By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije
‘Being Free Amid the Patriarchy’Edwige-Renée Dro likes to say that she has so much to do that she’s just going to read. She’s an author, translator, and literary activist who founded the library called “1949” two years ago this month in Yopougon, a western suburb of Abidjan.
Yopougon, locally called Yop City, was put on the map for many readers by Marguerite Abouet’s series of books Aya de Yopougon published by Gallimard Jeunesse, a graphic literature imprint (2010), and as Aya: Life in Yop City in an English translation by Helge Dascher (Drawn & Quarterly, 2007 to 2009). In 2013, an animated film was released, based on the Abouet material. Yopougon is Abidjan’s most densely populated suburb with more than 1 million inhabitants.
Dro says 1949 is one of the first libraries for adults in the district as well as being Abidjan’s first library dedicated to writing by women, currently with some 500 books.
According to the media site Le360 Afrique, there are 15 to 20 public libraries for every 1.3 million inhabitants in Côte d’Ivoire, most of those libraries in Abidjan. In Yopougon, Dro says, there are four libraries, three of them private initiatives.
The library is named for the year 1949, when women marched against the colonial government in the southern port of Grand Bassam. On the library’s site, Dro encourages people to read the 1975 La marche des femmes sur Grand Bassam (The Women’s March on Grand Bassam) by Henriette Dagri Diabaté on the library’s shelves.
Dro’s goal is to shine a spotlight on the range of literature written by African and Black women on all subjects. In addition, she says she wants to encourage reading, education, and giving women, men, and children examples of this body of literature.
The women who come to her library aren’t necessarily feminists, Dro says. Some of them are just “getting their heads above the water, starting out by being free amid the patriarchy.”
Dro says she was inspired to open a library as a comfortable place to spend time by a keynote address given by British-Ghanaian author Nii Ayikwei Parkes for the Center for African Cultural Excellence’s Writivism literary program in Uganda in 2017. Parkes told the Kampala audience that to compensate for an absence of government institutions supporting reading and the arts, literary and cultural activists must develop their own systems.
It’s important to Dro that books are not seen as the purview of intellectuals. “We don’t want books to be considered hallowed objects,” she says.
Fluent in French and English
A restaurant in the library helps pay the bills, and extracts from books are placed on the tables.
Outside the library, Dro hangs more extracts. She calls this her “literary titrology“—a review of headlines, titles–so named for the Côte d’Ivoire tradition of hanging newspaper pages at newsstands in the mornings so that people can read and discuss it. The library also organizes activities for children as well as “literary chat” events every few months on texts written by women.
Another aspect of Dro’s activism is meant to bridge the literary gap between Francophone and Anglophone Africa. She’s fluent in both languages, which gives her the flexibility to attend literary events in English that might be missed by Francophones.
Côte d’Ivoire’s official language is French, with approximately 78 other languages spoken in the country. After her baccalaureate, Dro went to the United Kingdom and studied law and literature while taking part in writing groups. There, she switched from writing in French to writing in English. After 12 years in Britain, she returned to the Côte d’Ivoire in 2014 following the post-election political crisis.
Dro spent last autumn in a residency with the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. There, she finished her first novel, which she says she’ll translate into French “from the Côte d’Ivoire.”
On the subject of French spoken and written in Francophone Africa, Dro told author and literary critic Efemia Chela at The Johannesburg Review in 2017, “I was at Writivism last year and there was a participant who said, ‘And of course we welcome here our Francophone colleagues who write in a colonial language.’ I had to laugh. Do you think it’s only you, the Anglophones, who have managed to bend English—and the rest of us are speaking like Molière?”
Dro makes sure that there are books in both French and English in her library and also tries to have books that can’t be found elsewhere in Abidjan.
Some of her library’s titles include:
- Claire-Solange, âme africaine by Suzanne Lacascade from Éditions L’Harmattan
- La Bâtarde, originally written in Spanish by Trifonia Melibea Obono, in both French as translated by Anne-Laure Bonvalot for Éditions Passage(s) and English, La Bastarda, as translated by Lawrence Schimel for the Feminist Press and Modjaji Books
- Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi in both English from Penguin Random House and French as Sublime Royaume as translated by Anne Damour for Calmann-Lévy
- Les Enragé.e.s by Valérie Bah from les éditions du remue-ménage
- La patience du baobab by Adrienne Yabouza from l’aube
- The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed from Viking/Penguin
- Les maquisards by Hemley Boum from La Cheminante (a publisher’s link is currently unavailable)
- Bayo, la mélodie du temps by Sokhna Benga from Nouvelles Éditions Ivoiriennes (a publisher’s link is currently unavailable)
Dro says she’s focusing on networking for financing and building a better structure within the literary network on the African continent. That network has expanded recently in women’s literature with the opening of AWU, an afro-feminist library in Dakar, and Nuances, a publishing house opened by Mariette Tchamda in Cameroon to publish books written by women.
More from Publishing Perspectives on women in publishing is here, and more on diversity and inclusivity is here. More on publishing and the book business in Africa is here, and more related to Côte d’Ivoire is here.
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