How Brittle Paper Is Redefining The African Literary Experience

A version of this article was originally published on The Style HQ.

7 years after its emergence, the African literary site, Brittle Paper has grown into a thriving community of readers and writers interested in everything about African literature. The site, which operates as an intersection of literary criticism, literary-focused entertainment, and a publishing platform for young African writers, has successfully created an online destination that turns the stoic and seemingly rigid nature of literary platforms on its head. In this, the site’s founder, Ainehi Edoro, discusses social media’s role in diversifying the conversation around African literature and how Brittle Paper might be the beginning of a literary paparazzi industrial complex.

Image via Ainehi Edoro
Image via Ainehi Edoro

What’s Brittle Paper’s origin story? I know you initially started the blog as a general interest literary blog in 2010. When and why did you decide to pivot and focus primarily on African Literature?

Brittle Paper started in 2010. I was one year into graduate school and grad school had been the craziest experience I had ever had. I read so much, I was pushed so hard, it’s super competitive, and I was reading all these complex texts. So that summer, I just decided that I wanted a space outside of the classroom where I could process the things I was reading. In 2012 I decided to make Brittle Paper an African literature blog, but I didn’t want it to be just a traditional literary site with book reviews and articles. I wanted Brittle Paper to be this place where lifestyle and literature intersected. I wanted to create a space for African literature that was chill and fun, that wasn’t preachy and had a little bit of everything for everybody. For me, Brittle Paper was about thinking about how African literature intersected with so many different spheres.

What did you see coming out of the African literary community in 2012 that made you think that readers and literature lovers needed a space like Brittle Paper? Not another traditional literary site, but one that is social media oriented and is all encompassing like Brittle Paper.

I think 2012 marked the end of the first era of blogging. I started blogging in 2008, I had a Blogspot and there was this really vibrant blogging community that existed. At the time Teju Cole was just a blogger and he was blogging about things that would eventually become his first book, Everyday Is For The Thief, Jeremy Weate had Naijablog, and we would just go there and comment and quarrel about books and everything. It was an amazing time of blogging naivete. In the early 2010’s blogging began to change from this personal ranting and self-indulgent hobby to something that was more community-oriented and African writers were embracing social media in a way that they hadn’t. Nnedi Okorafor was incredibly vocal on Twitter and Teju Cole was using Twitter as this micro-blogging space and doing incredible work on this platform, and I was looking at all of this and I thought, I could be writing book reviews but I wanted to capture this community. I wanted a space where I could tell this other story around African literary culture, a story that wasn’t traditional and conventional, and Brittle Paper became just that.

That’s interesting and I think that the response to Brittle Paper and Brittle Paper’s readership reflects the need for a platform like yours. Brittle Paper readers are excited about every aspect of African literature. From an author’s new hairstyle to a new book release, and I think it’s interesting how you tapped into this community that wanted the same reprieve you did when you started Brittle Paper.

I think people were ready for something like Brittle Paper, although I did have some pushback when I first started. I remember I wrote this post about Taiye Selasie and how sexy she is. Taiye Selasie a brilliant woman who is beautiful and expresses her beauty confidently and with grace, and I wanted to celebrate all of that. So I wrote this post called 5 Reasons Why Taiye Selasie is The Sexiest African Female Novelist and people were like “how dare you objectify her?” If I could write the post again I wouldn’t use that title, but the point is people were not comfortable that I was looking at her ability to express her intellectual power through her body. If you follow her on Instagram, you will see that she’s unapologetic about the fact that she loves fashion and has an amazing body. She wears it proudly, and that was what I wanted to celebrate. I’ve always know the kind of story I wanted to tell with Brittle Paper and I’ve stuck to it and I think people have been open to it. Over the years I’ve gotten fewer comments like “why are you writing a post about Lauren Beukes and her new hair color,” instead, people are more receptive. So, I think that people came on board and embraced what Brittle Paper is all about.

