BOOK CHAT :: WITH FRANCES MENSAH WILLIAMS

Any fans of Frances Mensah Williams’ work in the house? I’ve been slowly working my way through some compelling Black Brit reads and Williams’ work has been on my radar for a hot minute! Frances Mensah Williams is a Ghanaian-British author of many books. If you remember, back in 2017 she was one of the 80+ Ghanaian writers highlighted in the 3-part series I did on Ghanaian writers and their books. Her latest novel – Imperfect Arrangements, was published back in March and from the synopsis, this novel looks juicy and satisfying!

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Check out the synopsis for Imperfect Arrangements below:

There are two sides to every story…

In the sun-soaked capital of Ghana best friends Theresa, Maku and Lyla struggle with the arrangements that define their relationships.

Ambitious, single-minded Theresa has gambled everything to move with her loving husband Tyler from London to cosmopolitan Accra. But when shocking developments threaten their plans, they also expose the hidden cracks in her fairytale marriage.

Feisty Maku is desperate for professional recognition – and her dream white wedding. But how long can she wait for her laid-back partner Nortey to stop dreaming up pointless projects from the comfort of his local bar and stand up to his family?

Churchgoing Lyla married Kwesi in haste, and six years later she is desperate for a child. But while she battles a vicious mother-in-law, and her growing attraction to the mysterious Reuben, her husband has bitten off more than he can chew with his latest mistress.

Facing lies, betrayal, and shattered illusions, each couple must confront the truth of who they have become and the arrangements they have enabled. Against the backdrop of a shifting culture, each woman must decide what – and who – she is willing to sacrifice for the perfect marriage.

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I had the honor of chatting with Williams about her novels, the first book she read by a Ghanaian writer, Black writers who influence her work and more. Enjoy!

(note – ‘FMW’ represents Frances Mensah Williams’ responses)

  • I recently purchased From Pasta to Pigfoot, and I know there is a sequel called From Pasta to Pigfoot: Second Helpings. I’m eager to read your latest novel, Imperfect Arrangements, which was published back in March of this year. How long have you been a writer and what other books have you written?

FMW: I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember; from the early scribbles of my teen years to writing careers books and then, eventually, writing novels.

I’m so pleased you bought From Pasta to Pigfoot! It’s my first novel and very special to me. I wrote the initial draft years ago when I was living and working in Ghana. I wanted to explore the contemporary diaspora experience with the character of Faye Bonsu, a Black British Londoner and pasta fanatic, who’s torn between the culture she’s grown up with and the Ghanaian culture she’s supposed to connect with. Her story mirrors so many of the challenges young Britons of African descent face, and I wanted to depict how navigating between two cultures can be painful, illuminating and occasionally hilarious. In the novel, Faye gets the chance to visit Ghana and discovers that understanding your history can give you the confidence to choose your future.

There is indeed a sequel – From Pasta to Pigfoot: Second Helpings. This picks up Faye’s story three years after the end of the original book. Hoping to escape from her suddenly complicated life and revive her wilting romance, Faye returns to sunny Ghana for what she hopes will be the time of her life. But life doesn’t always offer second chances and when disaster strikes, she is forced to confront the biggest question of her life and to make a choice that comes with consequences she will have to live with forever. I really enjoyed writing this book because Faye’s experiences are so relatable: the boyfriend who never seems ready to commit, the merciless boss who makes you struggle for promotion, the mother-in-law that drives everyone crazy, the bridezilla you love but want to kill – and the struggles we face when we’re trying to have it all!

 


  • I read an excerpt of Imperfect Arrangements, in the form of a short story, on AFREADA. In the excerpt, Theresa is at the hospital and she’s shocked to find out that she’s pregnant. By the end of the story, I really wanted to indulge in the lives of the three best friends – Theresa, Maku and Lyla. Why was it important for you to write this story that focuses on three best friends who struggle with the arrangements that define their relationships?

FMW: I first had the idea for Imperfect Arrangements when I was living in Ghana and found myself fascinated by the many arrangements that passed as marriage. As is the case in every part of the world, a perfect relationship really doesn’t exist, and when you layer cultural expectations onto the strains of any relationship, the pressure it brings will reveal the truth.

