Ghanaian Writers | Book Chat :: with Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond

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, Michael Donkor 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:

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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:

 

LIT LINKS MÉLANGE V

Hey everyone!

I hope the month of February is treating everyone well. Over the weeks, I’ve been consuming great literature gems online. Below is a compilation of some of the LIT links I highly recommend you indulge in:

 

Raised by a single, independent mother, one young woman struggles with her familial inheritance and the relationship between self-sufficiency and social isolation.

(Image via Longreads via Klaus Vedfelt/Getty)

This isn’t the first time I’m mentioning Zoë’s name on this platform. In previous LIT Links posts, I highlighted her short story- Safe House, which was featured in AFREADA two years ago; she was also among the 75 Ghanaian writers highlighted in the GH at 60 | Our Writers & Their Books series, back in March.

Read My Secondhand Lonely and marvel at Zoë’s visceral, lucid writing. I hope she blesses us with a full novel or collection of short stories in the near future! Don’t be surprised when you see Zoë Gadegbeku’s name in lights soon.

 


  • AFREADA’s Valentine’s Day Short Story Collection – In case you’ve been living under a rock, AFREADA held a Valentine’s Day short story competition, where writers could submit love/romance-related stories for a chance to win £100! The competition is over now – as Valentine’s Day has passed (check out the winning story – HERE), but a bunch of the stories have been compiled into an ebook! Check out the breathtaking stories, for free – HERE.

 


  • Oldie but Goodie: Book review – African Love Stories: An Anthology edited by Ama Ata Aidoo. We’re still in the month of love! Two years ago, I reviewed this wonderful anthology on love stories, which was published in 2006. I gave the book 5 stars and encourage everyone to enjoy some love stories once in a while!

 


  •  Market FiftyFour is a new platform that publishes and markets affordable audio and e-books in African languages! Marthe van der Wolf and Melat G. Nigussie who are both Ethiopian, run Market FiftyFour.

Their first publication is entitled – Sheekadii Noloshayada (in English – The Story of Us), which is a a collection of short stories published in Somali by Hanna Ali. I recently had the opportunity to read the English version of the collection by Ali and I’m excited to review it soon. I look forward to the future projects Market FiftyFour will be publishing and hope more stories are from the Horn of Africa are published, as stories from that region of the continent aren’t really popular in the mainstream literary sphere!

(Image via Market FiftyFour)

 


  • Listen to episode 14 of The Sankofa Book Club, where I was joined Co-founder – Akua, to discussed their December book – Questions For Ada by Ijeoma Umebinyuo. The Sankofa Book Club was featured on this platform last year, and it’s still a popular post!

I had lots of fun recording with Akua over the Christmas break on this phenomenal poetry collection. I’ve spoken ad nauseam about this collection as it was the BEST book I read in 2017. If you’re still wondering whether you should purchase Questions For Ada, what are you waiting for? Enjoy the episode!


  • Libros Agency is an online bookstore and publishing agency based in Kenya, founded by Giovanni Patrick and Carly Gilbert. The aim of Libros Agency is ‘to have the unheard and unread stories of talented authors in the hands of  yearning readers.’ They have a good selection of books in their online bookstore, which delivers books digitally. Check them out if you want to enjoy the unread stories of talented writers!

(Image via Libros Agency)

 


  •  I hope Black History Month has been inspiring so far! If you’re active on social media (Twitter & Instagram), definitely follow the annual #ReadSoulLit photo challenge which was curated by Didi of Brown Girl Reading 4 years ago, with the aim of encouraging the love of books by African-American authors.

Check out Didi’s interview with Leslie Reese of blog – Folklore & Literacy, and read on how the #ReadSoulLit photo challenge begun and why it’s important. Its not too late to join the photo challenge- it’s running till the end of Black History Month!

 

·····

Check out:

LIT Links Mélange ILIT Links Mélange II

LIT Links Mélange IIILIT Links Mélange IV

Book Chat | On Being ‘Well Read’ (part 2)

Welcome back to Part 2 – the final installment of this book chat!

•••

When you hear the words – ‘well read’, what comes to mind? What does it mean to be ‘well read’?

From my observations over the years, I realized being ‘well read’ was synonymous with being knowledgable in the ‘Classics’ – which typically comprise the works of English writers like William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Joseph Conrad, Charlotte Brontë ; American writers like John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald ; Canadian writers like Margaret Atwood‎, Lucy Maud Montgomery and a myriad of other books by WHITE writers.

Image via Arao Ameny’s Instagram

The concept of being ‘well read’ is very subjective and personal. In my opinion, there’s more to being ‘well read’ than being well-versed in the work of white writers or books we were forced to read in English Literature class.

I wanted to know how other readers defined being ‘well read’, so I asked some of my favorite readers and writers I follow and interact with via Twitter, Goodreads and Instagram. In this book chat, three of my favorite readers and writers will enlighten us on what it means to be ‘well read’, with some recommendations on which authors and/or books we should indulge in to be considered ‘well read’, per their views on the concept.

Enjoy!

 

Efo Dela is a book lover I frequently see at book readings and other bookish events here in Accra. He’s an avid reader and writes poetry as well. I always look forward to reading Efo’s (funny) opinions on Twitter, so I just had to include him in this conversation. Check out what being ‘well read’ means to him:

  • What does being ‘well read’ mean to you? 

Being well read means being able to enjoy a wide spectrum of writing genres. For me good writing is good writing it doesn’t matter the genre. I will read it. I’ve found myself reading academic work unrelated to what I do just because the writing is good. I don’t know if it’s because I have an interest in many topics that I read so wide or if I have an interest in many things because I read wide.

  • Which books and/or authors should be on our reading lists, given your take on what it means to be ‘well read’?

Born a Crime – Trevor Noah

Akata Witch – Nnedi Okarafor

Prey – Michael Crichton

The Last Day – Glenn Kleier

Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth – Warsan Shire

A Song of Ice and Fire (6 books) – George RR Martin

The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu

Go Tell it on the Mountain – James Baldwin

Ghana (the autobiography of Kwame Nkrumah) – Kwame Nkrumah

Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

 


Zaynab has a way of making reading look so sexy, via her photographs on Instagram, where she goes by – @bookminimalist. Zaynab, who is based in Nigeria, is a passionate reader and a popular Bookstagrammer (which is the Bookish community of Instagram) who promotes African literature through her photos and fearless commentary on the books she showcases. Check out her views on the concept of being ‘well read’:

  • What does being ‘well read’ mean to you?

