Sarah Gwonyoma: Suva Book Swap founder

Sarah Gwonyoma

Before she left Fiji recently, Sarah Gwonyoma ran a mecca for Fiji book lovers, the Suva Book Swap, from her garage.

Fiji Traveller spoke to Sarah about her life in Fiji before her departure.

Sarah Gwonyoma, a writer and online book influencer by profession, moved to Fiji from the United Kingdom after meeting a “beautiful Australian man” who took a job here. She saw it as a chance to use her qualifications in international development and public health and try something completely new.

“Family and friends said you’ve only known this guy for six weeks, are you crazy? I’m a bit of a chancer. I’m sort of like, well, if it feels right, why not go for it? You never know what can happen. And if things didn’t work out, I can always come back to England, is what I had in my headspace.”

In 2009 Sarah, still in her Ugg boots, landed in Nadi Airport and began a new chapter with her partner, Tim. “I didn’t know anything about Fiji, apart from the fact that people drink cocktails at this tropical beach,” she said.

The reality of course was very different. But fairly quickly, Sarah put her qualifications and experience to work for the Fiji Network for Positive People, and then Australia’s aid and development program.

Tragically, in 2017, Tim died at the age of 38. Her brother had died that same year.

Books became her escape during that time. “When the world became really, really dark, I just threw myself into reading,” she said.

Sarah founded a book exchange from her home, which emerged out of her passion for reading, and created a social platform online called @whatsarahreadnext. “When Tim died, I basically set up this page on Instagram where I read books, and did book reviews. And people were actually reading on what I was actually saying, which is quite fun. And so then, that sort of started itself and just kind of grown into how it is now, that was really, really exciting. I started interviewing authors as a result, which is really, really fun.”

“Nothing beats the actual physical feel of a book. I’ve just always loved it.”

“A book swap is not a difficult thing to run,” says Sarah. “I was running it, I think, once or twice a week. And it was a really nice way to meet people as well. People would come by, have a browse of the books and chat.”

While the bulk of her book swappers were expats, the service was also used by locals and USP students.

“Getting physical books to Fiji was not easy,” she said. She ordered through Book Depository, and prior to the border shutdowns, would also have friends bring in books for her. “If I wanted a book as soon as possible, I would get them couriered. Also, publishers would also send me books.”

Starting young

Sarah’s love for reading ignited at a tender age. “Growing up, I had books all around me. The way I learned to read is actually my parents would leave newspapers laying around. I was just intrigued as to what are these words. What is it saying? And that’s how I learned to read from a really young age.”

Her eight-year-old son, Isaiah is a different matter she said. “[He] doesn’t love reading at all, which blows my mind, because his late father loved reading too. He really tries [to read] but doesn’t enjoy it. I mean, he’s a good reader, he just finds it boring, once I say to him, for the next hour, you are only just going to be reading. That’s kind of a hard thing to sort of take in, because we read to him a lot.

“I think reading is such a gateway to so much. Like, the escapism of it. I’m a mood reader. At the moment, I want a simple book. The last book I read was – To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara, which was really intense,” she said.

“When travelling, I don’t just take one book, I always take five books.” While she reads on both paper and Kindle, “Nothing beats the actual physical feel of a book. I’ve just always loved it.”

A full-time gig

Eventually, Sarah’s passion for books became her full-time gig. “It wasn’t anything full time, but then when COVID struck, I decided that I don’t really want to do DFAT anymore. I left DFAT and basically threw all my energies into @whatsarahreadnext. And the rest is history.”

Being based in Suva wasn’t too much of an impediment, she said. “I started to reach out to authors and ask them, oh, would you be up for talking about your book? I was like, okay, this is what I’m going to do, I’m actually going to do seasons, like, this is season one of @whatsarahreadnext. I basically organise a hotline of authors to interview. And then that’s how all that kind of grew, which was really, really exciting.

“I think they were sort of chuffed to want someone’s interest in their book. When we would connect in the interview, they’d be like, wow, you’re in Fiji. What are you doing in Fiji? I’ve never been to Fiji? What’s it like? And so, I think they were also like wow, there’s an audience in Fiji who might be interested in my work. So that’s the part that they really, really loved. But for me, I found it really easy because of my work experience with War Child UK, I’ve done lots of comms kind of reaching out to authors and things like that, so I didn’t find any of that really scary at all. And I really enjoyed it,” she said.

However, being based in Suva meant some long hours. “The taxing part was perhaps the time difference. And so, I would be getting up really early like 7am, kind of crazy hours to do it. And there’s the nerves as well, I mean, I’ll do some prep work. But, five minutes before going on, you’re suddenly like, oh my God.”

As for local authors, she said: “A few local writers that got in touch with me…Some of the local books would be not books that I would read personally. And that will become difficult because obviously I’d want to explore and help local writers. I’d be like, I could just take a picture of your book and profile you in my stories, but perhaps not on my main set of squares. And sometimes, some writers wouldn’t follow through.”

Sarah and Isaiah have now settled in Hastings, England. She is moving onto her next chapter, writing her memoir and exploring new avenues in fashion and branding.

“I’m sort of looking forward to what’s next. There’s lots and lots of ideas of where things might be headed. But for now, I’m just quite happy to just read,” she said.

It is her hope that schools in Fiji and initiatives such as the Vunilagi Book Club continue their role in encouraging the love of reading. “It starts from home and in schools,” she said.

The Suva Book Swap is now based at Greenhouse Coworking in DesVoux Road. It’s open on Fridays 1-2pm.

Story: Kite Pareti. Photos and interview: Samantha Magick

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