Websites like Brittle Paper and Saraba have become institutions in some way and really instrumental for Nigerian writers, young ones especially. Readers are invested in these sites and writers want to submit their work to these platforms, and I’m wondering if this is because there are not as many physical institutions in the form of MFA programs or workshops to support the growth of Nigerian writers in Nigeria that writers turn to the internet and platforms like yours for that support and engagement.

In the online space I’ve always wanted to know how I can intervene in the African literary space and adapt African literature to social media, and in my interactions with aspiring writers, I began to realize the scarcity of literary platforms for young writers. You hear of the Farafina Literary workshop, but Farafina is one of the only workshops of that pedigree in Nigeria, in a country of millions of people. Sometimes if you live in this social media bubble you tend to think that we have way more than we actually do, but for many of the writers that Brittle Paper publishes, they would not have been able to have a real community of readers engage with their work if we did not publish them. As inspiring as that is, it’s also saddening.

Has the submissions process always been a component of Brittle Paper? Was that always something you wanted to do?

People just sent me their work in the beginning and ask, “can you publish this?” and I began to think, this could be a space where I could share writing from young African writers. The people we publish range between 18 and 22, we get tons of submissions every day and all these young writers are hungry for a space to share their work. These writers are smart and talented and they’re thinking and working hard to produce something. We get submissions all the time, people are very excited about that process and I’m very proud of it.

How many submissions do you get a month?

We get about 100 and that’s me being conservative.

When you read a story submitted to the site, what do you look for? What makes you say yes to publishing a story?

On a very basic level, I like stories that I think are fun and entertaining, I like stories that I can connect to on an emotional level. Even if the subject of a story is banal, I look for stories readers can connect to. I don’t like preachy stories, I don’t like stories where people are reproducing a stereotype of what they think African stories are. You can often tell those stories.

You were also working on your dissertation when you were running Brittle Paper and now you’re teaching while still running the site. I want to know how the conversations you had online and on Brittle Paper informed your dissertation if at all they did, and how they are playing out in your classroom?

When it comes to my classroom, I see my students as readers and I try to connect with them in an emotional and intellectual way. When I was writing my dissertation, I would often have people from time to time say “it has been saying that you are finishing this dissertation on your bio page, when will the dissertation finish?” That was a question I got a lot because I was finishing up my dissertation at Duke University for about four years and I liked the that there were people who were rooting for me in that way. Beyond that, Brittle Paper very much helped my writing. Writing in a world where you have to say things in a way that makes people emotionally invested in your writing so quickly is a bloggers dilemma, so whether it’s with the title of your post, the picture you choose or your first sentence you have to get people’s attention quickly and that helped my academic writing. At the end of the day, that’s what I was doing with my dissertation. My goal at the end of the day was to make my committee members read my dissertation and get it in a way that makes them say “this is sensible and significant.” So blogging as a different kind of writing practice helped my work, it also helped me prioritize the kind of questions I asked. When you live in the academic world for too long you can sometimes think that the questions that you ask are brilliant and life changing, but as I spoke with people outside of academia, I figured out what kind of questions people are invested in when it comes to African literature and that helped me to configure some of the larger questions I was asking in my dissertation.

Image @BrittlePaper Instagram

What trends did you notice about the questions people were asking in relation to African literature?

People are very much interested in the Achebe question. Sometimes the question doesn’t come across as clearly, but people are very much interested in what Achebe means to African literature, especially since he passed on. There’s a lot more anxiety about what this man means, because if some people say that he started it all what does it mean that the person who started it all has now passed on? Does it mean that we live in a post-Achebe world? What does that mean for us theoretically? People are still obsessed with this very silly question of whether there is such a thing as African literature. They also ask, the “African” in African literature, should it be there? Does it help the category or does it not? You have people like Taiye Selasie who say no, we can do without it and you have people like me who believe that it’s taken years to legitimize that adjective and believe we should hold on to it. I believe we can reinvent it and expand it to do all sorts of things, but we shouldn’t throw it away. People want to talk about Ngugi and are waiting for him to get his well-deserved Nobel prize. People also want to talk about the status of African literature and where it’s headed. Wole Soyinka often comes out to say that he thinks we are doing well and he often talks about how contemporary African fiction is dominated by women and that is great.

