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Blogger Spotlight: African Book Addict!

Post by Evelyn Owen

Welcome to the first post in a new series, “Blogger Spotlight,” which highlights African bloggers who have caught our eye!

First up is African Book Addict! Founded and written by blogger Darkowaa, African Book Addict! features reviews of novels written by people of African descent, both in Africa and in the diaspora. Since the first post in June 2014, the blog has evolved into a go-to resource for anyone wanting incisive, enthusiastic appraisals of African books, reading suggestions, and a community of like-minded bookworms in the comments section.

Darkowaa was born in the U.S.A, but moved to Ghana when she was 10 years old. Following undergraduate studies in the States, she returned to Accra, Ghana, to complete her second degree in dentistry. She admits that writing her blog is a fun distraction from her studies! We exchanged emails with her to learn more about her African book addiction…

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What inspired you to start blogging?

African Book Addict! was conceived a little over two and a half years ago out of my intense love of reading and discussing books by writers of African descent (in Africa and the diaspora). As a Ghanaian-American, I gain a stronger sense of self when I read works by writers of African descent because I identify strongly with the characters and the stories; I also get to understand myself and the world through their work. I wanted a space where I could talk with other book lovers, so I created African Book Addict! to review and discuss books by black writers—more specifically African, Caribbean and African-American writers—while showcasing books and writers that I feel don’t get the shine they deserve.

What attracts you to African novels, or books written by people of African descent?

I’m obsessed! I fervently purchase their books and I’m constantly searching for new African reads. I see myself in these books. I love seeing names like Obembe, Adwoa, Vimbai, Diop, Tapfuma in paperbacks; reading books where the characters eat pigtail and breadfruit from Barbados, fufu and nsala soup from Nigeria and soul food from the American south, is comforting. Feeling and relating with characters who were also born outside the continent and are constantly grappling with their ever evolving identities is a form of self-care for me. Reading books by black authors makes me feel like our stories matter, because they do and always have.

Who is your main audience? Do your readers tend to live in Africa, the US, or elsewhere?

African Book Addict!’s main audience resides in the US, UK, Nigeria, India, South Africa, Kenya, Canada, Norway and Ghana. A very high percentage are from the US and the UK.

You’re currently based in Accra, Ghana. What’s the literary scene like there? Is it easy to find interesting books, and do you attend readings or other events with local authors?

When I moved to Accra in 2014, I was disappointed at how difficult it was to find African fiction… ironic, right? Most bookshops sell a meager selection of books by writers of African descent and the ones that do, do not sell current titles. Also, African fiction is super expensive here in Accra. A book by an African writer going for 87 Ghanaian cedis isn’t targeting the average Ghanaian, and it’s quite frustrating. I still buy most of my novels from the US because of this issue. I’m still trying to learn how this can be changed, because its upsetting when people in the US and UK are excited about a book by an African/Ghanaian writer, but the average African/Ghanaian doesn’t have access to the book. I definitely started to miss the variety of literary events I used to attend in the States when I moved here.

But Accra has its own selection of events I’ve been enjoying. Writers Project of Ghana has been spearheading the literary scene with a plethora of events like “Ghana Voices Series,” where literary fiends gather for monthly public readings featuring African writers.

An array of books displayed after a reading hosted by Writers Project of Ghana at the Goethe Institute, Accra. Photo: African Book Addict!
Ghanaian authors Ayesha H. Attah and Ayi Kwei Armah in conversation at ‘Brazil House,’ James Town, Accra. Photo: African Book Addict!

I’ve been to several of these events where readers interact with various African writers like Binyavanga Wainaina, Kwei Quartey, Ama Ata Aidoo, Eghosa Imasuen, Ayesha H. Attah, and more. It feels good to get your book signed and a picture with authors you’ve admired. Also late last year, the Storymoja Festival (from Nairobi, Kenya) came to Accra in honor of the late Ghanaian poet, Kofi Awoonor. I attended a reading featuring Chuma Nwokolo at the festival and had a good time. I hope the festival becomes an annual event here in Accra. Book swap events have emerged as well. I particularly love the Brunch over Books “Sip n’ Swap” events, where book lovers discuss and exchange books over brunch in quaint cafés around the city. The literary scene in Accra is decent and hopefully with time it will get even better.

For anybody new to African literature—where’s a good place to start reading?

The easiest, most affordable place to start is on the internet. There are many Black literary journals and magazines online that feature amazing short stories, flash fiction, poetry, and essays to whet anyone’s appetite. Literary magazines like AFREADA, Kweli Journal, Mosaic, just to name a few, feature amazing writing.

But whenever I encourage a family member or friend to read more African fiction, I always start by introducing them to contemporary work. I encourage them to pick up any book by Donald Molosi, Kopano Matlwa, Chigozie Obioma, Warsan Shire, Ben Okri, Amma Darko, Aminatta Forna, Chinelo Okparanta – I could go on and on! We tend to see ourselves in the contemporary works more than the post-colonial texts, so I think modern stories will keep the attention of newbies to African fiction.

Next, I highly recommend readers go back and read some post-colonial works. Authors like Ngūgī wa Thiong’o, Thomas Mofolo, Yvonne Vera, Ferdinand Oyono, Mariama Bâ, Ama Ata Aidoo, and Buchi Emecheta will awe you with their courageous, prophetic writing, which is still relevant to this day. These writers paved the way for the contemporary works we love so much today and we must always remember them.

