Seven radical pan-African literature book clubs to join in 2020

19 February 2020 - 14:03 By Busang Senne
Members of the Literary Alliance discussing 'A Guide to Sexual Health and Pleasure' by Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng.
Members of the Literary Alliance discussing 'A Guide to Sexual Health and Pleasure' by Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng.
Image: Busang Senne

Reading is an isolating experience — the internal worlds are rich, the world-building textured and the narrative usually a journey between you, the wordsmith and the stories seeping through the pages.

The book club counters the stoic alienation of reading by offering a sanctuary for the extroverted bibliophile who wants to form solidarity by discussing, engaging and critiquing literature with like-minded disrupters seeking to confront their world views.

Historically, the book club has been given a sexist and misogynist rap, dismissed and erased as the frivolous pastime of middle-class woman. But on the continent and throughout the diaspora, the book club is going through a pan-African Renaissance, where social media enables immediate connectivity and the culture of exploring African literature disrupts tired tropes of the traditional book club.   

 “Forming a literary community means creating a safe and accepting space where we discover, unlearn and learn together, a space where we can reflect upon and interrogate the past and the present, and equally think and imagine the future,” said Phathu Musitha of Literary Alliance, one of the book clubs at the forefront of creating these spaces.

The book club has the power to inform and shape literary culture, which types of narratives we prioritise and value, and how we facilitate these spaces, which have traditionally included literature by white, western authors and stories as gatekeepers of publishing. It’s a move to decolonise the traditional mandate of the book club and celebrate inclusion and African art and culture.

“It really means belonging. Knowing that you have a group of like-minded people whose opinions you value, regardless of your own dissenting ones. It means having your mind broadened and sharpened with each page of the book you read together,” said Rejoice “Ree” Ntuli of Emthonjeni Book Club.

“It is a wonderful feeling to know that through our reading and purchasing of own literature, we are also contributing to what will eventually become the wealth of the local publishing world. To advocate for that which is authentically African.”

Most of these meetings are mahala to attend and the communities are founded and curated by black womanists, with more than a few being deliberately constructed safe spaces for women.

 “We have heard of the notion that black people don't read books, thus we wanted to debunk that stereotype and start a movement that finds beauty in being an intellect ... Our book club’s objective is to reach out, teach, inspire and be a catalyst of change through a lifestyle of reading and many other ways related to bolstering a reading culture in Africa,” said Mbalenhle Sidigi of Zuri Book Club.

Sunday Times Books caught up with the vanguards of these book-centred communities to find out what curating and shaping these spaces means for literary culture in 2020.

Literary Alliance

Book club since: May 2017

Curators:

Phathu Musitha, digital marketing manager

Nicci Legoka, HR practitioner

How it all began:

“I love reading, and more and more I found myself yearning for a community to discuss my readings with. I had that with select friends at a very unreliable, once-off level, and it didn't feel fulfilling enough,” said Musitha.

“So I had the idea of starting a book club and I approached Nicci, who was my former colleague and whom I knew had as much of a fondness for literature as I did. We met over coffee, found that our vision was aligned and decided to make a go of it.”

What’s it all about?

“Literary Alliance is an open community that loves and affirms literature written by people that look like us.”

The open book club concept allows for freedom of movement within in the community, so the more you go, the more you’ll find familiar faces each month, but the attendee list is diverse and it’s free.

What to expect:

“To meet a group of open-minded book-lovers who are committed to falling in love with reading and learning, while having fun in a community. We meet at a different Joburg-based venue each month, so there's always something new to discover. We also go out of our way to invite authors, meaning there is a fairly good chance of having attendees' copies signed. We are such a solid community with a great bond, and sometimes we get so caught up in post-book club discussions that we stay until late and have spontaneous dinners.”

What they’re reading:

The book club met on February 15 at Bargain Books at Mall of Africa in Midrand to talk all things sexual pleasure and health with Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, author of Dr T’s Guide to Sexual Health and Pleasure.

