With the growing number of book reviewers in the blogosphere, I felt the need to do this interview on the nitty-gritty of book reviewing with a veteran in the field.
I came across Alessandra on Instagram and the first attraction was her well curated and visually appealing feed composed mostly of books and not just any book, books by African authors. Needless to say, I followed right away and was drawn further into her enchanting world of book reviews and recommendations when I started reading her blog, Literandra.
Alessandra wears many hats impressively. She is a Blogger, Book reviewer, Social Commentator and PhD student. The busy schedules of a PhD student is common knowledge and yet you still find her reading a lot of ‘other’ books, both fiction and non-fiction. So if you’re finding it really difficult to read books, this trumps your excuse. It goes without saying that you make out time for what you love or what you really want to do. This is something I always repeat to myself or people. Call it a mantra or something of that sort.
Talking about mantras, I see a personal mantra as a tool for self-motivation and guidance. Alessandra’s mantra is spot on. ‘What’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong. There are no two ways about it.’ If I’m permitted to add something to that, I’d say, “Don’t sit on the fence either. Forget about what is portrayed as the norm.”
First contact with a person usually speaks volumes about character. For Alessandra, her characteristic warmth put me at ease. She exudes this warmth even in her very interactive comments section on Instagram which makes her all the more endearing.
If you ever think of taking this warmth for granted, don’t even try it by planting a suitcase on her bed or even yours as well. Leave the suitcase on the floor and get a chair to sit or better still place it on a table surface. In her words, ‘It totally freaks me out. Suitcases are so incredibly dirty!’ We all know she’s hit the nail on the head with this because many are guilty.
With a great blog to her name, there’s really a lot to learn from her about reviewing books and other related topics. So let’s swing the bat in that direction.
How did your love for reading develop and grow?
I’ve been a reader ever since I was able to read. My mum fostered this from an early age, so I think she is to blame for it! She used to read to me when I was very young, and I soon got impatient and made efforts to read the stories myself. From then on, it was me and my books all the way.
What reasons would always make you want to read?
There is always something new to learn and there is always a new story to explore. These are the two main reasons why I love reading. Since there is always something new to discover, I can never stop reading.
What’s your pace like with reading?
It all depends, really. There are months during which I read ten books. Then there are others during which I barely read three. It depends on my schedule and how I’m feeling.
Book reviews have long been a very essential part of growing an author’s readership. What moved you to start reviewing books?
I cannot pinpoint one day or moment when I decided to review books. I believe that we review books when we talk about them, and I’ve always talked about the books that I read. One day, I decided to write them down so I can share them online with my family and friends – that’s how it all started.
I think reading a book with the intention of reviewing it could make one pay too much attention to details and then, you may end up missing out on the pleasure or even the details if you get carried away with the pleasure. How do you strike the balance so you get the most out of the book? Do you review every book you read?
I wish I could but no. I’m writing my doctoral thesis so my time is quite limited. I try to put up as many mini-reviews as possible on my Instagram page. When I have a bit of time to spare, I write longer reviews for the Blog.
As a bookworm, I’m not always thinking about what to write in a review while reading the book. I try to enjoy the book and when I’m done, I write down my thoughts.
Are you inclined to reading any particular genre(s)?
I love literary fiction, memoirs and autobiographies, essay collections, and narrative nonfiction the most.
How do you tell a good story from a bad one?
I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad story. I may think it’s badly written but you may love the writing style. You may not relate to it but someone else may totally get it. That’s the thing about stories. They are all beautiful – but beauty as they say, is in the eyes of the beholder.
What specific things do you look out for when reviewing a book?
For me, good fiction is recognizable by its relatability, message, creativity, and language. Non-fiction is a bit trickier. I am a sucker for engaging storytelling so when non-fiction is packed with knowledge and is written engagingly, then I’m sold!
You have really healthy reviews on your blog which I love. I think there’s a thin line between constructive and destructive criticism. Sometimes, I feel there’s a temptation among reviewers to sound opinionated and blunt in order to be taken seriously. How do you think book reviewers can make constructive criticisms without going overboard, especially for books they don’t like?