I want to talk about your background. Your B.A was in English and Literary studies and so was your M.A, and your Ph.D. was also focused on African literature. What spurred your interest in literature and why did you decide to pursue it?

It’s a good question, especially within the African context. In college, my friend’s mother called me aside and asked “why literature? Why are you not doing engineering or something like that.” Aside from the fact that I’m not interested in the sciences, I’ve always loved literature and as I grew older I realized that this was the only thing I wanted to do. I remember reading Soyinka’s Myth, Literature, and the African World when I was 16 and the book is essentially unreadable because you need to check the dictionary for every other word - it’s Soyinka at his most dense. I’ve read the book a million times since then, and it’s a beautiful text, but at 16 I was amazed at how people could write like this. There was something beautiful about it, even in the fact that I couldn’t understand it. There was something beautiful about its cadence and the way it mystified me and after that, I just felt like I wanted to be in this world where people produced work like this. During college, I decided that I wanted to be a critic, somebody who mediated the reader's experience. I wanted to be the middleman, the person who modulates the relationship between the writer and the reader and says “this is why this writer's work is good and this is why you should read it” and tells the writer “this is what people care about.” I don’t know if I would have done it if I had known what I know now about the whole journey, I think I was super idealistic about what it would entail and I went for it. But every day I thank my stars that I pursued this because I’ve gotten better at it through the years. I’m better at writing, better at thinking, and I’m a better reader, also.

It’s such an interesting place to be being a critic. Most people read books and want to become writers, but I think that responsibility of communicating things to the reader and talking about themes or ideas in a novel and engaging with readers about why these books are important is incredible.

I think it’s important work that needs to be done. The writer produces work and spends so much time to produce work and I think it’s fun to take an author's work and say, how can I make my readers invested in it and see what’s beautiful about the work and why they should read it. I also think that within the global literary world, African literature hasn’t been talked about very well. It has been presented as this square and academic like genre of literature. I’m always so dissatisfied with the reviews of African fiction on The New York Times, sometimes they have a certain framework of how to look at African literature.That’s why spaces like Brittle Paper are so important because they create a more nuanced conversation around African literature that I think is much more in touch with reality.

How did you land on the blog name Brittle Paper?

I’m a fan of fashion blogs and what I love about that space is that they produce things in so much volume. On sites like that, you see content, you like it, and you move on. No one is trying to write the next classic and that has always been literature, literature is obsessed with classics. Literature is obsessed with things that don’t die, and I know that we criticize the social media world for the opposite logic, but it can be productive in many ways. I think that for African literature to exist in that social media world, it has to be able to let go of itself and produce knowledge that we can consume and move on from, and I wanted a name that conveyed that. Paper and pen are very iconic figures of writing, but in the digital world, paper isn’t. So I began looking for something that conveyed that, something that conveyed paper as precarious and brittle. The idea of a brittle paper, a paper that can be crushed and lost embodied that aspect of the digital and social media space.

What are your plans for the growth of Brittle Paper?

I want to become the Linda Ikeji of literature - well that was a joke, but I’m serious.

What I mean is that I want Brittle Paper to be a space where African literature becomes a universal experience. I want it to be a platform where anybody can come and find a way to connect with African literature. I’m not interested in becoming the New York Times of African literature, I love that model and I see the need for it, but that’s not what I’m interested in for Brittle Paper. I want to create this space that you can come to and immerse yourself in African literature and all its diversity. In a more practical sense, I want to build a bigger team. I would also love to have a publishing arm that publishes books - not physical books - with a good model that is profitable for writers.  I would like Brittle Paper to become this broad company around the idea of African literature, which means everything from literary journalism to covering literary festivals. The plan is to create this very reader oriented space for people interested in African literature so that when people ask “what is Africa literature?” we are able to give them an immersive experience.

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