What it means to be well-read? Well read? I have to be honest this question gave me sleepless nights.

The week you sent the question I wrote: “it meant reading all genres; science fiction, romance, speculative fiction, etc. Reading your favourite genre alone or classics alone doesn’t make you a Well-read person.”  I just realised how naive this answer was days later.

And then I swapped it to, Well-read means reading books from all corners of the world. North Africa, Indian Ocean African Islands, Middle East, reading books published in every region in the world. And this sounded too pompous, and very bombastic. Does this mean someone who lives in a village in Nigeria who doesn’t have access to some of these books is not well read?

And then minutes ago, it changed to reading at least 10 books on the ‘100 books you should read before you die’ list. Haha.

Now writing this, I suddenly had an epiphany, being well read should not only be about the number of books, or how many translated works you have read (even though I think this is important too), being well read is reading at a level in which you digest and absorb what you’re reading and are able to incorporate it into your life. Reading in such a way that allows you to think and converse about the human experience intelligently.

Being well read means becoming a better human being from something you have read from Toni Morrison, from an anecdote you saw in Wole Soyinka’s book. Speaking out against corruption, bad governance after reading Achebe, realising your silence in the face of evil is cooperating with evil itself after reading Baldwin.

Speaking out against sexual assault, racism, after drowning yourself in Angelou. Ranting against those who kill intellectuals and writers after reading a Sontag. Speaking up for women who are hated by their community and families after read a Flora Nwapa.  Speaking up for children who lost their innocence after reading a Danticat.

Being well read means reading thoughtfully, by engaging with the world, breaking away from horrendous tradition and questioning dreadful established ideas.

This is what being well read means to me.

  • Which books and/or authors should be on our reading lists, given your take on what it means to be ‘well read’?

I have more than 50 Books I have enjoyed reading this year but I am going to mention the ones written by African women on this list (because they don’t get hyped enough):

The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela, Longthroat Memoirs, by Yemisi Aribisala, The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso, Butterfly Fish by Irenosen Okojie and Kintu by Jennifer Makumbi.

 


Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire is a powerhouse. I first encountered Bwesigye last year when I was in correspondence with him as the Editorial and Partnerships Director for the Writivism Festival (a Kampala-based initiative that promotes African Literature). Since then, I always look forward to his passionate threads on Twitter which mostly aim to decolonize the mind. He’s currently a graduate student of English Language and Literature at Cornell University. Enjoy his thoughts on the concept of being ‘well read’:

  • What does being ‘well read’ mean to you?

This is a very hard question. It is hard because the response speaks volumes about the person answering it, than it does about anyone else, or about the idea of reading itself. Because I am a graduate student of English Language and Literature, this question is even more difficult to answer. Do I want to expose myself this way? While we were being told about preparing for our PhD Qualifying Exam, one of the three exams an English student does before they graduate, our instructor encouraged us to select books that make one sound ridiculous if they are English grads and have not read them.

We went through a confession moment where some members of our class mentioned the books they are embarrassed to say they haven’t read because it is expected that everyone has read those books. You get the picture. If you are an English Major, or grad, surely, you have read Shakespeare, right? That type of thing. The greatest books. To use a more academic term, the canonical texts from various periods.

These books permeate the English language itself. New words have been created from them. There is another word I learnt late in life, and I can’t pronounce with my Rukiga inflected accent. The word is ‘zeitgeist’. The books that capture the ‘defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history’ are what some versions of well read expect one to have read. I am not a fan of English Literature in that way. In the way it is used as the standard, given its history of not only exclusion, but active dehumanisation and destruction of other ways of being, other literatures, other cultures.

Because in secondary school, when I studied Literature in English, we were forced to read Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, RL Stevenson, DH Lawrence, Jane Austen, Robert Bolt, Arthur Miller, Ernest Hemingway, and all those types of people, my experience of their work has become one of resentment. I after all attended secondary school in Uganda, a country that celebrates having attained independence in 1962 but still holds onto these colonial notions of what it means to be ‘well read’.

Operating in what Mukoma wa Ngugi has called the ‘English metaphysical empire’, where the language and the world it makes possible in one’s imagination, means that one can’t run away from these writers, their books and their influence. The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde shows up in conversation as something whose meaning everyone listening, knows. And so, if one does not, they have to Google to understand it. To the colonised, in the metaphysical sense, familiarity with the English canon is one way to understand what it means to be ‘well read’. Because most spaces in which we operate, (speaking from my position as an aspiring academic whose dominant language of engagement is English), are yet to be decolonised, it means that however much one hates the ways in which one experiences the English canon as violence, one can’t wish away the fact that it is what dominates as the idea of being ‘well read’. So in one way, the idea of being ‘well read’ and what it instantly means is something I experience as violence.

Despite my positioning in the imperial and colonial structure that defines being ‘well read’ in a Eurocentric and limited way, I am interested in small acts of subversion. Your question about what being ‘well read’ means to me is an important subversive act because it centres me, as the one determining what being well read means. I am currently torn between an anti colonial approach and something else, for which I am still figuring out ways to define.

So, on one hand I will say, that for me being ‘well read’ means being well versed with an alternative, a subversive archive. This anti colonial approach unfortunately focuses unduly on responding and countering the Eurocentric colonial and imperial framework. And so, being well read here would mean being familiar with the works of resistance to colonialism. This somewhat implies being familiar with the colonial archive to begin with. The binarism. To know black, you must know white, because black is the negation of white, type of thing (thank you Fanon for the language).

I am still thinking about a radical decentering of Europe and colonialism and imperialism. This would mean going beyond the resistance. The resistance is important for showing us that we matter, that we can write, that we have, and can create a counter-archive. What does it mean to be well read without the anxiety of creating a counter archive? What does the counter archive become when it is no longer countering the Eurocentric colonial and imperial archive? How would I understand being ‘well read’ in that space where I am the centre and not necessarily the opposite of. What would being well read mean, in that space? I have no answer right now. Ultimately, being well read depends on how one is reading. What they are reading, may be not much as how they are reading. I mean, in 2017: some people read Conrad and miss all the colonial and imperialist bullshit in his work, so go figure.

  • Which books and/or authors should be on our reading lists, given your take on what it means to be ‘well read’?

Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu. Kintu is important because it is the book and Makumbi, is the author that has pushed me into imagining what it could mean to centre ourselves in our work without an anxiety to write back to empire. What about our own worlds? What is there in our own worlds? Kintu is one clear example of an imagination that ultimately pays due homage to those who resisted and built a counter archive but is continuing from where they stopped by centering an archive that sees ourselves without reducing us to countering Europe.

Panashe Chigumadzi’s work, the non fiction and post Sweet Medicine fiction – (look out for her forthcoming books, aren’t I privileged to have had a look at both), also take me to that world. Some of the essays in the non fiction book have been published online, and Small Deaths, a short story from the forthcoming fiction book was published in Transition. Panashe, perhaps, more than Makumbi acknowledges and deals head on with Imperialism and its continued violence, but from a centre where we are the subject, and without the anxieties of building a counter archive. In the new archive that was yesterday’s counter, and today’s centre, Panashe’s work reminds us of the need to continue resisting an imperialism that mutates.

Everything bell hooks. I do not have to give reasons why. Do I?

And Audre Lorde. I know I also do not have to give reasons, just as bell hooks above.

I follow most of the people whose thoughts give me life and some of these aren’t necessarily contained in books, but some are, people like Grace Musila, people like Dina Ligaga, people like Caroline Mose, people like Wandia Njoya, people like Mshai Mwangola, people like Keguro Macharia, and I just now realised all these are Kenyan, so I guess, follow the Kenyan public intellectuals of today, the ones who are on Twitter.


Special thanks to Leslie Reese, David DaCosta, Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed, Zaynab, Efo Dela & Bwesigye for taking the time to engage with us in this book chat series. It’s been enlightening! THANK YOU 🙂

Book Chat | On being ‘well read’ (part 1)

Hey everyone!

When you hear the words – ‘well read’, what comes to mind? What does it mean to be ‘well read’?

From my observations over the years, I realized being ‘well read’ was synonymous with being knowledgable in the ‘Classics’ – which typically comprise of the works of English writers like William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Joseph Conrad, Charlotte Brontë ; American writers like John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald ; Canadian writers like Margaret Atwood‎, Lucy Maud Montgomery and a myriad of other books by WHITE writers.

Image via Arao Ameny’s Instagram

The concept of being ‘well read’ is very subjective and personal. In my opinion, there’s more to being ‘well read’ than being well-versed in the work of white writers or books we were forced to read in English Literature class.

I was curious to find out how other readers defined being ‘well read’, so I asked some of my favorite readers and writers I follow and interact with via Twitter, Goodreads and Instagram. In this book chat, three of my favorite readers and writers will enlighten us on what it means to be ‘well read’, with some recommendations on which authors and/or books we should indulge in to be considered ‘well read’, per their views on the concept.

Enjoy!

 

Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed is an African book lover who’s the creator behind the blog – Bookshy, where she’s been blogging about African literature since 2011. Her wonderful African Book Covers (ABC) Tumblr page, which celebrates African book cover art inspired my book covers showcase here at African Book Addict! Check out her thoughts on being ‘well read’:

  • What does being ‘well read’ mean to you?
The first word that popped into my head when I read the question was ‘informed’, then I thought ‘very informed’, but that word (like ‘well read’) can take on many different meanings.

By ‘informed’ I mean that the reader knows a lot about many things because they have been able to read a lot.

Similar to a well-travelled person, who has been to way too many places. In that sense, a well-read person has read way too many books and so is informed by so many things.

That was my initial thought.

As I kept on thinking, I felt that ‘well read’ is pretty subjective. How many books does it take to become well read? Also, you might be well-read in one particular genre, but not in every single genre ever.

You might be well-read in your field of research. For example, ask me about gender and urbanisation or about paid domestic work and I’ll probably be able to list the key authors and what their arguments are. Ask me about contemporary African literature (in English) and I would like to think I’d able to hold my own with other ‘well-read’ African lit readers. Ask me about Literature from Ethiopia in Amharic (don’t bother), about anything IT or tech-related (seriously, don’t bother).

So, I wouldn’t take well-read purely as the number of books you’ve read since you started reading. I would take it as being very informed as a result of the number of books you’ve read. I also wouldn’t necessarily see well read as being well read in one genre, but being well read across a range: say, fiction, history, non-fiction, art etc.

Although I try not to be prescriptive as to what that entails, a lot of the ‘well-read’ people I know have read the classics, read a lot of non-fiction, as well as newspapers and magazines, and a variety of fiction.

  • Which books and/or authors should be on our reading lists, given your take on what it means to be ‘well read’?

Tough and I wouldn’t even know which 5 to select, but I would definitely include Buchi Emecheta on my list and bell hooks. Currently reading Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” so would include that. Sylvia Tamale’s “African Sexualities: A Reader”. My list could go on and on. So I’ll leave it at 4 and leave the 5th one blank – as there are many possibilities.

 


David DaCosta is a Goodreads friend and author who’s views I admire. Since 2002, he’s written an autobiography, two novellas set in Jamaica, a book of poetry, and is currently working on his debut novel. Whenever I’m looking for my next read by a Caribbean writer, I usually like to pick books that DaCosta has reviewed on Goodreads. I appreciate his critical book reviews and hope you all enjoy his thoughts on the concept of being ‘well read’:

  • What does being ‘well read’ mean to you?

‘Well read’ encompasses the spectrum of various mediums of writing, whether literary, newspaper, magazine etc.

  • Which books and/or authors should be on our reading lists, given your take on what it means to be ‘well read’?

As a person who has alternated between living in Jamaica and Toronto for decades now, I have a natural leaning toward Caribbean literature. Earl Lovelace is the greatest author the Caribbean has produced. “The Dragon Can’t Dance” and “The Wine of Astonishment” are masterpieces. Trinidad & Tobago holds Earl Lovelace in high esteem, as they should.

Haitians should hoist Edwidge Danticat high on their shoulders. Her output over the past decade has been stellar. “Create Dangerously” and “Claire of the Sea Light” are both first-rate contributions to the literary world, each representing the best in fiction and nonfiction. Danticat’s latest offering “The Art of Death” further exemplifies her significant talents.