Fear not if you missed the last one, you can catch the Literary Alliance at Exclusive Books at Mall of Africa on March 14, where Yellowbone by Ekow Duker will be discussed.

Emthonjeni Book Club

Book club since: June 2018

Curators:

Rejoice “Ree” Ntuli, co-editor for Ayamba Lit Cast, a Nigerian-based online literary magazine

How it all began:

“I wanted a warm space where my honest opinions and rants about books would be received without judgment. I had met some amazing ladies on Facebook, with razor-sharp minds and with whom I would occasionally have fun, online discussions. I thought it a great idea to hold on to that by creating for ourselves a space where we would meet each month to have these vigorous  discussions.”

What’s it all about?

“We are a group of fun, witty black women brought together by our mutual love for books, good food, fermented grapes, gin and an occasional Black Label.”

What to expect:

“Members can expect lots of laughter, an occasional tear here and there, robust dialogue and generally lots of fun in awesome company.”

What they’re reading:

February: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithewaite

March: Becoming Abigail by Chris Abani

iThala Book Club

Book club since: June 2018

Curators:

Masivuye Madikane and Vuyolwetu Madikane, chartered accountants.

How it all began:

“The idea to form the book club was born from the love of reading and attending the different book festivals/book launches. The aim of iThala is to create a space where we share our experiences of books and how these are linked to our own lived experiences.”

What’s it all about?

“Upon showing interest to join the book club, members are asked to recommend at least five books (written by African authors around the world) that they would like the club to read. From this, a list for the year is selected ... We can see ourselves in the stories. Forming the literary community also means that we are accountable to each other to read for the book club meetings and outside of that.”

What to expect:

“New members can expect a book club that encourages the reading of books by African authors. Through unpacking each book, members can expect to find themes and conversations that they would not otherwise have thought of. Lots of laughter and silliness also takes place. iThala is a loving space where we talk about anything and everything.”

What they’re reading:

February: Triangulum by Masande Ntshanga

The meeting for next month’s read, Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, will be held on March 14.

Bafati Bebumbene Book Club

Book club since: March 2017

Curators:

Zozo Bango, property valuer

Zandi Makhaya, financial manager

Teboho Mashiyane, teacher

Xoli Mcobothi, businesswoman (confectioner)

The four founders were later joined by five other women:

Andiswa Gcezengana, business analyst

Lebo Lebogo, drone pilot

Lebo Malaza, marketing specialist

Phindi Ngwenya, procurement specialist

Thoko Hamnca, property valuer

How it all began:

“We met on the comments section of Hlomu Series Facebook group. We were obsessed with the characters in the book and we would spend time discussing the characters and the storyline. One day the author, Dudu Busani Dube, asked if there were people who belonged to book clubs on the page. That is where we decided to form our own, since we knew each other and we also enjoyed similar books.”

What’s it all about?

“We are fun-loving. We embrace all forms of arts, theatre, music, film and literature, especially African literature. We have known each other for over three years. This has also resulted in a beautiful sisterhood, where we also support each other outside of books.”

What to expect:

The membership for Bafati is closed but the book club does host open-book discussions when an author attends. 

What they’re reading:

February: We Are the Ones We Need by Sihle Bolani

March: Each member will read a book of their choice to celebrate the three-year anniversary of the book club. “Each of the nine members chooses a book for a particular a month and all of us will read it.”

Zuri Book Club

Book club since: January 2016

Curators:

Mbalenhle Sigidi, sports journalist/presenter

Lesego Pooe, media manager

Sibongile Pooe, private banking analyst

Lungile Mdaki, senior community manager

How it all began:

“All four founders attend the same church and that year we were headed to our annual youth camp in December. We were en route to Cape Town on a bus and we happened to all sit together and share life experiences. In that moment of heartwarming conversations, we decided to form a sisterhood where we could be accountable to one another. The accountability was not only for our spiritual walk, but for our careers, relationships and visions for the year. We also had a common thread of loving books and thus the birth of our book club, Zuri, which was formally launched in January.”

What’s it all about?

