Enmeshed in a passionate affair for books and Geography, Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed, 25 year old final year Ph.d at the London School of Economics is author of the blog: book shy: An African booklover. Her blog now a year old, is aimed at promoting contemporary and classic literature. A niche blog, Zahrah's work has been promoted on the BBC as part of a feature on African literature. Unassuming and soft-spoken, Zahrah's blog averages six thousand hits every month with viewers from places like Canada, Russia, the Caribbean and Europe. Here is Zahrah on her love for books, academia and literature.
What is it about books you love so much?
I grew up around books and always loved reading - even as a little girl. My mum always told me I started reading when I was two. She used to read bedtime stories to me, but instead of falling asleep I’d want her to read more. Her solution - teach me how to read so I’d be able to do all the reading I wanted. I’ve been hooked ever since. Growing up it was how I kept myself company, especially when there was no light. As I got older reading became a way for me to travel to new and different worlds, if only for a few hours. And also learn about new cultures and ways of life.
What is the story behind your blog?
Book shy is a place to blog about my love of books. It represents the young me who was so shy I escaped through books, and the older me whose shelf is always one book shy of being full. While I had the idea to start it in February 2011 it wasn’t until being in Nigeria for nearly 3 months, having access to some “written in Naija” books, and being encouraged by my best friend that I had the courage to do it. That was in December 2011. My blog celebrates, recognizes and promotes contemporary African literature, although sometimes I go back in time to commemorate the greats. I review books, showcase new authors and releases, Africa’s different publishers, and anything book or literature related coming out of Africa and the diaspora.
What books changed your life?
I’m not sure any particular book changed my life, because at different stages in my life different books have had an impact on me, but I can think of the one that begun my love affair with African literature - “Our Wife and Other Stories” by Karen King-Aribisala. It was coincidentally also the first African novel I read. While “Our Wife” was about foreign (mainly West Indian) women married to Nigerian men, with the theme of cultural alienation, this was the first time I read stories that could be about me, with traditions and cultures that I could relate to. It was also the first book that showed me just how beautiful African literature could be.
What is the greatest compliment paid to your blog?
The fact that people take the time to read the blog, comment on posts, and even sometimes share them will forever be the greatest compliment. It always makes me smile knowing that people enjoy reading, as much as I do writing, the posts.
What are your best books you have read this year (2012)?
I’ve read quite a lot of books this year and it’s pretty hard to decide but for books published in 2012 it would have to be “Fine Boys” by Eghosa Imasuen, “Night Dancer” by Chika Unigwe, and “AfroSF”, the first ever Science Fiction anthology by African writers, which was edited by Ivor Hartmann.
For books just read in 2012 regardless of year it was published, from Nigeria - “Everyday is For the Thief” by Teju Cole, “Tomorrow Died Yesterday” by Chimeka Garricks, and “Eyo: African Lolita” by Abidemi Sanusi. From the rest of Africa, Alain Mabanckou is possibly one of my favourite contemporary African author so all his novels, as well as “The Hairdresser of Harare” By Tendai Huchu, “What the Day Owes the Night” by Yasmina Khadra, “Homeless Rats” by Ahmed Fagih and “Tail of the Bluebird” by Nii Ayikwei Parkes.
Why do you think Nigerians should do more to engage children into reading?
While I do think there needs to be as much focus on “reading for pleasure” as there is on “reading for education”, I have always believed that reading is essential for learning. Promoting a reading culture, be it for education or for pleasure, can strengthen literacy skills and widen learning opportunities. I am a proponent of reading for pleasure as it has added quality to my life and provided me with many different experiences and access to various cultures. My parents encouraged the culture of reading from a young age - and for that I will always be thankful.
When you are not reading or appraising books, what do you do?
Working towards a PhD in Gender and Urban Studies at the London School of Economics.
Describe a day in your life. How important is blogging to you?
A day in my life is a balancing act between my research/writing and my blogging – although some days one may take precedence over the other. What is constant is my daily commute, which always includes reading of some sort (a novel, journal article, or book chapter) and my writing (working on a chapter for my thesis, working on a blog post, or some other form of writing). In between the reading and writing, a regular day could also include teaching, and spending as much time as I can with my friends and family.
What more can Nigerian authors do to get the international recognition they crave for?
Not being an author, or working in the publishing industry, it is quite difficult for me to know what Nigerian authors can do to be known internationally. There are already quite a number of well-known Nigerian authors, but I do sometimes wonder if in addition to gaining international recognition, we should also recognize the amazing “home-based” Nigerian authors and publishers, who are producing great works. Social media, as well as the growing popularity of e-books, has made it possible for instance for people in the UK to know about, and have access to, new books in Nigeria.
How would you advice our government to improving reading and writing skills in Nigeria?
Wow! That is a pretty huge question and one I genuinely do not think I am qualified to answer sufficiently. What I can say is that states like Port Harcourt and Lagos are doing a pretty great job of just that – making reading and writing ‘sexy’, which in itself could be a way to improve reading and writing skills. Port Harcourt was named World Book Capital 2014, and they have the Garden Literary Festival, which in 2012 was on African women in literature. I know children are an integral part of the festival. Lagos also has a Book and Art Festival, with book displays, and literary events.
Would you say African authors have come a long way in the UK or they have 'arrived'?
Maybe it’s because I am so immersed in African literature but I do feel they have a growing presence in the UK.
UK publishers publish novels written by African authors. There’s Serpent’s Tail (Fatou Diome (Senegal), Alain Mabanckou (Congo), and Lola Shoneyin); Harper Collins (Chimamada Ngozi Adichie); and Chatto and Windus (A. Igoni Barrett). There are also a number of bookshops in the UK, which sell books written by African authors.
There are literary events. In 2012, the London Southbank Centre had an “African Writers Evening” with Jose Eduardo Agualusa (Angola), Dinaw Mengesty (Ethiopia), Noo Saro-Wiwa and Chika Unigwe and Nurrudin Farah (Somalia) as part of their Africa Utopia and the London Literature Festival; and another event exploring Science Fiction in African literature (and film). While Ghanaian author, Nii Akwei Parkes, organized the African Book Festival, a two-day festival celebrating reading, writing and the best of African literature. There are also quite a few other UK based blogs that deal with African literature, such as Africa in Words (http://africainwords.com/about-africa-in-words/about/), and the black book news (http://www.tricia-blackbooknews.com/), which provides news on black books (African, Caribbean, Black British etc), literature, events and more.
How would you rate Nigerian authors generally compared to their African counterpart on a scale of 1-10?
Being Nigerian, Nigerian literature will always have a special place in my heart. I can’t lie and say I am not proud that we are one of the giants of African literature (along with South Africa), and can boast having produced some prolific writers. But one thing my blog has done, is also expose me to the diversity of literature, written by African authors. This makes it extremely difficult for me to compare.