Meet Lucie Camara, whose feminist book group is the first step to building a community of readers and bringing a new bookstore to Paris.
In a yoga studio on Valentine’s Day, a group of readers came together for the third meeting of COVEN, a feminist book group and larger initiative to bring the only English-language feminist bookstore to Paris. Founder Lucie Camara spoke to Reading Group Choices about her inspiration for the project, her vision for the group, and how to create a safe space for discussion.
Reading Group Choices: How have the first three meetings of the feminist book group differed (if at all) in terms of attendees, discussion, or atmosphere?
Lucie Camara: They’ve all felt quite different actually. Three is an interesting number. The first one, of course, was a test run, a pilot. The attendees were mostly friends of mine, or friends of Cameil, a yoga instructor who was letting us use her studio as our venue. A couple of people had stumbled upon the event on social media or the website, but I knew most of the attendees. That ratio started shifting and, in February, most of the people were strangers to me. That being said, the atmosphere stayed just as friendly and casual as when we all knew each other. I’m actually quite proud of that.
I have also tried to emphasize that the meetings were feminist but not female-only, that everybody was welcome to attend. Of course, with that kind of topic, and also within my own community, the crowd is predominantly female. The number of male members seems to be growing though. In February, they represented a quarter of the group, which is definitely optimistic, especially since the theme of the month was Love.
I do believe in the power of exclusively female spaces, especially when it comes to healing trauma, but the whole point of the space that I am trying to create is to stimulate conversations and share ideas with as people as different as possible in a safe environment. And by safe I mean a space where we respect and care for one another in our entirety, no matter gender, race, class, sexuality. All that being said, it is probably going to be the biggest but also the most interesting challenge to create a space respectful and safe for POC and LGBTQ+ folks, while trying to stay open to all. I really hope I am not being naive about that.
RGC: Describe how you selected the inaugural books. You’ve mentioned how some are connected to particular celebrations. Did you have other criteria in mind? Do you see the process for selecting texts changing in the future?
LC: I have always liked the idea of using the calendar as an overarching theme. I guess some months make it easier than others. In February, with Valentine’s Day but also Black History Month (in North America), the book was All About Love by bell hooks. March 8th, being International Women’s Day, is a good occasion to reflect on the lasting struggle women face everyday in our sexist society, and Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me provides excellent material for that.
April is the first month of Spring and has Earth Day on the 22nd, so we will be reading Climate Justice by Mary Robinson. May sees most Mother’s Days around the world and will be focused on Motherhood by Sheila Heti. And in June, being Pride Month, we’ll read The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson.
For the first two, however, the themes were more circumstantial than seasonal. For the very first one, I was hesitating between Bad Feminist and Women Who Run with the Wolves because I wanted an introductory, powerful, starter. Cameil, who very kindly let her use her studio, wanted to start with Women Who Run with Wolves because she had read it and loved it, but I felt like it might be slightly too heavy to start with, so we did it in January, hoping the holidays would give people a bit of extra time to read it. I also liked the idea of reflecting on folklore, fairy tales, and myths over Christmas. It felt quite fitting.
I only laid out the books until June but I would really like to open the selecting process to the community’s suggestions. I don’t think I could do it any other way now that people feel so part of it. That is also something I am very proud of.
RGC: For book groups who want to explore or incorporate feminist texts, where should they begin? Do you have particular titles or resources in mind?
LC: I think collections of essays are a good way into it because there tends to be at least a little for everyone. Bad Feminist and Men Explain Things to Me are definitely two of my favorites. Classics such as Angela Davis’s Women, Race and Class or bell hooks’s Ain’t I a Woman, also make strong starting points.
RGC: Trace back COVEN to its earliest seed: Where did the need or idea begin?
LC: I had just been back from spending a few years abroad and was pondering upon what on earth I was going to do with my life. After having made my peace with not being suited for academic studies, I was back, working at what was probably my billionth café. I felt stuck in an industry that I enjoyed but was leaving me intellectually hungry.
I kept on dismissing friends when they would recommend I open my own business. I didn’t feel passionate enough about either food or drinks to dedicate my life to such a place. What gave me the sort of thrills some of my friends and colleagues got from sourcing good products, working with wine, or creating new dishes, I got out of ideas and radical conversations on philosophy and identity, particularly on gender and racial problematics. It then started to dawn on me that my actual specialty was, actually, hospitality, in the first sense of the term: creating a comfortable and safe atmosphere and experience for guests.
With this realization, the idea of combining what I was passionate about with my professional skills became obvious. On top of that I noticed a hole in the English-speaking intellectual landscape in the northern side of Paris where, by lack of bookstores and other cultural centres, coffee shops and bars were acting as intellectual hubs. That’s how the idea of COVEN started: A Feminist International Bookstore-Café-Event Venue. The book club is only the first step into that project.
RGC: What do you hope book group attendees leave a discussion with? What does an ideal discussion look like or accomplish?