“Zuri Book Club is a group of ambitious individuals, connected by their unquenchable hunger to acquire knowledge through books and separated by the different backgrounds they represent. We are all about creating a beautiful reading mind and celebrating the work of our African authors from across the globe. We are more than a book club, we are a movement that is invested in its members and the people they would love to become.”

What to expect:

“Anybody can join by attending our monthly book reviews. There, first-time visitors get to experience the book club and can then decide if they would love to make Zuri Book Club their home. We have a membership form which needs to be filled in together, with a R99 annual membership contribution.”

What they’re reading:

The next meeting for Zuri Book Club takes place on March 7, when the group will be reviewing The 30th Candle by Angela Makholwa at The Wilds Park at 11am.

The Johannesburg Book Club

Book club since: January 2017

Curator:

Phumeza Mlokoti, studied law and is a Johannesburg-based art, theatre and literature enthusiast.

How it all began:

“The idea of the book club arose from searching tirelessly for a book club to join, particularly in 2016. I wanted to be part of a group or a community where books could be read, shared and discussed. My search was not entirely successful, so I made the decision to form one. That’s how The Johannesburg Book Club came about.”

What’s it all about?

“The Johannesburg Book Club caters for literature enthusiasts whose literary tastes lean heavily towards African literature, with a healthy balance between fiction and non-fiction. It’s a public book club, which means it welcomes all individuals who would like to join and/or attend a book discussion. Individuals must be committed to supporting and growing the literary space within the African continent.”

What to expect:

“New members can expect to meet like-minded individuals and participate in robust and addictive monthly book discussions. A strict rule is to please read the book before attending the session. This will ensure that discussions are more enjoyable and reading the book is a great way to honour the author, especially if they are in attendance.”

What they’re reading:

The next meeting for the Johannesburg Book Club will be on March 23, discussing Black Tax: Burden or Ubuntu? by Niq Mhlongo. It takes place at Book Circle Capital in Melville.

BookWorms Book Club

Book club since: April 2011

Curator:

Lorraine Sithole, consultant for the South African Book Fair Literary Programme and trustee of the African Book Trust

How it all began:

“BookWorms Book Club was founded by three friends under a tree at Zoo Lake, Johannesburg. At that time, we were young mothers with toddlers and information on books was not as readily available and accessible as it is today. Through our regular meetups we were able to share our love of stories and swap books. We then decided to formalise the process, searched the internet on how to establish and sustain a book club, tailor-made a constitution to suit our vision and mission, and, a month later, held our first book discussion.”

What’s it all about?

“BookWorms Book Club caters for 25-year-olds and older black women who want to foster the love of reading for leisure, are committed to monthly meetups for book discussions, believe in the principle of “paying it forward” and love travelling the country. The book club is membership-based and one of the requirements is regular attendance of and involved participation in the book discussions.”

What to expect:

“New members can expect carefully curated and greatly facilitated robust discussions in a safe space, good food, Pinterest-ready pictures and establishing great relationships with formidable women.”

What they’re reading:

The BookWorms discussed Betting on a Darkie by Mteto Nyathi with the author on the February 9. Keep an eye on their social media pages to catch the next meeting.

Honourable mention

Bookamoso Book Club

An online book community curated by Omphile Raleie, who gives daily updates from publishers and authors about what’s happening in the literary space.

“Bookamoso was started in 2012 in Bloemfontein. It used to be a gathering of friends meeting at the local Exclusive Books — borrowing different books as a club and then meeting once a month to return/discuss the books we had read. I began the club’s online presence when I relocated to Joburg in 2013. I realised that meetings remotely wouldn’t work and I couldn’t co-ordinate meetings with the Gauteng-based friends as we were all over the place and not everyone was an avid reader at the time. The online community was then formed.”

What’s it all about?

“Bookamoso is really catering for everyone who doesn’t have the time to meet up monthly for book club meetings. However, I do cover the clubs that do meet monthly under the hashtag #BookamosoBookClubTour and I visit various local clubs”

Now reading:

Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng’s Guide to Sexual Health and Pleasure