Once again, the month of March is here! Ghana gained independence in March, so I like to dedicate this month to celebrating Ghanaian writers and their work. In the African literature scene, Ghanaian writers and their books are seriously underrated. As a reader of Ghanaian heritage, I enjoy discovering new Ghanaian writers and learning about our pioneer writers. If we don’t celebrate our own, who will?
Last year on African Book Addict! we celebrated 75 Ghanaian writers and their books in a 3-part series. This month, (more like this month), I’ll be in conversation with some of the writers highlighted in last year’s series! This week is the last installment of the conversations I have with writers of Ghanaian descent.
This week, I chat with Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond – author of Powder Necklace, which was published in 2010. I enjoyed Powder Necklace back in 2013, before the creation of this book blog (hence no book review on the site). Since my 2018 reading intentions are to re-read some novels and indulge in more work by Ghanaian writers, I shall be re-reading and reviewing Nana Ekua’s coming-of-age debut this year. Enjoy this fun book chat where Nana Ekua talks about what she learned about herself while writing her debut, how she feels about the future of Ghanaian literature, the Black writers who influence her work, new projects that will be published soon & more!
(note – ‘NEBH’ represents Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond’s responses)
Check out the synopsis for Powder Necklace below:
To protect her daughter from the fast life and bad influences of London, her mother sent her to school in rural Ghana. The move was for the girl’s own good, in her mother’s mind, but for the daughter, the reality of being the new girl, the foreigner-among-your-own-people, was even worse than the idea.
During her time at school, she would learn that Ghana was much more complicated than her fellow ex-pats had ever told her, including how much a London-raised child takes something like water for granted. In Ghana, water “became a symbol of who had and who didn’t, who believed in God and who didn’t. If you didn’t have water to bathe, you were poor because no one had sent you some.”
After six years in Ghana, her mother summons her home to London to meet the new man in her mother’s life—and his daughter. The reunion is bittersweet and short-lived as her parents decide it’s time that she get to know her father. So once again, she’s sent off, this time to live with her father, his new wife, and their young children in New York—but not before a family trip to Disney World.
- I remember reading your debut novel, Powder Necklace back in 2013 and resonating with it on so many levels. At the time, I hadn’t read a book that accurately articulated the many issues I had with myself and others (mostly Ghanaians) after I moved to Ghana at the age of 10, so I thank you! Why was it important for you to write the story?
NEBH: Thank you! I’m so glad to know Powder Necklace resonated with you. It was important to me to write Powder Necklace because I had so many misconceptions about Ghana before I went to live and school there at 12.
My parents had pumped it up as this utopia where kids never misbehaved, and would threaten to send my siblings and me there whenever we didn’t act right. Meanwhile, it felt like American news programs of the early ‘80s were conflating the Ethiopian famine with all of Africa. Add that to the Save the Children commercials starring Sally Struthers that were repeatedly on air, and it seemed as if Africa was a Land of Flies and Kwashiorkor-Stricken Children. No wonder some of my classmates in the States thought anyone from Africa was a “Booty Scratcher.”
With Powder Necklace, I wanted to share the slice of Africa I experienced in Ghana. Yes, there was poverty, but there was also wealth and both stations were far more complicated than depicted in American media or even by family. Everything and everyone I encountered was far more nuanced.
I also felt like there weren’t many contemporary books for Black kids who weren’t African-American—at least I hadn’t come across many growing up. In the ‘90s, when Black literature was experiencing a wave with books by Terry McMillan, E. Lynn Harris, Bebe Moore Campbell, J. California Cooper, April Sinclair, et al, most centered on the African-American experience. I wanted Powder Necklace to speak to the experience of being Black and African in the diaspora.
- Did you learn anything about yourself while writing Powder Necklace?
NEBH: I did. Powder Necklace was inspired by my experience getting sent to school in Ghana at 12. It fundamentally changed my personality and intensified my faith in God, but I had not fully dealt with the resentment and anger I felt from being tricked into staying in Ghana. As I began to write the book, I realized how much I had suppressed about the experience. I was surprised by how painful it was to revisit the isolation and fear I felt as a kid when it sunk in that I would be in Ghana without my parents for years, at a boarding school two hours’ drive from my home in Accra.
I had also been hazed by many of my schoolmates during my time at school. In my mind they were all villains, but as I wrote, and had the distance to see myself as a character in a bigger story, I could see the cultural chauvinism I brought to my interactions with my fellow students and still held in some ways.
- Three years ago, I read a compelling essay of yours in Mosaic Literary Magazine – ‘The African Renaissance’, where you discussed the trajectory of African literature over the years and the interrogation of ‘authentic’ African identity tagged to stories and writers. Some writers dislike being ‘pigeon-holed’ and labeled as ‘African writer’ or ‘Black writer.’ How do you prefer to be identified as a writer?