In Imperfect Arrangements, I chose to write about best friends Theresa, Maku and Lyla because I wanted to celebrate the importance of sister-friends and depict an honest account of the complexity of relationships, both romantic and between best friends. I wanted to explore the joy and pain of relationships, particularly with the added pressures of cultural expectations and norms, and to tell the story from the perspectives of both the women and the men in their lives. Unusually, we also see the story unfold from the viewpoints of the three men in the relationships.

 


  • Did you learn anything about yourself while writing Imperfect Arrangements? What about your previous novels – especially From Pasta to Pigfoot and From Pasta to Pigfoot: Second Helpings?

FMW: That is an interesting question! I think I learned a lot as a writer while working on Imperfect Arrangements. The story takes place over one year and is structured in layers – every three months – with the action unfolding through the eyes of each person in the three couples. It was quite a challenge to keep the story moving at pace while ensuring that the characters grew into rounded and realistic people. The three women are very different to each other and, much as they love one another, they also experience the frustration and irritation that we all feel with our besties – loving them, but still keeping it honest and real!

I think this is a story that no-one can read without examining their own relationships and friendships. Although the three couples face different challenges, their situations reflect what so many people grapple with: lies, betrayal, adultery, interfering families, stagnant careers, and more.

Writing From Pasta to Pigfoot was an interesting journey for me; seeing Ghana through the eyes of Faye and depicting her struggles to connect both aspects of her cultural identity. Having myself mostly grown up outside Africa, although Faye and I are very different personalities, I could empathise with her feelings and her dilemma about where to call home.

 


  • Some writers dislike being ‘pigeon-holed’ and labelled as ‘African writer’ or ‘Black writer.’ How do you prefer to be identified as a writer? Who do you write for and do you think your novels can be categorized under one genre?

FMW: This is something I get asked a lot. There’s so much debate what constitutes ‘African’ writing and who gets to be called what or has the authority to tell which stories. Because of my heritage and some of the settings in my books, I’m often asked whether I consider myself to be an African writer, a diaspora writer or (sometimes with a slight tinge of disappointment) just a romance writer.

As far as I’m concerned, I’m just writing stories, but the publishing world likes to pigeonhole books for marketing purposes. Broadly, my books fall into the category of ‘commercial women’s fiction’ and for some people that’s enough. There are also those who describe it as ‘chick lit’, which doesn’t offend me, although I know many men who enjoy them, so I’m not sure that properly reflects the content.

For me, what really matters is that readers see my characters as more than simply their ethnicity. By setting Imperfect Arrangements in Ghana, one of my hopes is that it takes the conversation beyond the issue of race, as all the main characters are African. I also hope my books show that irrespective of our backgrounds, we all share the same desires for love of self, love of others, being seen and belonging. So, to answer your question, I’m an African woman and a writer, but I guess I’ve now reached the point where I leave the labelling to those who find it useful, while I focus on writing stories people can enjoy.

 


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

FMW: I enjoy many different types of books – a legacy from being a book addict as a child and reading anything which sounded halfway interesting that I could get my hands on in the local library. I love character driven stories with lots of dialogue: courtroom dramas, rom-coms, thrillers, murder mysteries, biographies, historical dramas – you name it.

My favourite Black writers include Dorothy Koomson, whose books I love, and Terri McMillan, whose books I read voraciously. If I’m honest, I’m probably not as widely read when it comes to African writers, but I’ve really admired the work of fellow Ghanaians, Yaa Gyasi and Ayesha Harruna Attah.


  • In 2017, you were featured in my 3-part series #GHat60 project, where I highlighted and celebrated over 80 writers of Ghanaian descent (which later became the #ReadGhanaian book challenge, in 2019). Do you remember the first book you read by a Ghanaian writer? If so, what book was it and how was the experience?

FMW: I guess that would be probably be The Chocolate Run by Dorothy Koomson. I was attracted to the novel because her name was clearly Ghanaian, and I was desperate to discover Black writers who also wrote commercial, contemporary, women-driven novels. When I read The Chocolate Run, I was blown away by the realisation that there was indeed a market for books about serious issues written in a fun way, and featuring Black female protagonists who were firmly at the centre of the story, instead of at the margins.

 


  • Finally, why would you like us to read your latest novel – Imperfect Arrangements? What would you like reader to take away from the story?