Darkowaa with a copy of 'Happiness, Like Water' by Chinelo Okparanta, one of her recommended books for newcomers to African fiction.
Books Darkowaa read in 2016! Click the image for her recap of the year. Photo: African Book Addict!

How do you define African, African-American, and Caribbean fiction? How do these genres connect and/or contrast with each other?

While I know it’s not fair to put writers in boxes, as long as a writer identifies as having African, African-American, or Caribbean roots, I’m compelled to read their work and that’s how I define fiction in those genres. The stories by writers from the continent and the diaspora are different in their own ways, yet similar. Black people as a whole have been and still are actively liberating themselves (ourselves) from the oppression of ‘imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ (bell hooks, anyone?).

African-American writers who express this include W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, bell hooks, Ta-Nehisi Coates; African writers include Steve Biko, Chinua Achebe, Nawal El Saadawi, Ngūgī wa Thiong’o, Bessie Head, Ken Saro-Wiwa; Caribbean writers include Earl Lovelace, Frantz Fanon, Claude McKay, Edwidge Danticat, Michelle Cliff, Jamaica Kincaid.

I love how I can read stories from Trinidad, Uganda, or North Carolina, and learn new things about the countries, the people and the struggles/joys they experience, yet resonate with them because they are somewhat similar to Ghana/Ghanaians—as I like to believe we are all one people (Pan-Africanism for the win!).

Thinking about the most popular and successful African authors, do they have anything in common? Are the same authors popular with African and Western audiences, or do you think there are differences of opinion and taste?

‘Success’ is a relative term and popularity varies according to what country you’re in. Frances Mensah Williams may be popular in the UK, but relatively unknown in the US; Benjamin Kwakye may be popular in Ghana but unknown in Nigeria. But since we are all consuming the same Western-controlled media, I think authors with the most visibility tend to be more popular and I notice this with the books I review. A book review on ANYTHING by Chimamanda Adichie will instantly get attention from people worldwide on African Book Addict! as opposed to a book review on any other African writer, who is an equally amazing writer as Adichie. Readers have different opinions and tastes, but the writers with the most visibility and access to Western publishers tend to be more popular and by extension, seen as ‘successful’ – because of their popularity.

What do you think about the way African literature is marketed and discussed in the US and other Westernized countries? It has been argued that there’s a tendency to focus on what African novels can teach readers about Africa, at the expense of more literary interpretations…

Yes, last year I read an article in the Guardian entitled “How Not To Talk About African Fiction” by Ainehi Edoro, and the title reminded me of Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical essay (2005), “How To Write About Africa,” which I thoroughly enjoyed in an anthropology class I took junior year of college. The article definitely opened my eyes to the use of African fiction as a tool only appreciated for the geography, history lessons it can give. African fiction deserves to be seen as a literary work of art instead of solely being appreciated for its ‘anthropological value.’ It’s unfair to market African fiction only around the social/political issues it addresses because there’s so much more to these stories that is ignored in descriptions by publishers and even reviewers of African fiction.

The brilliant prose of J.M. Coetzee’s harrowing novel Disgrace, or the play with words and sound by Binyavanga Wainaina to convey confused experiences and imagination of childhood in his memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place will continue to go unseen because of the way African novels are marketed. I think we book bloggers and reviewers should try and rectify this issue by adequately portraying the layered complexities of African fiction.

Darkowaa got to meet Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina, author of "How to Write About Africa" and "One Day I Will Write About This Place," after he gave a reading hosted by Writers Project of Ghana. Photo: African Book Addict!

Dividing Africa into regions—North Africa, West Africa, Central Africa, East Africa, and Southern Africa—can you recommend one book set in each region that you’ve especially enjoyed?

This will be a bit challenging, as I haven’t read everything out there. Below are some recommendations that come to mind:

North Africa: Any novel by Leila Aboulela, who hails from Sudan is golden. I recommend her short stories entitled “Museum” which can be read in the anthology Opening Spaces: Contemporary African Women’s Writing, and “Something Old, Something New” which can be read in the anthology African Love Stories, and her novel Minaret.

West Africa: The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah (Ghana). I also truly enjoyed So The Path Does Not Die by Pede Hollist (Sierra Leone) last year.

Central Africa: I haven’t read any books from this region yet. But Alain Mabanckou’s novel, Tomorrow, I’ll be Twenty (Republic of the Congo) is waiting on my bookshelf!

Horn of Africa: Fairytales for Lost Children by Diriye Osman (Somalia).

East Africa: Anything by Ngūgī wa Thiong’o (Kenya), especially his satire called Matigari. I’ve only read three of his novels, but he is one of my favorites!

Southern Africa: Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (South Africa).

And finally, which new books are you most excited about in 2017?

I look forward to reading Morgan Parker’s poetry collection There are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé to be released February 14th, and Zinzi Clemmons’s debut, What We Lose, which will be released in July of this year.

Thank you so much, Darkowaa, for taking the time to share the African Book Addict! story with us! 

You can hear more from Darkowaa on this episode of the “Not Your African Cliché” Podcast, and connect with her on Twitter (@AwoDeee) and Good Reads

 

That’s a wrap for our first “Blogger Spotlight.” Check back soon for the next in the series…

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