Ghanaian Writers | Book Chat :: with Ayesha Harruna Attah

Once again, the month of March is here! Ghana gained independence in March (TODAY, March 6th 1957), 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!


 

First up is Ayesha Harruna Attah – author of Harmattan Rain, Saturday’s Shadows and forthcoming The Hundred Wells of Salaga, which will be published by Cassava Republic Press in May! Enjoy this fun book chat where Ayesha talks about the inspirations for her forthcoming novel, the first book she read by a Ghanaian writer & the future of Ghanaian literature, the Black writers who influence her work and why we should indulge in The Hundred Wells of Salaga.

(note – ‘AHA’ represents Ayesha Harruna Attah’s responses)

••

Check out the synopsis for The Hundred Wells of Salaga below:

Aminah lives an idyllic life until she is brutally separated from her home and forced on a journey that turns her from a daydreamer into a resilient woman. Wurche, the willful daughter of a chief, is desperate to play an important role in her father’s court. These two women’s lives converge as infighting among Wurche’s people threatens to cleave the region, during the height of the slave trade at the end of the 19th century.

Set in pre-colonial Ghana, The Hundred Wells of Salaga is a story of courage, forgiveness, love and freedom. Through the experiences of Aminah and Wurche, it offers a remarkable view of slavery and how the scramble for Africa affected the lives of everyday people.

 

  • The Hundred Wells of Salaga is your 3rd forthcoming novel, congratulations on this achievement! When did you first get ideas on the story and how long did it take you to write the novel?

AHA: Thank you! About ten years ago, I found out that my great-great grandmother was enslaved. I wanted to know more. Who was she? Where had she come from? What were her desires before her dreams were snatched away? To unearth more, I made a trip to Salaga, in northern Ghana, where there was an infamous slave market. But I kept hitting walls – either people didn’t want to talk or they didn’t know enough. So in 2012, I decided to research how people ended up in Salaga and to also put my imagination to work. I officially started writing in 2014.

 


  • Did you learn anything about yourself while writing The Hundred Wells of Salaga?

AHA: I learned just how much I didn’t know about African history. For instance, it was a big surprise to me that in the 19th century in the Sokoto Caliphate, there were women teachers, jajis, who taught other women and they used poetry as a way of disseminating values.

 


  • While reading Harmattan Rain, I saw bits of my life reflected in Sugri’s character and in Saturday’s Shadows, Kojo’s character mirrored a lot of my life as well! How much of your personal life seeps into your stories?

AHA: I don’t consciously set out to put my lived experiences into my writing, but it would be almost impossible to divorce myself from my characters. Even if I were writing the vilest character on earth, it would be with my flavor and through my eyes. Of course, there are certain moments in life that are too good to keep to oneself and, those, I very intentionally put into my stories. For instance, the anecdote in Saturday’s Shadows, where a man cuts himself with a blade to prove he’s invincible—that was a real life scene I witnessed.

 


  • 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?

AHA: I think it was The Anthill in the Sea, an illustrated poetry book by Atukwei Okai. I don’t even remember how old I was. Maybe seven. I loved it.

On the future of Ghanaian literature, there is so much potential and possibility brimming, which I find really exciting. I think the work the Writers Project of Ghana is doing is commendable and writers such as Ruby Goka, Nana Awere Damoah, Mohammed Naseehu Ali, Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Boakyewaa Glover give me hope for our generation of writers. What we desperately need are publishing houses with serious distribution networks.

(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?

AHA: After almost a year and a half of new mummy duties, I have started reading again. Since January, I have read Akwaeke Emezi, JJ Bola, Ayobami Adebayo, all debut novelists and I have loved all their books.

I devour work by Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Bessie Head, Ama Ata Aidoo, Lucille Clifton, and of course, Ayi Kwei Armah, who gave me the push I needed to write my first novel.

 


  • Finally, why would you like readers to indulge in your forthcoming, The Hundred Wells of Salaga? What would you like us to take away from the story?

AHA: The involvement of Africans in the slave trade is a part of history that I feel hasn’t been confronted or dealt with enough. There were entire villages built in rocks to prevent slave raiders from attacking. It was a traumatic moment we suffered on the continent, and if trauma isn’t healed it manifests itself in disease, passiveness, self-harm… The list is endless. My impression is that most African countries do not want to deal with this past. Just recently, the world learned of slave auctions in Libya. I was ashamed and appalled that Ghanaians and Nigerians were involved, once again as middlemen. I hope that this book will wake us up to the role that we played in the slave trade, and begin us on the path of forgiveness and healing.

 

Pre-order The Hundred Wells of Salaga on Amazon

 

Check out my thoughts on Ayesha Harruna Attah’s novels:

Harmattan Rain  |  Saturday’s Shadows

 


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

 

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Poetry | soft magic. & Questions for Ada

Hey everyone! At the end of my review of salt. by Nayyirah Waheed, I listed a bunch of contemporary poets and expressed my keen interest in reading their work in the near future. Poets – Upile Chisala and Ijeoma Umebinyuo were on that list and I finally purchased their collections (for my birthday last year) and enjoyed them at the beginning of this year. Below are mini reviews of their respective poetry collections.

(this is African Book Addict!’s 100th post by the way!)

soft magic. by Upile Chisala

Date Read: January 7th 2017

Published: September 2015

Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing

Pages: 122

 

 

 

 

The Blurb

soft magic. is the debut collection of prose and poetry by Malawian writer, Upile Chisala. This book explores the self, joy, blackness, gender, matters of the heart, the experience of Diaspora, spirituality and most of all, how we survive. soft magic. is a shared healing journey.

 

Review – ★★ (2 stars)

soft magic. is a decent collection, Upile (who is a young storyteller and ‘artivist’ from Malawi) has done well. I liked that soft magic. was healing and self-helpish, but this collection is more of a 2.5 stars rating, for me. It’s hard to rate and review a poetry collection you aren’t really fond of, because poetry is so personal to the poet and his/her journey – who am I to have an opinion on anyone’s journey?

This collection could have benefitted from more editing- the typos were quite annoying to spot. I hate to compare (especially since Upile recently went on a rant on Twitter about how discouraging it can be when people compare African writers to Chimamanda Adichie) but in my opinion, some of the poems felt like a knock-off from ‘salt.’ Also, I felt Upile overused the word ‘darling’ in this collection. I rolled by eyes so hard at every poem (which is about 80% of them) where ‘darling’ appeared; there are so many other words of endearment that could have been used in this collection. On a lighter note, I do appreciate how pro-black this collection is. The poems that expressed Upile’s unapologetic pride for her heritage and blackness were the most powerful.

My favorite poems:

being this ebony.
having this name.
carrying this language in my mouth.
there were times when I only wanted
to blend in
to sit unnoticed,
un-special,
but blending in is fading out

 

here we are,
black and in love with ourselves
and they spite us for it

Even though this short poetry collection is very pro-black, I wouldn’t highly recommend it. I just didn’t find the poems compelling or wholesome. Like I stated before – it is difficult to rate and review a poetry collection, because poetry is very personal to the poet and his/her journey. But you never know – give this collection a try, we all have different tastes! Upile recently published a new collection called Nectar, which I hope is a bit more polished than soft magic. I might purchase Nectar in the near future but until then, I will continue to enjoy Upile’s thoughtful commentary on Twitter and her lovely photos on Instagram.

★★ (2 stars) – Thumbs down.

Purchase soft magic. on Amazon


Questions for Ada by Ijeoma Umebinyuo

Date Read: January 27th 2017

Published: August 2015

Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing

Pages: 216

 

 

 

 

 

The Blurb

The artistry of Questions for Ada defies words, embodying the pain, the passion, and the power of love rising from the depths of our souls.  Ijeoma Umebinyuo’s poetry is a flower that will blossom in the spirit of every reader as she shares her heart with raw candor.  From lyrical lushness to smoky sensuality to raw truths, this tome of transforming verse is the book every woman wants to write but can’t until the broken mirrors of their lives have healed. In this gifted author’s own words—“I am too full of life to be half-loved.”  A bold celebration of womanhood.

Review – ★★★★★ (5 stars)

THIS collection right here is pure gold. Questions for Ada by Nigerian poet – Ijeoma Umebinyuo, is full of strength, vulnerability and pride. Every word in these poems is heavy with meaning and purpose. These poems show you that all your emotions are valid and must be felt. Many poetry collections published nowadays feel lazy and words just seem to be thrown onto the pages. But Questions for Ada is a collection that was carefully crafted with love and full awareness of self. I’ve dog-eared sooo many of the pages in this book because the poems truly resonated with me. I found myself reflecting after reading a couple of poems at a time. I love when a piece of writing makes you reflect on your life and society and allows you to think about them critically. Ijeoma did the damn thing with this poetry collection!

My favorite poems:

Your mother was your first mirror.
tell me,
didn’t she carry herself well enough
to make you feel like a God?
(pg. 16)

Freedom-

Your feminism
wears a wrapper,
cooks for her husband
changed her surname
(pg 33)

you are not alive
to please the aesthetic
of colonized eye
(pg. 117)

You asked your father
how you should say your name.
He said if they cannot say your name
then they must try,
but you will not soften it,
you will not break the magic apart,
you will not be ashamed of it.
(pg. 160)

 

Questions for Ada –

Ada, are you in love? Yes.

