The author of ‘Mti wa Milele’, ‘The Colour Magician’, ‘The Forever Tree’, among several others, talks about how reading has had an impact in her career as a performance storyteller, seeing her tour different parts of the country and the world, sharing stories. Wangari Grace is also a literary advocate and a co-founder of All for Books, a collective of passionate readers and literati promoting reading for pleasure.

What are you currently reading?

Wangari I’m reading ‘Once there was a Star’ by Kenyan writer Meshack Yobby. It explores the history and power struggle in Somalia through the loves, the laughs, the tears and lives of a family living there.

What other books are on the top of your to-read list?

Wangari The past two years have been hectic for me hence I have quite a number of pending books on my bookshelf that I’m planning to read hopefully sooner than later. They include ‘The First Woman’ and ‘Manchester Happened’ by Jennifer Makumbi, three titles from the ‘Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls’ series and a half read of ‘Pachamama Tales’ by Argentinian storyteller Paula Martin.

How do you select the books you read?

Wangari I’m very random about the books to read. It can be a cover or synopsis that catches my eye, a suggestion from friends, or an interesting review. The first chapters then inform on whether I’ll read it to the end.

What are some of the titles that you have recommended?

Wangari I only recommend books that I have read and genuinely enjoyed. Mostly titles by Kenyan authors- Kinyanjui Kombani, Muthoni Muchemi, Shaleen Keshavjee, Karimi Gatimi, Zoya, Hillary Namunyu and so many more. I especially love suggesting titles people can buy especially for their children. There is a lot of beautiful Kenyan writing and writers to explore.

Can you remember the first book you have ever read?

Wangari I grew up around books because my mother was very keen on reading. Therefore I had numerous books including those in my mother tongue, that’s how I learnt to read and write in the language. However, my very first chapter book that I vividly relished was ‘The Adventures of Thiga’ by C M Mureithi when I was seven years old. Man, the adventures of the character, Thiga, had me hanging on a cliff throughout. Of course, the Pacesetter series was a favorite as I grew up.

How has early reading played a role in your performance storytelling?

Wangari I was an extremely introverted child. Reading gave me the chance to interact with the characters in my mind since I couldn’t do so freely with other children. My mother would buy me storybooks written in Kikuyu language. We would read and learn how to sing the songs. Reading has impacted me so much that when I became a professional, I knew I wanted to tell interesting stories and a story that I read when I was young, ‘The Noisy Hornbill’ was the first I have ever performed. Looking back, I could now see the benefit of havign a parent as a reader. I passed that onto my daughter who has been reading, attending my performance events and speaks fluently for her age.

Do you look to yourself when reading a book?

Wangari When reading, I prefer to let the story draw me into its world. Of course, sometimes I identify or get attached to some characters and therefore get very invested in what is going on in their lives. When I’m writing, I love to draw inspiration from different lived experiences, could be mine, of people that I know or even random strangers I meet as I go about my day. Sometimes I also do actual research especially when I am working on situations that I’m not familiar with.

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Wangari Writing both energizes and exhausts me. When the ideas are flowing, the characters and plot is just falling in place I’m usually on a writing high and can be obsessed for hours. Of course this is mentally taxing and I always look forward to my downtime. Also, I don’t have a writing schedule, say a certain number words per day. I prefer rolling over ideas in my mind and create scenarios then getting down to the writing when the bug strikes.

What is one of your most memorable quotes from a book ?

Wangari “The mind was a curse: its ability to go back in time to regret and hop into the future to hope and worry was not a blessing” – ‘Kintu’, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.

What are your go-to genres?

Wangari I’m big on folktales and traditional stories from around the world. Being a performance storyteller, this is no surprise. I also read a lot of children’s books. I love investigative stories so this is another genre that reels me in.

Thinking about what your next read is going to be? Author and editor Peter Ngila Njeri shares five reads worth considering. 

Peter Ngila Njeri takes daily evening walks. Sometimes long aimless strolls are all he needs to refresh his mind and see around the world. Other times he does with a book in his hand.

An author of “Changing the World While Changing Diapers” (co-written with Isabell Kempf) and an editor, Peter has been reading all his life. His primary goal of reading is to interact with different cultures. 

How does he pick a book?

“It depends on many things,” he said. “I am yet to read books I got in 2013. I still buy more. It is a bookish thing.”

While feeling stuck in the process of editing manuscripts of other writers, he reads a book. He reads diversely: books by African writers, classical to translated novels. 

Translations are his medium of reading around the world.

“I believe the world is bigger than English. There are many great books first written in other languages. Translations allow me to read those kinds of books,” he said. 

For all book lovers looking for the next read, Peter offers some of his best choices.

“House of Stone” by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma 

Describing it as one of the great books by a young writer, it centers on identity and history.

