Ariel Bookman

Doctoral Candidate, English

Award Information

2011 IDRF Program

EnglishNorthwestern University

Kenyan Fiction and Consumer Culture

Consumer culture now more than ever frames the experience of reading in the Global South. The ubiquity of advertising language, the increasing role of consumer products in self-definition, the demand for accessible entertainment, and the pressure of free market competition dramatically shape the status that the literary arts will have in Africa's future. The consequences to date have been both negative – as American bestsellers and self-help guides have squeezed African novelists out of local and international markets – and positive – as innovative publishers like Chimurenga (South Africa) and Storymoja (Kenya) have embraced new social media and marketing to transform African literary culture. Yet even as the United States, the UN, and NGOs like BookAid pour millions of dollars into literacy in developing countries, there is no clear understanding of how consumer culture affects the intimate tangle of relationships between author, reader and text. Without such understanding it is impossible to take advantage of consumer culture to secure a place for literature in Africa's future. Using Kenyan literature as my case study, my project will investigate how Kenyan authors, publishers, and readers creatively engage consumption in the process of making meaning from literature. I will conduct short surveys of book buyers in Nairobi, Kisumu, Eldoret, and Mombasa; longer interviews with Kenyan authors, publishers, and booksellers; and archival research on letters and memos in publishers' files. In particular, my research will examine the perceptions, habits, and associations that structure the consumption of literature. For instance, who buys books in Kenya and how do they shop for and consume them? How do publishers conceptualize the literary market? This study will produce needed data about book consumption and will help authors and publishers connect with potential readers more effectively.