“English Alive was a Rehearsal for Democracy”: Nadia Davids, Siphokazi Jonas and Karen Jennings Pay Tribute to Robin Malan

29 Aug 2018
The first ever edition of English Alive. (Image by Nick Mulgrew)

To mark Robin Malan stepping away from the editorship of the high school literary magazine English Alive, we’ve compiled a few tributes from PEN SA members to this extraordinary man and his work.

Be sure, too, to read our interview with Robin on his half-century working with English Alive.

PEN SA President Nadia Davids was first published in English Alive in 1993. She writes:

For me, Robin Malan will always be synonymous with English Alive. I was twelve years old when I first held a copy of that magazine. I remember that I could scarcely believe that such a thing existed, that somewhere an adult thought that the writings and artworks of high-school students were important enough, interesting enough, to read and to publish.

As editor of English Alive, Robin gave thousands of young people a sense of hope and confidence, he told us that our ideas mattered, that we mattered. In a country riven by perverse and cruel separation, English Alive became a meeting place for young adults’ ideas, thoughts, hopes, terrors and desires, both for ourselves and for our home. I would read the works of my contemporaries, hungry for their experiences, their descriptions, their imaginative workings, only realising years later that that reading was not just an antidote to the ordinary and extraordinary loneliness of adolescence, but also a way of reading the country, mapping its co-ordinates, understanding it better, catching a glimpse of lives that were at once utterly strange and deeply familiar.

Under Robin’s editorship, English Alive was a rehearsal for democracy; he brought us into a shared space, he gave us equal treatment, he allowed us to reflect on the conditions of our lives and asked us to imagine it anew. And, just as importantly, he told us that we were writers. I remain humbled and grateful for this tremendous gift.

Karen Jennings was first published in English Alive in 2000. She writes:

I would like to thank Robin for his tireless work in giving young voices a platform to be heard. It means a great deal to an aspiring writer to see their words in print. He has given decades of learners the opportunity to be seen, heard and inspired.

Siphokazi Jonas was first published in English Alive in 2002. She writes:

The first ‘yes’ which I ever received in publishing was from Robin Malan and English Alive. I do not overestimate Robin’s influence through this anthology when I say that appearing in English Alive set me on the path which I pursue today as a writer.

I remember the excitement of meeting him for the first time in 2004 at the launch of that year’s English Alive in Cape Town. I was privileged to put a face to the person who had believed in the voice of a young girl in Queenstown in the Eastern Cape.

Robin’s faith in all of us is unwavering. That has been the core of his work through English Alive and many other creative and literary channels. That faith has rippled through generations of writers in South Africa and abroad, establishing a legacy which he should be proud of.