Zaynab Quadri is a literature advocate who prefers to remain anonymous. Her writings, pictures, and book reviews will make you believe anew in the power of words. Enjoy this chat with her.
Welcome to The Lityard, Zaynab. Please tell us a bit about yourself?
Hello. My name is Zaynäb Quadri, a journalist, product photographer, and teacher. I have ambitions to be that crazy book lady if traveling the world with no money proves impossible.
In the Nigerian (and perhaps much of the entire) literary web space, you are one of the strongest advocates for African literature; what inspired your love for African lit?
I won’t romanticize my love or inspiration for African literature. I was never really interested in reading it. I found it too boring when I was growing up. But because of my eccentricity or the oddness of my upbringing, I was made to see the Grisham, Nora Roberts and a host of other writers a lot of people grew up reading as second-rate. My parents would shower me with money, praises, and goodies if I was seen reading Kenneth Kaunda, Steve Biko, Soyinka, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, Cyprian Ekwensi, Ousmene Sembene, and a side eye if I was caught reading the other books. So it started as a “by force” something. But now, I am obsessed with it. I feel guilty if I travel or visit a bookstore without walking out with at least five African books.
What makes literature African? Is it the writer or the content?
The writer or the content? None? Both? Christina Lamb writes about Africa, can we call her books African literature? Helen Oyeyemi writes about magical realism, can we also call it African literature? It is really weird. This question bothers me, especially when, in a book store I see a book tagged African literature written by a White person who has visited Uganda and professes himself a scholar or an expert in African studies. Or a person with African ancestry who can’t even speak any local dialect and travels home only for summer/winter and starts writing books with google translate. I am sorry, what was your question again?
You described yourself as a “harsh critic of bad books;”what makes a good story or book for you?
I’m extremely interested in books that are not trying to so hard to appeal to white people. Historical African books like Kintu by Jennifer Makumbi, The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami, and of course fiction that deals in truth like Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. I’m more drawn to their writing, which is expressive and literary, than to writing that is jargon-ridden and tedious. I also love reading books that pay attention to the writing craft like those of Didion, Sontag, Morrison, Gordimer, Danticat, Ama Ata Aidoo, etc., books that makes you stare at the ceiling a lot. This is not too say I don’t enjoy authors like Binyavanga Wainiaina who says, “fuck you” one million times and doesn’t care about your grammar and “big English.”To be honest, I can’t say this is what makes a good book for me. But I dislike the cliche stories that are so popular now. Ekrrrsssh I can’t stand them.
Does this mean you don’t enjoy contemporary African literature?
To be very honest, I don’t find contemporary African writers very interesting, but I’m not sure I have the basis/skills to make the proper judgement. On the other hand, they are very valuable because they alert us to things we are likely to take for granted.
In our society, there are many who still think that reading or reading anything other than newspapers/academic/professional books can only be afforded by people who have time on their hands. What would you say is the cultural importance of reading? What value does it add to the human mind? How does it contribute to the development of individuals and societies?
I used to read an average of three books a week when I was working 8-5 and publishing fifteen articles a day. I don’t have too much time on my hands. I see reading as a do-or-die thing. As a joke, when my friends asked me the secret to my glowing melanin, I would reply with, “A lot of water, swimming in olive and coconut oil, and drowning in a sea of books.” When I was working in a newspaper, I realized that the journalists who read a lot of books wrote incredibly assertive articles, full of ideas and brilliance. The journalists who didn’t read were plagiarists and paraphrase-ers. They had nothing in them. They were dry and boring. Same with human beings who read. I think we don’t realize it yet, but the reason why our leaders are the way they are is because they don’t read. They are so ignorant. So facile and so greedy.
How many books do you read in a year?
Four a week. sixteen a month. 192 a year. Or 200 sometimes.
Which of your 2017 reads stand out?
Hmm. I have read a lot of books written by African-American slaves this year. Fredrick Douglass’ Narrative and The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Craft stood out for me. As for African-authored books, Yemisi Aribisala’s Long Throat Memoirs, Toyin Falola’s A Mouth Sweeter than Salt, Alan Payton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. Bessie Head’s Tales of Tenderness and Power, Mia Couto’s Every Man is a Race. I have been drowning in Danticat, Morrison, Faulkner, John Updike, Alain de Button, and Ann Patchett’s writings. My list is long, but I think this will do.
