Vanguard by Shopify Studios is a weekly podcast that explores the human stories of entrepreneurship from unexpected corners of our current moment.
Bibi Bakare-Yusuf is the publishing director of Cassava Republic Press and Ankara Press. After launching a publishing company to offer a platform for contemporary African writers, Bibi had another idea: why not start a romance-novel imprint that put black women at the center of the story? This is what happened next.
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Emma Fedderson and Anshuman Iddamsetty
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Bibi: I was surrounded by women who felt I was brilliant, I was capable.
Bibi: And I think when you grew up in a household where, from the very get-go, you are told that you are somebody and you can do whatever you set your mind to.
Bibi: The world is not experienced from a place of fear.
Bibi: It is experienced from a place of all the infinite possibilities that are open to one.
Bibi: Hi, my name is Bibi Bakare-Yusuf. I’m the publishing director at Cassava Republic Press and Ankara Press. Ankara Press puts African or black women at the center of the narrative and African men as a love object.
Anshuman (voice-over): This is Vanguard by Shopify Studios. It’s a podcast about how people from unexplored subcultures and unexpected communities make money today. I’m your host, Anshuman Iddamsetty.
Anshuman (voice-over): In 2006, Bibi Bakare-Yusuf founded Cassava Republic Press to offer a platform to contemporary African writers.
Bibi: I wanted such a thing to happen, to exist in the world, but I thought I could persuade my more business-minded people to start a business, a publishing business that would produce such books. But no one was particularly interested in publishing because they couldn’t see the line of the path to making serious money. So, I thought, Okay, well, I’m going to have to just start it.
Anshuman (voice-over): And then she had another idea: to reimagine the modern romance novel.
Anshuman (voice-over): To achieve this, she created a romance imprint of Cassava Republic: it’s called Ankara Press.
Bibi: So it is not about putting white men on horses coming to rescue a woman. It is about a woman who knows her desire and actively pursues her desire. And that desire is aiming towards preferably a black man.
Anshuman (voice-over): Today on Vanguard, I speak with Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, the publishing director of Ankara Press.
Anshuman: What was your week like?
Bibi: We’re in the middle of production at the moment. So it’s quite hectic. We’ve got a couple of books coming out. So it’s all hands on deck to get it ready. So we’re working quite late into the night to make sure everything is in order.
Anshuman: So did you get any sleep in the last couple of days? Weeks, months, even?
Bibi: Sleep. I always say I will sleep more when I die. [laughs]
Bibi: But I do know that sleep is important. I’ve been having, like, four hours' sleep almost every day now. And then I get into work, once I’m at work, it’s meetings galore trying to look at our production plans and thinking about publicity and talking to the publicity people, the marketing and sales people dealing with authors, and trying to accommodate the issues. And, yeah.
Anshuman (voice-over): I’ve worked in the world of publishing, it’s a lot.
Bibi: Yes, I have to sit on top of all of them. I make sure I have a sense of what’s going on in each area of the work because somebody has to put them all together, to make sure things are connecting, that publicity is connecting with marketing, marketing is connecting with sales, and to make sure that the editorial is aligned with sales in particular. Yes, I’ve got to sit on top of everything. I’m trying to juggle all the different balls.
Anshuman: And at the same time, you’re still dealing with the authors, like, from an editorial perspective.
Bibi: Yes! [laughs] Yes, I do. The editorial stage because you have to…. An author’s been working on a project for a long time, and they’re usually working in isolation. So, you can get cranky when you’re alone in your own world and in your own head.
Bibi: And so trying to make sure to basically ground them and return them to the importance of the narrative they’re trying to create, and the stories. Many authors are coming into their authorship in an age where social media has become prevalent—and there’s a hyper discourse around fame and stuff. To assure them that if things don’t go right in the way that they are expecting, it is not the end of the world.
Anshuman (voice-over): Bibi’s journey to publishing started in Lagos, Nigeria.
Bibi: So I grew up in a household of very strong, powerful entrepreneurial women who expected higher education and higher achievement for their children. So it was in that household that I had a sense of agency and power.
Anshuman: Like, what were they doing? Like, what were their businesses, their hustle?
Bibi: They were trading! So my mother—my great aunt who was the de facto mother to me— she was a trader and she would trade in fabrics. She was a very powerful and influential businesswoman trading in cloth. She was in the way you can say she was a kingmaker within Lagos society at the time.
Anshuman (voice-over): When Bibi was 12, she was sent to the UK for boarding school.
Bibi: This is what Nigerians obviously attend. The social class with money will send their kids to acquire education in England now, with the hope that you come back and help to build a nation and transform society and stuff. And hopefully they imagine that you will not be going to commerce like them, that you transcend commerce.
Anshuman: So I was born in Kuwait, and I left for Canada when I was 11 years old. I am endlessly curious what that experience was like for you, moving from Nigeria to the UK at such a young age.
