US-born Ghanaian novelist Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond’s first novel, Powder Necklace was released by Simon and Schuster in 2010. She has been named by the Hay Festival in the Africa39 list of the most promising writers from Africa South of the Sahara under the age of 40. In this interview she talks about growing up in the US and Ghana and what shapes her writing.
I suppose the logical place to start would be to ask what exactly is happening to contemporary Ghanaian literature? We are next door neighbours but I can count on my fingers the number of Ghanaian writers I know. What is the scene like in Ghana?
Overall, I would characterize the literary scene in Ghana as underground and entrepreneurial. There are several organizations that support writers, but you have to know about them, and you have to know who to talk to to be a part of what they are doing. This is not to suggest it’s a closed network. In fact, I found the opposite when I launched my novel Powder Necklace in Accra in 2010. The Writers Project of Ghana immediately embraced me, inviting me as a guest on their weekly radio show, and hosting a reading of my work as part of their monthly reading series.
Likewise, readers interested in Ghanaian literature hunt for the works they like, spread the word amongst their circles, and support local authors at launches. There’s a tradition in Ghana in which authors auction signed books at launch events; attendees have been known to bid as much as $1,000 for an autographed copy of a newly launched title.
Now, as far as what is “happening to” contemporary Ghanaian literature, I think the current generation of storytellers is facing the same challenge as most authors of new literature across the continent. There isn’t a strong publishing apparatus in our countries to introduce the present generation of African writers to the world. Writers on the continent who want to be part of the international literary scene have to seek representation, publication, grants, residencies, and fellowships in Europe or America, or affiliations with those that have-just as our predecessors did via international outlets like the Heinemann and Longman African Writers Series.
This said, in Ghana, there are printing presses and publishers that serve writers who self-publish; and there is the Ghana Book Trust, the Ghana Association of Writers, the Writers Project of Ghana, which I mentioned, and many other organizations that support writers and initiatives locally. I know that in addition to their weekly radio program and monthly reading series, the Writers Project of Ghana also produces writing workshops, and they have a book club.
Additionally, there is an active network of literary bloggers in and from Ghana including Geosi Gyasi founder of GeosiReads, Afridiaspora.com’s Nana-Ama Kyerematen, and Kinna Likimani, the blogger behind KinnaReads who serves on the board of the Mbaasem Foundation which was founded to support African Women writers by Likimani’s mother, legendary Ghanaian scribe Ama Ata Aidoo.
When it comes to the number of Ghanaian writers you’ve heard of, Ghana doesn’t have as big a population as Nigeria or Kenya, so there are simply less of us committing to the adventure of this profession. Even still, there are a bevy of contemporary Ghanaian novelists, essayists, and poets like Ayesha Harruna Attah whose debut Harmattan Rain was shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Writers Prize and has just released her second novel Saturday’s Shadows. Ghanaian-Nigerian author and poet Ben Hinson is working on an exciting historical literary thriller called Eteka: The Rise of Imamba. Acclaimed memoirist Meri Nana-Ama Danquah has a new book coming called Truer Than the Red, White and Blue: An African Childhood, American-Style. Martina Mamle Wolo Odonkor won the Burt Award for African Literature in 2012 for her manuscript Kaya Girl. Ghanaian-Nigerian Taiye Selasi burst onto the scene with her poetic debut Ghana Must Go. Poets Nana Nyarko Boateng and DK Osei Yaw are forces. And award-winning writer Nii Ayikwei Parkes’ debut Tail of the Blue Bird was also shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Writers Prize. To name a few.
The truth is, if you asked me to name as many writers from Malawi or Congo, I would be stumped too, which is why it’s so important that Africans develop a publishing industry on the continent that is linked to the markets across Africa. If we had a strong transnational African publishing industry, obviously, we would not be as reliant on the tastes of gatekeepers in New York and London.
