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Is there a chick-lit gap in African literature?

By ANJELLAH OWINO | Updated Sun, March 30th 2014 at 00:00 GMT +3
Glasses of champagne (Photo:Courtesy)

By ANJELLAH OWINO

“Everyone has a weakness. Some people have a weakness for champagne cocktails. Or older men with French accents. My weakness is old French champagne glasses.”

With an intro this gripping, I wonder who would mind getting a copy of Hester Browne’s recently released The Vintage Girl.

The book is a beautifully feminine example of the world of chick literature (chick-lit). Some have compared these books to Mexican soap operas, but unlike TV dramas, these novels usually bring out the comical and snarky side of conflicts and tragedies that female characters go through. They don’t command the sympathy that most Mexican soap operas draw from their audiences. A romantic element is evident, but at times, friendships, family, fashion, personal development and career carry more weight than the romance.

The cover pages are mostly colourfully conspicuous, and designed using women-attracting colours such as pink, yellow and purple.

Chick-lit, with a large authorship base in Europe and USA, is the literary version of chick-flick. Both, as the name suggests, appeal to the female audience.

Confessions of a Shopaholic and The Undomestic Goddess, novels by my favourite chick-lit author, Sophie Kinsella, made their way to the big screen under the same titles. And who can forget the hilarious The Devil Wears Prada, released in 2006 and adapted from Lauren Weisberger’s novel of the same name? I could go on and on.

We can agree that there is an African audience for romantic comedies. And since almost all romantic comedies are chick-flicks, as seen above, does it mean the Africa readership is thirsting for this genre?

Monity Odera, managing editor at StoryMoja, believes there is a gap to be filled. Thus, the publisher has opened doors for authors to submit chick-lit stories with an intention of creating a local version of Mills and Boon, in eBook format.

“To cater for this market, we intend to unveil Drumbeat, a romance series, in September, during the Storymoja Hay Festival,” Monity says.

So far, Storymoja has published Vaishnavi Ram Mohan’s Best Laid Plans, the story of an engaged Indian woman who meets and falls in love with a Kenyan man in a Nairobi traffic jam. There is also Cranes Crest at Sunset by Dilman Dila, and Lunchtime Quickie by Kiki Kalinga.

LIGHT-HEARTED

Yvonne Oduor, winner for the 2003 Caine Prize for African Writing for Weight of Whisper, is of the opinion that there is already chick-lit in Kenya, just not in lengthy novels.

“In Kenya, 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,” says Yvonne.

One could argue that Neema Nkatha Kinoti’s, The Last Kiss, which she wrote at the age of 16, could be categorised as chick-lit. But not all romances fall in this category

“Not all love stories are chick-lit. For instance, Chimamanda Adichie’s novel, Americanah, is not chick-lit. In fact, most writers don’t want to have their works categorised in this genre, because it is viewed as ‘light’,” Yvonne says.

Jodi Picoult, an American novelist famous for My Sister’s Keeper, is one such author, but she is quick to defend herself, saying she does not hold ‘pejorative’ thoughts on chick-lit. And there is the rumour that men who write these ‘girly’ novels use a female penname.

A self-confessed chick-lit writer, Jessica Grose, stated in Slate.com that chick-lit faces genre discrimination, and that critics and the publishing world treat men and women writers differently.

“I am proud to have written a book of commercial fiction that is about a young woman and will probably find its audience among other women. It’s that term, chick lit—I’d only really heard it uttered with a barely stifled sneer,” she wrote.

Like someone said: “Why aren’t novels written by male authors about men called ‘men’s fiction’?”

Back to Africa. Nollybooks, a South African-based publisher started by Nigerian-born Moky Makura, aims at attracting the female African audience through chick-lit through a series of romance novels with no sex scenes, unlike most other books in this category. The writer and TV presenter has her heroines described as ‘strong, confident, ambitious and knowing what they want’. Titles include Unfashionably in Love, Looking for Mr Right, and Finding Arizona.

Shaleen Keshavjee-Gulam, a chick-lit author who writes under the penname Kiki Kalinga, says Kenyan readers want  novels with characters they can relate to.

“When we launched the Storymoja Hay Festival last September, we realised how badly people want to read romance novels written by African authors. There is definitely a gap,” Shaleen says.

There are scores of chick-lit novels on display on Nairobi’s streets, meaning there is a market for them. Shouldn’t more African authors, then, consider delving into this genre?


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