Bibi: You know, because I’d been to the UK several times—you know, every summer you travel to one European city or the US or another. This is part of what it means to be a colonized subject. You end up moving to the metropolis to look at the wonders that the metropolis has to offer. So it was fine when you go on holiday. But the reality of having to now stay and live in this culture was truly a culture shock. You have to sit up straight, your back must be erect...
Bibi: That was an attempt to discipline and police the body. “Stop slouching, Bibi! Stop slouching!” That was a constant refrain. And of course now I don’t slouch anymore! [laughs]
Anshuman (voice-over): It was at boarding school that Bibi discovered her love of books.
Bibi: I didn’t grow up in a household of readers. There were no books around in terms of bookshelves in my house. But there was an interest and a commitment to us reading. So we were bought Charles Dickens and Great Expectations. And then when I moved to England, to be honest with you, going into boarding school, when I think about it, at the time the library in our school wasn’t very good. But at the time, I thought it was vast. I thought it was this huge space of new discovery and worlds that you can even escape into. So books became my refuge, and I read a lot. And I read, I read literally everything.
Anshuman (voice-over): The book that left a lasting impression on her, was James Baldwin’s Another Country.
Bibi: And it opened up another world of difference, of a black difference, over a particular point in African American history, that up until that moment had been shielded from me. Because my inroads to African American culture was through music rather than through literature. And here we are of ’50s Harlem, of a black musician and of the pain and the agony and the pleasure and the joy, but also the art, creativity, and genius of jazz music. I think it was the only book by a black writer I read throughout my school years.
Anshuman (voice-over): After completing a master’s and PhD in women and gender studies in the UK, Bibi moved back to Nigeria to work as a visiting scholar and researcher at a university.
Anshuman: Okay, so when was that moment that you said, “I need to start a publishing company.”
Bibi: While I was still at university, I would go to people’s homes—very, very middle class, elite upper class Nigerians—I would go into their homes and I would look for bookshelves and I wouldn’t see any. I know it sounds awful to be judging people. I would judge people by the bookshelves, by the taste and the kinds of books they have on their shelf.
Bibi: So a lot of the books I would see would be books like Chicken Soup for the Soul; Rich Man, Poor Dad. Those kinds of books, John Grisham.
Anshuman: Right, right.
Bibi: And then you’ll ask people. They will say to you, they’re interested in jazz and you’e like, Okay, oh, I found a kindred spirit.
Bibi: What kind of music, what kind of jazz music. And they mention Kenny G—sorry, Kenny, if you’re listening.
Bibi: And you think, Okay, uh, we’re not really gonna create monumental civilization-transforming artifacts if we’re listening to Kenny G and reading John Grisham—sorry, John Grisham, again. But we need to have more books. We need to have more books by African writers. Books that are similar to James Baldwin, where they’re documenting their moment as well as trying to reimagine the past. Books that it’s going to take us into the history that is still buried underground, under the earth.
Anshuman (voice-over): And that’s when Bibi got the idea of starting a publishing business. What would become Cassava Republic Press, the parent imprint of Ankara Press.
Bibi: I wanted such a thing to happen, to exist in the world. So I jumped on the internet and to try and see what—how do you do the thing called publishing.
Anshuman: Hey, we all have to start from somewhere.
Bibi: Yes! And I spoke to a friend, one of those, you know, Harvard-type people, and he said, You’ve got to do a business plan. Like a business projection. And of course, um, the business was just showing minus, minus, minus, minus, minus. And for the next five years there was just minus. And it was just like, it’s not the business that’s a problem. It’s the actual calculation!
Anshuman: Spoken like a true believer of possibility.
Anshuman: Earlier you spoke about wanting to see a different kind of book in the bookshelves at stores, at people’s houses, a new kind of African consciousness on display. Ankara Press is about romance novels. I’m so curious why you went into that space, specifically. Like what can romance novels achieve that other genres couldn’t?
Bibi: To be honest with you, I was not a romance reader. Unfortunately, I missed that aspect of my childhood. That completely bypassed me.
Anshuman: So no Fabio with his shirt open, dressed as a pirate, all of that?
Bibi: No! I missed all of that. [laughs]
Anshuman: I mean, you may have been spared...
Bibi: Yes, I was spared! I was trying to be kind of polite.
Anshuman: Sorry, Fabio.
Bibi: So I realized that when I speak to other, especially heterosexual women, I wonder where their notion of relationships is coming from, and I find it troubling that people have this expectation that a man will provide. And I’m aware that one of the most powerful propaganda machines for indoctrinating women into passivity and to thinking like this is Hollywood rom-coms and the romance industry. So given that it’s one of the largest genres in publishing, I better help to reengineer people’s minds by providing a romance that is doing something slightly different! Even if it’s conforming to the rules of boy-meets-girl or girl-meets-boy, it is to reconfigure that rule so that the woman is not waiting. The man is not the one constantly pursuing and also feel...because he’s pursuing, then he then thinks he can possess. And so Ankara Press is the direct opposite of that.
Anshuman (voice-over): The characters in Ankara Press’s books are multidimensional, they have careers, agency. And they pursue their desires unapologetically.
