Bibi Bakare-Yusuf Cassava Republic Press Interview

bookblast interview Bibi Bakare Yusuf Cassava Republic Press

Book Blast interviews Bibi Bakare-Yusuf founder of Cassava Republic Press

Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, tell us a bit about your childhood and where you grew up.  

It was a very privileged upbringing in the sense of growing up with a mother whose protective love and unquestioning belief in me  gave me a strong sense of self and a confident “I can” rather than the terrorising “I cannot” which so many girls are schooled into. This early self-belief no doubt ensured that I came out of an English boarding school relatively unscathed.  I grew up with a fiercely intelligent, industrious, and unlettered woman who equated education, financial astuteness, and sartorial elegance with freedom and brilliance! There was no drama of a gifted or damaged child; it was a very comforting childhood on Lagos Island.

Life was lived on the street and from our balcony with Yoruba Fuji, Juju and American soul music, the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer and the evangelists church bells knifing the air, all fighting for our souls, and all winning, because, in that Yoruba accommodative world all have their place. It was a childhood peopled by women of courage and self-possession, errant men, incessant noise, theatre, much laughter and without contamination. I love and appreciate this world and grounding, even as I craved solitude. It is the nucleus by which my identity, especially as a questioning being derives its meaning and purpose.

Were your parents great readers? What were the books that made you fall in love with reading?

There were no oak floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in our house. In their place, were hundreds of LPs of different genres of Yoruba music, played on the Grundig Stereogram. These records were probably my first introduction to text without writing. Music was the first thing that held my being in its fold and made me conscious of the evolving social and political landscape of Nigeria in the early 1980s. It was also the first art form that introduced me to the transformative power of storytelling to stir the emotion. So, my parents were not great readers of books, but they came to reading through music, so did I.

Amos Tutuola’s The Palm wine Drinkard made me fall in love with the written word.  By the time I read the book, it was half-torn with missing cover, title and author, and it was only much later that author, title, and story were reunited for me. Once I made the connection, between author and text, I devoured all his books. The travels of the “palm wine drinkard”  searching for his dead palm wine tapper, the world of beings morphing into things and strangeness that he encountered utterly terrified and beguiled me. The nightly stories told by one of our neighbours no longer had to end when the mouth got tired and sleepy, because with my torchlight, I continued reading into the night and sometime starting again, until the story was committed to memory.

How Did Cassava Republic Press (CRP) come about?

Visiting Nigeria and encountering the paucity and limited range of books in homes, libraries and bookstores was heart-breaking.  I wondered what kind of civilization and cultural confidence could be built when so many homes are emptied of books or when the current books available rarely speak to or reflect the world the readers inhabit.

I was struck deeply by this lack and decided to do something about it. I hoped that I could encourage and support someone more entrepreneurial than I to fill those empty and unloved bookshelves with contemporary African writing. With no serious takers, three years after moving to Nigeria to take up a position at one of the universities, I quit academia. With no entrepreneurial experience and little knowledge about publishing beyond being a voracious reader, I started Cassava Republic Press with the mission to publish great writing from the African world, starting on the continent and eventually to include the wider African diaspora.

Longthroat Memoirs by Yemisi Aribisala; Be(com)ing Nigerian: A Guide by Elnathan John; and Safe House edited by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey have all been successful non-fiction titles for CRP. Tell us about your publishing programme and how it represents your mission “to change the way we all think about African writing” cited on your company website?

Our ethos stems from the limited understanding of African writing as almost invariably works of literary fiction or, in the non-fiction realm, reliant on personal experiences, memoirs. We are committed to showcasing the diversity of African stories and genres out there, and this is reflected in our Ankara Press imprint which centers Black female characters and their experiences of love. Additionally, through our crime writing and Noir series, we hope to address the erasure of Black writers in this space and reflect a world where African writing is not a genre.

Reading for pleasure is important for both educational purposes and personal development. Has the focus of profit-hungry multinationals on educational publishing in West Africa facilitated, or dulled, the adventure and joys of reading in children and young adults?

Storytelling has been so imbedded in West African cultures for millennia that it would be difficult for a publishing agenda to dull the joys of reading for children and young adults. Part of this is down to the oral tradition of storytelling that introduces many young readers to fiction, but also, we have seen and continue to see the success of our children’s titles in this market. These successes are now allowing us to produce children’s fiction in translation, focusing first in 2022 on the three major languages in Nigeria: Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa, so that children are not just able to see themselves in fiction, but hear themselves as well.

