“It’s important for us to understand the scope of our presence in the world and our contributions to contemporary literature as this is so often underrepresented, particularly in the West but also in Africa, where our literature is restricted to the post-colonial writers.”
Sylvia Arthur is a British-Ghanaian nonfiction writer whose work explores themes of identity, diaspora, politics, and place. Her writing has been published in The Guardian, the BBC, and The British Journalism Review and her essay, “Britain’s Invisible Black Middle Class” was curated in the anthology, Know Your Place: Essays by the Working Class for the Working Class. She holds an MA in Narrative Nonfiction Writing. She has been awarded fellowships to Hedgebrook and Santa Fe Art Institute and received a grant from The Andy Warhol Foundation via 516 Arts to produce a publication on immigration and art produced in and about the US-Mexico border region.
Spirited about literary advocacy in Africa, Sylvia opened Libreria Ghana in December of 2017 to give Ghanaians access to books that weren’t easily obtainable whilst amplifying the voices of African Black writers. Located in the well-to-do suburb of West Legon in Accra, the library houses a broad selection of literary fiction and narrative nonfiction by writers from across the world, but specialises in books by writers of African descent. Sylvia shares more about Libreria Ghana- its scope and the impact it has recorded since its creation.
While plans were underway in setting up Libreria Ghana did you ever think in terms of “this might not work” or “why will people want to read the books”?
No. I knew there was a need for this type of space in Accra, and in Ghana. My concern was about the model. I constantly had thoughts of ”will the model work?” We’re a subscription-based library, which means we charge for membership. People are used to libraries being ‘free’ but, of course, just because you’re not being charged doesn’t mean it’s not being paid for somehow. Our charges are just explicit.
What was your greatest challenge setting up the Library?
Finding a space. I needed somewhere with the right ambiance for the right price and I eventually found it. But the location is a bit of a problem as we’re not in the centre of Accra and traffic can be a nightmare in this city.
So tell us, what is the story behind Libreria Ghana?
I’ve always been a reader and, over the years, I’d accumulated a vast collection of books that were difficult to accomodate in my tiny London studio so I’d ship them to my mum’s house in Kumasi, Ghana. One time, when I went to visit her, I saw all the books just there, not being read, and I thought it was an incredible waste that they weren’t providing the same joy and knowledge that I got from them to others. So I decided to use them to start a library and open it to the public.
And the name? How did you come about the name?
I lived in Barcelona, Spain, for a while. Libreria means bookshop in Spanish and in Catalan (but spelt with two ls), and I spent a lot of time in bookshops while there. The name celebrates and commemorates that. I still have strong ties to Barcelona.
Can you share some impact Libreria Ghana has recorded since its inception?
In the 15 months since our launch, we regularly serve over 1000 children by giving them access to great books through two new Little Libreria, school libraries in underserved communities. We run reading and creative play sessions for the children of market women (Market Akenkan) and a barbershop/hair salon programme that rewards children with free hairstyles in exchange for reading (Read Well, Look Smart!). Our events with top writers and thinkers from around the world have attracted over 600 readers, not to mention the impact of our brand on the perception of books and reading in Ghana at large. In 2018, our #BookDropGhana campaign, aimed at Ghanaians in the Diaspora coming ‘home’ for Christmas, mobilised returnees and native Ghanaians, and created a movement, generating over 400 book donations in under four weeks. Our outreach work has been, and continues to be, the most rewarding aspect of the library. Our impact has been significant and we’ve punched above our weight.
Let’s talk about your other Artistic pursuits- you write, you also speak. You produced a one-woman show which was part of “Talawa Firsts” in 2017. Did you know from the get-go that your gifting were aligned towards the Arts or did you evolve into it?
No, I’ve always been torn between the corporate world and the artistic world, and I still am. I work full-time in corporate communications, which I’ve done for almost 20 years, while doing the library and my other artistic work. It’s a real balancing act. I’ve had to learn how to align the two. When I’m fully immersed in the arts, I miss the certainty and pressure of business, knowing that you have to achieve no matter what. When I’m in the corporate mindset, I miss the freedom and expression of the arts. So you have to come to an agreement with yourself about how to get the best from both worlds, and be comfortable with it.
As a speaker, what tips do you have for overcoming fear of Public Speaking?
Just do it. Know your subject, prepare, practice but, above all else, know your stuff. If, deep down, you have that well of knowledge on your topic gained through years of work or life experience, take that awareness of your confidence/authority from within and trust that you’ll deliver.
What do you consider your greatest fear and how have you been able to manage it?
Public speaking-:) I overcome it by just doing it but, each time I have to speak publicly, I go through the same battle. In that sense, there’s no overcoming it fully; you face it engagement by engagement.
What values drive you?
Fairness, equality, justice, and opportunity for all.
What keeps you going when the odds are against you?
Knowing that this is my God-given purpose.
3 women that inspire you?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
What would you like to be remembered for?
Shifting the needle on illiteracy in Ghana and, eventually, the world and creating the largest repository of books by writers of African descent and helping to give African writers their well-earned due while creating a legacy for future generations.
5 book recommendations?
In no particular order, and my recommendations for today only-:)
Becoming by Michelle Obama
An inspiring tour-de-force through the life of our forever FLOTUS full of life lessons for all women.
New Daughters of Africa edited by Margaret Busby
An essential and comprehensive compilation of writing by 200 women from Africa and the diaspora.
Our Sister Killjoy or Changes by Ama Ata Aidoo
Writing at its best, prescient, in which African women take centre stage as self-assured agents of their own lives.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Baldwin remains the preeminent writer/chronicler of our time, over 30 years after his death.
The Chibok Girls by Helon Habila
Reportage at its best. It incorporates the personal and the political with razor-sharp analysis.
Your advice for young women who want to launch their dreams but are weighed down by self-limiting beliefs?
Go for it. Don’t wait for the right time because it will never come. Believe in yourself and your vision. Know your purpose. And, remember, there’s no such thing as failure; only life lessons.
The Leading Ladies Africa Series is a weekly interview series that focuses on women of African descent, showcases their experiences across all socio-economic sectors, highlights their personal and professional achievements and offers useful advice on how to make life more satisfying for women.
It is an off-shoot of Leading Ladies Africa; an initiative that seeks to effectively mentor and inspire women, with particular emphasis on the African continent.
Do you know any woman of African descent doing phenomenal things? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we just might feature her.