April 10, 2014

African publishers are closing the gap in chick-lit


AfricaromanceAmerican privilege comes in many forms, and an abundance of chick-lit seems to be one of them. In an article in Kenya’s Standard Digital News, Anjellah Owino reveals an African readership that is “thirsting” for the genre, and, unlike in the U.S., a publishing industry that hasn’t yet met the demand.

Owino makes liberal use of the phrase “chick-lit,” but the term isn’t entirely applicable in the context of Africa. Often used as a pejorative for books that are overly superficial or materialistic, and suggesting stories of white women with western white woman problems, many African authors are reluctant to adopt the term for their work. The 2003 Caine Prize for African Writing winner Yvonne Oduor sums it up nicely: “Most writers don’t want to have their works categorized in this genre, because it is viewed as ‘light’.”

However, the potential readership is there. Romantic comedy films have strong audiences in Africa, which would undoubtedly transfer to novel form. Moreover, Oduor notes that, though not so much in book form, “this genre is commonly explored in monthly magazines and weekly newspaper pullouts. It has its readers because of the light-hearted and chatty manner of writing.” Evidence of demand can also be seen in the streets of Nairobi, where displays of chick-lit are surprisingly common.

When there is money to be had from books, publishers naturally take notice. To tap into this market, East African publisher StoryMoja plans to unveil a romance series called Drumbeats next September (with remarkably specific submission guidelines for authors), and has already made forays into chick-lit with titles like Best Laid Plans by Vaishnavi Ram Mohan, Cranes Crest at Sunset by Dilman Dila, and Lunchtime Quickie by Kiki Kalinga. Kalinga confirms, “When we launched the Storymoja Hay Festival last September, we realized how badly people want to read romance novels written by African authors. There is definitely a gap.”

Romance seems to be the subset of chick-lit that is most popular with African publishers, but that doesn’t mean that all of these books are the same. Unlike the Drumbeats series, the books published by South Africa’s Nollybooks purposefully contain no sex scenes, with protagonists that are self-assured, determined, and independent. If the genre proves successful, even more diversity is certain to come.

Back in the U.S., many have declared the market for chick-lit to be dead. However, like a pink stiletto-clad phoenix, it seems to be rising again in Africa. Don’t expect any U.S. imports, however. Kalinga makes it clear that Africans “want novels with characters they can relate to.” This is a different beast entirely.