Is being in a relationship hard work? Yes

Do you write love poems for your lover?

Every day.

Does you lover believe in you?

Yes, but sometimes I fear my lover does not

comprehend her light.

What do you do on those days?

I bathe her, I play some Jazz,

I fed her, I weep for her.

Describe her in a sentence.

Her eyes carry strength,

her words scratch, she speaks love.

Ada, are you in love? Yes.

Is being in a relationship hard work? Yes.

Who is your lover? Myself.

(pg. 78)

If I could quote all the poems in this collection, I would – but I have to respect the writer’s copyright terms! Please purchase the book to enjoy the rest! A couple of weeks ago, AFREADA featured Questions for Ada in their weekly #AFREADS recommendations on Instagram and used my short review from Goodreads as the caption for the post. I was elated to see that Ijeoma appreciated my words (which don’t even do this collection’s excellence justice).

I had to screenshot this before it got deleted 🙂

Questions for Ada by Ijeoma Umebinyuo is beautiful work. I like to believe her target audience is women of color/ black women in Africa and the Diaspora; the poems speak on blackness, womanhood, relationships, brokenness, Africa, Diaspora, heritage, loving thyself and others. But I wholeheartedly recommend this collection for everyone to experience these poems, even if you aren’t a woman or a person of color – you would still appreciate Ijeoma’s artistry and even learn something about yourself. We’re only in the month of May and I’ve already re-read the whole collection for a second time; I plan on re-visiting and mulling over certain poems throughout the year.

If you don’t plan on reading any poetry this year, please endeavor to add Questions for Ada to your 2017 reads! And if you’re not really a fan of poetry, be assured that this collection will make you understand the beauty of poetry, as a pure literary form.

★★★★★ (5 stars) – Amazing book, I loved it. Absolutely recommend!

Purchase Questions for Ada on Amazon

The January Children by Safia Elhillo

!important;margin:0!important;" />Date Read: December 14th 2016

Published: March 1st 2017

Publisher: University of Nebraska Press

Pages: 80

 

 

 

The Blurb

The January Children depicts displacement and longing while also questioning accepted truths about geography, history, nationhood, and home. The poems mythologize family histories until they break open, using them to explore aspects of Sudan’s history of colonial occupation, dictatorship, and diaspora. Several of the poems speak to the late Egyptian singer Abdelhalim Hafez, who addressed many of his songs to the asmarani—an Arabic term of endearment for a brown-skinned or dark-skinned person. Elhillo explores Arabness and Africanness and the tensions generated by a hyphenated identity in those two worlds.

No longer content to accept manmade borders, Elhillo navigates a new and reimagined world. Maintaining a sense of wonder in multiple landscapes and mindscapes of perpetually shifting values, she leads the reader through a postcolonial narrative that is equally terrifying and tender, melancholy and defiant.

 

Review – ★★★ (3 stars)

Safia Elhillo is a Sudanese-American poet based in the U.S and I believe The January Children gives readers some insight into what it’s like to be Sudanese and an American. In this collection, the narrator is constantly grappling with her complex identities and it’s evident in poems like,

republic of the sudan ministry of interior passport & immigration general directorate alien from sudanese origin passcard‘ (yes, this is the title of the poem):

at the khartoum office a veiled woman made the card in microsoft paint told me my arabic was [not bad for a foreigner you can barely hear the accent] i board the plane with grandma’s voice crackling through the phone [come home again soon] my blue passport made me American place of birth maryland usa

& in the months since my last visit syrup settle back to coat my r’s i am ambiguous browngirl

i feel american

& in new york [but your english is so good you can barely hear the accent]

mama still speaks to me in arabic but we eat with fork & knife we play adbelhalim but mostly motown to remind mama of those swaying eighties nights in the garden before it turned to dust before the old country crumbles & mama came here to give me the blue passport & last time i was home a soldier stopped the car asked where i was from laughed when i said here

The narrator has conflicting ideas of home, belonging, family, immigration, perceptions of beauty and so much more. All of these issues are juxtaposed with the narrator’s obsession with Egyptian musician – Abdelhalim Hafez, and his provoking lyrics. For most of this collection, the narrator obsesses over Hafez’s skin color, his perceptions of beauty and his singing voice. I found it weird how the narrator was fascinated with this famous Arabic musician who has been dead since 1977; but she finds meaning in her fascination with Hafez and confides in him on the things that keep her up at night – like not feeling Sudanese enough and/or feeling lost.