Another thing to note, by the year 2050, 40% of the world’s youth will be African. That’s 1 billion children. If we can develop a strong, linked base of readers now, African writers would not have to leave the continent to be bestsellers.
Nigerian writer and scholar, Pius Adesanmi recently talked about what he termed “reverse migration” of African writers in the Diaspora now looking back and writing about Africa or trying to reconnect with their African roots. To what extent is this a concern for you?
It is very important to me to understand, on an emotional level, what drove my parents-and 3,000,000 other Ghanaians between 1966 and 2006-to leave the country of their birth, and the privileges that come with that birthright, for the unknown. I know that, on a practical level, they left for opportunities that weren’t/aren’t available to them in Ghana. But they traded a lot for these things, and I wonder wistfully, and through my writing, if it was worth it.
In Ghana, my parents came from relative privilege, and did not have to navigate racial prejudice, directly at least. In America, they struggled to rise through the ranks at their jobs and raise their children without the support they would have had at home. As a result, they sent my siblings and myself to Ghana for years at a time when we were kids.
Sending children “back home” was relatively common among the Ghanaian community that lived Abroad, and, then and now, I view it as one example of the many stark differences between Ghanaian and American culture (and, by extension, the differences between African culture and Western culture).
Ghanaian families are much more elastic than urban ones in the U.S. or Europe. For example, most people in Ghana would not bat an eyelash about a child being raised by an auntie, uncle, or family friend in a different village or city, though the parents are alive and able-bodied. In the Ghanaian language Ewe, the word for “Auntie” is “little mother” or “big mother” depending on where your actual mother falls in the birth order. Also, in many cases, extended family lives on the same compound. In the U.S., there is a clearer demarcation between nuclear and extended family.
Neither is better or worse, and each cultural expression has its practical advantages, but these differences are confusing when you are steeped in both cultures and straddle them. I personally struggle to reconcile many of the dissimilarities, even as I decide for myself that it is okay to eschew some, cling to others, and create a new way of doing things that feels right for me.
You were also sent back home as a child, as is Lila, the lead character in your debut novel Powder Necklace. This is novel is based on your experiences, isn’t?
Yes, Lila’s story is a fictionalized account of my own story. When I was 12, I thought I was going to Ghana on vacation. Instead, this “vacation” was part of a plan my parents devised to keep my siblings and me in Ghana while they worked to save money and ultimately move back to Ghana themselves.
Just as Lila did, I came to Ghana with a major superiority complex and disdain for Ghana/Africa. Prior to this trip, my only exposure to Africa was my parents and what I had seen on the news.
My parents were clear that Africa was not a land of primitive people running around barefoot and living in trees, but their descriptions of the good life there-and the perfectly behaved children that populated this utopia-did not match up to the fact that they had left Ghana for America. Additionally, many of the Ghanaian parents I knew wielded going back to Ghana as a threat to their children, as in, “If you don’t behave, I’ll send you to Ghana!”
Meanwhile, the Ethiopian famine was big news back then; and Ethiopian children with distended bellies from malnourishment, and skeletal arms too weak to swat the flies that assailed them, were the optics. I wanted no part of this Africa.
But once I was in Ghana, I was shocked to find a very different picture from the negative of the country I had had in my mind. It was far more advanced than I had imagined. And in addition to the poverty, there was unbelievable wealth on display. In those years in Accra, I saw more Mercedes Benzes and BMWs than I had seen in my life. Suddenly, I knew people who lived in mansions. Almost everyone seemed to have at least one live-in servant.
Lila finds all of these realities jarring and titillating as well, but it’s when she attends boarding school that she is forced to face them more intimately. Her school is one of the best in the country, populated with the daughters of wealthy Ghanaians, yet it is ravaged by a water crisis that forces the girls to steal water, fight for it, even offer teachers sexual favors for it. She must also confront her prejudices about Ghana, and relate them to her own Ghanaian origin, as she builds friendships and begins to develop an understanding of the country and culture for herself.
How hard or easy was it to write this story?