NEBH: I appreciate being identified as an “African writer” or “Black writer” because I am proud of my Africanness and my Blackness. It took me a long time to get here. I had to get over years of cultural indoctrination designed to make me feel ashamed of my dark skin, and my Ghanaian name and origin—and now that I have, I refuse to have my identity erased or downgraded by anyone, including myself.
The only reason being labeled an “African” or a “Black” writer can pigeonhole is because mainstream culture is infected with racist notions about what it means to be African and Black, and the powers that be have a track record of allowing only certain types of narratives by Black people to see the light of day. By standing proudly in my identity and working to tell authentic stories, I am defying the idea that we should be ashamed of who we are and forcing people to see that no race or ethnicity can be narrowed down to one story or experience.
- Do you remember the first book you read by a Ghanaian writer? If so, what book was it and how was the experience? After working on the #GHat60 project last year, I was amazed at the great number of Ghanaian writers doing amazing work. How do you feel about the future of Ghanaian literature?
NEBH: The first book I read by a Ghanaian writer was a play—Ama Ata Aidoo’s The Dilemma of a Ghost. I immediately connected with her story of a Ghanaian man bringing his African-American wife home to Ghana and the clash they were dealing with because I was going through a similar experience as I read it at school in Ghana.
I think the future of Ghanaian literature is limitless. Writers like Kofi Akpabli, Nana-Ama Danquah, Nana Awere Damoah, Esi Edugyan, Martin Egblewogbe, Boakyewaa Glover, Yaa Gyasi, Ayesha Harruna Attah, Lesley Lokko, Cheryl Ntumy, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Kwei Quartey, Taiye Selasi, and yourself are not only writing a diversity of stories, but many are creating opportunities and support systems for other writers.
Nana Awere Damoah has started the Ghana-based online bookstore BookNook, which should make it easier for readers in Ghana to get their hands on books by Ghanaian authors. Together with Kofi Akpabli, Nana Awere Damoah also goes around Ghana producing open mic nights. Martin Egblewogbe co-founded Writers Project Ghana and co-hosts a radio show on Ghana’s Citi FM that features Ghanaian writers as well as writers from all over the continent.
(all these Ghanaian writers were featured in the #GHat60 3-part series, last year)
You have your blog, which promotes African authors, and there are other sites focused on African literature too like Nana-Ama Kyerematen’s AfriDiaspora and Ainehi Edoro’s Brittle Paper. Plus, there are writing contests geared toward young Ghanaians like the #360WritersChallenge, which is aimed at university students and the Blooming Minds Young Writers Award for children, not to mention the proliferation of prizes that have cropped up in the last five years geared toward African writers including the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship.
Right now, Ghanaian writers of any age and stage can find encouragement, support, and inspiration among peers and promoters. If this continues—and I believe it will if we as writers and lovers of literature remain vigilant about creating and supporting individuals, initiatives, and institutions that support us—there’s no reason Ghana can’t be home to a proliferation of powerful literary voices generation after generation.
- What have you been reading and loving lately? And who are some of your favorite Black writers and influencers of your work?
NEBH: I recently devoured Baruch Sterman’s The Rarest Blue. I know I’m so so late on The Life of Pi, but I finally read it and absolutely loved it. Currently, I’m in the middle of Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen.
My favorite Black writer is Buchi Emecheta. Reading her work, it’s clear how much empathy she had for her characters, and she had a gift for pacing. In addition to Ms. Emecheta, there are so many Black writers I aspire to be as honest and fearless as in my writing, including Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Both women are such astute and commanding storytellers.
I love the care Ayesha Harruna Attah gives to the tiniest details. NoViolet Buluwayo has a fierce way with words that I deeply admire. I so appreciate the poetry of Taiye Selasi’s style. And Ama Ata Aidoo is a legend. Her commitment to telling nuanced stories of Ghanaian lives, particularly Ghanaian women’s lives, has set the benchmark for contemporary Ghanaian writers.
- I enjoyed your short story – Mama Africa, which was published in the Africa39 Anthology (2014) and I’m excited to see that you’ll be featured in Everyday People: The Color of Life – a Short Story Anthology this summer (August 2018). Do you have a new novel or collection of stories currently in the works to be published soon?
NEBH: Thank you for reading and following my work! I have finished a second novel that I’m really eager to get out into the world. I don’t have a publication date yet, or a publisher, but I’m confident I will soon. In the meantime, I’m working on another novel, a children’s book series, and a literary project for Ghanaian writers. I also have a short story in the forthcoming anthology Accra Noir.
- Thanks so much for taking the time to participate in this book chat!
NEBH: Thank YOU for all of your support.
Purchase Powder Necklace on Amazon
SPECIAL THANKS TO: Ayesha Harruna Attah and Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond for participating in this fun miniseries of book chats! Also, thank you to all the readers of the book blog who have enjoyed these book chats with writers of Ghanaian descent. #ReadGhanaian!
Check out the 75 Ghanaian writers that were highlighted in last year’s 3-part series below: