked the idea of “a general interest magazine about race,” with its seemingly paradoxical air.  The point was that we found race—or the house that race built, if you will—an endlessly fascinating prism through which to look at nearly everything.  And we did not mean that reductively; we meant it expansively.  That’s in part why we tried not to say identity, which had reductive connotations, though of course we were a journal about identity. We were also postcolonial, and probably even deconstructive, but we tried not to use those words overmuch. That was also part of what “general interest” was meant to signal—if we had a choice between running a piece on black travel writing or running a piece of black travel writing, we would always go for the latter.

In practice, what this meant, at least to me, was that, for all its puckish wordplay and contrarian humor, Transition took the world seriously, on its own terms; mostly that meant Africa or the African diaspora, but it could also be India or Europe or almost anywhere, really.  Wherever it was, I imagined the editors were never asking — as editors in the US usually do — ‘how do we make this relevant to an American audience’ but, rather, they assumed anything damned clever and insightful, fresh, unexpected, even improbable would be relevant, independent of subject or place.  So stories other magazines would regard as too obscure or narrow were given ample space within Transition [Note: all links except The Phantom require a JSTOR subscription]: the couture-loving Zairean dandies known as Sapeurs; the fawning griot singers of West Africa; a defense of Amos ‘n Andy; Tito’s zoo of gift animals from Third World leaders; or the worship of a superhero called The Phantom in 1960s Delhi.  It was not all international: the editors showed as sharp an eye for race in America as anywhere.  Consider, for example, this simple but compelling summation of a long interview: trailer parks are just rural housing projects.  That ran in ‘The White Issue’ (#73) and demands to be read.  But even in that one issue this was far from their most irresistible piece: Hilton Als had a brief few pages on William S. Burroughs as a white Negro that are among the best things Als has ever written; a black tourist in Tokyo goes on the trail of African-emulating Japanese ‘jiggers’; and another writer asks whether eating lobster makes a black person white.

It goes without saying there was never much money behind this venture.  That and a somewhat lackadaisical approach to production schedules meant the hard-core Transition readers never knew when the new issue would appear.   Some years there were five issues, other years there were two — they averaged this and called it a quarterly.  No matter: you knew it would be good when it got there.

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If you are an academic or otherwise have privileges at a university library you’re in luck because almost every one of those links above requires a JSTOR subscription.  The Atlantic recently ran an interesting article asking why universities allow so much academic research (and, as with Transition, university press publications) to be imprisoned behind the JSTOR paywall.  It is quite maddening that back issues are not more readily available because I just read through a couple issues in hard copy that are over a decade old and they remain as fresh as on first minting.

Selections from the more recent issues, including the 50th anniversary issue, are accessible online at the Transition website.  It is worth reading the interview with Mike Vazquez in full for a sense of the free-ranging curiosity he brought to the magazine.  Apparently, Dissent described Transition as ‘impish.’  It is.

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