Current Writing was conceived of in 1988 by four members of the Department of English at the University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal) and its first issue appeared in 1989. It appeared annually in the period 1989–1992, and has appeared biannually since 1993. The four members of the editorial group, Michael Chapman, M J Daymond, J U Jacobs and Margaret Lenta, designed the journal to focus on the literary and critical enterprises in South Africa in their own day, which they defined as the previous twenty years and onwards.
Feeling that it was undesirable that any one scholar should sacrifice his or her particular literary interests in order to undertake, at least annually, the enormous amount of work involved in the production of a journal, they decided that in the case of each issue, one of their number would be editor in chief and the other three would advise and assist. This was intended, and indeed has had the effect, of allowing the editors to continue to research and write in their own particular fields, which include but are not limited to South African literature. They feel that this has kept them aware of the developments to which Current Writing has needed to respond. More ruefully, they recognise that in an academic system which does not reward or value journal editorship, they must maintain a presence elsewhere.
Conference attendance and other kinds of networking were shared out amongst the editors so that they could get to know as wide a spectrum as possible of potential and actual authors and critics. One development of this networking, not anticipated by the editors but accepted and welcomed by them, has been the obligation to offer editorial assistance to first-time authors obliged to write academic articles in their second or third language. Current Writing is proud that it has helped many authors to achieve the publication which their ideas and enterprise deserved.
The period when the journal began to appear was one of intense political conflict, in which South African universities, authors and publishers were deeply involved, and in which many non-South Africans felt obliged to cut off all contact with the country. Boycotts involving the publishing trade and the universities were tending to isolate South African scholars, writers and readers from their counterparts elsewhere.
“South Africa has become estranged from the rest of the world: apart from a small group of writers, mostly whites, few southern Africans are known or read outside this country” wrote the first editor in her Preface. She was recognising that the interests and conflicts of the country were all-absorbing to people within it, but less so to people outside, especially given the difficulties for foreigners of informing themselves about writing in this country, since none but the ‘white giants’ were available to them. A major purpose of the journal therefore was to keep South African academics (in the heavily censored cultural climate of the day) and their counterparts elsewhere aware of the volume and complexity of literary production and critical debate in southern Africa.
The difficulties of distributing Current Writing abroad have been considerable, and by no means all the problems involved have been solved. It is nevertheless the case that the journal has helped academics abroad as well as at home to maintain a sense of what is happening in the literary world here. From 1993 it has appeared biannually, offering an April issue which is ‘open’, and contains articles on any subject within the field originally defined by the editors, and a second, ‘themed’ issue with a narrower focus: examples are 7(2): “Orality in South African Literary Studies” and 14(2): “Translation”. Current Writing 19(2), which focuses on Antjie Krog, is the only issue so far devoted to a single author. Guest editors, of whom the first was David Attwell, who in 1993 produced an issue on postcolonialism, have helped to extend the range and interests of the journal.
In 1999 Margaret Lenta retired from the Department of English and from the editorial group of Current Writing. M J Daymond retired in 2005, and though both return intermittently to do specific tasks, the editorial group now consists of Michael Chapman, J U Jacobs, Judith Coullie, Corinne Sandwith and Cheryl Stobie. Duncan Brown was editor in chief of two issues, and a member of the editorial group from 2000 to 2008.