Ghanaian Writers | Book Chat :: with Michael Donkor

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 year (more like this month), I’ll be in conversation with some of the writers highlighted in last year’s series!


 

This week, I chat with Michael Donkor – author of forthcoming novel Hold, which will be out this July in the UK and in the US, under the title Housegirl, in August. Donkor grew up in a Ghanaian household in West London and currently works as an English teacher. It’s taken about 10 years for his debut novel to find a publisher, so I’m very excited for Donkor and I hope Hold is nothing but a success when it’s finally out! Enjoy this fun book chat where Donkor talks about how fervent reading turned him into a writer, the inspirations for this female-centered novel, how he identifies as a writer and more!

(note – ‘MD’ represents Michael Donkor’s responses)

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Check out the synopsis for Hold below:

A moving and unexpectedly funny exploration of friendship and family, shame and forgiveness, Michael Donkor’s debut novel follows three adolescent girls grappling with a shared experience: the joys and sorrows of growing up.

Belinda knows how to follow the rules. As a housegirl, she has learned the right way to polish water glasses, to wash and fold a hundred handkerchiefs, and to keep a tight lid on memories of the village she left behind when she came to Kumasi. Mary is still learning the rules. Eleven-years-old and irrepressible, the young housegirl-in-training is the little sister Belinda never had. Amma has had enough of the rules. A straight-A student at her exclusive London school, she has always been the pride of her Ghanaian parents―until now. Watching their once-confident teenager grow sullen and wayward, they decide that sensible Belinda is the shining example Amma needs.

So Belinda must leave Mary behind as she is summoned from Ghana to London, where she tries to impose order on her unsettling new world. As summer turns to autumn, Belinda and Amma are surprised to discover common ground. But when the cracks in their defenses open up, the secrets they have both been holding tightly threaten to seep out.

[Images via The Guardian]

 

  • How did you become an author? Has writing stories always been your dream?

MD: Reading was – and continues to be – my route into writing. I have always loved reading, always been fascinated by the way that the most skillful writers force me to reevaluate my sense of self, my beliefs and the possibilities of language. I wanted to write stories that had that kind of impact on readers … but this is, of course, no mean feat! So I read. And read. And read. I did a degree in English and a Masters in Creative Writing so I spent years considering how writers communicate big, difficult ideas with clarity and subtlety, with empathy and levity. And then I sat at my desk for the best part of a decade madly writing and rewriting Hold. While drafting the novel, I constantly sought guidance from people in the publishing industry and tried to figure out which of the wisdoms I was offered would help me to tell the story of Belinda, Mary and Amma most authentically.

 


  • Your debut – Hold, follows three young adolescent women between Ghana and London; as a male writer, what inspired you to write about women? Were there any challenges embodying the female characters?

MD: I suppose my primary inspiration for this ‘female-centred’ story came from my curiosity about the housegirls who cooked, cleaned and waited on me and my sisters when we visited Ghana as children. The housegirls were an intriguing and ubiquitous feature of these trips, but they were mostly silent, very deferential and I had very few opportunities to discover more about them. So, in some ways, writing Hold allowed me to think more deeply about how these girls – isolated from their families and working very hard – might have felt about the alienating place that they found themselves in.

Equally, I grew up in a very female-dominated household, surrounded by intelligent, complicated, kind, fascinating women: I wanted to write a novel which honoured and unpicked some of their brilliance and wit. I have spent years closely listening to my sisters, my mother and my wonderful female friends, hearing about the difficulties and joys they encounter as they navigate their way through the world, so I felt like I had a wealth of insights to draw on when creating Belinda, Amma and Mary’s stories.

In terms of other motivations, I think that there is still a worryingly patriarchal quality to many aspects of Ghanaian culture. At times female experience and achievement is overshadowed by a focus on male endeavour. I wanted to craft a story which redressed that bias a little!

 


  • Some writers dislike being ‘pigeon-holed’ and labeled as ‘African writer’ or ‘Black writer.’ How do you prefer to be identified as a writer?

MD: Yes, I do find these labels quite unhelpful! My blackness and my Africanness are integral parts of my identity and important elements of my writing, but they exist alongside other, equally important traits. For example, I’m very much a ‘London’ writer, and the character and quality of the city that I was born in and lived in all my life colours my prose hugely. I’m also a writer who is keen to depict and celebrate pop culture.

Additionally, I’m a writer interested in domestic spaces and how they shape personalities and relationships. I’m also a gay writer, and I’m an author who wants to use fiction to investigate the fraught intersections between class, gender, race and sexuality … so some might say that makes me a political writer to a certain extent … the list is endless! So I suppose the labels ‘black’ and ‘African’ are useful for giving a sense of some of my concerns, but they don’t actually address the full diversity of my literary interests. Ultimately, I think I’d like to be ‘identified’ as a writer who is trying to make exploratory, sensitive, funny, humane fiction.

 


  • Do you remember the first book you read by a Ghanaian writer? If so, what book was it and what were your impressions? 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?

MD: I’ve always found Kofi Awoonor’s poetry magisterial and haunting. Last year I read Ama Ata Aidoo’s Changes and was impressed by the crispness and precision of her language, and the complicated friendship between Esi and Opokuya.

And I love Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. It’s textured, profound – an absolute masterpiece. The scale of its ambition, its beautiful understanding of what people do to endure and survive great suffering … I cried bucketloads when reading it! Rather obsessively, I’ve now foisted it on all of my relatives!

But I’ve got lots to learn about other contemporary Ghanaian fiction, so I’m eager to hear your recommendations!

(all these Ghanaian writers were featured in the #GHat60 3-part series, last year)


  • What have you been reading and loving lately? And who are some of your favorite Black writers and influencers of your work?

MD: The Adulterants by Joe Dunthorne is currently on my bedside table. It is fantastic. It is hilarious. It is GREAT. Dunthorne’s observations are stingingly sharp. He is brilliant at exposing hypocrisies, contradictions and delusions, and his descriptions of London are so inventive; he has such a gift for creating similes that are both original and incredibly accurate in their comparisons.

More broadly, Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Toni Morrison are huge inspirations for me; because of the seriousness and commitment with which they undertake the business of making fiction and because of how – in their very, different different ways – they profoundly understand the transformative power of storytelling.

 


  • The book cover for Hold is stunning! Does the young woman on the book cover represent one of the core characters in the book? A lot of readers in Accra are excited for the release of your debut! Will the book be available in Ghana once it’s out? Any plans of launching the book in Accra?

MD: Jack Smyth – the designer at 4th Estate – has done a fantastic job with the cover. The gaze in the girl’s eyes is so wonderfully enigmatic. And I like the fact that this girl could ‘be’ Amma, Belinda or Mary; I like this possibility because it highlights the important parities and communalities between these three seemingly different girls.

I’m intending to visit Ghana early next year so I’d love to do reading in Accra then! I can’t wait to hear what Ghanaians make of the novel…

 


  • Finally, what would you like us to take away from Hold?

MD: A very difficult question indeed! I’m keen to avoid being too dictatorial about this sort of thing. Each reader should feel free to ‘take’ from the novel what seems most significant and compelling to them. My only hope is that Amma, Belinda and Mary feel sufficiently vivid, convincing and whole to readers because, when I wrote the novel, these three girls felt very alive to me.

 

Pre-order Hold on Amazon

 


Check out the 75 Ghanaian writers that were highlighted in last year’s 3-part series below:

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