Joan jokes that instead of dealing with life’s stresses like a responsible adult, she runs away from them and hides in books.
“I read more when I’m stressed. I can even read through a fire. For me, reading is an escape. It’s also a source of entertainment. It’s a source for me to connect, and to have conversations with my friends.” Before Joan immersed herself fully into the reading world though, she encountered a couple of false starts. “Back in primary school, I had a friend, Shakilla, who was a voracious reader. I was trying so hard to be like her so I pretended to like books so she would like me. But that obviously didn’t work out.”
The second false start happened in high school. “There was this phase in high school where people were reading forbidden romance books. They’d hide them in between books so they wouldn’t get caught. The hype got me a little interested so I caved in. But then the men in these books used to scare me. It was too much for a teenage mind so I stopped.” So scarred was she that she doesn’t remember reading any book in campus for leisure, which is ironic given how much time she had to spare.
But as they say, the third time’s a charm. When Joan got her first job, the reading bug bit her again. It led her to a bookshop where she got one book that finally unlocked the reader in her for good. It’s been 10 years now of reading consistently and avidly.
The Inspiration Behind @joanzoya
Every time Joan shared a picture of a book she’d read and liked, people would engage with her more. There was a whole community of readers online she was appealing to. “It happened in 2019. I had been in a book club that died, having left the reading culture in me. So in 2018, 2019, I used to read books and share occasionally. I only had a personal Instagram account at the time where I just posted selfies.”
“So I thought, why not share books I love? And then smack in the middle of COVID and staying at home, I turned my account into Bookstagram. I deleted all my personal photos and left all the books I’ve ever posted and started being more intentional. At first I was just posting a book and my thoughts on it. But in 2020, I wrote my first comprehensive review, and it’s now become the burden of my life.”
Turns out there’s a pressure that comes with posting and reviewing books regularly, especially after building a community around it. People start looking forward to your reviews and recommendations because they trust you. All these expectations you have to meet, could end up being too much to bear, crushing you under its weight. “I had to call myself to a meeting when I found that I was putting unnecessary pressure on myself. Sometimes I’m not in a creative space where I feel inspired to take nice photos or write a comprehensive review, and that’s okay. Imagine it’s not a must.”
Now Joan has found a fantastic balance. She only shares when she feels like it. She takes advantage of her creative juices when they’re flowing freely to share as much and as often as the well is abundant. She realized that she can disappear from social media for a while to replenish her creativity, and it’s still okay. She’ll come back. Her community will still be there. “But through these creative ebbs and flows, I’m still reading. There’s no time that I’m not reading.”
Challenges aside, Joan credits Bookstagram for changing her reading experience for the better. She now reads diversely whereas before, her reading tastes were rigid and her book purchases blind. “I’d go to a bookshop not knowing what to get. So I’d browse through, and read blurbs of various books until I found one that I liked. But after finding this community, my eyes were opened to a whole new world. By the time I’m buying a book, I’ve already seen it making the rounds, I’ve already researched about it and the author. Or sometimes, it checks a prompt in one of the reading challenges I’m doing or it’s part of the book club I’m in or it’s the book of the month. So of course, having all those experiences has made me a diverse reader because now I pick books I’d never have come across.”
Joan is the mastermind behind #BookstameetKE, an event that fuses 3 things that she loves: Kenyan music, books, and connection.
She had the first event in 2017 at her home in an effort to revive her dying book club. It so happened that her friend was starting a series of events called Living Room Concerts, where, as the name suggests, he’d have musical performances for people in their living rooms. She invited her book club members over to talk about books and listen to good Kenyan music. It was a huge success for both of them, and she saw the potential in it. A seed had been planted in her brain.
“But I ended up second guessing myself for 5 years! I didn’t host another event until March 2021, when I finally decided to pick it back up. I took the opportunity when Soma Nami opened their bookshop and they accepted to host my event there. That’s how Bookstameet started again.” And it’s blossomed organically since then. She had initially intended for this event to be for Bookstagrammers only but it grew to include readers and non-readers alike.
“One of the things we do at the event is have everyone go round saying what kind or reader they are, whether they’re an avid reader or just read wine bottle labels. So it’s very inclusive and I’m glad we’ve finally integrated live music because I’m passionate about Kenyan music and I’m passionate about getting people to appreciate Kenyan music.”
