Setting up and running a book group is a different experience in every country. Miriam Vaswani, who organised a book group at the British Council in Tunis, explains how she did it and how local readers reacted to her book choices.
Tap into local interest in literature
When I arrived in Tunis in February 2014, plenty of people told me that this wasn’t a reading culture, that literature wasn’t so important to Tunisians. It’s fair to say there isn’t a big literary scene and it’s difficult for people to name a Tunisian author when asked. This might have led me to believe that local interest in books was not as widespread as it is. I began to regularly encounter people who read, and I saw an opportunity to support that interest by bringing readers together and providing a space to talk about books.
Ask local people for advice and help
My most valuable asset in setting a pilot book group in motion was local knowledge. It was the first time I’d lived in North Africa, and I’d started something new based on only a few months of observation. My colleagues were generous with their time, giving advice on everything from marketing to cultural sensitivities, and helping me get the word out. Our wonderful administrative manager in Tunis worked tirelessly with me on what proved to be the biggest obstacle: getting the books.
Be prepared for organisational difficulties
Book supply is a challenge in Tunisia. This is especially true for books in languages other than Arabic and French. Import duties are high and the cost for the individual buyer is prohibitive. Purchasing e-books is also rare, as it’s not common to use a credit card that allows online or international purchases. Customer service proved to be an issue. Agents failed to deliver what was promised and often didn’t respond to initial inquiries at all. The lengthy period of literary censorship prior to Tunisia’s 2011 revolution means that the book business is, in many ways, an industry starting anew, and few people in the supply chain are certain of what is possible. It’s more a matter of ‘trial and error’ than of ‘supply and demand’.
The plan was to buy a set of books and lend them to readers during the pilot group. Our first attempts hit dead ends, but eventually we found a supplier who agreed to deliver the books we requested within two months, a couple of weeks before the first meeting. This didn’t work out as planned. After a lot of last-minute negotiation, diplomacy and nail-biting (on my part), we got a few copies of the title but had to downsize the pilot group.
Don’t forget about seats and lighting
Things I wish I’d done differently include paying more attention to the space we used, and giving more thought to meeting times. A few small changes, like seating and lighting, would have made a big difference. Our space is mainly used as offices and classrooms. We used an empty classroom, which felt too large for an intimate discussion and had too many literal barriers, tables between us for example, to promote a natural conversation. We met at a time of day that suited some but not all; it was difficult, for example, for parents of young children. A choice of meeting times would have been better.
What to consider when choosing a book
I chose Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection The Interpreter of Maladies. It’s a collection of nine short stories set in India and the United States, with a large focus on migration, social class, and generational differences. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.
I picked The Interpreter of Maladies largely because the language is accessible and current. English is a third or fourth language for most of the people involved in the group, so it was important to choose something that would be challenging but wouldn’t force readers to rely on a dictionary, interrupting the flow of reading. This was a success; participants came to the meetings with a strong sense of what the story of the week was about, and we would troubleshoot the technicalities of the language together. I was also glad to have chosen a short story collection, instead of a novel. Reading one new story per week meant that people didn’t get left behind if they had to miss a meeting.
The book has a strong post-colonial theme, and of identity; state, familial, religious and individual. These are big topics in Tunisia. The country achieved independence from France in 1956, ended the lengthy dictatorship of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, and ratified the most progressive constitution in the region in 2014. The second democratic parliamentary elections took place while we were reading the book, as did the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, a widely discussed event in Tunisia. The forum gave us a chance to look at sensitive issues like post-colonial legacy, individual identity and cultural perceptions of morality as they occurred in The Interpreter of Maladies, a step removed from our immediate situations.
To better understand a language, read its literature
Although the main purpose of the group was to promote reading and provide a space for discussion, it also helped the members improve their English. A book is not a classroom, but it is a crucial way of learning. As readers, whether in our native language or our second or third of fourth language, we’re engaged with a story rather than the technicalities of vocabulary or grammar. The meaning necessarily comes first, which means that the new language arrives in context.
My own experience of reading in a language I’m attempting to learn is that the meaning of a new word or phrase is both memorable and contextualised. Feedback from our pilot group reflected the same; readers mentioned a more effective uptake of new vocabulary and a greater awareness of writing style.
Be flexible with your plans
One pleasant surprise for me was that the set of references and expectations that I have for a book group, both conscious and unconscious, weren’t shared by the people taking part. Most had never been to a book group before, and for many it was an entirely new concept. For me, a book group is something that has always existed in popular culture, and I’ve seen it go through several changes in the public consciousness. While I was coming to the group with some reserved expectations, most of the members had no clear expectations at all, so we were free to invent a framework as we went along.
What we ended up with was, along with a discussion about the book, a discussion about some things I never would have thought to mention. Why we read, for example, and why we talk about what we read. These are questions that, coming from a reading culture, I don’t regularly think about, but they are essential, not only for people lobbying for library funding or a wider school syllabus, but for every reader.
Allow broader discussions to develop
Along those lines, there was a lot of discussion about the author’s voice. Literary fiction, which generally leaves the reader to decide what is right or wrong, is far less popular in Tunisia than the romance genre (as an example). The Interpreter of Maladies is written with a strong authorial voice, but it’s not a voice that instructs the reader to think in a particular direction.
This was a new experience for some of our participants, and led to regular discussion about the intersection between the sort of literature we have access to and the way we engage with the world. The Interpreter of Maladies touched on subjects like single parenthood which are culturally taboo in mainstream Tunisian society. In the context of literature, that proved to be fine for most, but discussion and later feedback indicated that for some of our participants, being left to make a decision as a reader about whether something is right or wrong was unsettling.
Cultural experiences may affect how readers approach a book
It was a challenge for me to understand why some of our participants were troubled by the lack of a moral voice in the book. Before the 2011 revolution, censorship focused on printed or online material critical of the dictatorship. Censorship remains in the current democracy, though it is vastly reduced compared with the time before the revolution. Now it’s employed on two main fronts; public order and public morality. From what I can see, genres of literature that instruct the reader on what is right and wrong were, and still are, easier to access than literature which requires the reader to come to their own conclusions, and are a relatively safe way to engage with art.
When organising a book group, listen to local people
I’d encourage people in other places who wish to start a book group or any reading initiative to make use of local knowledge if the culture is not your own. This is true for everything from the details of book supply, to understanding the legacies of censorship, to being aware of the relative importance of written and oral traditions. If an issue seems sensitive, take your cue from the people who have the most at stake. That, of course, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be critical of information. I’m pleased that I discounted the advice of people who said it was bound to fail based on a lack of popular interest; just because something is small, it doesn’t mean it won’t work. We hope to extend the initiative outside the capital, Tunis. This will mean taking discussion online to link readers across the country, and finding a way to work around the book supply issue.
Miriam Vaswani is a writer based in Tunisia.