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In Conversation with Sylvia Arthur

In Conversation with Sylvia Arthur


Imagine leaving a corporate job in London to open and run a library in Accra? For many of us, especially the bookworms among us, this probably sounds like a dream (or at least a variation of it), but for Sylvia Arthur, the founder of ‘Libreria Ghana’ (now known as LOATAD The Library of Africa and the African Diaspora) has become a reality – a dream come true. Read on to find out why and how Sylvia Arthur opened her library, why ‘Libreria Ghana’ is more than just a library, and how she deals with the struggles of being a female African activist and entrepreneur:

A: Tell us a bit about yourself, what’s your name, where do you live, what do you do for a living?

S: My name is Sylvia Arthur, I’m a writer and communications consultant, and I live between Accra, Ghana and London, UK, although most of my time is now spent in Accra where I have a library called Libreria Ghana.

A: How did your idea to open a library in Ghana come about? When did you open ‘Libreria Ghana’?

S: It had been brewing in the back of my mind since around 2011, but I didn’t actually open it until December 2017. I got the idea because I had so many books that I could no longer accommodate at home in London that I used to send my mum’s house in Kumasi, Ghana. One time when I visited her and saw all the books there, in one place, this huge collection not being read, I thought it was a waste and wanted to give the public access to the books.

A: What did you do before opening your library?

S: I still work more or less full-time. I’m a journalist by profession, but have worked in corporate communications for almost 20 years.

A: What kinds of books do you have in your library?

S: Everything! Mostly books by writers of African descent: African, African American, African Caribbean, Black British and African European. We have literary fiction and narrative nonfiction by writers from across the world.

A: What is the demographic of your library’s readers like?

S: It’s mainly returnees – people who have either studied abroad and come back to Ghana, so-called “been-tos,” and those who have moved back to Ghana from the West with their children to give them a better life and are missing the easy access to libraries where they came from, mostly the UK and USA.

A: What would you say is the most challenging thing about having a library?

S: Making it pay. I’ve invested a lot, financially and emotionally, into building the library and the brand, but it’s a struggle.

A: What would you say are particular challenges faced by African and female entrepreneurs / activists like you?

S: That’s a good question! I think being taken seriously is a big issue. A lot of people view this as a passion project because it’s about books and reading, which is viewed as something trivial almost, but it’s a business and deserves to be recognised as such.

A: What would be the funniest anecdote about setting up the library / opening it?

S: Many people who’ve come to the library or followed it on Instagram have thought they were coming to LIBERIA instead of Libreria and have been surprised to find out we have nothing to do with our West African cousins even though we love their literature 🙂

A: What other projects are you / your library involved in?

S: We do a ton of outreach work which is, actually, more fundamental to who we are than the library itself. This includes reading and creative play for the children of market women; we have two Little Librerias, which are libraries and creative writing programmes in schools in underserved communities; and a programme where we work with salons to give children free hairstyling in exchange for reading. I like to say we’re more than a library; we’re a movement.

A: What is your favourite literary genre?

S: Narrative Nonfiction. I have an MA in Narrative Nonfiction Writing. I love it. To use a cliche, life is stranger than fiction.

A: Which book has influenced you the most?

S: That’s a tough one. I’ll say Fight the Power: Rap, Race, and Reality by Chuck D. It’s not a particularly well written book, but it arrived at the right time in my life when I was in the process of affirming my identity as a Black woman in a world that does everything it can to confine and repress you.

A: Who would you say is your favourite author of all time?

S: I’ll say James Baldwin. Though there are many books by writers that I would buy without even reading the blurb because I respect the writer’s work and know that whatever they produce will be exceptional. These include Alice Walker (except The Chicken Chronicles, which was dreadful!), Maya Angelou, Ama Ata Aidoo, Caryl Phillips, and Rebecca Solnit.

A: Do you receive ARCs (Advance Reader’s Copies) from publishers? If so, what are some problems you have faced when dealing with publishing houses?

S: No, I don’t receive ARCs. I’ve only ever had one. A couple of publishers have pledged to donate some books though so let’s see…

A: In your opinion, what is the most underrated book of all time?

S: Hmm… Let me think about that!

A: In your opinion, what are the main obstacles or problems facing African authors?

S: Getting access to international markets.

A: What is the reading culture like in Ghana?

S: Underdeveloped. There’s a very tight-knit literary community in Ghana, in Accra, I’d say, but, generally speaking, I wouldn’t say Ghana has a reading culture in the sense that we know it.

A: Do you organise events at your library? If so, what kinds of events are they?

S: Yes, we have author readings, talks on subjects of pressing concern to Ghana, Africa, and the world, we host LGBTQ groups, musical performances, and we hold literary dinners for groups in which I give a talk about African literature over authentic Ghanaian cuisine.

A: Which forthcoming book do you look forward to the most?

S: I just found out that Maryse Conde has a new book coming out all about her travels around the world through food. I’m excited to read what the great writer has to say about this particular subject. I’m very much into food writing of late. Rest in Peace, Jonathan Gold.

A: What would you like the world to know about Ghana and its people?

S: That we’re as great as everyone says we are! There’s a reason why Ghana has such a place in people’s hearts around the world, and in the African diaspora, in particular. That reason is justified, in my opinion.

A: Yaa Gyasi or Ayesha Harruna Attah?

S: Both! I own a library. I couldn’t possibly choose 🙂

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