Webmasters, bloggers and editors of literary websites are usually behind the scenes operators, quietly refreshing web pages, writing and keeping the Internet going with new content. AfricanWriter.com is conducting a series of occasional conversations with these cyber adventurers, literary bloggers, avid book reviewers, e-critics, website founders and funders. James Murua of jamesmurua.com is one of them.
James Murua is a journalist, newspaper editor and blogger/founder of jamesmurua.com, a well-known destination for African literature news and book reviews.
Sola Osofisan: The obvious take-off point for this conversation should be the recent redesign of Jamesmurua.com. Everything appears to be in its proper place. I like the clean look and careful choice of calming colours. It’s like sitting beside a flowing stream of untainted water… Would it be right to say that you have gone from a personal blog theme to a more professional online magazine look?
James Murua: The initial website hadn’t been that well thought out; in fact it wasn’t planned as a website should be at all. All I did was post up content on the blog as and when it appeared on an easy to use WordPress theme. After I clocked two years, I figured that it was about time that I gave my readers a more professional product so I commissioned a web developer who came up with site as it is today. Less magazine and more news portal.
Sola Osofisan: How did your interest in books develop to the point that you made a conscious choice to devote a blog to it?
James Murua: I had a blog initially that had everything under the sun including reviews of movies, music albums, restaurants, phones and everything called Nairobiliving.com. At one point, I felt that I was doing too little on too many topics so I decided to focus on one type of content and see where it would lead me.
It was very easy to opt for literature; I love books and I’ve had access to them since I was a toddler. The only problem was that in the last decade it became harder to find time to read which wasn’t working well for me as a journalist. The way I saw it, the blog would force me to come out of my comfort zone and I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. I have read more books in the last two and a half years than in the whole of the last decade before that combined.
Sola Osofisan: Do you know that precise thing that excites you so strongly in a book – so much so that you want to write about it? I guess you know I’m indirectly asking why you review some books and not others.
James Murua: What do I love about a book so much that I have to tell someone else about it? It’s simple really. When I get a book that makes me laugh or cry, then I have no choice but to share that feeling with the rest of the world. When I find a book with a kick ass sex scene or to-die-for prose I have to share; there are so many people who want to have the feeling I am getting in my opinion so I would be remiss not to. When I find a book that I do not enjoy as much, I tend to leave it by the side. If I hate your book, I will not review it on my blog. I believe in bench-marking on the good in our writing so that people try and head in what I consider the correct direction.
Sola Osofisan: You’re a journalist used to subjecting your work to editorial approval before it sees the light of day. But here is this nebulous thing called the Internet giving you the freedom to communicate with the world unmediated. For you, what are the pleasures of by-passing the publishing gate-keepers on Jamesmurua.com? And what are the potential perils?
James Murua: When working in a newsroom I came to realise that sometimes it was prudent to get a second opinion before sharing my opinion with the world. I try and get someone to read my work before I post up if possible especially where the reviews are concerned. Even with this, I have to say that there is nothing as enjoyable as deciding for yourself what will run on your platform without worrying about house style or other considerations. Many of my ramblings that were jettisoned by editors at my day job were enthusiastically received online proving that I have something valuable to share.
The downside of bypassing the gate keepers is always the fear of the law suit. It’s still a very young project and anyone being so angry that they send their lawyers would be a possible threat to its existence. Fortunately for me this hasn’t happened. Yet.
Sola Osofisan: I know you were prominently at the Ake Festival in Nigeria last year. Tell us about some of the other places and pleasures your interest in African literature has brought your way.
James Murua: I don’t know about prominently… I was there as a journalist and not as an artist. The Ake Festival had to have been one of the highlights so far of covering this scene. Finally I was also able to meet with some people whose work I love, which was the real achievement for me. It’s not often you get to meet Helon Habila, Jude Dibia, Veronique Tadjo, Lola Shoneyin, Ekow Duker, Toni Kan and more within a week and I am grateful I got that experience.
I have been able to experience some other amazing places; last year I went to Somaliland to attend the Hargeysa International Book Fair and that really blew my mind. I thought I knew about my region but it was a schooling that I will never forget.
Apart from the sights which are many, I have met and made some of my best friends because of being in the African literary space. The thing I love about it is that there is more of camaraderie in literature than in other arts as I have observed. Everyone treats everyone else with courtesy and respect in spite of age or accomplishment.
Sola Osofisan: As a blogger constantly reading, sniffing around the literary landscape and writing news and reviews, what are your thoughts on the latest burst of interest in African writers and writing? Is it fair to say what’s being considered an ‘explosion’ has always been there on the continent, just in the shadows because it received very limited attention and the avenues for propagation were limited? Has the Internet today, combined with social media and to some extent, wireless telephony, simply drawn attention to a pre-existing condition?
James Murua: There wasn’t any real scene to speak off when the Caine Prize emerged as the beacon for all writers in the continent in 2000. Before then people tended to stick within the scenes of their national borders and assume that their greatest achievement was to be recognized either by the local education ministries or international publishers. There was a lot of content stuck either on computer hard discs or at gate keepers like publishers.