Which authors do you most recommend and why?
African authors of course. We read about the others on The Paris Review, Brain Pickings, New Yorker, and all those fancy magazines (lol). So African writers it is. I know It is hard to find an African book that’s safe to read. Because when you read African books you always go to dark or difficult places. Maybe this is why I recommend African authors. (And this is not a “If I suffer, you have to suffer too” syndrome. I genuinely enjoy them). Read Athol Fugard and you are travelling through apartheid and getting all the feels. Read Bessie Head and you are sad and getting all mushy. But sometimes I also don’t want to go there. That’s why I love people like Yemisi Aribisala, She is in the middle. The anger, rants, and swag are there and humor and laidback-ness are there too. It’s magical. I adore her (many thanks to my friend, Trust, for introducing me to her). I also recommend African classics – well, certainly they were for me a kind of salvation.
How did African classics save you?
They saved me from loneliness and sadness. I was an extremely sad person growing up. And they also gave me this new, unusual way of looking at the world.
Have you ever, or will you ever work in publishing?
No, I haven’t, but I want to. I don’t mind working without pay once a week. Just to see how things work. I want to work in a library too (a public library); that’s even more urgent for me.
Every day, more people join the African lit community. We have more book bloggers, more bookstagrammers, more African authors and more African literature in distribution; do we have enough? Are we doing enough?
I don’t think readers/consumers are doing enough. We are not reading or patronizing African content enough yet. The publishers are trying: Brittle Paper, Kalahari Review, Chimurenga Chronic, Book Shy Books, Kwani, Enkare Review, Farafina, Cassava Republic, Book Craft, Parresia, etc. Many people can list ten literary magazines that aren’t African. They don’t even know that a Chimurenga or Book Shy Books exists. However, judging by social media I think people are reading authentic, indigenous, African stories now. Not Achebe, Adichie alone, but reading Mimouni from Algeria, Lofti Akalay from Morocco, Tanure Ojaide from Nigeria, Lila Momple from Mozambique, Emmanuel Dongala from DRC. Emmanuel Iduma from Nigeria, Pemi Aguda from Nigeria. Plenty awesome writers.
You have an organized and visually appealing Instagram feed. You have a great eye for detail and you’re so creative with your photos; what goes into this process?
I take all my pictures by the window or outside. I don’t joke with natural light. And as for process, I started with my phone camera. But now I use a Sony DSLR and I don’t use any super editing apps. After taking with my camera, I transfer to my phone and edit with Snapseed or even use Instagram editing and filters. It is really not that hard. And I love white spaces even though I want to take my pictures with more African prints like Adire.
What would you say is the future of African literature?
And the answer to this question really involves a new argument which is also a political. Does African literature have a future, looking at where we are now? We are been treated to a lot of watered down, unoriginal, boring, too political stories. This question even opens out into larger issues surrounding content such as the African writer’s relationship to community, to reality. The ultimate implications of Western consumption on African Literature or even what African literature is, really. Publishing in Africa? Are companies like Farafina making money? Are they publishing indigenous African stories yet? Are they exposing us to good un-hyped authors? Are African literature books affordable? What about Piracy and distribution? The future is yet unknown o.
On the relationship between African authors and reality, one could argue that their literature is accurately representative; we live in politically charged times. What are they missing?
I think they are too political and radical in tone that it takes the beauty of the story away. They are not seeing that Africa is much more than poverty, war, corruption and all that. I wonder why we don’t have stories like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall yet. This is why I adore Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives and Ayobami’s Stay With Me. They are different, relatable, political in tone but still tell fantastic stories.
Which is one of your all-time favourite quotes?
“Get enough sleep.”
Some more book recommendations?
Here is a list of African books I have really enjoyed these past six months and I can recommend them with my chest. Kintu by Jennifer Mankunbi, Longthroat Memoirs by Yemisi Aribisala, A month and a Day by Ken Saro Wiwa, The Other Side of Silence by Andre Brink, Tomorrow I will be Twenty by Alain Mabanckou, The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohammed, When Rain Clouds Gather by Bessie Head, A Mouth Sweeter than Salt by Toyin Falola, and Ngugi’s memoir Birth of a Dream Weaver. This is not so diverse, I know. I am still discovering great writing myself. Read and read African writers from all countries, find them, Google them and add them to your list.