Octavia E. Butler is the definition of genius. I’ve had the privilege of reading five selections of her work (Xenogenesis trilogy, “Parable of the Sower” and “Fledgling”). The common thread that connects them all is a frighteningly authentic sense of realism. As an author, she really takes you there with well researched narratives and immaculate character development. It always amazes me how a black woman became the greatest author in a white dominated genre like Science Fiction. May she rest in peace.

I’ve read my share of works by African authors, mostly Nigerian. “Kehinde” by Buchi Emecheta remains my favorite. The novel truly represents female empowerment in its purest form. Having been raised by a strong woman, I gravitated to this particular protagonist’s character arc. I literally just learned that Miss Emecheta passed away earlier this year. May you rest peacefully my sister.

I’d be remiss If I didn’t make mention of author Uwem Akpan. I stumbled across his powerful collection of stories from the continent one day in 2008 while perusing the ‘Recommended’ shelf at a local library in Toronto. “Say You’re One of Them” stared back at me, daring me to pick it up. Taking its challenge, I did so, studying the front and back covers and eventually checking the book out. Once I began reading, I was hooked. The fact that it explored various countries throughout Africa made it all the more engaging. I can’t say enough about the exceptional level of writing contained within. Oprah eventually introduced the book to the world by making it an official Book club selection the following year.

 


Leslie Reese is the curator of the blog – Folklore & Literacy, where she muses on reading, writing, people, and culture. I enjoy Leslie’s thoughtful pieces as well as her love of literature and occasional book reviews that go beyond the books and storylines, but delve into her past experiences, her skilled photography, her appreciation for first edition book covers and artwork. Leslie is also a loyal visitor and commenter here on African Book Addict! which I deeply appreciate! Check out her thoughts on being ‘well read’:

  • What does being ‘well read’ mean to you? 

I kind of love this question, and I would probably answer it differently for ever year of my reading life!  Today, I’m going to say that being well-read means having an insatiable appetite for reading books that:

(1) nourish my imagination and spirit and tickle my “funny bone;”

(2) challenge me, that teach me things, and make me feel compassion for myself and others;

(3) make me feel connected to my ancestors, as well as connected to people with whom I never expected to share an affinity;

(4) inspire me to be more of myself;

(5) make me feel awestruck/ “blow my mind!”

  • Which books and/or authors should be on our reading lists, given your take on what it means to be ‘well read’?

The only way I can not be overwhelmed trying to answer this question is to select a sampling of works that made me feel awestruck/“blew my mind!” on my first encounter, and continue to feel fresh and striking anytime I open their pages to read from them, again.   

Sula by Toni Morrison

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I Love Myself When I Am Laughing and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive (A Zora Neale Hurston Reader) edited by Alice Walker

The Collected Poetry of Aimé Césaire translated and with notes by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith

A People’s History of the United States 1492 – present by Howard Zinn (1999 edition)

Art on My Mind by bell hooks

The Book of Embraces by Eduardo Galeano

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

What does being ‘well read’ mean to YOU?

Book chat | The Sankofa Book Club

Are you a member of a book club? If you haven’t found the right book club or you haven’t had time to seek one out where ever you are in the world, I introduce to you a super rich and engaging DIGITAL book club, in the form of a podcast – The Sankofa Book Club.

[collage created by African Book Addict! ; images via The Sankofa Book Club]

I stumbled upon The Sankofa Book Club when I was participating in a book chat (on Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi) on Twitter, last year. I resonated with some of the responses the co-founder – Akua, was tweeting and decided to check out the podcast via iTunes. The Sankofa Book Club is a digital book club with a focus on African literature. The co-hosts are of Ghanaian descent who engage in intelligent and honest conversations around books I adore. The podcast is currently 10 episodes deep and my favorite episodes so far have been their discussions on Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and Everyday is for the Thief by Teju Cole.

Enjoy the conversation I had with The Sankofa Book Club team where we discuss their origin story, their favorite writers of African descent, favorite snacks to indulge in while reading and more!


  1. What’s the story behind the book club’s name – The ‘Sankofa’ Book Club?

Sankofa is an Adinkra symbol – Adinkra is a collection of symbols from the Akan tradition in Ghana. You can see the symbol incorporated in our logo. The term “sankofa” translates from Twi as “return and get it” and it symbolizes the importance of learning from your past. As we were thinking about what to call the book club, this just seemed so apt. The co-founders are both Ghanaian and we want this book club to be a platform for people to learn about Africa – especially those of us Africans born and raised outside of Africa.


  1. Who’s behind the scenes of The Sankofa Book Club? Briefly tell us about the team members and co-hosts. 

We’re a small team of three. Akua and Mel are co-hosts of the podcast and co-founders of the book club. We focus on producing the podcast and growing our community. Sam is our curator – she researches the books and allocates them every month. However, we are looking to grow, so get in touch if you’re interested!


  1. What was the inspiration for starting a digital book club in podcast form? Will there be book club meet-ups in the future where the team is based?

The inspiration was several different thoughts popping up in my head in no particular order:

  • I (Akua) worked on podcasts through work in digital marketing.
  • It was an exciting new media but like most things in this world, it was whitewashed.
  • Mel and I have thought-provoking conversation anyway.
  • I really like African lit and wished I could join a book club like that.
  • I don’t live in London, don’t have the time or energy to do that in London.
  • Why are we limiting ourselves to London?
  • Let’s do a podcast on African lit.
  • It may as well be a book club.

We love that we’re digital and interacting with people all over the world and we don’t want to lose that. However, a live recording in London will definitely be happening in the near future.


  1. How do you decide on which books to read? Why focus on African Literature?

Sam does research into the themes, what people are currently reading and uses that choose a book each month. It helps us stay relevant and prevents us from being repetitive.

Africa is more than the world’s charity case, and who better to tell the true story of Africa than Africans. That’s why we focus on African literature. We want to hear a different narrative. We want to be a different narrative.


  1. Who is your target audience? How has the reception been, after the 10 episodes (and counting) that are available?

Anyone interested in Africa, literature and/or both! What we’d really love is for people who don’t feel connected to the continent to use this as a relaxed and fun way to learn, or just read something different. There’s loads of brilliant African literature out there getting very little attention. We want to change that.

The reception of SBC has been really positive. It’s interesting to see that a lot of our audience is actually in Africa, who just appreciate the discussion.



6. Random Bookish Facts:

  • a) How do you like your books – Hardcovers, paperbacks, audiobooks or e-books?

Akua – Paperback.

Mel – Paperback mostly, hardback if it’s affordable; not a fan of audiobooks.

Sam – Paperback until quite recently. E-books are more handy and make my commute less boring and bulky.

••

  • b) Do you usually read – New books, used books, borrowed/stolen books (from friends) or library books?

Akua – A brand new book from Waterstones.

Mel – Usually brand new books but I’m also a lover of borrowed/stolen books.

Sam – Definitely new books (I do steal a lot of book lists though).

••

  • c) What is/are your favorite book genre(s)? (Poetry, thrillers, romance, short stories, literary fiction, non-fiction etc.)

Akua – Poetry. It’s simple but deep.

Mel – Thrillers. I enjoy the suspense and drama.

Sam – Historical Fiction! I love a good mystery too.

••

  • d) Favorite snacks/beverages to indulge in while reading?

Akua – Biscuits or cake.

Mel – Peppermint tea all day everyday.

Sam – Potato Chips and chocolate. There’s something about the crunch that keeps me going.


  1. Who are your top three favorite African writers, and why?

Akua – Her Majesty Queen Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chinua Achebe and Afua Hirsch. The first two are authors of my favourite books so by default my favourite writers. Afua Hirsch is a journalist, half English, half Ghanaian. When I see a cutting edge, non-conformist article on current affairs, I just know she wrote it. Such an intelligible Black British voice! I so appreciate her. She has a book coming out in January 2018.


Mel – Chimamanda Ngozi and Chigozie Obioma. I’m still on the hunt for my third favourite African author. Chimamanda is amazing for her attention to detail and empowering me as a women and an individual of African descent. Chigozie is special for his gift of reflecting his literary influences in his novels. He also has a knack for eloquently describing a mere moment, allowing the reader to see it from an in-depth perspective.


Sam – I’m pretty old school so I’m going to say Ama Ata Aidoo because of her style and her pioneering work in African Literature with regards to female independence and empowerment. Wole Soyinka next because I love his sense of humour and the wisdom in his writing. I will have to concede that more recently I too have developed a soft spot for Chimamanda Ngozi. She just embodies everything. She is intelligent, eloquent and still relatable. She has a way of dissecting literally all things that matter to young black women so plainly yet extremely intuitive.


  1. Finally, what can listeners and readers look forward to in the future for The Sankofa Book Club?

Akua – Amazing guests on the podcast and more interaction with our book club members! We know we have a consistent audience out there, we see you and we love you!

Mel – I’d like to echo what Akua has said and add that listeners can also expect that we will continue to encourage their inner book worm.

Sam – More exciting and representative books!!


Catch up with The Sankofa Book Club: Website | Soundcloud  | Twitter | Instagram

Caribbean Literature chat with writer, Joanne C. Hillhouse

How do you feel about literature from the Caribbean? Who are some of your favorite writers of Caribbean descent? 2 months ago, I sent out a Tweet asking for recommendations of book bloggers & blogs that focus on Caribbean literature/culture. I received a good number of responses, with most of them having a focus on Caribbean Kid Lit & Mommy blogs.

(click image to see responses via Twitter)

As I was receiving recommendations, I realized that I had been following writer Joanne C. Hillhouse’s website and blog for almost 2 years now. For those who don’t know, Joanne C. Hillhouse is a writer of Antiguan descent, based in Antigua. She’s the founder of Wadadli Youth Pen Prize (founded in 2004), which is ‘an annual writing challenge, guiding young Creatives toward culturally relevant literary expression, and nurturing and showcasing their best efforts.’ Hillhouse’s website and blog have been staples of mine when it comes to getting my Caribbean literature fix, as she often gives lots of recommendations and shares her experiences reading various books from the Islands.

Joanne C. Hillhouse was gracious enough to chat with me via email on Caribbean literature, the reading culture in Antigua, her favorite writers/Caribbean (book) blogs and the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize. Get your TBRs ready, because they will definitely grow after you indulge in this wholesome book chat, with writer Joanne C. Hillhouse. (note – ‘JH’ represents Joanne C. Hillhouse’s responses).

Enjoy!


  1. At what age did you read your first novel by a Caribbean writer? How was that experience?

JH: I can’t remember. My introduction to Caribbean literature, the way I remember it, was primarily through the oral tradition (jumbie stories, folk stories, Anansi stories, even calypso the more narrative of which I still sometimes use in workshops) and through short stories used in school. I remember short stories like the one about Millicent with her prideful nature and her organdy dress, by Merle Hodge, though I’m not sure I registered who the author was at the time as this was primary school or at highest first form of secondary school, and Millicent and her classroom tyranny was what resonated.

I remember excerpts of Michael Anthony’s The Year in San Fernando standing out as well. Actually, this is unlocking a memory of what might, emphasis on might, have been the first Caribbean book I read, Miguel Street by V. S. Naipual. My brother was in secondary school and I believe it was one of his, but I read it, recognized it, loved it.

I also remember reading Sam Selvon’s A Brighter Sun, I think it was A Brighter Sun, in secondary school over the summer in third form maybe, and then by the time term started it had been dropped from the reading list; I remember that because I remember being disappointed. It didn’t help that I didn’t fall in love with the Caribbean book I ultimately did have to study – no further comment on that.

A book that stands out though, though this would have been later teens, is Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John, which hit close to home in many ways, not least of which because I, too, was a girl from Antigua and I recognized the physical, socio-cultural, and emotional landscape of the book. I mark this as one of the books that opened up a portal of possibility for me in terms of me becoming a writer.

 


  1. What’s the reading culture like in Antigua and Barbuda? Is Caribbean literature required reading in the school system?

JH: Most of the reading of Caribbean literature that happens, I would say, happens in school and even there it’s limited, though I can’t speak specifically to what’s required reading or what isn’t and how much it’s changed since my school days. I’ve been fortunate to have some of my books read in the schools, including The Boy from Willow Bend which has been on the schools reading list here in Antigua and in Anguilla for years. I have been fortunate, as well, to meet some of the young people who did have to read my books in school and they didn’t seem to hate it the way we tend to things we’re obligated to do, which is always the danger. They seem to like them actually.