Nana at a book signing event for her first novel Powder Necklace
Writing Powder Necklace was cathartic for me. I went through a range of emotions as I revisited my time in Ghana, veering from resentment of my parents for sending me in the first place to embarrassment of the shameful attitude I displayed toward my Ghanaian classmates to understanding of the dynamics that caused some of my mates to treat me with such contempt.
I also began to appreciate that my parents had done a good thing for me by sending me to Ghana. If I had not lived and schooled in Ghana for those three years, I would probably continue to harbor negative feelings about my Ghanaian heritage, or would have come to the awakening much later. The experience also gave me a perspective on the world that I didn’t have prior to leaving America. I started to understand that you can’t just blindly accept what the media or even your parents tell you about something. You have to investigate and discover for yourself.
Practically and logistically, it was difficult to write Powder Necklace. It is my first book and I had no idea what I was getting into when I began the project. I was working a full-time job so I could only write the book before work, on the commute to and from work, after work, and on the weekends. For about two years straight, I slept for 3-5 hours a night, if that.
Getting an agent was even harder once I finished the book. It took me four years to find the literary agent that ultimately sold Powder Necklace to its publisher Simon and Schuster.
In writing this experience, even if in a fictionalized form, what influenced what you left out and what you included in the work?
Powder Necklace started out as a memoir, but I later decided to fictionalize it as I realized that in telling my story, I would have to tell other people’s stories too. I didn’t think it fair to expose other people just because I wanted to expose myself. Fictionalizing the story, freed me to examine it more objectively and consider how a character like mine came off to the family I stayed with and the girls I schooled with.
Prior to your return to Ghana as an adolescent, you felt being born in the States placed you on a special pedestal and now the dominant narrative in African literature is Afropolitanism. Is Nana Afropolitan? What does it even mean to you?
Hmm… I don’t know that the dominant narrative in African literature is Afropolitanism. Taiye Selasi, Teju Cole, Tope Folarin, Chika Unigwe, and many other contemporary African authors have written narratives about Africans outside Africa, but there are many others who have written about Africans in Africa.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s first book Purple Hibiscus was based in Nigeria, and, yes, the characters in her second novel were educated overseas, but Half of a Yellow Sun was set in Nigeria and focused on examining a slice of history many young people outside Nigeria did not know much about. Only her short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck and her latest novel Americanah grapple with what life can be for African immigrants navigating life outside Africa. Ayesha Harruna Attah’s Harmattan Rain is mostly set in Ghana as is her second, Saturday’s Shadows.
As someone who earns a living as a copywriter, I love the term “Afropolitan.” It’s a clever word and a powerful brand; and it’s a refreshing antidote to the famished Ethiopian child I mentioned earlier that had become Africa’s poster child. Moreover, as someone who was born and mostly raised in America, when I first read Taiye Selasi’s article “Bye-Bye Babar” in which she introduced the term I shrivered with the pride of recognition. I certainly identified with some of the “cultural mutts” she described with a “funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes.”
That said, I don’t consider myself an “Afropolitan” mainly because the term-because it is so clever-has been bastardized and coopted into a caricature that does not take into account the profound points Selasi raises in “Babar.” She concludes the article by pointing out that Africans living Abroad are a scattered tribe, obsessed with questions of repatriation and how to support the continent’s growth. But many people have taken hold of the sexier parts of her observations about the Afropolitan that depict privileged Africans with American and European accents cavorting in clubs and hopscotching to different spots on the map without regard for those on the continent.
I’m passionate about Africans pushing past the real and imagined divides that only diffuse our power as a people, so I prefer the simple label of “African”. As far as I’m concerned, you don’t have to live in Africa or speak an African language to be African. African heritage comes down to lineage, so all black people are African in my book. I shiver when I think about what the continent could be if black people around the world considered Africa their home continent and treated it accordingly.