Tell us about the fiction titles that represent watershed moments for CRP.

In Dependence by Sarah Ladipo Manyika which sold over 3 million copies and was selected as a JAMB title for young students in Nigeria, A-Level students in Zimbabwe, and reading lists in many universities in Africa and the United States. The sales from that one book birthed so many other books.

Our first graphic novels: On Ajayi Crowther Street by Elnathan John, illustrated by Alaba Onajin and German Calendar, No December by Sylvia Ofili, illustrated by Birgit Weyhe which allowed for us to venture into this genre where there’s  a dearth of Black representation and extend our ecosystem of diverse creative contribution to the publishing industry. We hope to expand our graphic novel offerings in both fiction and non-fiction.

And today, Men Don’t Cry by Faïza Guéne, our first book in translation, which is out this month in the UK. Translated by Sarah Ardizzone, this first foray into the world of translation has allowed us to go beyond the Anglophone African literary world and reaffirming our commitment to being a pan-African publishing house, by extending our programme to include North Africa.  In the coming years, readers can expect to see more titles from the wider Black world.

 What are the key differences and similarities between home-grown trade publishing in West Africa and in the UK?

In many ways, the Nigerian publishing industry is still in its nascent stages. This could be difficult, due to a lack of a fully developed infrastructure, and distribution remains a problem both within the country and across the continent. However, as the Nigerian publishing industry is still taking form, this allows a level of flexibility and innovation that is sometimes hard to find in the UK publishing industry, which I believe is key to keeping the industry alive in the future.

While a strong and viable bookshop is vital to the publishing ecosystem as we have in the UK, we also need to find ways to democratise the ease by which small “briefcase booksellers” can setup sales channels. In Nigeria, we have found a growing network of individuals in places outside of the major cities setting themselves up as virtual booksellers which is allowing us to reach remote areas as well as non-traditional spaces such as hairdressers and offices.

Because we sell directly to end users, we have a good data about where sales and interests are coming from so, we can easily retarget readers. In the UK, with online sales coming through third parties, they have all the data which I think puts the publisher in a position of dependency and vulnerability.  This was even more marked with bookshop closure and Amazon de-prioritizing books during lockdown and goes to show the importance of publishers building relationship with readers.  Whether in Nigeria or the UK, the small presses are often at the centre of finding creative solutions to publishing problems.

Are literary agents as important in Africa as in the UK, US and Anglophone Europe?

The African publishing industry is still growing, which means many of the establishments entrenched in the Euro-American publishing landscape do not have a foothold there, yet. Although many African writers do have agents who are usually based in the UK or US, and the focus is on publishing in those markets.

However, it is important that as the African literary landscape grows and develops its identity, it creates its own systems that are true to its own context. Many of the writers we have published, have not had these representations when we first publish them, but have been able to connect globally and eventually found literary agents We open our submissions each year to un-agented writers to allow new voices to find us and we also receive submissions from literary agents.

Your core readership is based in Africa, followed by the UK: how do you bridge the two readerships; ensure that CRP’s list embraces Pan-Africanism; and attracts an international audience in the way that, for example, the Heinemann African Writers Series (1962-2003) did?

Cassava Republic Press is probably the most well-known publishing brand that has come out of the African continent in recent times, publishing some of the most important African writers of our times. Our readership extends beyond Africa and the UK, stretching into North American where we have built and continue to build a dedicated readership, particularly with our books for children and young adults.

Even when rooted in a specific locale, the stories that we publish have universal themes that allow them to connect with readers globally, reaching audiences in far flung areas. When we look at stories like A Small Silence by Jumoke Verissimo which was short-listed for the RSL Ondaatje Prize for its depiction of Lagos, its readership has extended across the world and this is in part due to how Verissimo handles conversation about mental health, isolation, and living under a repressive government.

Similarly, In The Palace of Flowers by Victoria Princewill which debuted this year, has introduced audiences to trans-Saharan slave trade and the world of enslaved Abyssinians in nineteenth-century Persia. The authenticity of Princewill’s storytelling resonated with the Collective for Black Iranians and inspired a global partnership with Because We’ve Read book club which saw an international audience jointly reading, commenting and championing In The Palace of Flowers.

The book, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika has been translated into more than five European languages and continues to be reprinted both in the UK and US on a yearly basis. This tells me that when you curate a good and strong list a book will eventually find its readers. Our list is always about curating the archive of the future in the present.

There are very few publishers in the UK who take risks on well-written books in translation. What is the motivation behind your expansion into translation, and what can our readers look forward to seeing from CRP in the future?