But the reality is that outside of school, Caribbean books are not widely read, though it’s perhaps better than it was. I grew up reading more books from England and the U.S. –they were just more readily available (and weren’t school books) and I don’t think that has changed as much as I’d like to wish. I would distinguish though between reading and storytelling, and though one of our leaders, reportedly, once said that we’re not a reading public, I would venture to say that we have always been a storytelling public – stories handed down have sustained our culture from the time when we didn’t have agency over our own lives (slavery) to present (post-Independence), and I think people appreciate seeing some of our stories written down.


  1. How prevalent is African literature in Antigua? Are books by African writers sold in bookshops and/or read & raved about among book lovers on the Island?

JH: Not very. Some are sold, yes, but honestly perhaps more so those who’ve been embraced in Western culture – like a Chimamanda Adichie.


  1. You’ve successfully published six books and I plan on getting my hands on your recent novel – Oh Gad!, especially after Trinidadian-American writer Elizabeth Nunez recommended it on NPR’s Weekend Reads. How long have you been a writer? Do labels like ‘Antiguan writer’ or ‘Caribbean writer’ limit how you identify as a writer?

JH: How long have I been a writer… I remember going to see Chariots of Fire on a class trip in primary school and not really getting it but liking the theme music and making up lyrics, that I still sort of remember, to that theme music. There are probably other moments like that, but that’s one I remember. Then I remember journaling and attempting my first story in a black and white note book my Tanty used to own and write in, when she died. Her death was very traumatic, and that notebook and the silver bracelets I still wear were things of hers that I held on to. Then, in my teens, probably earlier, entering school essay competitions – around tourism and Independence themes; won a trip to another Caribbean island once and my mom sent my big sister with me, I imagine because I was too young to travel alone though she is only a year and change older than me.

Lots of writing activity in my teens, poetry, short fiction, song lyrics, including one that I worked out with my guitar teacher and submitted it with the youth choir I was then a part of to a sub-regional radio Christmas carol competition; I still have that prize plaque. I remember taking my stories to show to one of my English teachers when I started the Antigua State College, one of the first times I sought critical feedback. Then at the College, between age 16 and 18, I would write plays, soapy melodramas in retrospect, that were performed by the College drama group; on to the University of the West Indies where I was both taught (fiction) and mentored by Mervyn Morris, who then recommended me for my first fiction writing workshop, the Caribbean Fiction Writers Summer Institute facilitated by Olive Senior at the University of Miami. It was there that I started work on what would become my first book.

I’m not a fan of labels and I try not to think in terms of limitations, though I’m certainly aware of and have encountered the obstacles in the path of a writer from a small place – first within the wider Caribbean and then internationally. The world of publishing is paradoxically both crowded and vast. But as far as the writing goes… every writer comes from somewhere, right? New Orleans pulses in the writings of Anne Rice and Ireland was richly rendered by Maeve Binchy, Mario Puzo embedded his readers in a particular part of the Italian-American experience, Junot Diaz provides a window to the Dominican-American experience and Edwidge Danticat to the Haitian experience; their locales/cultures enriched the work rather than limiting them. Antigua and the Caribbean are in my skin, on my tongue, and in my writing. I embrace that. One of my favourite reviews – plural because it’s been said more than once, about more than one piece of writing – has come from readers, Antiguan or otherwise, who have described my writing as unapologetically Antiguan/Caribbean. My stories are particular, and, I like to hope, potentially universal not in spite of but because of that.


  1. You’re the founder and coordinator of the amazing Wadadli Youth Pen Prize, which promotes the literary arts among young people in Antigua and Barbuda. What inspired you to start this writing program and how has the reception been since its launch in 2004?

JH: I was at a luncheon in Canada, the Caribbean-Canadian literary expo, maybe the first off-island literary event I was invited to as a published author, in 2003; and the featured speaker at the luncheon was a Guyanese writer of my generation (Ruel Johnson) who spoke of the lack of nurseries for potential or emerging writers in the region. As I had felt that lack keenly coming of age in Antigua, I foolishly resolved to do something about it, and when I got home I fired off a proposal to my first two partners without fully understanding the commitment I was making or the work involved.

It has experienced peaks and valleys in terms of the response; this was our best year numerically and also our most challenging because of those high numbers. It’s hard for me to assess its reception; I’m too deep in it. I only know that it has come to mean as much to me as anything I’ve written, I’ve seen people who’ve come through it go on to do things creatively, I believe that it is now part of the cultural landscape and at the same time something that still has a lot of growing to do…and that it’s been something like a labour of love that has got to become more institutionalized if it is to survive me (or my ability to do it), and I want that.

The breakdown on Wadadli Pen and its works and impacts can be found here: https://wadadlipen.wordpress.com/about


  1. I enjoy visiting Wadadli Pen, as well as your personal website Jhohadli as there’s always fresh content on the literary happenings in the Caribbean! Do you frequent other websites or book blogs that focus on Caribbean literature? If so, please recommend your top 3 favorite websites/blogs.

JH: I follow many book, arts, and cultural blogs Caribbean and not Caribbean. Top three Caribbean? I’m much too indecisive to ever have a definitive top 3 but the Caribbean(ish) blogs I have most recently interacted with are Island Editions by a Canadian author who divides her time between Canada and Bequia and blogs on publishing and writing mostly; Repeating Islands which curates Caribbean themed content from different sources; and Random Michelle, an Antiguan blogger who regularly posts photo prompts to which I like to challenge myself to respond. So, I’ll mention those with a shout out to the Paper-Based book blog, the blog of a Trinidad based bookshop, written by poet and reviewer Shivanee Ramlochan, who also reviews books for the Caribbean Beat magazine and at her personal blog Novel Niche: A Place for Books and who recently published her debut collection – the blog reviews Caribbean books, including my own Musical Youth and a blog, Jamaican Woman Tongue, run by one of my favourite former professors from the University of the West Indies, Carolyn Cooper.


  1. I’ve enjoyed works by Jamaica Kincaid, Edwidge Danticat and Austin Clarke and I hope to indulge in more novels from the Islands, including yours. For those who are new to literature from the Caribbean, which books and/or authors do you highly recommend?

JH: Some of my favourite Caribbean books of fiction would be:

The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat

Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

The Lonely Londoners by Sam Sevlon

Fear of Stones by Kei Miller

Gone to Drift by Diana McCaulay

The Book of Night Woman by Marlon James

Waiting in Vain by Colin Channer

White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey

Buxton Spice by Oonya Kempadoo

A good introductory read to contemporary Caribbean fiction, meanwhile, would be Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean.