“It is one of those books which hooks you with its first sentence,” he states.” The plot goes back in time and back to the present moment. It was very multi-layered and gripping.”

After finishing reading the book, it had to take Peter two weeks before he could get to another one.

You can get it here-

“The Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafón translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves

It is a historical novel with multiple settings in the middle of a Spanish civil war. The book is set in Barcelona. It was while reading it that I discovered the city is also a character in the novel.

From its story, it shows the impact books can have on one’s life. This book has different points of view. 

It is like a book in a book, a book about books. Here-

“Kafta on the Shore” by Haruki Murakami translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel

Peter read a borrowed copy of the book two years ago. One of the longest books he has ever read (615 pages), he did so in a week. The book has lots of dialogue and has elements of surreal. 

“It is a good choice to read in your lifetime. It is one of the books that has had people convinced that Haruki should win a Nobel Prize in Literature,” he says. 

Shop here-

“Under the Udala Trees” by Chinelo Okparanta

Terming it as a modern classic, Peter enjoyed its theme around sexuality because “sexuality is part of our identity as human beings.” 

He also loved the novel’s backdrop set during the Biafra War that took place in Nigeria in the 60s.

He also loved how Chinelo has employed the theme of tribal boundaries in the story.

You can get the novel here

“The Shadow District” by Arnaldur Indridason translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb

It is a historical crime novel set in “one of the most wondrous places in Iceland. The writer manages to move from the past to the present day. The characters of the present day affect the ones in the past.”

He looks forward to re-reading it.

Shop here:

Have you ever read translated books? Which ones were they?

Happy International Literacy Day!

It is such an exciting day for the world of books. This celebration is marked every September 8 across the globe to help spread awareness on the valuable impact of literacy. It also aims to pay attention to the issues that contribute to low literacy levels in communities.

Declared by UNESCO, the first celebration took place in 1967. And many decades later, this year’s theme is one of a kind, “literacy teaching and learning in the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.”

We can all play a part in promoting literacy in one way or another. Here are some of the ways to do so.

Review a book. You probably have opinions about a book you have read. How about sharing them?

Read to a child. Instilling a reading culture while they are young is impactful. 

Explore a genre that is new to you. Be curious about different genres. Try out science fiction, fantasy, autobiographical, political thrillers, satires, any genre you would not normally pick.

Promote a book. Sing praises about some of the books you truly loved reading. Give a shout-out to your favourite authors. 

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

Read a book. Devour a chapter of a new book, re-read one of your favourite books, finish a book you love.

Recommend a book. Informing other readers about a book is likely to get some of them develop an interest in them. There are times that people do not know which other book to get next. Shared recommendations come in handy.

Donate a book to a library. Mukuru Library and Book Bunk which is restoring the three McMillan Memorial Libraries are accepting books. Look around to also see many other community libraries and individuals who are in need of books. 

Photo by @qu.lit / courtesy

Gift a book to your loved ones, to a stranger, to anyone. 

Buy a book

Start a book club. Virtual book clubs are becoming a thing now, it can still be successful whether you meet on Zoom or on social media. 

Begin collecting books. If this has been a dream hobby of yours, pursue it. Collect books for charity or for your own home library. Collect.

Photo by Alireza Kazemi on Unsplash

Reorganize your stack of books. Dust off your bookcase, rearrange the books in size, colour or any other form as you wish. Give it a facelift.

Support your local bookstore. You can do this by telling other people about the store, buying books and stationeries from the store, pre-ordering books and partaking in their activities such as hosted book clubs.

Amplify organizations that are centered on building literacy in our communities.

Build more awareness around books. Share about your experiences as a reader, benefits of reading, steps that need to be taken to promote literacy, and so on.

We would like to know, how are you going to celebrate the day? 

Many bookworms believe that they need to own more books.

One who has a fully-stocked library at home and another who has just began to purposely collect reads that they love will both enthusiastically tell you that there are a lot more books they wish to hold.

And in the world that we are living in right now, a lot of people all over are picking up books from stores and getting lost in them.

If you are hoping to read or collect more books, how can you achieve that within budget?

Best deals on books

For the one who loves reading inspirational books, there is something for you. A good number of supermarkets in Kenya have special offers on self-help books which you can take advantage of.

Bookstores, too, have some of the great classics like Jane Austen’s, Charles Dicken’s, Niccolo Machiavelli’s that go for as much as KES 250-500.

Thrifted bookstores, anyone?

Photo courtesy of @halfpriced_books

We can tell that most readers love new books. The soft covers, the smells, the neat pages… it all makes sense. But there is also a fascination of the scent of ‘old’ books plus actually getting your favourite books on a good deal.

If this speaks to you, then you can visit Half-priced Books Store in Nairobi’s CBD for, really, half the price of a book! We can attest to the fact that most of their books look like they have never been read before. 