Personally, I try to respect everyone’s work. I know the amount of work that goes into putting a book together so I try to bear that in mind. Having said that, I owe it to my readers to be honest. So I won’t be destructive, but I won’t be dishonest.
What do you think is the best way for authors to engage their readers with their stories?
I think social media is helping to connect authors to their readers. Authors could leverage this connection and bridge the gap between themselves, their readers, and their stories. Events are also good for that.
What’s your impression on how important book reviewers are considered by authors and publishing houses?
I think that completely depends. Like some authors, some publishers really don’t care about freelance book bloggers and reviewers and depend only on big names. Others really make an effort to engage book bloggers, who in turn have access to their own audiences and thus influence spreads in a very positive way.
Anyone who reads your blog or follows you on social media would realise your love for African Literature. What’s the attraction?
African Literature exposed me to a world that I did not know before. I think my love for it started in Uni when I read ‘Things Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe. I was so fascinated by the book that I decided to read a few more of his books but whenever I talked about it, I was made to feel that Achebe is one of the few African authors worth talking about.
Obviously that did not make much sense to me. How could an entire continent only produce one ‘noteworthy’ author? So I went on a quest to discover more African authors myself and never really looked back. I’ve been told that I have always been averse to injustices since I was a small child, so I guess that paradox or ‘lie’ that I’ve been told is what fueled me to read African literature and tell people about it. Add my realisations about racism and race relations in the world that came a bit later and ‘Literandra’ was born.
Are there any genres you think African authors should explore more?
To be honest, African Literature is quite broad and rich plus people around the world are slowly waking up to that fact so it will only get better for the readers. I’m excited for the future. I just hope that the books continue to be written in a way that Africans can relate to and be proud of – everything else, to me, is secondary.
Do you have any expectations generally about African Literature?
Honestly, I don’t think I am in the position to have expectations of African Literature. Instead, I think I can say that I have hopes for it. My main hope is that it will remain what it is: African. Coming from a background of English Literature studies, I know it can be tempting or even necessary to fit into a certain mold, and it would be a tragedy if African authors succumbed to that. That is why the healthy growth and fostering of the African literary publishing industry is paramount, because it will assure the right space for African authors to do what they want.
Any plans for writing yourself?
Of course! I write all the time. I wrote a PhD thesis, which I am hoping to get published at some point and who knows what else life has in store for me.
Who are your favourite authors, African and globally?
Ayobami Adebayo, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chinua Achebe and Chigozie Obioma. Yes – Naija all the way!
What books are your all-time favourites?
Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo
Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie
There Was a Country by Chinua Achebe
An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma
Black and British by David Olusoga.
Tell us more about Literandra.
The Blog has been online for just over three years now. And I have the most amazing subscriber community. The thing I love the most about Literandra is the fact that even though it takes a lot from me, it gives so much more back to me.
Any particular ways with which you grew your audience?
I don’t actively think about growing my audience. I focus more on what I have to offer to them. This way, I get to read, write, and interact with my subscribers without giving too much thought to the actual size of the audience. It only takes two to start a conversation and that’s what this is about – having conversations and learning from each other.
What are your dreams for the blog?
That it will touch as many hearts as possible in as many ways as possible.
Apart from reading, what else can we catch you doing during your leisure?
That is a difficult one but if you don’t catch me reading you’ll probably catch me watching movies or TV series.
Any last words for book reviewers? For budding writers?
Your opinion matters, and your story matters. Someone will read it and benefit from it, so write it.
Thank you Alessandra for granting me audience. It’s an absolute pleasure to learn from you.
I hope you all enjoyed this beautiful conversation. I guess you must love her already. There are several links to her blog in the post. So go ahead and learn more from her wealth of knowledge. Subscribe to her blog and follow her on Instagram.
Leave a comment below on your thoughts about the interview. Is there anyone you’d love to learn something from as well? Comment below telling me who and I’ll see about getting an interview done.
Thanks for reading!