Other links on my blogs:


  1. Finally, do you have any new books or projects in the works for readers and writers to look forward to in the near future?

JH: Works in progress, at least three, one of which is a sequel to Musical Youth, the first book was a finalist for the Burt Award; one of which is a novel with two main women characters from very different worlds; and one of which I can best describe as character vignettes in a moving space. I have been trying to get funding or a residency or something that would allow me to just sit and work on digging in to these for a long uninterrupted while, but short of that I continue incrementally and have been for some time. Bills have to be paid, you know, and I freelance as a writer, editor, workshop facilitator, and writing coach, I love it but the hustle can be draining. But those three that I mentioned, which is more than I’ve said publicly before, more than I like to say at all about works in progress, but maybe saying it will push things along, lol, those three are the works in progress that may be books someday. But there are various works, non-fiction to short fiction to poetry, in various stages of progress. I try to write a bit every day, so I’m always working on something.

Coming soon, a re-issue with new art of my first picture book Fish Outta Water, so look out for that, totally new aesthetic, and I have to note that still new, so I’m still in promotion mode on that, is With Grace, my second picture book, a Caribbean fairytale which debuted in December; and I’m still hoping more people will discover the previous books all of which are listed on my website.

Works by Joanne C. Hillhouse


Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me on literature from the Caribbean. I hope we get to do this again soon!

JH: Thanks for the interest and the opportunity.

2015 at the University of the (US) Virgin Islands Literary Festival & Book Fair where Hillhouse (on the right) was a panelist and Jamaica Kincaid (on the left) was the featured speaker.

Photo via Joanne C. Hillhouse – Wadadli Pen

Book Chat :: with Zinzi Clemmons, author of forthcoming novel – ‘What We Lose’

Happy summer, everyone!

What books are on your radar this summer? I highly recommend you keep an eye out for debut novel – What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons, which will be in stores July 11th!

Check out the synopsis below:

From an author of rare, haunting power, a stunning novel about a young African-American woman coming of age—a deeply felt meditation on race, sex, family, and country.

Raised in Pennsylvania, Thandi views the world of her mother’s childhood in Johannesburg as both impossibly distant and ever present. She is an outsider wherever she goes, caught between being black and white, American and not. She tries to connect these dislocated pieces of her life, and as her mother succumbs to cancer, Thandi searches for an anchor—someone, or something, to love.

In arresting and unsettling prose, we watch Thandi’s life unfold, from losing her mother and learning to live without the person who has most profoundly shaped her existence, to her own encounters with romance and unexpected motherhood. Through exquisite and emotional vignettes, Clemmons creates a stunning portrayal of what it means to choose to live, after loss. An elegiac distillation, at once intellectual and visceral, of a young woman’s understanding of absence and identity that spans continents and decades, What We Lose heralds the arrival of a virtuosic new voice in fiction.

Images via vogue.comzinziclemmons.com

Back in March of this year, Zinzi Clemmons and publishing team at Viking Books sent me an Advance Reading Copy of What We Lose and I devoured it over the weekend, on the week it was sent. The novel was a pleasantly intimate read and I just had to discuss various aspects of the book with Clemmons herself.

Zinzi Clemmons was gracious enough to have a book chat with me on her debut. We discussed various social and cultural issues that inundate this deeply moving work. (note – ‘ZC’ represents Zinzi Clemmons’s responses).


  1. Before we discuss your forthcoming novel, I want to commend you on your thorough and pretty fierce essay on literary criticism- featured in The James Franco Review. How long have you been writing and what are your views on book blogs in the literary criticism space?  

 

ZC: Thank you, I’m glad to hear you read that piece. The goal of that essay was to merge argument with practice—the essay itself is a continuation of discourse, which is what I was arguing for in the essay. To me, it’s very important to not shy away from tough discussions, to follow them all the way through to the end. That’s what I was attempting to do there.

I started writing in college, around the same time that I started becoming involved in publications. The first one was my college’s black literary journal, called the African Sun. It had been dormant for some time, and some friends and I helped revive it. In grad school, I founded a literary journal called Apogee, and I had a big hand in founding their blog. I love the experience of being in a room with a lot of smart, dedicated people, and arguing over every small editorial decision, every piece of paper, every illustration that goes into it. That atmosphere of collaboration and debate has always really inspired me.

So, first, I think that online publications allow people to do this who otherwise couldn’t afford it. They offer a great opportunity to people who like you who want to get their point of view out into the world. And, they are accessible to readers who otherwise couldn’t afford print journals, or who don’t have access to bookstores that carry them (increasingly a problem), or who otherwise just wouldn’t know where to look. I think they’re an increasingly important part of our media landscape, and they should be supported.


 

  1. In your forthcoming novel ‘What We Lose,’ Thandi – the heroine, is raised in Pennsylvania by her African-American father and South African mother – much like yourself. To what extent is this novel autobiographical and how long did it take you to write it?

 

ZC: The novel is based on my life, but it’s not my life. The biographical facts of Thandi’s life are very similar—not unusual for a novelist—but our personalities diverge. She is much more impulsive, whereas I take a long, long time to think over any decision I make. Some of that is indecision, some of it is that I’m just a very careful person. I’m in awe of people who can think in real-time on Twitter—it takes me a minimum of 30 minutes to think over any tweet, and I always end up regretting it. I like to say that whereas I would think about doing something, Thandi would just do it. It took me about 4 years from start to finish.


 

  1. The novel alternates between the United States and South Africa. I enjoyed the vignettes in South Africa where Thandi spends time with her carefree cousin, Lyndall. What’s your personal relationship to South Africa?

 

ZC: My mother, like Thandi’s, was South African, and her extended family (which is very large) lives over there. There are also family friends and others—altogether, I have a very extensive network over there. My mom was a schoolteacher with summers off, so from the time I was an infant until I graduated high school, whenever we could afford it, she would take my brother and I over there for the entire summer. I was born in 1985, so this means I saw a lot of pre-Independence and post-. I’m still very close with my family over there. My husband also lived in Cape Town briefly in 2013, and the first conversation we ever had was about South African politics and the EFF. It turned out we were there at the same time—in 2013, around the time Nelson Mandela died. We both love the country and hope to return as soon as we can, but of course, it’s a long way there from California, where we live.