On Books & Reading
How do you get out of reading slumps?
My reading slumps happen when I’m doing too much and my energy is depleted. Luckily, they don’t last very long because I’m intentional about getting out of them. How I do that is by audiobooks. That’s the holy grail for me.
Another way I get out of them is by sticking to the book club schedule. The FOMO is real with my bookclub. People have so much fun and I don’t want to miss out. There’s also the constant communication where people are saying, “Have you read this part?” or “This book is breaking my heart,” and I want my heart to be broken too, so it gives me the motivation to go read the book. I’ve seen people who recommend reading short stories to get out of slumps. I have tried that and it works for me, even though they’re not my go-to kind of books.
What is the book that changed or influenced you the most? How did it do that?
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini simply because it got me into reading. There’s nothing deeper than that. I picked that book up and I cancelled my life to read it. After I finished it, I intentionally started buying a book every two months.
Which book(s) did you read purely because of Bookstagram hype? Did it/they meet your expectations?
I’ve always been the person who lets the hype die down before picking up books, but there have been some books that are so in your face everywhere that you can’t ignore them. For instance, when You Made a Fool Out of Your Beauty by Akwaeke Emezi dropped, that book haunted me. It followed me everywhere. Luckily a friend of mine got it for me, and it’s actually a good read. I’ve seen very bad reviews of that book recently, but I encourage people to try it out and draw their own conclusions.
Also, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Believe all the hype! Lastly, Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi. Those 3 books did not disappoint.
What book do you think nobody should die without reading?
Anyone who follows me knows the answer to this. It’s so obvious. Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. That book is an experience.
Is there any book that you think gets too much unnecessary hate?
Love in Colour by Bolu Babalola. People are brutal with their reviews of that book when it’s actually a really good book. It needs an open mind, and for you to suspend all disbelief, but I thought it was well-written. There’s too much hate for a book that really tried.
If you could only take three books to a desert island, what would they be?
Why would you do this to someone? Why pick only 3? Why not 50? I’ll carry them on my head if carrying is the problem. I’ll be responsible for transporting my own books so I won’t even bother anyone. This is tough to choose!
I’d say Tomorrow I Become a Woman by Aiwanose Odafen because this is an anticipated read. Then Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery. This one I’d like to pass down to my children. I can’t wait for my daughter to grow up so we can talk about this book. I’d love to have this book on my shelf forever. Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, for obvious reasons. I know every time I reread it it’ll be a different experience that I get to enjoy.
If you were to invite 3 authors (dead or alive) to a dinner party you’re hosting, who would they be?
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Celeste Mohammed and Wayetu Moore.
I’ve met Celeste and Wayetu online and I just love who they are. I love their books, of course, but I also love their personalities as well. Celeste is so fun, and Wayetu is affirming and calm. It’ll be a balanced party. Jennifer is loud and will be the life of the party, and then Celeste will be the funny one making everyone laugh and then Wayetu will be the one bringing calmness.
What is the saddest book you’ve ever read?
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum.
What is the funniest book you’ve ever read?
Born A Crime by Trevor Noah. If all memoirs were like that, I’d read more of them because I kept chuckling the whole time reading it. And The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin was really funny too.
What is the strangest book you’ve ever read?
Mouthful of Birds by Samantha Schweblin
What’s been the highlight of your reading/Bookstagram journey?
If you asked me this question last year, the answer would have been different. So I will answer as 2021 Joan first. That time, my highlight was receiving ARCs (Advance Reader Copy) . I was like, me? Little old me receiving ARCs from publishers? This always felt like such a remote level of Bookstagram that I’d never reach in the near future, so someone reaching out and wanting to send me books to read and review was amazing.
I almost burst into tears. What do you mean I got someone into reading? What do you mean that I rekindled someone’s love for reading?
As 2022 Joan, my highlight is someone telling me they started reading because of me. I almost burst into tears. What do you mean I got someone into reading? What do you mean that I rekindled someone’s love for reading? It’s baffling in the best way possible. Even something as simple as someone loving a recommendation I gave, it gives me goosebumps. Because sometimes you wonder, does anyone even care? Is anyone even seeing this? And then in that moment someone says, “I read this because of you.” It’s really validating. It reaffirms that what I’m doing matters.