After the Caine Prize, more and more people started taking a keen interest as there seemed to be something to this writing thing other than selling 100 books in a few years. It was fueled by the explosion of the Internet on the continent which made it easier to get word out on what was happening, but the web wasn’t the only factor in the rise. It just happened to fuel something that was already on its way to be a new norm in African literature. This was because people could talk across boundaries about their work that couldn’t beforehand and this was vital.
Sola Osofisan: What do you do to keep your website in the consciousness of visitors constantly distracted by so many other web spaces?
James Murua: The same way I tell everyone who is trying to get in; keep posting valuable content consistently. There is nothing as frustrating as discovering a blog or website that promises to cover just that which you have an interest in and then finding that the blogger has stopped to post after a week or a month or two. Pigheaded determination applies here just as with any other discipline.
I also make it my business to look out daily for what could be a story and would interest someone with African literature in their mind. Sometimes the information is readily available to people within the business but the general public who don’t have access to it would still be interested in knowing about it. Therefore I see myself not as a blog for industry insiders but one for newbies trying to understand the scene as it is constituted.
Also I have been a bit fortunate in my friends who read my posts and share widely. Until now, these friends have been the reason that the content has grown organically. I suspect that the time for advertising the blog on social media channels to go beyond my friends and immediate social circle may be upon us.
Sola Osofisan: South Africa is often touted the book capital of Africa. Nigeria has also worn that title a few times, but Kenya seems to be the rave these days. Are these the best of times to be a book blogger in Kenya or what? What makes the literary scene so bubbly in Kenya right now?
James Murua: After keenly following the scene for the last few years I have to say that without a doubt the leaders of book output are South Africa and Nigeria. This applies both to fiction and nonfiction. The space Kenya occupies is a very special one. We quickly realised the power of social media and we have been very serious with using it for the personal and the national good. This means that many times we seem to be doing a whole lot of stuff here. The reality is a bit different. The biggest literary output recently is in the nonfiction (genre), with an emphasis on the “vanity projects” that are biographies. Vanity projects I use here because many of these biographies are used by their authors to paint a colourful “rags to riches” story with more questions than answers. Where fiction is concerned the books are very few and tend to be anthologies. I can’t think off the top of my head of one major novel that was written by a Kenyan in 2015 for instance. But we know to tweet about our scene a helluva lot more than many people who are out-producing us here in Kenya.
Sola Osofisan: And while on that, as someone who is also in the thick of it, tell us why Kenya is increasingly acquiring a reputation as Africa’s digital hub?
James Murua: Mpesa the mobile money application really helped get the word out. Also helping with that discussion was Ushahidi a crowd sourcing software that was developed during the post-election crisis of 2007/8. They led to Kenya becoming the subject of interest worldwide, causing many people to come here to try their technology products especially where the lower end of the market is concerned. We also have some very unique things going for us. We have a relatively reasonably priced internet in Nairobi that allows Kenya to take over Twitter and trend worldwide every so often. We are also at the centre of trade where the continent is concerned with our capital being a major hub. We have amazing weather and love foreigners of all stripes. When you combine these things, it’s easy to see why so many have come here.
Sola Osofisan: You started on Blogspot, right? Were you happy with the service? Would you recommend it to any aspiring blogger?
James Murua: Blogspot? I had one back in the day but I wouldn’t recommend it to an aspiring blogger. The best and easiest to use for a novice is without any discussion WordPress.
Sola Osofisan: It used to be that people started online magazines as a stepping stone to one day publishing physically. But with the print magazine industry in death throes now, that doesn’t sound like a sensible or viable option anymore. Are you able to share Jamesmurua.com’s long term vision with us?
James Murua: Funny enough, I already did that transition earlier in my career with a blog and then started a physical magazine. It cost me so much to get “legit” that I can never even consider this option today. Fortunately my country and continent has caught up with my ambitions where the Internet is concerned. Printing a physical publication is expensive and rarely brings a return on investment. One ends up just working for the printer.
I hope eventually to be the one-stop shop on what is happening in the African literary scene. It will be the place where you will get to know what your literary heroes are up to. It will probably never get the traffic of a Naij.com or tuko.co.ke but it will have enough traffic that it can push the agenda for writers so that they can make more of a living from it. When the writers win, everyone wins.
Sola Osofisan: On a final note, where does a book blogger/webmaster roam on the Internet when he’s got a little time to kill? Do you have favourite websites you can share with us?
James Murua: When I am looking for content on what is happening social media channels are vital. I spend a lot of time going through timelines of publishers, authors and award organisations like the Caine Prize, Golden Baobab and Etisalat Prize on Facebook and Twitter to know what is going on. Without these my job would be very difficult. Apart from these I am always going on sites like bookslive.co.za, publishingperspectives.com, bookshybooks.blogspot.co.ke, kinnareads.com, brittlepaper.com, praxismagonline.com, magunga.com and storyzetu.com. I also visit this site Africanwriter.com.
Image courtesy James Murua.