Office Hours

I just wanted to reach one person with my gospel of books – Amyn Bawa Allah

Amyn Bawa-Allah is an avid member of the book community. A force to reckon with, Amyn has been creating content for about a decade and is one of the OGs of the Nigerian book community having been on bookstagram for more than 5 years now.

By Oreoluwa Eunice Ogunsina

September 02, 2022

I just wanted to reach one person with my gospel of books – Amyn Bawa Allah

On a section of Instagram is a community you have probably been graced to come across. It's a community where book lovers come together to share their communal love for reading, pass around good vibes and sometimes drama but mostly all-round cheer and even life long friendships. That community is popularly known as Bookstagram. The book community however doesn't end on Instagram. It extends to other social media apps like Twitter, Tiktok, YouTube and many more but most importantly, the book community is all around us, in real life! 
 

Amyn Bawa-Allah is an avid member of the book community. A force to reckon with, Amyn has been creating content for about a decade and is one of the OGs of the Nigerian book community having been on bookstagram for more than 5 years now. 

While Amyn has been reading for a very long time and even has an academic background in Literature, she didn't join the book community on bookstagram until after some time off reading. Amyn says, "my educational background was in Literature so when I finished school, I was tired of reading books so I went on a five-year break. Any book I read was making me want to throw up and I was like, I can't read. Nothing was clicking and I was unable to approach books without the lens of academia or trying to find themes or lessons...so I took that break." 

So how did Amyn eventually join the book community? She shared the story of how that came to be and this decision eventually aided in the diverse reading Amyn encourages as a book enthusiast today.

"When I got back into the groove, I saw that there was actually a space on bookstagram where people could just share books they were reading but I noticed that that space was filled with mostly books by Caucasian writers and my own reading wasn't like that and I wondered why the books I was reading was not getting the same airtime when they were even better than these random books by white folks. Then I noticed it's because there were mostly white bookstagrammers in the space so I went, “you know what? I'm just going to do my bit. I also want my African writers or people who aren't from places like the UK or Europe to make money and sell books because the only way they can sell books is if people know about their books so I'm just going to contribute in my own little way.”

With diverse reading comes an experienced reading taste. I asked Amyn the qualities she looks out for in a book that makes her think a book is extraordinary and in turn encourage others to read the book. She answers that, "First of all, reading is a very personal thing and getting to a point where you like a book is very subjective because it's art and you are going to read into it how your own perspective can allow you see the book. It could be what you've experienced in life or how much your mind can open that would allow you experience a book so if I was going to say "this book deserves more airtime, more people should be reading this book", I look out for character development.

By character development, I mean a character that is well written and well done. If they were to bring the character to life, I would be able to predict their next moves. I want to be that intimate with the characters and then, I do like a good plot. Sometimes, I like plotless stories but that one is more like a personal niche taste. I like a good plot. I like to know where we are going. If the book doesn't end somewhere, I like it to end where I can create my own end. If it's completely open ended then I want easter eggs dropped in the end so I don't feel like the writer just stopped writing so I like a good plot. 

I also like world building. This is not just for fantasy books, even in real-time...if the book is set in Lagos or Bombay, I want to know that we are there, I want to smell it, I want to see it, I want to feel it. The writer just has to give me a good sense of place. The final one I look out for is when a book teaches something. No matter how experienced or educated we are, a book would always open something, whether it's teaching you about a job, a place or a profession you never knew about or even an emotion you have not yet learned to be able to express. I want to be able to learn something. So these are the qualities I look for in saying “this book is a hit and more people need to read it.” 

On challenges she faced when she was starting out her bookstagram, Amyn made it known that since she doesn't approach her bookstagram from the point of view of a creator but as someone just trying to share her love for books on social media and as such, she hasn't really faced the challenges other creators might be facing, although aware that there are challenges.

According to Amyn, her goal was to reach one person! 

“My goal was just to get one person. Each post, one person. One person is going to know about this book, that's all. The common problems bookstagrammers face, I can't say I face them because I don't approach my bookstagram like that. For me, it's just a platform to share books.”

She further explains: “I think why I didn't necessarily experience any issues is because my goal is to reach one and till date, that's my goal. I'm just trying to get one person to know about a book and if one person gets it, I'm quite fine. I never really worried about the likes or the followers because my initial followers followed me because they knew me and not about the books or anything. I was also trying to convert some of them into becoming readers.”

Furthermore, Amyn shares her contentment with the turn her love for books has taken. She says, "I'm quite pleased with what my bookstagram is. Like I said, it was just a platform and I was just looking for all the microphones I could get to keep talking about books and bookstagram is just one of my microphones. I have Twitter, I have my podcast, The SomethingBookish Podcast and most recently I have my newsletter. Even at work, I created a work book club just so I could have another avenue to talk about books. I just decided to make books my whole personality. There was someone who once told me that if I was kidnapped, the kidnappers would probably send me away because I would keep asking, "so, you, what was the last book you read? Gist me." I'm very okay with how my bookstagram is. I didn't set out for it to be a money making venture. I just want to talk about books because when you read a book that you love so much, you can't shut up about it and since you can't stop people on the road to tell them, these platforms are spaces where I can just talk about books without judgment and just be free."

However, Amyn had a couple of things to say concerning collaborations in the book community and what she wishes to see improved in the book community. 

