Raising up books as social justice tools
Tusome Books is devoted to underrepresented writers and topics and to changing society through intentional reading
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Valerie Chelangat spends her days reading. She reads every day, mostly in the morning, sometimes before bed in the evenings and, if she has time to spare, in the hours between.
The proprietor of Tusome Books — an online store shining a light on works by underrepresented voices on underrepresented topics — is always in the middle of a few books as at time.
Surrounded by books she has yet to read whilst thinking about books she will read next is all part of running a bookstore.
“At Tusome we focus on authors who are unrepresented in themselves and on subject matter that doesn’t get discussed as much,” Chelangat says.
“Books and stories are on my mind more than the average person.”
She has several books on her nightstand that she has yet to tackle, a few more on her bookshelf and a long list of TBRs (to-be-reads) in her iPhone Notes app.
Chelangat is a proponent of intentional reading, an approach to books that encourages readers to widen the scope of what and who they read.
“Intentional reading is simply the practice of reading outside of your norm,” she explains. “It’s not just going into a store and picking up a book and reading it, it’s about choosing to experience books you have not been exposed to or read as much.”
She describes Tusome as a “hub of intentional reading.” Whilst the books she carries may be available in other bookstores, they are not highlighted in the same way, she says.
Her intentional reading approach continues even after the books have been purchased. As well as a virtual book club, where readers can meet online to discuss books, Chelangat invites speakers to talk about under-represented issues.
“The book club meets once a month and talk about the various books in the bookstore. About what we’ve learned that we didn’t know before and how that impacts the way we see the world and experience different things,” she says.
“We are not just a bookstore. We want people to have a conversation with us about what they are learning in the books, to discuss what doesn’t make sense.”
Her aim is to draw people to discover books which cover the whole spectrum of underrepresented experiences, rather than just homing in on one a single aspect.
“A good book is one that has accurate and nuanced representation of people. So, for example, if you are writing a book that talks about Black people then it can’t just be one-sided, it can’t be just about the challenges of living as a Black person.
“It has to show the nuances of their life fully, as they go to school or as they celebrate, as they love… books that cover their entire experience. Not just about one thing.”
Chelangat, who grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, started Tusome, named for the Swahili word that means let’s read, in November 2019. She’d always loved books and knew she wanted to be a business owner — she has a degree in business administration — but the idea didn’t come to her until a conversation with a family member about her insomnia led to them telling her about e-books.
“My cousin said to me that he usually buys e-books from a mutual friend of ours who sells African literature. That conversation was a lightbulb moment for me, but I didn’t want to sell just e-books, I wanted to sell physical books and I wanted to sell audio books,” she says.
Her regulars are mostly millennials (people born between 1981 and 1996) although she is also starting to see older readers ready to widen the breadth of their reading.
“My main customers are millennials who are already on their journey of unlearning a lot of things that were taught to them, and that they were socialized to believe from young ages. I also have customers who are much older and who are doing the work of educating themselves and improving and widening their world view.”
Readers in search of a specific book can fill out the online form and she will order it in for them. These orders are not limited to just books by underrepresented authors; Chelangat can get you any book you want as long as it is still in publication.
The bulk of her orders are from Winnipeggers but she has also sold books to readers in Toronto, Vancouver and Halifax.
There aren’t any plans to open a brick-and-mortar store, she says. Her intentions are to remain virtual and she’s happy to keep providing space for people who can’t or don’t want to go into a physical bookstore.
“This is an alternate option for them, it’s a unique form of community for readers who visit. Running my online bookstore is a wonderful part of my life. I want to focus on the books that help us understand each other because we are so diverse here.”
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AV Kitching is an arts and life writer at the Free Press.