Public Intellectuals Radio editor Teka Lo interviews The Yellow House Library founders, Chiwan Choi and Babatunde Babafemi. Choi is a poet, writer, and editor at Cultural Weekly and founder of Writ Large Press. Babatunde Babafemi (Femi) is a poet and writer based in Nigeria. The Yellow House Library is a physical lending space and an electronic lending library in Bayelsa, Nigeria.
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TEKA: Welcome to Public Intellectual Radio, this is Teka Lo your host, I am so pleased to have Chiwan who is a poet, writer, and editor at Cultural Weekly and founder of Writ Large Press, and Femi who is a poet and writer in Nigeria. Together they have brought The Yellow House Library to a small town in Nigeria, so is the Yellow House a digital space or physical space?
FEMI: We actually have digital and physical space, we are located at the Niger Delta Region of Nigeria in a state called Bayelsa, we actually choose this particular location because the people here don’t always value education, we actually come over here to instill the importance of education. To talk to people, to let them know much about education and also reduce the illiteracy over here. We also have a website where people can also get to us – www.theyellowhouse.ng – that’s it.
TEKA: You guys had an event there last week?
FEMI: YES! We were on the street three-four weeks ago to ask kids that are not in school to tell their experience, what they are facing, to talk about it through clay mouldings, where they mould different types of structures about what they are passing through and some write us a poem. So that’s what we have been doing in the past few weeks.
TEKA: Now, literally it looked really fun and entertaining from across where we are and where I am, I don’t know where Chiwan is right now uhm..
Chiwan: I’m in.
TEKA: So…(giggles) where are you?
Chiwan: I’m in Pittsburgh right now
TEKA: You’re in Pittsburgh? Okay.
TEKA: We both are on the East Coast right now. We both are from Los Angeles, it’s kinda interesting. We have to hook one day, so how do you two come to work together. Chiwan how did you guys start The Yellow House.
Chiwan: We were already been working together in the sense that Femi was curating a lot of poems that I was publishing on Cultural Weekly. One day Femi said he was looking for help, selling his dad’s old books collections, and you know, we all know how little he will get for used books when he tries to sell them, so, my thing was, hey how much would you need for that book collections? How much are you trying to raise for that book collection and we talk for a bit and I said why don’t I buy the books from you and I just give them right back to you, so you could start a library.
TEKA: That’s it.
Chiwan: Yeah that’s how it started, that’s all I did and Femi took that and ran with it and make it what it is now, getting more books from people. Gather information or buying from them and you know, that’s how it started
TEKA: What types of books are you guys collecting? I mean you guys are still collecting books, I wanted to send Chiwan some books but Post Office is far, Post Office is the hardest thing to do now especially during the pandemic what kind of books are your guys looking for?
FEMI: Actually we looking for all genres of books, any books because at the moment I am working on the library. I thought we could also do some video, at the moment we have different collections of books from poetry to historical to spirituality. We collect all kinds of books. Books that can actually add value to people around here’s lives. That’s it.
TEKA: Do you want books in English or want books in other languages?
FEMI: Actually for now, in English will be preferable. Because we don’t know where we are going to be in the next few days, few months, so we know English is always valuable, but if we see books in different languages too, they could also be very very useful for us in the future as we grow and expand.
TEKA: What about those that visit your library, are they older people are they younger people, kids?
FEMI: Yes yes, right now a lot of people are walking in but most people don’t know how to use the web address to log in and rent so they prefer renting through WhatsApp and the average age is 20, 27, 28, in that age range.
TEKA: So are you guys thinking about expanding to other places? To other countries? Are you going to have a sister store in Korea?
Chiwan: Ummm… I personally don’t think so but at the same time this a pretty much a question to Femi because this is your project make it what you wanted it to be, but I think the problem with expanding is you are moving away from what you stated it for, your immediate community.
TEKA: Oh yes, I understand that, I mean like you want to build something there.
Chiwan: I wanted to be able to fund it more than I am able to right now, like a thing Femi could do as his job and maybe even like we will be able to hire other people and pay them to run books delivery.
TEKA: I love the whole idea. That is why I reached out to Femi. I was like wow what are you doing? You are doing some kind of international library. So are you guys planning on publishing? Do you have the capacity to be able to publish your own books or project or chapbooks?
FEMI: Actually, we are planning to do that but… Personally, I think I am the one that is rushing things here BUT at the moment there’s a picture book we are trying to publish under the Yellow House Library, so in the long run, we look into publishing a lot of voices through The Yellow House.
TEKA: I think that will be really great, have you had any other support from the Nigeria Literary community or the Nigerian-American community in the United States, have they been involved in this process?
FEMI: No, not at the moment, it has just been Chiwan funding.
TEKA: I kinda love the whole idea that we are not waiting for the white people to do things for us, the British, or others it is a pretty cool idea.
Chiwan: Yeah.. yeah.. I think from my end, there are people that are wanting to help to donate books, but the reason why I haven’t started collecting was that I am testing sending books down there. I sent a box of books in December and like you said, the Post Office here is a mess right now, I think the Post Office over there is a mess too and it takes two months to get there (chuckles) so I got to figure out if that’s an anomaly or it is going to a norm before I ask people to send me books. You know I can give the address to people and have them send it to the library directly but I don’t want a situation where books will be lost during shipping, so I am trying to figure out the best way to send books across to him
TEKA: Yes I was frustrated because even when I was trying to donate to the library through Femi, I don’t know maybe racist or nationalist or what term I could use because you can’t use PayPal, you can’t use Cashapp, I was like, oh my gosh, I send money to Nepal to like little islands I mean other parts of the world and Nigeria is not a minor country, it is one of the major countries and I can’t send money there except Western Union. Very frustrating. So how do we support you guys?
Chiwan: Right now the best way to support is through a Patreon page I set up for this purpose.
TEKA: I have books to donate and right now. We have to think about if we are sending, to send books of all genres. I am so happy that I have my little brother Femi here who through him I can learn about Nigeria ( smiles) and it is so good to listen to you Femi and learn about The Yellow House, and Chiwan as always been a good brother, supporting people, supporting the literary communities against white supremacists, the racism we are up against in our community, is there anything else you guys want to share?
FEMI: I just want to say to thank you for continuing to promote us. Once the outside world shares The Yellow House I am sure my people will want to be part of it, because the system was designed for us to want foreign interest.
TEKA: We are happy to support you. Alright, thank you guys for coming to Public Intellectual and I hope to have you here again anytime soon and hopefully, when the pandemic is over we will come to visit you Femi or you can come to visit us, whichever you want. Thank you guys for being a guest on the show. Have a lovely afternoon or evening wherever you are.