Something that has been striking to me ever since I joined bookstagram and hearing from others who live in other parts of the world, is how difficult is to access books in Africa and the Caribbean. I wanted to have a conversation specifically with these two bookstagrammers, Amyn Bawa from Nigeria and Faith Nzama from Kenya, about their experiences as book lovers in purchasing books that are not always available to them.
Tricia: The two of you are both strong advocates and supporters of African literature and I’d like you both to explain how that began for you as readers?
Faith: Oh wow! Thank you so much. When I joined the book-sphere, through blogging and Bookstagram, in 2016 I didn’t see much of African literature. I was reading only the books I saw other people read and 99% of them were white. And to be clear, that’s not a bad thing, but it just wasn’t me and I realized I wasn’t enjoying them as much and mostly because they just weren’t for me. It took me a year to figure out what kind of books I love and enjoy and African lit was top of the list. Through my reading I also wanted to share more of these books just in case there is someone out there who is on their own reading discovery.
Amyn: I’ve always appreciated African literature even before I knew it with that tag. The appreciation and the need to share African lit began when I noticed that my reading list had very few Africans on it, and I decided to be more intentional about it. Access to our books is still a big issue and that’s why it pays to be more intentional about choosing, reading, and appreciating African lit.
Tricia: Talk to me about your evolution of being a book blogger, how did it begin and what opportunities has presented itself, and why is it important to you both?
Faith: I stumbled upon Bookstagram at the end of 2015, and it opened a whole new world for me. I was awed that there is a whole community of readers out here and I wanted in. In January of 2016 I opened my account, Suckerforcoffe, and began sharing the books I was reading and reviews. I did feel a bit limited with the space I had and in June of 2016 I opened by blog, suckerforcoffe.com, where I could share in depth reviews and bookish content. This has opened up my mind, and wallet, with all the different books I get to read that I find or are recommended to me. I have made long lasting friendships and I have found my voice and the fact that people read my blog and take my recommendations makes my little heart happy. I hope that with whatever I share is of value to someone somewhere out there. That I get to contribute to someone’s reading. I have also gotten to work with some authors and a bookstore, which has been great!
Amyn: I transitioned my Instagram account into a Bookstagram account (@lipglossmaffia) about five years ago because folks used to ask me about books and reading and I got tired of repeating myself. I also transitioned my blog into a bookish one, created a podcast, and now I’ve made reading books into a personality trait! As far as opportunities, I haven’t started making money yet from it, but I have met the most amazing people and that to me is the thing that keeps me going.
Tricia: When you first became heavily involved in blogging about books, what was your experience in terms of availability in Kenya and Nigeria for the books you wanted to read and share with others?
Faith: Whew! It was hard and hectic to find books. You would see a new release that’s out and want to read it but end up waiting a year or two to get it, because the other option is shipping it in yourself, but it is quite expensive. I would get really frustrated with this because you want a physical copy but only have to settle for a Kindle copy.
Amyn: It’s really difficult getting books at affordable prices. Affordable is the key word here, because if you have the means, you can get anything you want. So far, it’s been easy for me because I use every format available to me. There’s Scribd, Audible, Libby, and sometimes I ask for review copies from publishers, sometimes I’m gifted copies. So, I can’t complain but I know it’s tough for others to get books because of the foreign currency exchange and shipping rates.
Tricia: I feel like African literature has been booming and I’m wondering for you Faith in Kenya and you Amyn in Nigeria, how available are new titles that are being published?
Faith: Things have been much better since when I started. We are actually getting the books either as they are being released or just a few weeks later. I want to say mid 2020 was when I noticed things changing. It was a gradual shift, and I would like to think that the bookstores finally decided to keep up with what is being published and making the books available, which is all good and it makes me happy.
Amyn: Nigerian books being published by Nigerian publishing houses are easy to get here. Those published outside the country are a little harder to get because of the reasons I mentioned above, Also, books published within the continent don’t find their way around because logistics is a nightmare.
Tricia: There are instances when a book is written by someone of African descent and set in Africa, yet some publishers will invest heavily in mailing review copies of books focusing on reviewers in North America and the U.K., oftentimes neglecting reviewers in Africa. What’s your opinion on this practice?
Faith:I realized early on that these books are not meant for us (us being the ones living in Africa). The publishers are out to make money and for some reason they think they won’t get it here. We are ignored and overlooked and it is frustrating. They could do better but I don’t think they want to so… we move on.
Amyn: I understand why they do this. According to the sales numbers, Africa isn’t their target audience so I do understand why they don’t send to reviewers on the continent, I just wish they would give it more thought because the more people on the continent know about the books, the more interest there’d be to read the books.
Tricia: I feel that there’s an understanding within Black communities that our stories matter and representation in literature is important, but there are some in publishing I think who don’t feel the same. Is it our responsibility as readers of African literature to prove that there is value in marketing to African readers?
Faith: No it’s not. They have already made up their mind about us so trying to change it will be a waste of time. Readers do have a role. A significant role at that. But with the way publishing and marketing is moving, they make it seem only the people out of Africa (UK & US) are making an impact. With that mentality already, we are overlooked and I don’t see the point in making them see us. We’ve done that for years and nothing has changed, it’s not going to start now.
Amyn: I don’t think we African readers need to prove anything to anyone anymore, just like our writers don’t need to prove that they are valuable.
Tricia: Can you talk about the obstacles that you see in Kenya and Nigeria that is preventing efficient book access?
Faith: I can only speak for myself but the prices. Books in this country are beyond expensive. From a few conversations I have had with booksellers, shipping within the continent is more expensive than shipping from the UK hence the higher prices. But still, you find the book you want to read is available and it’s so expensive you find it’s cheaper to just buy the e-copy.
Amyn: Shipping rates, forex, and socio-economical problems plaguing the country. For instance, during an outreach program, we were giving things out to less privileged children, a little girl collected food and a book, and her mother told her to return the book and collect a food pack instead.
Tricia: Do you feel that there is sufficient awareness and appreciation for African literature in Kenya and Nigeria?
Faith: Yes and no. I think a huge percentage are aware of the African Literature available but not many appreciate it. Which is okay because I believe people should read whatever they want, and you can’t force a genre on people because now they will read it just for the sake of it.
Amyn: Not yet, it’s still a very niche community but we’re slowly getting there.
Tricia: I know that there are African book festivals, book prizes that focus on African literature, and indie publishers in parts of Africa all doing their part to enhance access and readership. In your opinion, is that enough? What role do we as readers play in helping to increase access to those who still struggle with availability?
Faith: Is it enough? Maybe. At the moment it is working and it is putting more African Literature, both new releases and backlist, on the map. It is amazing seeing a reader discovering a book that was published years ago and bringing it the attention it deserves. There are always new readers and new audiences for these books and these Festivals and Book Prizes are a great way to discover them. As readers we can only keep on doing what we have been doing. Read the books and shout about them. Sharing ways in which we can get these books on Scribd, e-libraries and so on.
Amyn: Honestly, the only way anything would change is if we got the government involved. There’s only so much private individuals can do. For instance, libraries would take a huge stress off readers getting access to books and would greatly increase readership. Also, let’s not forget that people are going through so much hardship that books are the last thing on their minds. The wound is deep.
Thank you so much Faith and Amyn for your time. I truly appreciate hearing your perspectives.
Photos courtesy Amyn and Faith.