You can hardly find recently published books in thrifted bookstores, though.

Pick-of -the-month discounts

Several bookstores select a book of the month which also happens to be their book club read to promote a buying culture while building a community of readers. For instance, Text Book Centre.

This can be a time to get newly-published books at slightly lower prices.

Book exchanges

Photo courtesy of @gissellereads

For the one who is OK with lending out or borrowing books, you could start a book swapping agreement with the readers in your life.

This works well if your ultimate goal is to read books without necessarily owning them. What can help with this kind of arrangement is to discuss openly about the timelines everyone needs to return books, what books you all enjoy so that this benefits everyone involved, and so on.

Look out for book giveaways

Photo courtesy of @diversespines

Digital content creators occasionally partner with bookstores to give out books or even decide on their own to gift their online community. This can be another way to add to your collection.

You might be in luck!

Explore free eBooks

We can only encourage reading legally-downloaded free eBooks since writing books is an investment and piracy denies writers the opportunity to benefit from it.

It is difficult too to know which eBooks are pirated and which ones are not. One of the legitimized sites is 

Go for low-priced versions

A lot of books have several print versions with different price tags. The first edition of a book can cost higher than its second or third or fourth edition. Paperbacks, hardcovers, e-Books and audiobooks differ in prices as well. Research on what is most convenient to you before making a purchase.

We would love to know, what tips do you use to get more books?

“Homegoing”, a debut historical fiction novel by a young woman born in Ghana and raised in America, equally reflects on her writing journey.

Yaa Gyasi returned to her home, Ghana, to research for her first book about a mother and daughter. According to Stanford Magazine, the novelist’s trip had been funded by her institution of learning for her writing project. But when she was supposed to have finished it, she had little results.

Her friend informed her about Cape Coast Castle, one out of fourty slave forts. Learning about that part of history led her to change her initial storyline to then center on slavery. She came up with a rich, powerful novel in mapping out this path.

“Homegoing” shares a story of two sisters with contrasting destinies. Effia is married to a slave trader while Esi is sold into slavery. What follows is a compelling art of storytelling through eight generations of one family, from the villages in Gold Coast (now known as Ghana) to present day America.

Effia lives at Cape Coast Castle. Underneath the castle are dungeons where slaves held in captivity before being shippped off across the Atlantic. Unknown to Effia, her half-sister she has never heard of is among the hundreds of slaves captured. Effia’s bloodline stays in Gold Coast. They sell rival tribespeople to slavery, then fight colonialism in the later decades.

On the other hand, Esi’s bloodline face harsh realities of slavery, racism, civil war in America, and come to be who they are now termed as African-American.

“Homegoing” explores the weighty theme of slavery and family hopefully and wittily. It delves deep into the some of the events that were most inhumane in history but with dignity. Her writing is provocatively bold. She questions nuances that reflect varied forms of racism and slavery in normal day-to-day life. And through one family, she traces both sides of slavery and to the birthing of the African-American community.

We are not sure whether “Homegoing” influenced the decision of the Ghanaian government to dub 2019 as the “Year of Return”. Still, the campaign aimed at encouraging Africans in diaspora to visit and invest, became successful. Many African descendants including celebrities visited the country. Comedian Steve Harvey shared a video of his moving experience at the Cape Coast Castle. Supermodel Naomi Campbell, actor Idris Elba, hip-hop stars Ludacris, T.I, Cardi B, Rick Ross, and many more also ‘went back home’.

(This is a revised version of a review I did two years ago. I came across this novel at a bookstore- Bookstop at Yaya Centre in Nairobi. I had the desire to read works of African writers. And then as I curiously ran my fingers along the spines of colourful books on the shelves, I came across “Homegoing”. I was hoping that I would love it as much as I did the colourful cover and the blurb at the back. I did. It is one of THE BEST! And it shot up my interest in fiction, especially those by African writers.

I have a strong feeling that it would be a literary classic many years from now. I highly recommend everyone, especially those of African descent, if possible, to read it. We would love to know, what books would you recommend?)

Happy New Year!

It was pleasant to talk about books with Jennie Marima.

Jennie is an author of many children’s and Young Adult fiction, including “Trio Troubles” and “Just This Once.” She is an editor too. She owns a YouTube channel, “Shi Scribbles” where, in her bubbly nature, hooks her audience into the realms of book publishing and writing.

Jennie generously shares her outlook with us, from why a personal connection with books is important to her, to why she would occasionally feel that she has no authority to speak about books, and to the reading habits she is cultivating in this new decade and beyond.

NAFSI What are the three most memorable books you have read over the past decade?

JENNIE: “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Stay With Me” by Ayobami Adebayo, and “Drunk” by Biko Zulu. I have come to understand that books connect with people differently. How I experience a book and how someone else experiences the same book could be dissimilar. Also, a book can be popular but my personal connection with it is nonexistent whereas a book may be ignored by many but it completely moves me. With the three books, I have felt a connection with their stories, characters, and writing. These are books I will definitely read again. Usually for me the mark of a good book is one that draws me to re-read it. For instance, there were times I used to read “Americanah” in the beginning of every year.

NAFSI This is interesting to know. And this bestseller is actually adapted into a ten-episode HBO series, we believe, in 2020.

JENNIE I am not looking forward to watching it honestly. Movie adaptations, in this case a series, do not do justice to the novels. I had read “Half of a Yellow Sun” and “12 Years a Slave” before watching their movie adaptations. They do not come close to the books.  

NAFSI Novels being better than on-screen adaptations is an opinion we hear many times. Why do you personally hold this view?

JENNIE A book gives me the room to visualize the story on my own. It allows me to see the characters through my own lens. On the other hand, a movie is an imagination of a few people of how the book is. It has already made that decision for me. The characters may look like how I thought of but when it comes to how they sound, their demeanour, and how I connect with them in a movie is different compared to a novel. Other times, that personal connection is lacking altogether. It is disappointing too when the feelings evoked when reading the novel is not the same when watching the movie.

NAFSI The general argument has been that it is unsatisfactory to pack together, say, “Half of a Yellow Sun”, a 433-page novel to a 113-minute feature film since significant moments could be missing. What you have shared, we think, is a fresh perspective and thought-provoking at that. Now, other than reading, how else do you maintain a connection with books?

JENNIE Thank you. I listen to plenty of writing-related podcast, including “Grammar Girl”, “Write About Now”, and “The Allusionist”. As an editor, I read very many manuscripts. I feel like I am always connected to books through the nature of my work. I write books, buy books, wishing I had more time to read books, host videos on YouTube about books…

There were times I felt like I have no authority to speak about books because I need to read more. I do not want that voice to get loud. I came to realize that we all have different parts to play when it comes to books.”

NAFSI Wait a minute; reading a pile of manuscripts could take up so much of your time and energy. Do you have enough time to read books off the shelves?

JENNIE No. And to some degree that has made me feel like I am an imposter. My life revolves around books but I do not find time to read as many as I would like. When people ask me if I have read certain books, I find that a number of times I have not. There were times I felt like I have no authority to speak about books because I need to read more. I do not want that voice to get loud. I came to realize that we all have different parts to play when it comes to books. My role right now could be editing and talking about them, another person’s role could be selling or buying them. We should not let the feeling of inadequacy get in the way of us being in this space. Sometimes, I must say, that feeling lingers. It can be loud and other times it is muted.

NAFSI For a writer such as yourself to admit that reading can be difficult is bold.

JENNIE I have had to clear my calendar for me to finish reading a book. It was a chore. There are books that demand a lot from the reader and that is unfair. It should not be burdensome for readers.

NAFSI Do you find it acceptable, or even experience zero guilt, when you do not finish a book to its last word?

JENNIE Yes. I have put many books down. It reaches a point where I conclude that maybe it is me or maybe it is the book. There have been moments when I put a book down and it reels me in when I pick it up later. One good example is “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho. I think the mood I was in the first time I opened its pages contributed to my poor interest in it. Then there are books I put down never to pick up where I left off, like John Green’s “Turtles All The Way Down.” I was excited to start reading it immediately I got my hands on it only to come across a character having a stomach problem like me at the time. I did not need a book reminding me about my struggles in real life. (Laughs) When I read, I look for an escape from the reality. That said, I may go back to the book one day.

NAFSI What is your opinion about the book industry in this past decade?

JENNIE I think in the beginning of the decade there were concerns that technology and eBooks will take the place of paperbacks and hardbacks. But I think in 2019 their sales seem to be holding the forte. I do not have any statistics off the top of my head. This is from my own observation. It is also wonderful to see all these other forms of books, audio-books and eBooks, emerge.

NAFSI What do you wish to do differently when it comes to how you approach books in this new decade?

JENNIE I dismissed eBooks in this past decade. I want to give them a second chance, who knows, I may uncover some magic out of them. I am eager to explore audio-books too since I enjoy listening to podcasts.  Secondly, I have had pockets of deliberate reading through a book club and I am grateful it forced me to read more in this past decade. I want to be more purposeful in making time to read in this new era.

How do you spend your time reading?

Reception rooms, traffic jams, queue areas, restaurants before a date arrives are some of the popular places to crack a book. While it is commendable to always carry a book to devour in your spare time, it can be ideal too to schedule in a good amount of your time just to read. If you view getting lost in a book as an elemental part of our self-care regimen, what is better than to jazz up your reading experience?