 

“I think Nigerian creators are really doing their best with what they have. What I would like to see more of is collaborations with publishing houses and unfortunately that's just a problem from the publishing end because I don't think they fully realize how much more they could be doing if they tap into the bookstagram community. It goes beyond just posting books on the page and even if they are not paying, there isn't exactly clarity on what they want you to do. There is no given timeline. Sometimes, they don't even share the hashtags you could use or even the publishing date. They share the book to reviewers when the book is already out and the buzz that it was supposed to create is lost. So, it's like whenever you post, whenever you post. It goes beyond just posting books. There are author chats, in person book reading and stuff like that. I wish to see more collaborations with publishers and not just publishers, book sellers too. The book sellers sector is still very niche and it would be nice to see more collaboration. The goal is to see more people read and how do more people read when all they know is the thrift books but there are other books out there. They don't know about these books because they don't see them. Not everybody is on bookstagram but bookstagrammers have their own tiny little communities they use to spread the word, unfortunately booksellers and publishers don't tap into that so I guess it just happens that everybody is winging it. It would have been nice if there was more synergy. However, the bookstagrammers on their own are doing their best with what they have.”

Indulgent Bibliophile, Amyn's book club is one of the leading and functional book clubs in the book community. Amyn discusses with me how she has been able to keep the book club alive despite the fact that her book club members come from all walks of life. She also opens up on past failures with book clubs she had created previously and how she has been able to implement the lessons she learnt into Indulgent Bibliophile. 

"It's hard work but it's hard work that doesn't feel like hard work. Now, we are already in August and I'm already anxious because I want to find the next six books for 2023 and I want to find the best books that would open the mind of readers to experience something new. Even if they don't like it, they would still experience something new because even in books we don't like, we find something. Even if it's the writing, they've figured that out at least and I've learned that from book club, there's a little bit more effort because one has to read a book for book club. I'm glad that I'm now surrounded by readers that don't just say they don't like a book, they are very specific about what they don't like. Now, I'm anxious about 2023 reads though we are not yet done with 2022 but it took a lot of practice because before Indulgent Bibliophile became what it is now, I had created three other book clubs. It was hell because I went about it wrong. I thought people were going to join because they liked reading and they wanted to read books but unfortunately it felt like I was imposing my reading tastes on them so the first one didn't work out. The second was a case of "let's vote and choose" but what everybody does is bring forth their best books and the thing with that is your taste is not the other person's taste and people get hurt when people don't like their favorite books. So I thought that won't work with the next book club. There has to be one person who will take the blame. It's easier to redirect all your frustration at the person who chose the book and there's more of community when everybody can be like, "wow, Amyn, you chose this book, it's you who fucked up." It's better, there's more camaraderie and there is a sense of "we are in this together." So, you don't feel like you are being exposed by sharing your reading taste. Then I thought I would try my best to do better research and that at least 30% of the book club readers will be able to relate with the book and that's how Indulgent Bibliophile started and grew."

The origin of the name of the book club, Indulgent Bibliophile was also explained by Amyn. "The name Indulgent Bibliophile is derived from Indulgence, obviously. It is just to mean one would do whatever it is to just give oneself something soft, luxurious and nice. A reader like that is willing to take risks to have a good reading experience, so that's the Indulgent Bibliophile so I decided to take on the task of book selection. I would select the books and try my best to make everybody experience different things so they can share their likes and dislikes. From the feedback, it aids better research for the book selection. It is a lot of work, a lot of research mostly but I do like research so that's how the book club grows. Through feedback and research. I always need the chats because from the little words people drop, I know what to do and what not to do." 
 

Amyn also talked about her plans for Indulgent Bibliophile and if there would be physical meetings in future for the book club members as it is largely online at the moment.  "I would really like to do that but the problem is, out of everybody in my location, only like 20% of the book club members are there so that would mean alienating 80% of the book club members but I know the book club members outside the country would be happy just to see members in one place having a good time and we can zoom them in. They will also be happy so I'm thinking about it a lot. I just haven't found the right way to go about it yet." 

 

Amyn mentioned three favourite books of hers, at my request. “Kintu by Jennifer Makumbi, Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi and The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai.”

I then went ahead to ask Amyn to pick one if she were to never reread or speak about the book forever. Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi was her answer and she gave her reason. "I think I've done enough evangelism to have enough people to carry on the work for me. I am confident that people will keep talking about it." This, I can attest to, as I read this phenomenal book through Amyn's recommendation and have also gone ahead to recommend it to many others.

Finally, I asked Amyn to share advice for people looking to return to reading after being off books for a while. Amyn advises that one needs to start small as it is always a difficult task to return to reading after a long time. 

"It's always difficult to come back to reading after staying away for so long and the problem is, one would have romanticized the past reading life so much but the reading landscape has also changed. Even books that were your favorites would most likely not be your favorites anymore but then you were a different person. I actually do get DMs from people who used to love reading and they need advice on how to return to reading. I always say they need to start small. If there was a favorite author you had, pick the smallest book they have or the most recent work they have, try reading that. You can also do this with a genre you love.  It's extremely risky to just go online and pick a book to read. Unless you are an open-minded person, it might not work out." 

She encourages that one embraces research and talks to other book lovers while also implying that she is open to a conversation with anyone that wants to return to reading. 

"You might want to do research or engage someone who reads a lot, who might have a good conversation with you and might be able to gauge your tastes. Not someone who will give you their own favourite books but can give you recommendations after listening to it. In this case, I'd say hit me up. This is so, they can help you decide books you might find interesting. You can go through book apps like Goodreads and Storygraph or check out book pages like BuzzFeed books and see books people are talking about. If it sounds like something you'd like, see if you can find excerpts online...read it. Go to a bookshop, randomly pick up a book, if you like the cover, read the first two pages. If you like it, buy it and read it. Don't drop it, finish reading it immediately. Do not just buy books and put them in your house. If you are feeling it, just finish the book because you have to be intentional about the reading. You can always say "I like to read more, I wish I can read more" but the thing is there is always time for anything that we want to do. If you really want to do it, you will make time for it. Make out time. You can say dedicate a particular time for 30 minutes to reading, eventually the habit will grow back then you take it from there. It's hard but it's pretty easy."