As of 2019, only around 5% of published fiction books in the UK were titles in translation. This is a reflection of the colonial fradecolonising book publishing mework within which publishing operates, with a focus on selling translation rights for English titles abroad, without reciprocating this exchange.

Given the vast number of languages in the African world, and the fact that the colonialisation of African tongues cover not just what Mukoma Wa Ngugi calls in his book, The Rise of the African Novel, “the English metaphysical empire”, but French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish,  an untold number of stories are therefore left out of the canon of African literature, along with a wealth of new perspectives and ideas that readers are missing out on.

We are publishing Why Do You Dance When You Walk by Abdourahman Waberi, translated by Nicola Bell and David Bell. It expands our canon to include the word of a Djibouti writer. We are looking actively to move beyond Anglophone writers so that we can introduce readers to the many languages Africans writers are telling their stories in, and this will also include writing in African language.

Do regional government institutions support publishers in West Africa as they do in the UK – for example by giving grants (funding), setting fixed book prices, or by not charging VAT on eBooks?

It is difficult to talk about support for publishers in West Africa in the singular because the seventeen countries that make up the region have their own policies which differ from country to country.  If we limit it to Nigeria, we can say there’s no VAT on either books or e-books and there are also no government institutions that give grants to publishers, that I am aware of. This often makes publishing outside of the textbook market very difficult to sustain.

It takes a lot more than just loving the book to make it successful. As the traditional publishing model has given way increasingly to a blend of the physical and digital worlds, accentuated and speeded up by the pandemic, in today’s tech-driven society it is amazing to think that before 1980 technology in sales just involved the telephone, pagers, snail mail and faxes! Now that there are so many promotional avenues to choose from, backed by “always-on” communication technology, which digital channel(s) are you currently developing to fulfill your goals and to attract new readers?

We love Instagram and the bookstagram community that exists in that space. It feels like the perfect blend of digital and the personal because there is passion in the way the books are displayed and discussed. Different audiences can see our books by virtue of the range of readers with which we are connected and when they like our books, readers online are staunch champions. A lot of times it is these readers that give us the language to breathe new life into how we talk about some of our backlist, because they see it from fresh and layered perspectives that we sometimes are no longer able to see, this is the antiphony at the centre of existence in Black.

BookTok which is essentially the literary world of TikTok is another avenue that is proving exciting, particularly for the young adult and children’s titles. Again, it is that mix of digital and personal that allows for readers to give voice to the crevices of the stories that resonated with them that our countless hours of editing, proofing, and reading the book did not uncover.

The work we do is so personal to us – so precious, so for us the reader has to be connected to the marketing work we do, because it is the love a person has for a book that invites a new reader. Word of mouth remains one of the strongest tools for sharing stories.

Who would be in your dream book club?

Readers – people looking to dissect and explore a book thoroughly from a place of curiosity and joy. People unafraid to read against the grain of the author’s intent. as well as readers who can discuss a book expansively and draw parallels with other books and non-books. They will have the spirit of dance and playfulness and bring all that joyfulness to the club.

 If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?

The 1960s and 1970s: a period of possibility, hope, hedonism.

It would have to be Summer of 1969, at The Harlem Cultural Festival, a festival that happened in the same Summer as Woodstock yet erased from history until Quest Love went into the archive of Black history and gifted us the docu-film, Summer of Soul. Although the festival was over a few weeks in the Summer of ‘69 with a variety of artists, the day I would attend will have Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, The Staple Singers, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Nina Simone, Hugh Masekela, and the 5th Dimension in attendance. To hear Nina Simone, live and in the flesh reminding us that “When you’re young, gifted and black, your soul’s intact” is probably the balm the soul needs to still the chaos of existence.  Summer 1969 is my time travel.

Your bedside reading?

I try to only read one book at a time and at the moment, it is Yewande Omotoso’s, An Unusual Grief. A gem of a novel about suicide, grief and a conservative mother’s awakening through the discovery of her daughter’s life, a life of art, weed, BDSM and aloneness. It is always so delicious to hold a proof or a finished copy of a book that you have been involved in.  Reading it in the physical is a re-reminder of your power of choice and the sharing of that choice and excitement with the world. What a privilege to be a publisher!

Your motto?

‘Oh my body make me a [woman] who always questions! Frantz Fanon

BUY In Dependence

BUY Unbury Our Dead

BUY Men Don’t Cry

BUY An Unusual Grief

BUY Wild Imperfections

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About Georgia de Chamberet 379 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.