The January Children is a very unique poetry collection. Most of the poems lack punctuations, so it takes a while to read each poem to decipher full sentences and the meanings of them. Every word (especially the few Arab words and their translations) in this collection gave the poems profound meaning – which was interesting, yet a bit overwhelming as it takes a while to understand what some of the poems are actually about. Hints of magical realism in some poems provided sprinkles surprise and added to the slightly daunting nature of the collection (for me).

What I appreciated most about this collection was that I got some insight into African-Arab life and how African-Arabs perceive other Africans and Arabs. When I read Minaret by Sudanese writer- Leila Aboulela, I yearned (but to no avail) for commentary on the realities of being African-Arab. I’m glad this collection shed some light into this complex, very unique identity through the tensions the narrator faces. Even though The January Children is complicated and not the easiest poetry collection to read, Elhillo shows immense talent of capturing emotion in a somewhat abstract way. I think I prefer seeing and listening to Safia Elhillo performing her poems. From all the YouTube videos I’ve watched of her performing at various events, it’s absolutely breathtaking and inspiring to see and hear Elhillo speak her words, with mighty conviction.

NOTE: Reading the Forward of this collection by Kwame Dawes is imperative if you want to totally understand and appreciate this collection.

Thanks to Netgalley via University of Nebraska Press for this e-ARC. The January Children will be published and in stores in 3 days! March 1st 2017 🙂

★★★ (3 stars) – Good book. I recommend it, I guess.

Purchase The January Children on Amazon

As the Crow Flies by Véronique Tadjo

veroniqueDate Read: October 27th 2016

Published: 2001

Publisher: Heinemann (African Writers Series)

Pages: 106

 

 

 

 

 

The Blurb

An illicit love affair that turns sour is the starting point in this lyrical and moving exploration of the human heart.

Véronique Tadjo weaves together a rich  tapestry of voices to tell stories of parting and return, suffering, healing and desire.

Like a bird in flight, the reader travels across a borderless landscape composed of tales of everyday existence, news reports, allegories and ancestral myths, becoming aware in the course of the journey of the interconnection of individual lives. A new consciousness of the links between self and other, today’s society and that of future generations is revealed as the key to creating a more just world and more understanding and fulfilling relationships, for ‘love is a story that we never stop telling’. 

Translated from French by Wangūi wa Goro.

 

Review– ★★★★ (4 stars)

As the Crow Flies was originally written in French by Véronique Tadjo who was born in Paris and raised in Côte d’Ivoire – a Francophone, West African country. Kenyan academic, writer and translator – Wangūi wa Goro, who contributed to African Love Stories: an anthology and also translated Ngūgi wa Thiong’o’s novel – Matigari, (which I loved!) translated this work of art as well. I’m grateful to Wangūi wa Goro, because without her superb skills of interpreting and transforming this work into English, some of us would really be missing out on some awesome texts!

But I have to admit – this novella is not for everyone. On the first page, as if to caution the reader, Tadjo writes: “Indeed, I too would have loved to write one of those serene stories with a beginning and an end. But as you know only too well, it is never like that.” With that, I knew As the Crow Flies would be different.

Some readers may have issues with the format of this book, which is full of fragmentation and changing points of view between several voices. It’s made up of several (interconnected) poems, prose and observations. I read this novella as if I was on the back of a bird in the air (a crow, if you may), watching various people and situations in their various settings – in Abidjan (the economic capital of Côte d’Ivoire) and anonymous Western countries. I believe writers would absolutely love the unique, heartfelt, lyrical anecdotes Tadjo spills onto the pages. It’s actually difficult to review this book since it sporadically touches on many different issues, like: desire, homesickness, (unrequited) love, immigration, poverty, privilege, and so much more. But almost anything and everything that can be humanly felt and observed, are portrayed in this book.

Some of my favorite anecdotes / poems/ observations:

XLVI

I need to feel the heat and sweat running down my back, feel warm nights humming with insects, the dust and the mud. At home, life sprouts everywhere. You have nowhere to hide. You can never forget that there is still much to be done.

(pg. 62)

 

I especially loved this one below:

LIV

I think of my country, far away, and my eyes open beyond space.

In this vast city, words travel fast. I am bombarded with ideas. I see myself in that large conference room listening keenly to writers from Africa – Angola, Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria… One of the speakers proclaims:

‘It is our duty to understand our place in the history of humanity. An African literature cannot exist until the day we liberate ourselves from the arrogant criticism of the West.’

