Paper love: Ankara Press publishes romantic fiction with African characters and settings. The books are printed in a small format and are sold via an innovative distribution network. Supplied
Paper love: Ankara Press publishes romantic fiction with African characters and settings. The books are printed in a small format and are sold via an innovative distribution network. Supplied

For readers raised on fairy stories such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, romance was populated by white women with flowing locks who were wooed by handsome princes.

Mills & Boon provided further fantasy material for how life could be fulfilling for women. Their expectations of love and how to procure it were influenced in no small way by the romantic fiction genre.

Ankara Press sets out to change the face of the genre, declaring "a new kind of romance" on the covers of the 10 novels it has published since 2014. The Nigerian-based publisher provides an outlet for romantic fiction written by African authors whose narratives have African settings, storylines and characters.

Published first as e-books, hard copies are printed in purse-sized formats with attractive, funky covers designed by Onyinye Iwu. Innovative distribution outlets include hairdressers and cafes.

I had the pleasure of reading the novels of two authors from the Ankara stable — Aziza Eden Walker and Ola Awonubi. While the heroines of these stories still dream of finding their princes, they no longer spin wool in castles, while awaiting rescue.

These dynamic women are educated, employed, financially independent and sexually active. They direct plays, write novels or work in large companies. One is so successful, she gives her male beau a foot up into a world of wealth and fame.

Admired for their beauty, the women are also valued for their intelligence and abilities. While secure materially, they nurse broken hearts from previous relationships with men who would not commit, required proof of fecundity before marriage or were unworthy.

While the heroines dream of finding princes, they no longer spin wool in castles while awaiting rescue

The men may be sex on legs, but they too have complicated emotional back stories and vulnerabilities. They cry, they cook and they’re skilled at kissing. None of the lead characters smokes or uses drugs. Rather, it is smoothies and fruit juice that make frequent appearances.

There is little poverty in these stories. Only the grandmother and drug-addicted sister of Andile Sebe, the main male character in The Seeing Place by Eden Walker, live in tough circumstances in Gugulethu. But even Gogo is transported to a Johannesburg penthouse by the end of the story, while the sister’s health improves, following a stint in an expensive rehabilitation centre.

The books are formulaic: woman meets man by chance and the attraction is immediate. Yet there are obstacles to be overcome. The tension builds quickly with fast-paced action that goes from meeting to mating in under 200 small pages.

While the women want to marry on their own terms, marriage remains the outcome in each book, perpetuating a rather old-fashioned notion of romance. The lead characters are all beautiful — not a crooked tooth or blemish in sight. This is a tad disappointing in a "new kind of romance".

Walker’s books — The Seeing Place and This Crazy Paradise — are set in SA and readers will enjoy her colourful depictions of Long Street in Cape Town and the beauty of the West Coast.

Previously an actress and psychologist, she uses her inside knowledge to good effect, capturing vignettes of these professions through her characters and providing them with psychological problems.

While following the formula, the two authors tackle their material with strikingly different mores. Walker’s stories are hot and lusty from the start and climax with improbably explosive sex scenes featuring simultaneous and multiple orgasms.

Walker successfully introduces condoms into every sexual encounter without beating the safe-sex drum. One tryst in This Crazy Paradise takes place in the Langebaan lagoon.

I wondered how a condom would be donned underwater. Walker niftily interrupts the lusty pair and delays the consummation of their passion until they are on dry land.

A rather more chaste approach is taken by Awonubi, the Nigerian author of Love Me Unconditionally and Love’s Persuasion. Her Lagos-based characters become good friends before succumbing even to the temptation of a kiss. Further sexual interaction, it is implied, will take place in private after the books have ended.

While more sexually reticent, Awonubi is not shy to stand on her soap box and her novels are full of debate about the place of women in Nigerian society.

Awonubi’s female characters discuss the merits of being independent and single rather than married and subservient. Her heroines fall in love with men with a modern vision of relationships, yet it is suggested they are not the norm.

In Love’s Persuasion, Ada Okafor returns to Nigeria from London and observes that "women’s rights have stepped back fifty years". She hopes for a husband with whom to share household management, while she continues with her career.

"Any man who expects a woman to double as a cook, lover and dutiful daughter-in-law to all his relatives might as well go marry a robot," she says. A diatribe against patriarchy follows. Romantic fiction is certainly not what it used to be.

Awonubi also tackles the place of Nigeria in the world order: corruption, nepotism and the machinations of the industries in which her characters work are all commented upon.

At times, this interrupts the romance and the reader might wish to move on with the action. Yet by the end, I had learnt far more about Nigerian social relations than I was expecting.

The four short novels I read were entertaining and engaging. The descriptions of place and character are particularly well drawn. The stories stay true to their genre, while subverting gender relations.

Hopefully, Ankara will continue to publish romantic fiction that pushes the boundaries of the genre even further.

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