Why literary fiction? Why not sci-fi or crime novels? I don’t suppose this has anything to do with the influence writers like Chinua Achebe and Buchi Emecheta have on you.
Growing up, fiction helped me better understand the world, particularly the worlds of people I rarely encountered in real life. Likewise, writing helped me better articulate my world and empathize with others who, on the surface, are very different from me. So, as a kid, I tried my hands at many genres and styles, mainly young adult.
As I grew up, and my reading tastes evolved, I became particularly caught up in stories by African-American writers like Bebe Moore Campbell, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Lorraine Hansberry. This period coincided with my college years, during which I earned a degree in Africana Studies and Political Science.
After college, I stumbled on Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood and that was it for me. I knew the kind of work I wanted to write.
For a writer keen to reconnect, what does being named in the Africa39 list (And the name does sound like some superhero group, doesn’t it?) mean to you?
It means so much to me that the Africa39 project recognized as African those of us born to the millions of émigrés that left the continent. This recognition means one less division separating Africans at home and Africans living abroad, on paper at least.
Your story in the Africa39 Anthology is allegorical. Clearly you wanted to convey some political and socio-cultural message. What informed the choice of this style?
I wrote “Mama’s Future” shortly after completing my second novel, which is set in Ghana from 1962 to 1999 when the nation was rocked by successive coups. I had also started research on a new novel, which is set much farther back in time, and I was feeling seduced and charmed by the legends of African history.
I was imagining Mansa Musa’s wealth, as well as the abundance foreigners came to meet in Africa when they came to centers like Timbuktu to trade and eventually journeyed to Africa with the intent to exploit. I was feeling heartbroken about all that was lost when the slave trade ripped 12 million souls from the continent. I was feeling bitter about how poorly much of Africa is faring close to 60 years after most African nations became independent. And I was feeling frustrated by the tension between Africans on the continent and Africans in the Diaspora.
This tug of pride, frustration, and anger was so personal; it reminded me of the confusing confluence of emotions family can inspire. We’ve all heard the term “Mama Africa” and with this story, I wanted to confront this old, beautiful, frustrating lady and tell her how I felt about her, and also imagine what she might say to me.
Nana in Port Harcourt at the World Book Capital event
What is the story of your writing? What informed it and at what point did you realize that is what you want to do with your life?
I was the kid that would hide in the bedroom at parties, behind the bed piled high with coats, and write. If I liked a book or a song or a television show or a film, I would diligently try to write my own version. Writing was my escape and my therapy throughout the angst of childhood, but I never entertained the idea of making it a profession until my sophomore year in college when my older sister gave me a journal for my birthday.
The cover featured an illustration of a woman with wild hair and a wilder outfit, and across it, the words “Book Woman” were scrawled with authority. I thought, “That’s me!” and my sister confirmed it. She told me, “You know you can be a writer, right?” And I took her words as permission to drop the farce that I wanted to be an obstetrician/gynecologist like Bill Cosby’s television alter ego Heathcliff Huxtable.
After college, I took a job in advertising, while, on the side, I began pitching magazine editors to write articles. I also started writing the first draft of what ultimately morphed into Powder Necklace.
I got my first break writing and editing for a magazine called Trace, a gorgeous glossy, headed by a Togolese man, that traced the goings and comings of the coolest personalities around the world making music, fashion, and culture. I wrote so many articles and profiles in the time that I worked there; it really helped me polish my early style.
As I amassed clips from other publications, I began working as a copywriter at an agency where I wrote for clients including Nike and L’Oréal Paris. That too was incredible training because I had to write all sorts of things from product descriptions to headlines to scripts.
Around 2005, I worked up the courage to begin pitching Powder Necklace to literary agents. I was rejected for four years before my then-agent took me on and sold it to Simon and Schuster within two months. Powder Necklace was released April 6, 2010.
There is a second book in the pipeline, isn’t there? When is it coming out?
Yes! I am really looking forward to the release of my second book. My agent has begun sending it out to publishers, and so I wait…