(pg. 72) 

 

LXIX

I remember. A day like no other. The air was mild. I had not eaten breakfast; just had a cup of coffee and my belly was empty.

I remember. His scent filled my nostrils. His sweat made my mouth salty. I lapped up his force and energy, and discovered how famished my desire was…

(pg. 87)

As the Crow Flies is a super short novella – it’s about 106 pages. I would advise readers to devour it in one sitting in order to experience, observe and feel everything this book has to offer at once. Thanks to school work, it took me over a month to complete it. But I’m glad I pushed through and finished it despite the discombobulated format which was initially confusing but truly wonderful by the time I finished reading.

With the increasing popularity of contemporary African novels, I feel like lovers of African literature are forgetting about the books of the African Writers Series, which were published since 1962 by Heinemann. Books in this series have been translated into English from French, Zulu, Swahili, Gikuyu, Portuguese, Afrikaans, Luganda, Arabic, Sesotho. Yes, some of the books in this series may be printed in (silly) small fonts; yes, some books in this series may have unappealing book covers. But books of the African Writers Series are timeless and will always be true African classics, just like As the Crow Flies.

★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!

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Purchase As the Crow Flies by Véronique Tadjo on Amazon

Sweet Medicine by Panashe Chigumadzi

sweet medicineDate Read: June 3rd 2016

Published: 2015

Publisher: Blackbird Books

Pages: 203

 

 

 

 

 

The Blurb

Sweet Medicine is the story of Tsitsi, a young woman who seeks romantic and economic security through ‘otherworldly’ means. The story takes place in Harare at the height of Zimbabwe’s economic woes in 2008.

 

Review – ★★★ (3 stars)

Sweet Medicine is a good debut! Don’t you love the book cover? It’s one of the reasons I just had to have this book. In between reading, I watched interviews and talks on YouTube that featured Panashe, where she spoke on racism in South Africa (where she was raised. She’s originally from Zimbabwe), feminism and the makings of an online magazine she founded – Vanguard Magazine, which is a womanist platform for young black women in South Africa speaking to the intersectionality of queer politics, Black Consciousness and pan-Africanism. Panashe is simply an amazing inspiration, and she’s only 25!

Set in present day Zimbabwe, Tsitsi – the main character, seems to be a victim of the economic crisis in Zimbabwe. Throughout this novel, she does all she can to achieve economic and romantic stability through ways that seriously contradict her staunch Christian upbringing. I must say – it was hard not to judge Tsitsi while reading this novel. Her forbidden relationship with Mr. Zvobgo (a rich man who’s recently divorced from his wife) was uncalled for, yet understandable, I guess? Unfortunately, just like Tsitsi in Sweet Medicine, many young women find themselves at the mercy of rich men as they try to survive in the midst of economic crises. This novel tackles several dichotomies of dilemmas Tsitsi and other ordinary women (even with university degrees) suffer thanks to the terrible economic states of their nations, like – desperation versus true love; spirituality versus worldliness; feminism versus patriarchy; tradition verses modernity; poverty versus abundance, and much more.

Sweet Medicine might be one of the few African novels I’ve read, where I can confidently say is written for Africans – Zimbabweans to be exact. Panashe unapologetically throws readers into Zimbabwean slang & Shona and into the happenings of Zimbabwe’s economic crisis – as if we are natives! Initially, Sweet Medicine was a little challenging for me to read as it took me a while to adjust to the writing style and the myriad of Shona expressions and phrases blended into the dialogue. But once I got the hang of it, I enjoyed the measured suspense of Tsitsi and Mr. Zvobgo’s undulating relationship issues, as well as the glimpses of Zimbabwean life Sweet Medicine fed me.

If you get the chance to read Sweet Medicine, just immerse yourself into the atmosphere of 2008 Zimbabwe for about 200 pages. Cringe at the silly interactions and exchanges between Tsitsi and her super bold sister-friend, Chiedza. Appreciate Tsitsi’s relationship and her tortuous quandary of wanting to live a comfortable life (and provide for her family) with the man of her dreams versus wanting to honor God and her mother. And when you’re done, go back and admire the ultra-chic book cover which I believe, embodies Tsitsi’s persona. Sweet Medicine made for a decent summer read! I recommend this – especially to readers who’ve been longing to read a contemporary African novel, written for us – Africans.

P.S: I have an extra, brand new copy of Sweet Medicine which I will be giving away- amongst other goodies during my hosting the second and last give-away of the year. Stay tuned! 🙂

★★★ (3 stars) – Good book. I recommend it, I guess.

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Purchase Sweet Medicine on Amazon