By Ashleigh Harris
Sheila Bosire describes herself as a “career writer” mostly interested in literary fiction, which is a brave career choice in Nairobi, where fiction is clearly on the decline. Bosire describes literary fiction as a “niche market” in Kenya and this supports the impression I have had when talking to a variety of stakeholders in the book and literary establishment in Nairobi, from academics and students, to writers and publishers. What all these stakeholders confirm is that book shops are closing in Nairobi and that when people do read, they are more drawn to inspirational and faith-based non-fiction than they are to fiction. This appeared also to be the case at the 21st Nairobi International Bookfair (26-30 September 2018), where of the advertised 70 exhibitors, my research team and I only found two stalls exhibiting a range of literary fiction. Most of the publishers were educational, academic, or faith-based. One interesting exception is the Nairobi Writer’s Guild, an initiative by a group of committed young writers who we have invited to contribute to this blog.
At the Kenyan Publishers’ Association exhibition, which was also dominated by inspirational and non-fictional books, I noticed a single novel: Sell Me a Prayer by Sheila Bosire. When I realized that the writer herself was at the stall I interviewed her about her choice of genre and to get her view on why literary fiction was so poorly represented at the fair.
Sheila Bosire is a writer and publisher. She has a degree in Literature from Kenyatta University, where she also studied editing. After we chatted for a while, I noticed that Bosire has published in the genres of children’s fiction as well as in non-fiction, and she then told me that she is also currently working on a graphic novel. This adaptability to the demands of an already small market illustrates a kind of genre-hustling across Bosire’s work.
One example is The Giant Lollipop Tree, a children’s book that tells a surrealistic tale of a tree that grows magically overnight with a giant lollipop at its top. The prose here is poetic in register in ways that stretch our expectations of children’s writing. The story charts a moral tale, as we might expect from a children’s book, but is punctuated by a repeated and unanswered question throughout the text: ‘Who made the lollipop tree?’, which in its repetition and by being set off in a different font colour, starkly breaks and contrasts the sing-song rhythm of the rest of the story. The effect is unsettling and posits this as an almost existential question. After the tree melts in the rain, the book ends with a new unanswered question, ‘Where is the lollipop tree?’, which leaves the tale unresolved and adds to its surreal atmosphere.
Similarly, My Century at the Kenyan Coast: A Biography and Travel Guide, as its title announces, blends the genres of biography and the travel guide in a way that becomes magically real (the title’s evocation of a lived century inevitably reminded me of One Hundred Years of Solitude). But the book includes other genres too, including a family tree, maps, and almost academic descriptions of land tenure policies on the coastline and historical summaries of Kenya’s colonial past. The book is also part-interview, the first-person speaker of the title being Kilingi Ngala, whose story has been written down and woven into a travel guide, by Sheila Bosire.
Sheila Bosire’s most recent work is the novel Sell Me a Prayer. While this is certainly a novel, the writer’s talent for genre-crossing is apparent here, too. The book might, at first, be considered to be one of the countless inspirational books that are so popular in Kenya that they even dominate the street-sellers’ stock.
The title might also be considered to play into another popular genre, the economic motivational book. And this is a clever play – a genre-hustle, we might argue – in a country where the Christian community provides such a large market, and where one can use church events as an alternative to bookshops for book selling (also, I should add that the bookshops that remain in Nairobi central are mostly Christian themed). Bosire told me how she markets her work at church events and also reflected on the fact that she has had to explain to her buyers that the work is a novel, not a true story or an inspirational or motivational book. Bosire tells me that there is no other Christian fiction that she knows of in Nairobi and as such, her readers might need some winning over. But since her book is relatively new, the jury is still out as to whether this will be a winning combination.