African romance novels heat things up

African romance writers are creating waves from Lagos to Cape Town with a range of books that empower women. Ankara Press books offer readers alternative models of behaviour compared to those of traditional romances, which rely on ideas of male dominance.

Amina Thula
Cape Town author Amina Thula writes romance novels; she is one of a series of romance writers published by Ankara Press. The imprint aims to give a fresh spin on the genre, with books written by Africans, for Africans. (Image supplied)

Priya Pitamber

Forget Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey from Fifty Shades of Grey; Sindi Mali and Edward Boateng are steaming up the pages in Africa. Sindi and Edward are the main characters in The Elevator Kiss, written by Cape Town author Amina Thula. As the title suggests, the protagonists meet in a lift during Christmas, and kiss under the mistletoe. It is a kiss that changes both their lives.

The Elevator Kiss is part of a group of novels published by the romance imprint Ankara Press; every one of its books is by an African author. Publisher Bibi Bakare-Yusuf first started Cassava Republic Press; a few years later, she started Ankara because “so many people read romance and it is also quite commercially viable”.

Bakare-Yusuf said she felt the romance genre was an important vehicle for reconfiguring gender relations. “Not only just configuring gender relations but to show Africans in pursuit of love and erotic desire in a healthy and wholesome way,” she explained. “Romance is a genre that appeals to masses of women – and men – and it is therefore a good place to infuse transformative ideas about romance and desire.”

According to the Ankara Press website, the imprint’s mission “is to publish a new kind of romance, in which the thrill of fantasy is alive but realised in a healthier and more grounded way”.

No damsel in distress here

Thula said most romantic sagas had a female character who, by the end of the story, had undergone a deep inner change. Her story of Sindi and Edward was different, however; it was “a personal journey for both of them and they both grow and change parallel to one another as their tale unfolds”.

Edward did not have knight-in-shining-armour syndrome, and Sindi did not need rescuing. “When Edward does something for Sindi, it is normally the result of the situation and is not because he is trying to be her hero,” explained Thula. “Both main characters are well-rounded individuals who can deal with their own personal issues. They would never need a crutch because they are both very capable, have self-awareness and a healthy esteem.”

Empower and enlighten

The books brought a fresh perspective compared to the more traditional romance novels. “We want to offer readers alternative models of behaviour from those provided by romances such as Mills and Boon,” explained Bakare-Yusuf. “In the past, romance novels have relied on dangerous notions of male dominance, control and manipulation that can be harmful to women. Many women tolerate abusive situations because they wrongly believe that this is what romance should look like.”

She said Ankara’s titles aimed to empower women by showing what a healthy, balanced and passionate relationship could be. “It’s about giving women the permission to create the contours of their own sexual universe by providing them with representations of other women who have done it. And we felt it was equally important to give examples of men who are in touch with their own emotions and who are expressive.”

Ankara stories feature young, self-assured and independent women who work, play and, of course, fall madly in love in vibrant African cities from Lagos to Cape Town. Ankara men are confident, emotionally expressive and not afraid of independent and sexually assertive women. “Our sensuous books will challenge romance stereotypes and empower women to love themselves in their search for love, romance and wholesome sex,” reads the website.

Thula would also like to transform the romance genre and the portrayal of Africans in literature. “It’s about time we Africans dictated who we are and showed the world there is so much more to us than war, crime, famine and poverty,” she said. “I also think the romance genre has garnered an unfair reputation over the years. If there’s one thing we need more of in this world, it is love. We need to relearn how to love and relate to each other in a healthy and respectful manner.”

A worthwhile read

Ainehi Edoro, writing on the lifestyle and entertainment website Bella Naija, described The Elevator Kiss as an effortless page turner. Sindi was not a typical romance heroine, she wrote. “She is not confused about her worth. She knows she is beautiful and smart. And most of all, she knows her body. She understands her desires and is not afraid or too shy to make a man satisfy them.

“For those of us tired of romance stories where the woman has to wait for the man to make every move, Amina Thula has indeed given us a gift.”

While reading the book, she also tweeted:

Users who downloaded The Elevator Kiss also left their thoughts on the Ankara website. Lila described the story as “wistful, captivating and totally enthralling”. Another reader who went by the alias DL at first was hesitant to read it because of a disconnect in cultural experiences but “was pleasantly surprised to discover that was not the case”, and applauded the author: “Well done Amina, this was beautiful!”

Bakare-Yusuf loved all six titles in the imprint, all for different reasons. “Each book provides a perspective and opportunity to enter into the interior world of the characters and go on a journey with them as they search for love and in the process come to terms with who they are as individuals.” Each book provided an alternative view of femininity and masculinity.

Adventure and imagination

When Thula was a child, she wanted to become an historian or an archaeologist. “That dream was built on a lust for epic adventures, adrenaline-inducing action and high-level conspiracy and espionage – blame it on Wilbur Smith and Indiana Jones,” she joked. Now she is a student and author, even though she wrote the book with no expectation of it being published. In fact, she was certain Ankara would reject her manuscript.

The book began with Thula testing her creativity. “After I finished the first three chapters, I emailed them to a friend who loved them so I decided to finish the story for her – it was going to be a gift for her,” she explained. “It took me almost a year before I sat down and wrote The Elevator Kiss because at first I couldn’t decide what genre to write. One day an innocent chance encounter with a neighbour in an elevator helped me decide on the genre and inspired the main characters’ meeting. The rest of the story flowed out from there on.”

The other titles in the romance book series are:

A Tailor-Made Romance, Oyindamola Affinnih
Black Sparkle Romance, Amara Nicole Okolo
A Taste of Love, Sifa Asani Gowon
Love’s Persuasion, Ola Awonubi
Finding Love Again, Chioma Iwunze Ibiam

Looking to the future

“We already have readers asking for more Ankara books, so the challenge is to keep up with them,” said Bakare-Yusuf. The publisher is working on the release of the next six titles, and while Ankara is concentrating on digital sales now, it also hopes to release audio and print books soon.

“We are always looking for new authors, so if any readers think they have a romance novel inside them, I would encourage them to read the submission guidelines on our website and get in touch!” You never know, you could create the next Sindi Mali and Edward Boateng.”

The e-books are available on the Ankara website.

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