The Magunga bookstore was recently featured in the New Yorker, a great achievement by all accounts. A little Kenyan start-up fuelled by passion for literature, they only stock books by African authors. But of course the mzungus cried foul. Reverse racism, they claimed. How could the New Yorker encourage such blatant fissions in literature, which is meant to be the great unifier of all, they asked. How could they not, is my reply.
I am hopelessly drawn to bookstores, so half my afternoons in town are spent browsing shelves, updating my to-read list and fawning over book covers. I have done this all my life. When I was growing up, the book section of Nakumatt might as well have been my second home. I didn’t have the agency to roam about and explore different stores as I do now, which means that shopping days were my most favourite thing in the world.
We’d go as a family, late at night when the mall was mostly empty. We’d walk in and I’d immediately wander to the book section, my mother calling out after me, “Na usipotee.” Don’t get lost. This caution was unnecessary seeing as I’d be by myself, except for an attendant or two, too enchanted to leave the minimal square footage that comprised the book section. An hour of bliss, skimming over title after title; and if a book didn’t have that pesky plastic wrapping over it, I’d start to read. Some of the attendants knew me by name and they’d leave me alone. Once, one even got me a plastic stool to sit on. I don’t remember ever seeing a book by an African author. Not even the Pacesetters and Trendsetters I grew to dislike.
When it was time to leave, my sister would come to get me and I’d carry the cheapest book I could find, Enid Blyton or something, and squeeze it through the side of the trolley then stand as far from my parents as I could. They’d get to it and my mother would scan the blurb and sigh. It was only 450 shillings; of course they’d get it.
I’d read it in one night, regardless of the thickness. Stories with blue-eyed, blonde-haired heroines and their rugged little mutts; their brave friends and indulging teachers who had endless bags of gold stars and candy for the kids who were nice. Or Huckleberry-like boys who teased girls and stole pennies.
I knew those stories by heart and dreamt of them with my eyes open. I retreated into a shell where I could make my world what I wanted it to be. Sometimes, all by myself, I would have conversations with them. I left the cha-mama and cha-baba kimbo tins to my non-blued eyed peers. Playing house was not as fun when the other children insisted on things I considered crude, things I was sure the teachers in my books would punish with a time-out. I didn’t learn how to ride a bike when others did, or play kati. I had the entire Baby Sitter’s Club series, and seeing as my nose was forever buried in a book, those were my friends. I liked Kristie, the tomboy. She was a leader. But I wanted to be Dawn, the pretty one. Or Mary-Anne, with the long legs, almond eyes and tragedies that always got fixed at the end of the book. The one book I had that was authored by an African, I wish I could remember who, was a collection of comic strips about a white man who sails to a new land and deceives the native into trading away his gold in exchange for a bible, and even this was purchased at a non-descript little bookshop in the middle of nowhere.
After I transferred schools, I finally met Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o in the library. The Lion and the Jewel, Weep Not Child and A Grain of Wheat were devoured. I was starving. I only fully understood them later, but my nine year old self was enraptured by the way those words came to life in my mind. Of course, the stories felt foreign to me. I could not really harmonize the worlds in my head. I was accustomed to the neat lines and perfection of tiled floors in my Eurocentric books and Achebe wanted me to accept mud huts, numerous gods and the cruelty of reality. I disliked Social Studies, then History. The walls I erected firmly around my fantasies kept me sheltered well enough from reality. I did not fit in much. All my social cues picked up from foreign books with glossy covers, when I asked a crying classmate, “What is the matter?” I got laughed at because the way those words rolled off my tongue made me different, foreign from the rest of the class one students.
I loved The River Between in high school (Not more than An Enemy of the People, but still). I loved it because it had moments of truth and inspired interesting debate with my friends about whether faced with the same choices; we’d be Nyambura or Muthoni. But for all its goodness, it still didn’t match up to the Shakespeare books we stole from the library and read into the night instead of cramming the workings of an a.c./d.c. generator. Tony Mochama’s columns as Smitta, Wahome Mutahi and The Surgeon’s Diary are possibly the only African writing I allowed to charm me.
And then Chimamanda happened. Her stories pulled the rug from beneath my feet. She opened my eyes to the possibilities I had been missing out on. It suddenly wasn’t enough anymore to read of manic-depressive pixie girls idolized by quirky but otherwise conventionally attractive boys. I had been buried in books that made me long for a world I could only have beneath closed eyelids. The thought of having to confine myself only to books that edited out my identity, or were told from a perspective which I could only empathize with after stripping myself of my history became a travesty. She healed me, and without knowing my name, saved me. She wrote me an alternative, and it just happened to be the best kind.
This gateway opened for me a world of unprecedentedness. This is not to be mistaken for an absolute shunning of all books not authored by Africans. I have favorites, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger for example, which I go back to every few months, and my bookshelf is as diverse as humanity is. The very nature of literature is such as to enable you to empathize and identify with stories of people who could be as different from you as the night is from day, and by doing this, showing you that we really aren’t that different after all. The thing that I imagine the Magunga bookstore is trying to do is open up the continent. There is so much magic being brought into existence throughout and publishing is already such a chore, so why not help the process by providing writers with a channel through which their books can reach new audiences? If there are children growing up like myself, essentially ‘coconuts’, (white on the inside) is it not the right thing to do to give them access to their own stories? In the wake of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s recent discussion as organized by Jalada where he likened a person without language to a tree without roots, I see no reason why we should not be obsessively proud of all the stories coming out of the continent. The same way that a child’s first language is important, so should their first exposure to history be the truth lest we risk raising a generation ignorant of all the culture that has defined us.
It is only after I embraced books written by my own that I gained an interest in history, and not the kind in textbooks either because even that has been tailored and dumbed down. After opening my mind to the past, only then was I able to unlearn the colonial mindset that would otherwise have shackled me to an eternal adoration of the white man.
Adan Ibubakar, who has grown on me (author of Season of Crimson Blossoms) said in his speech, Dreams and Other Dangerous Pursuits,”I realised that literature, as an art form, can be used for individual gratification, but at the same time, it lends itself to a far greater cause, that of our collective humanity. It became clear that what I really wanted to do was to immortalise us, so that when the future excavates us, it will see, beyond the newspaper headlines that reflect the damage we inflict on ourselves and one another, that we lived and loved, that we dreamed and aspired and failed, that we rose and continued, that despite the wars, the violence, the immeasurable harm we perpetrated, our resilience and strength and our humanity still shone through the dark mist.”
Magunga is immortalizing us, by telling our stories and making sure they’re read. His is a safe space of sorts, where beautiful African-authored literature is encouraged to thrive. So, buy books, find your roots and talk about our literature because reverse racism is not a thing.