Over the last month, my time has been split between an exciting new project on SME financing in Kenya and an (even-more-exciting) immersion in African fiction literature. Blame my lack of blogging on Ngozi Adichie, Coetzee, Ngugi wa Thiang’o and the great poetry-reading events organized by Kwani? in downtown Nairobi.
Reading all these great books made me wonder why there are so few internationally acclaimed African writers out there. But I came across an even more important issue: why do African writers have to rely (almost entirely) on an international readership for their success? According to Zimbabwean writer Tendai Huchu, this is the central problem facing African literature today:
the hard reality is that for all the African writers out there, there are probably a handful of African readers. That for me is the crux of the problem with African Literature today, and I say this as a writer who sold more books in two months in Germany than I sold in two years in my native Zimbabwe.
It is not the writers but the readers who ultimately interpret and decide how valuable any brand of literature is. The truth is that western readers are crucial for any African writer who is looking for success today, and it is inevitable that the west will continue to determine the value and worth of literature from the African continent. As such this literature will continue to be judged and valued by western perceptions. The most prominent African writers today are those with a large readership outside of the continent, Teju Cole, Chimamanda Adichie, Irene Sabatini, Ben Okri and even the firebrand Binyavanga Wainaina all have a large following outside the continent and benefit from publicity in the Western media. As embarrassing as it is to admit, the simple fact is that whether or not the continent can produce millions of writers, it will not amount to anything until we actually have African Readers, African Readers who will ultimately determine the value of our continent’s literary output, if it is to continue as something beyond some exotic curiosity.
I am no expert in this field, but I think that poverty and other socio-economic factors explain why there are so few readers in the continent. But let me focus on another issue: most people I know read less than they would like to - this means that a potential demand for books does not materialize. Often people blame a “lack of time” as their main problem. But I believe that the real issue is different: many people (also among those with a higher education) perceive reading as a daunting experience.
Until a few years ago, I definitely belonged to this group. My reading was painfully slow (I’m not a native English speaker, but that was not the only reason), I used to lose concentration easily and it seemed impossible to find time for more than 9 or 10 books per year. Then, thanks to Daniel Pennac, ebooks and speed-reading, the situation changed for the better.
When I came across Daniel Pennac’s “Reader’s Bill of Rights” a few years ago, I enjoyed the idea of complete freedom in the way I read books. In “Better than Life” Pennac outlines 10 rights that most readers often forget:
- The right to not read.
- The right to skip pages.
- The right to not finish.
- The right to reread.
- The right to read anything.
- The right to escapism.
- The right to read anywhere.
- The right to browse.
- The right to read out loud.
- The right to not defend your tastes.
(If you want to know more about The Reader’s Bill of Rights and its criticism, check out this interesting essay.)
Getting used to electronic books helped out as well. It took me a couple of months to start enjoying my Kindle when I first bought it, probably even more, but it eventually became my favorite device, way more exciting than any tablet or smart-phone could ever be. Having access to a huge number of books at any time in highly readable format (with a built-in dictionary) is just awesome. That might be why readers of e-books read an average of 10 books more per year than readers of print books. (though, someone might argue that there’s a self-selection bias)
But the real kick arrived when a friend introduced me to a book on speed reading. I read only half of the book (I skipped all the advanced techniques) and I exercised on the basic tricks for two or three weeks –my reading pace increased by over 100 percent, eventually even more. I wouldn’t call myself a speed-reader yet –apparently Roosevelt was able to read a book every day before breakfast – but reading fiction has become much faster and much more enjoyable. I really wonder why do school systems (at least the ones I know of) teach kids to read when they are 6 or 7 years-old, and basically never after that? Isn’t this one of the most important, if not the most important skill a young person can learn?