 

  1. This powerful quote stood out to me –

Her disease only reinforced how the world saw us: not black or white, not American or African, not poor or rich. We were confined to the middle, and would always be. As hard as she tried to separate herself from the binds of apartheid, we were still within its grip. It had become the indelible truth of our lives, and nothing – not sickness, not suffering, not death – could change that. (pg. 82)

 

The commentary on post-apartheid race relations in South Africa are truly compelling in ‘What We Lose,’ especially being juxtaposed against American race relations. In your view, how are American and South African racial issues similar and/or different?

 

ZC: I wrote an op-ed on this that will hopefully come out soon, where I basically say that each country offers insight on how the other deals with race. There are many parallels between America’s and South Africa’s racial legacies, but to kind of nutshell what that difference is: to me, American racism is most often disguised, whereas in South Africa, it’s more obvious and out in the open. Trevor Noah made this point recently: the Truth and Reconciliation Committee was a defining moment in that it acknowledged the pain and suffering of black people. America never did that; reparations here are still an incredibly hot-button issue. America’s racial legacy is one of denial and cognitive dissonance. We’ve perfected the art of brutalizing minorities while denying we’ve done anything wrong to them. In South Africa, things are not quite so. Of course, that goes on, but not to the degree we do it in America. Philando Castile’s murderer was just acquitted, when everyone could see that he was murdered, and that officer was reckless. But nothing happens, over and over. A lot of that has to do with the fact that America is a white-majority country, whereas SA is black-majority. But we see a lot of parallels around issues of affirmative action, social welfare, and LGBT issues.


 

  1. This novel is a unique hybrid with African and African-American socio-cultural elements embodied into Thandi’s persona. Some writers dislike being ‘pigeon-holed’ and labeled as ‘African writer’ or ‘African-American writer’ or ‘Black writer.’ How do you prefer to be identified as a writer?

 

ZC: For the most part, I don’t mind what people call me. I try not to focus on what I can’t control, and instead focus on what I can: improving myself as a writer and a thinker. The truth is, I am all of those things you name: I’m an African-American writer, a Black writer, a woman writer, a young writer. As far as what I call myself, I have a tough time describing myself as African, because I have not lived there for a long time, but rather been a long-term visitor. I don’t think there’s a word for my relationship to South Africa, but to call myself African as an identifier doesn’t feel quite right. I call myself an artist and a literary writer, and I try to interact with all those identities and the communities that come along with.


 

  1. Who are some of your favorite Black writers and influencers of your work? (where ‘Black’ is – African/ African-American/ Caribbean/ Black-British/ Afro-Latinx or simply writers of African descent).

 

ZC: It’s tough to pick from so many, as most of my favorite writers are Black, but I’ll try. Toni Morrison is a guiding light; Claudia Rankine, Paule Marshall, Audre Lorde, Ta-Nehisi Coates, James Baldwin, Frantz Fanon. Jesmyn Ward is a Southern American writer whose work is incredibly important—I’m not sure how popular her work is overseas, but it should be. She speaks from a very particular experience that you don’t encounter very often—she’s from a poor rural community on the Gulf Coast—and her writing is elegant and honest. I teach her work in my classes, and I think it will stand the test of time.


 

  1. Grief and illness play huge roles in this intimate novel. While Thandi and her mother had a complicated relationship, she’s nonetheless deeply affected by her mother’s passing. In these tumultuous times, ‘self-care’ has become more important for many of us Black millenials. What are some of the ways you preserve your mental health, especially in these times?

 

ZC: It’s a really tough thing to do, and I think the first thing to acknowledge is that everyone has a different role to play in these times—if we want to call it a struggle, so be it. I gave an interview the other day where someone asked what I think the role of the activist is nowadays, and I couldn’t give a concrete answer. I think that everyone should decide what they can handle—for some that means protesting, for others that’s writing articles or poetry or fundraising. There’s no one way to participate—your role can look different. But it’s important to remember that we all need rest. This is a marathon, not a sprint, so always think about what you need to do to keep yourself going. Whether that means shutting off the TV for a weekend, or changing your media diet. Do what you need to do to support the work you’re doing. That’s my motto in general, but it’s particularly applicable today.


 

  1. While reading, I often pictured this novel on the big screen: stellar cinematography sans excessive dialogue but with vivid imagery (as in the book) that reflect the meditative nature of the novel. Have you ever wondered who would play Thandi, if ‘What We Lose’ ever made it to the big screen?

 

ZC: I’ve always flirted with the idea of making a film, even before I published this novel. I’ve made some pretty amateur art videos myself, and from what you described they may be along the lines of what you envisioned. The film rights are actually being shopped now, so I hope this does come true! Lisa Bonet is sort of my celebrity doppelgänger, so from a pure verisimilitude angle, Zoe Kravitz would fit the bill. But, I’d also love to find a new up and coming actress and give her the spotlight.


 

  1. I was elated to see that ‘What We Lose’ will also be published by Jonathan Ball Publishers, in South Africa. When will the book be released in South Africa? Why have the book published and available in South Africa as well?

 

ZC: The book will be released shortly after the July 11 US pub date. It was very important to me for the book to be published over there, and I insisted on it when 4th Estate (my UK publisher who distributes in Commonwealth countries) offered to buy it. Two reasons: First, because the book is set there and I think South Africans will want to read it, and I’m interested in what they think of it. Second, and more personally, I have a big family over there and it meant a lot to me for them to be able to buy it in bookstores.


 

  1. Finally, why would you like for people to read your forthcoming novel, ‘What We Lose’?

 

ZC: I wrote this book to challenge ideas about literature, race, and motherhood. I hope that anyone who is interested in these ideas finds this book. I also wrote this book for black women, for young women like you and me, to offer a different representation than the ones we are used to. I wanted to create a narrator like me, who could to tell this story. This has always been a main goal of mine: to broaden peoples’ ideas of what blackness is, and who black women are. Solange has been a very influential cultural voice for me, so to borrow the title of her last album, I hope this book offers another seat at the table.


 

Zinzi Clemmons is a Philadelphia-raised writer and editor with South African and Trinidadian roots. She’s co-founder and former publisher of Apogee Journal, as well as a contributing editor to the Literary Hub. She has a great number of critical essays and short stories online and currently teaches literature & creative writing at The Colburn Conservatory and Occidental College.

(Image via zinziclemmons.com)

 

Pre-order What We Lose on Amazon