LC: I hope the attendees leave with a sense of belonging to a community, a feeling of having been intellectually stimulated, and a hunger for more. A lot of people come without knowing anybody and I’m always glad to see when connections are made within the group. The event is also an occasion to learn a lot. The group is always very international, so people have different readings of the texts, and different references, which is always fascinating.
I also want to help people get back into reading. I have always been a book lover myself, but there were a few years when reading was embedded with the idea of being a university student and became very stress-inducing. I heard similar stories from a few attendees and that was one of the reasons they were happy to take part in a book club, they felt like it would help them get over that anxiety.
RGC: How do you prepare for a discussion?
LC: In order to prepare for a discussion, I first highlight the passages I find the most poignant, and with them, I identify themes within the book. Then, I try to find related additional material: videos, podcasts, articles, essays, and I share them with the attendees before the event.
RGC: Managing a discussion is a frequent interest for our community of readers: Making sure all voices are heard, respecting differing opinions. Do you have any insights or experiences from the first meetings about facilitating a discussion?
LC: It is definitely a tricky but very beautiful part of the work. I am very new at this and I do have a tendency to get into long tirades. The first thing I do to facilitate an open and comfortable conversation is to lay out the seats in a circle. It sounds very basic but I think it is actually very important. I also try to pay attention to high and low seating so the people on chairs and the people on the floor feel as entitled to speak up as each other. To that same end, I always sit on the floor.
I start the conversation by reminding people that it is not a lecture and that I don’t have anything neither to teach nor to preach. I am the host and facilitator but everybody is encouraged to participate just as much as I do, and they usually do. At all past events, everybody but maybe one or two said something. I also try to make sure the more shy people don’t feel too pressured to speak up. I don’t want people to feel like they owe something to the group. I am already very grateful for people’s presence and attention. The space is theirs whether they actively participate or just sit in silence.
I love when the conversation feels like it doesn’t need my intervention. When attendees are carried by the topic enough that they interact with each other and the conversation flows naturally, I can put my Host hat back on, and focus on people’s faces, expressions, and make sure everyone is comfortable.
RGC: Have you had moments while managing the discussion when opinions clashed, or certain voices were speaking over others?
LC: There have never been big clashes (yet), but some voices can sometimes take a bit of space. That is when my role of moderator comes in. I want people to be able to express themselves at length, but only on the conditions that they let others speak as well. I try not to let people interrupt each other, and I can be quite stern when people start chitchatting in corners. People do come with good intentions so everybody is quite mindful of what they say and how, but I do emphasize the importance of being respectful, as much in the form of speech as in the content.
RGC: What makes COVEN unique to Paris? Would the project, demands, or goals look the same if based anywhere else?
Paris is a funny city. It has been the scene of so many social and cultural movements, and home to so many different people and culture, but it still has very cold feet when anything new, or hybrid, and especially not necessarily exclusively French, comes into being. So I do believe the international community here is quite hungry for that kind of projects.
Being in Paris also means that we have the privilege of acting on a more global stage. It is my hometown so I have a strong network here and an understanding of how the city works, but most importantly there is definitely a strong international and progressive audience here that radiates over the borders and is connected to other big cities. We would probably not have the same ambitions were we in any other French cities.
RGC: Can you speak about this group — and book groups in general — as a force for enlightenment and change? What are readers able to accomplish together that they can’t alone? How does a discussion differ from other social acts, such as protests?
LC: I think book groups are important because they connect both self-care and community work. I don’t believe social change can only rely on one form of action. Protesting is obviously very important, but just as much as voting, and stimulating our minds, cultivating open dialogues, and taking care of one’s self and mental health.
The fact that a book group can be both a physical, punctual occurrence, and a virtual, permanent community is very powerful. Especially in our case, as a feminist group. Being interested in social change can feel very lonely and overwhelming sometimes. Many of us find comfort, recognition, and solace, in the books we read. A good book can make you feel less alone. But literature, as the eternal conveyor of ideas, provides great prompts for community organizing and cultivating a healthy ground for political conversations.
RGC: What is the primary goal behind the group? How do you envision it a year from now?
LC: The primary goal behind the COVEN Book Club is to identify COVEN’s community. The idea behind COVEN is to create a space for international feminism through literature and hospitality. The Book
Club is only the first step but in a year from now, we hope to have developed enough to have a physical location with good coffee, food, wine, a well-stocked bookstore, and a variety of complementary events: a book club still, but also some more hospitality industry oriented ones. I would also love to find a way for the international community to feel as connected to it as the local Parisian one but I guess that will take a bit more time. To that end, I do believe in the importance of our online presence and am trying to develop that as well.
RGC: What can readers do to support your project?
LC: First and foremost, they can follow us on social media (@covenparis). It’s a very exciting project, and we’re (as in me, and the community) in the process of developing other kinds of events and platforms, in order to someday be able to open our feminist bookstore-café.
Photo credits: Book Group, Camila Benatar; Lucie Camara, Kate Devine.
Looking for more books by and about women? Check out our recommendations for Women’s History Month!