Bibi: So you have a book like A Tailor-made Romance, where she goes into an office space to check out some stuff and she encounters a guy who—he was crushing on her and he tells her he’s a tailor. Now this is in Lagos, where tailors are not seen as part of the high society. They’re seen as artisanal working class. And so she was a little bit snooty about him and gradually, um, even though she was also, she also registered the fact that he’s, like, a hunk, but nonetheless, he’s not within her social class. But eventually she finds out that he’s not quote-unquote an ordinary tailor. He has his own clothing manufacturing place and stuff.
Bibi: So you have a story like that. You have A Love Persuasion, and is about a secretary studying to be an accountant and then falls in love with the new, newly arrived, son of the MD of the bank. And the resistance of trying to follow her own desire on one level and also be conscious of the fact that they are in a working environment.
Bibi: So I think, I’m hoping that we’ve, the Ankara books people, are going to read and go away with a sense of what, how they should be thinking about relationships, about their relationship, to be able to feel they can move outside of the typical heterosexual script that they’re continually—the straight script, that we are all being assaulted by, of conforming to expectations that are unrealistic for both men and women.
Anshuman: What was it like to get Ankara Press off the ground?
Bibi: For me, I think starting is never a problem. It is how you sustain it in business. That’s a challenge. How do you keep going? How do you keep the momentum, day in, day out? That’s the real challenge. And when you continue three, four years, five years on, and you’re still doing it, then I think I said to myself, we need to clap for ourselves. You know, every single year that a business is in business, is a year that one must open a bottle of champagne.
Anshuman: Ankara Press...has it been minus, minus, minus? Has there been a plus?
Bibi: It has been a plus.
Bibi: Because people love love!
Bibi: People want to read romance. People want to read sex.
Bibi: You know, they want to have wholesome sex. Sometimes you see people, and women you’ll see when they glide in, when they’re walking down the street, thinking, Ah! Maybe this person has had a good one! [laughs]
Anshuman: Wait, that’s what you think? [laughs]
Bibi: It’s really important that we reconnect to the primacy of the erotic as a regenerative, energizing moment in our lives rather than this place of violation and denigration that the patriarchy has resigned it to.
Anshuman (voice-over): What Bibi is trying to achieve with Ankara Press is ambitious. In many ways, she’s playing a literary long game.
Bibi: I talk about being a publisher because I’m interested in the archive and I’m interested in the archive of the future.
Anshuman: What do you mean by that?
Bibi: So what I mean is that, when I look at the archive now, when I go into the archive of African letters, I think it’s not as full as I would like it to be. And so I always imagine that in 500 years time, when future people go into the archive, what are they going to find? They’re going to find what we create now. If we don’t create something now, they’re going to find still emptiness. So anything we want people to see into the future, if we want them to see it, we have to create it now. If you want to know about what happens in Dickens’ London, we read Dickens and he’s still with us. Hollywood, the foundational narrative of things, like how we think of love, Western, romantic love, people like Jane Austin, all those writings of the Bronte sisters, how they conceptualize love and relationships and stuff. They still have resonance. So we’re living the archive of the last 500 years of Western literature.
Bibi: For Africans and for non-white cultures. It’s imperative that we start to create the archive we want to see now. The kinds of conversations we want people to have in the future, we’ve got to start that now. And that’s what’s going to live on.
Anshuman: It feels like the work you are doing is making such an impact on such an incomprehensible scale. How has the work impacted you or even changed you?
Bibi: Oh, how has it changed me? You know, I don’t think people would change that much. The things we do allow us to become more of who we were and who we are. We step more into who we’ve always been. The one thing, if I do have to say about what has changed in me with running a business, is I’m not a very patient person, and I have become enormously patient, you know, because publishing, everything is slow. You know, you’re editing the book, it’s a slow process. Getting the book to the market is a slow process. I had to become a lot more patient and not be in a hurry as much as I used to be. And that’s a good thing because, um, it means that by being more patient, I can also be more tender with myself.
Anshuman: You know, I have this image of a small group of people shaping the minds of millions of people, and it almost feels like you as a publisher are curating thoughts and mind-sets. How do you manage the pressure and responsibility of that?
Bibi: You know, I don’t see it as a pressure. I see the responsibility, but I think, um, do you know this group, Sweet Honey in the Rock? They have a song that goes, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest. We who believe in freedom cannot rest.” And I think when you feel so deeply about the need for change, that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the ways in which we are expected to live our lives under the yoke of patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity, capitalist structure, that if you feel that there’s something fundamentally wrong with those systems, that it shackles us, then I don’t feel the pressure at all. What I feel is the enormous responsibility, but at the same time, I feel a sense of power that I am contributing to the curation of lives today and in the future. I wake up with Sweet Honey in the Rock in my head, and I go to sleep thinking about them, of “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.”
Listen to more episodes of Vanguard by Shopify Studios, a weekly podcast that explores the human stories of entrepreneurship from unexpected corners of our current moment.Feature image by Franziska Barczyk