Joan Mero describes herself as a Human Resource professional at heart and a lover of books. She loves coffee and sunny days. She also loves to celebrate art in a community, and for this reason, enjoys attending concerts and bookish events.
It doesn’t end there. Joan has created an environment for book lovers to take a deep dive into the universes in books, meet fellow avid readers for necessary and interesting book banter, discussions, and exchange of book recommendations over snacks. She runs a monthly hangout for book lovers in Nairobi, at Soma Nami Books, and this year she is hosting a Toni Morrison reading challenge.
I had a chat with her where she ran it back to the genesis of her love for books.
In primary school, Joan had no place for leisure reading. “I skipped that phase,” she tells me, “because I used to feel guilty reading stories.”
Her idea, one that had conditioned her as a kid, was that reading was reserved for academic books. Whenever she picked a storybook from one of her story-reading friends, she couldn’t keep her focus, because her mind told her she should be reading for an exam. This locked her out of discovering the beauty of books, unlike her childhood friends who had already discovered authors like R.L. Stine of Goosebumps series. It wasn’t until years later that she fell in love with books.
The wind that blew her into a bookshop
In 2013, at age twenty-three, Joan graduated from Moi University and got her first internship as an HR officer. She was happy. When her first salary checked in, though meager, Joan decided to treat herself. She deserved it. Her hard and smart work at school had paid off. She took herself out, to a coffee shop at Sarit Center in Nairobi’s Westlands.
“Before leaving Sarit, my eyes fell and locked on Text Book Center.”
From the glass windows and widely open doors, Joan could see books. In her words, “It’s like a wind blew me into the bookshop. I walked in to only explore, as I hadn’t budgeted for a book, and that little step became the curse of my life,” she tells me.
A curse, in that since then, Joan has been unable to stay away from books. Her life largely revolves around books. If she isn’t reading, she is talking about books. However, upon closer investigation, what she calls a curse is a blessing, as she later tells me of the benefits she has reaped over time, reading fiction.
On that day at Sarit, a 'wind-blown-into-a-bookshop' Joan didn’t know what to select. One of the attendants, a sociable lady, got into a conversation with her and recommended that she try A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini’s masterpiece.
“Everything was an accident. A sweet accident that set me up for a new phase in my life, a phase I wouldn’t give up for anything.”
Since buying the first book, "a wind" blows her into bookshops and bookish spaces. After reading and thoroughly enjoying A Thousand Splendid Suns, Joan picked up a habit of buying a book every two months.
The covid pandemic made her read more
In 2020 when Covid held the world hostage, Joan spent a lot of time at home. While for most people staying home was dull, she blossomed. It was an opportunity for her to ramp up her reading during her free time, especially because Covid protocols set by the government banned public events. That meant that she could no longer attend concerts. She read a lot of fictional works, mostly by African writers.
She also got into Bookstagram, where she discovered a vibrant community of book lovers, online. In May 2020, she decided to change her Instagram account into a Bookstagram account, posting only stuff to do with books. The books she loves. The books on her TBR list. The bookish events she has attended and those that she plans to attend. Recommendations and reviews.
If you love bookish content, her Instagram page is a home that has warmth for you. Please go home.
“I love Goodreads because I can set reading goals and track my progress,” Joan says.
The personal growth she has experienced reading fiction
Reading fiction, sadly, has come under a brutal dig, most of the time, from non-readers. They’ve termed it a non-productive activity bathed in “time-wasting”. But could these critics be wrong? Could there be something; the benefits of reading fiction, that they are missing? I explored this topic in an article titled Of Made Up Deaths and Real Feelings, Is Reading Fiction Good for You?
Joan Mero boldly tells me that yes, there is a lot that critics of fiction do not know. She is a living testimony of the magic dust that fiction blows and the benefits of experiencing this magic.
“After I started reading fiction, I began to know how to express myself. Fiction does that. You learn empathy, through fitting into a character's shoes and walking their journey. You learn vulnerability, which is a strength. Comparing the current me who reads fiction religiously to the old me who never read, I am now better at expressing myself.”
When reading comes up in conversations, most of the time people wrap their minds around the need to learn something if you must read. To them, reading for entertainment is a lost cause. Joan hopes that we can completely shift that mentality.
“Sometimes it’s just about enjoying the story. People need to come out of the mindset that you must learn something while reading. Reading to enjoy the story is good for your wellbeing, and trust me, in the process, you end up learning a lot. Quit putting pressure on yourself that you must learn, and just enjoy the story.”
The Toni Morrison reading challenge
In 2016, Joan came across a Toni Morrison book, The Bluest Eye. She couldn’t get past the first few pages, however, and ended up dropping the book. “It wasn’t my time, yet. I was more into African stories.”
A year later, she read Toni Morrison’s Sula and loved it. Her interest was directed back to the book she had dropped, The Bluest Eye, and she made a mental note to one day go back to it. She loves to read authors in the order of their published books, as that gives her an opportunity to “grow with them.”
This year, Joan has started a community of readers, who will join her in what she calls The Toni Morrison Completist Challenge. They will read and discuss all Toni Morrison's books. Joan has set up a WhatsApp group with sixteen participants so far. They will do a book a month, with weekly recaps which run into a monthly discussion at the end of each month.
“Her [Toni Morrison] writing is complex but raw. The complexity can easily knock a reader off balance and make them shut the book. But after reading her books, I have discovered the beauty of her stories and I think people should give her a chance. I started the challenge because I don’t want someone else to give up on Toni Morrison as I did in 2016. I want to hold their hand until they discover the hidden treasures in Toni Morrison books.”
Joan’s idea of a reading challenge will not end with Toni Morrison books. Each year, she intends to keep the ball rolling, with a reading challenge. The idea is to pick an author with at least seven books, and then read them in their order of publication.
Bookstameet, a monthly bookish event
In September 2021, Joan actualised her long-time dream and plans to bring together book lovers. She started Bookstameet, a monthly event that goes down at Soma Nami Books, Nairobi's trendiest book hub. Attendees discuss books, play bookish games, engage in book banter, and exchange book recommendations. Joan plans to meld books and music for these events.
“I can’t wait to see what we’ll do this year!” She exclaims.
Her favourite book, and superhuman powers she would choose
Joan has managed to not only strike a healthy balance between a job she loves and her fervent love for books but to also rope other people into the world of books. A selfless heart. She smiles readily. She laughs easily. Her eyes glow whenever you ask her to talk about books—and passion—that’s what you see in them.
Joan Mero grew up wanting to become a journalist, a fun fact she'll let us explore some other day.
Her all-time favourite book (so far) is Jeniffer Nansubuga Makumbi's Kintu, a book she has high praise for. Or is it the author that she loves? I am yet to unravel this mystery.
“I don’t know who I love more; the book, or the author. Kintu is written for us (Africans), I found it super relatable. It’s a multi-generational story that I recommend you read!”
After jotting down her recommendation (Kintu) on my scratchpad, dressing it in gorgeous blue writing because of the praise Joan has for it, I asked her what I ask most of the people I am privileged to interview.
If you had the power to choose a superhuman ability, what would it be?
“Definitely reading minds. Okay, being invisible, too, and hibernating at will then coming back when it’s convenient for me.”