A recent story by The New Yorker on The Magunga Bookstore, an online bookstore founded by a Kenyan couple, Abigail Arunga and Magunga Williams, in Nairobi, roused a storm on the magazine's Facebook page. The bone of contention was the bookshop owners’ decision to sell only African literature, which some interpreted as racist.
Typically, it wasn’t long before the comment thread devolved into an ugly match of words between Africans and non-Africans, with the African team, seemingly composed of mostly Kenyans, playing defence. One such commenter reminded the public that ‘African’ doesn’t necessarily mean black as there are Arab, White and Indian Africans. Another quipped that majority of the bookstores in Kenya sell Western books, supporting Williams’ rationale to stock only books written by African authors.
On the offensive were non-Africans, criticising the concept of an only-African bookstore with comments that were mostly ignorant and demeaning. ‘Bet the available titles are slim pickings’, wrote Patrick Butler. A different Facebook user, Kirk Wilson, applying a faulty logic, asked, “How about an all White Books, bookstore? How well would that go over? Stop with this racist BS!”
As a bibliophile and a Nigerian who has spent most of her life in Africa, I wholeheartedly support the creation of an all-African bookstore. Growing up, most of the literature I read were Western. I knew more about Snow White and iterations of the Little Mermaid than about Anansi, the wise spider that features heavily in Akan folklore. I owned more books by American and British authors than by Nigerians, or any other Africans for that matter. Visiting my school’s library and borrowing from friends made no difference either because—you guessed it—their selections were similar to mine.
In secondary school, the situation did not improve. Sure, we had a couple of recommended readings from African writers, consisting of the usual suspects: Soyinka and Thiong’o among others, but there was no real drive by librarians or literature teachers to generate active interest in African literature. And since I was a boarder, I read what was readily available in my dormitory, which were the Sweet Valley High series and those ubiquitous Mills and Boon novels.
At one point, I developed an affinity for Danielle Steele novels, especially those set in the early twentieth century, because they opened doors to worlds unknown. I would learn about America’s internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII and the debilitating effects of chemotherapy from her, and peer into the lifestyle of wealthy Americans. Later, I would graduate to John Grisham for the legal suspense and Sidney Sheldon for his affinity for strong female protagonists.
Reading Western books was an education of Western culture, a form of escape the world that I knew and lived. It neither mattered that the characters never resembled me or people I knew nor bothered me that the protagonists were always white, because I had no inkling about the power of literature and its political and racial implications in the real world. For me, it all just entertainment.
My interest in African literature was piqued seven years ago after a white British woman, volunteering in the soup kitchen I did in Lancaster, recommended Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus upon learning I was Nigerian. At the time, I knew nothing about her or the literary world she inhabited since I was mostly a genre reader, so I didn’t give it much thought. Why would anyone want to read about their reality when they were looking to escape it? That’s what newspapers are for, or so I thought. It would be another year before I found out why.
After reading Purple Hibiscus, I immediately ordered Half of a Yellow Sun from Amazon, a book that still tops my list of favourite novels, and got hooked on literary fiction. It wasn’t until I watched Chimamanda’s TED talk The Dangers of a Single Story that I realised literature’s role in shaping the narrative of a people for better or worse, how it afforded marginalised groups the platform to reclaim their voice by telling their stories. It also revealed how little I knew about the continent I grew up in, whatever I knew about Zimbabwe, Congo or Rwanda was gleaned from Western media, which rarely showed the ugliness of foreign aid or proffered nuanced explanations to religious or tribal warfare.
Shortly after, I made a decision to read more books by African writers who weren’t Nigerians, one that would have been nearly impossible to execute if it weren’t for Amazon’s kindle since Nigerian bookstores, which are few and far between, hardly stock those. Indeed, it is easier finding Dan Brown’s Inferno than Tendai Huchu’s The Hairdresser of Harare or inspirational/religious books authored by Westerners than Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid, as evinced by my visit to the Ikeja City Mall last weekend.
Opening a bookstore that stocks only African books has nothing to do with race. It is merely a necessity to fill a huge chasm in the literary world that has been demanding to be closed. It is a requirement borne out of deprivation, a vital measure to curate and, by extension, claim ownership of Africa’s stories.
Lead Photo: Shayera Dark