FMW: I would love you to read Imperfect Arrangements firstly because – if I say so myself – it’s a great story! I love the characters and I want to take the reader on a roller coaster journey as they get to know the women and their partners. I want you to laugh, cry, grow very frustrated, and cheer! I want every reader to feel exactly what drives and motivates each of the six main protagonists, and to understand what makes them who they are and why the behave as they do.

I want the story of Imperfect Arrangements to provoke a conversation about the themes that arise in the novel: relationships in contemporary Ghana/Africa; myths and expectations confronted by the realities of marriage; friendship and sisterly love between women; the impact of culture on marriage and attitudes towards adultery and infertility in contemporary Ghana/Africa; the power of family versus the individual; the diaspora returnee experience; and the Black male perspective on relationships.

I also want readers to realise that love – whether it is love of self or love between friends or lovers – is the greatest gift of all.

 

Purchase Imperfect Arrangements on Amazon

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Check out the 80+ Ghanaian writers that were highlighted in last year’s 3-part series below:

Lizard & Other Stories by Marcelle Mateki Akita

Date Read: December 27th 2016

Published: December 18th 2016

Publisher: Marcelle Mateki Akita

Pages: 63

The Blurb

Follow the stories of five young characters who try to make sense of loss, sex and sexuality in Lizard & Other Stories. Marcelle Mateki Akita explores how topics such as broken family and romantic relationships, sexual violence and masturbation impact a young girl and woman’s development. The collection’s short stories and flash fiction focus on girls and women of Ghanaian and mixed heritage. Written in an imaginative and sobering style, Lizard & Other Stories will unsettle and surprise you.

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Review – ★★★ (3 stars)

How cute is the cover art of Lizard & Other Stories? The beads are truly attractive! Lizard & Other Stories is the good debut of short stories by reader, researcher and co-founder of Afrikult. (a literary platform that discusses, explores and celebrates the diversity of African literature) – Marcelle Mateki Akita. The collection consists of five stories that focus mainly on girls and women of Ghanaian or mixed heritage. The stories in this collection are vivid, bold and told in a calm manner. Once I started reading, I was drawn into Marcelle’s comfy, calm writing style, which allowed me to get to know the characters at relatively good paces. Some issues explored in this collection are: coming of age, religion, family, sexuality, (domestic) violence, naivety and betrayal.

What makes this collection special is the ambiguous nature of all the stories. If you read this collection more than once – which I highly encourage, you will realize that there are various interpretations and extra, juicy details you probably missed during the first reading. When I got the chance to discuss Lizard & Other Stories with Marcelle during Christmas break, I realized I interpreted the stories, especially the final one, entitled Kwesi, in a completely different way than she did. It takes talent to pull that off, even if it’s never a writers’ intention to give stories various meanings. Another thing that’s great about this collection is the unpredictability of the stories. I felt really cozy while reading the first story, entitled Ama, until the story took an unexpected turn and left a sour taste in my mouth. From the way the stories commence to their finality are polar opposites, which was refreshing!

I would’ve been more satisfied with these stories if the characters were developed a little further for readers to fully understand their actions. Also, some passages in this collection seemed overly descriptive, which isn’t my preference when reading short stories and flash fiction. But I must say, the vivid descriptions certainly allow one to picture exactly what is being observed, which was appreciated.

If you want to indulge in bold, unpredictable stories written in a calm voice, definitely look into reading this collection! I eagerly look forward to Marcelle’s future projects – a novel soon, maybe? Pretty please?

Special thanks to Marcelle, for the free copy of Lizards & Other Stories, in exchange for an honest review 🙂


To get a feel of her writing, check out Marcelle’s story that was published by AFREADA last year – Cassava’s Finest

Read more of Marcelle’s work on her websiteShe posts wonderful musings of the mind and soul every Monday and 100 word stories every Wednesday.

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

Purchase Lizard & Other Stories on Amazon

Minaret by Leila Aboulela

Date Read: July 21st 2014

Published: 2005

Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

Pages: 288

minaret

The Blurb

With her Muslim hijab and down-turned gaze, Najwa is invisible to most eyes, especially to the rich Arab families whose houses she cleans in London. Twenty years earlier, Najwa, then an aristocratic Westernized Sudanese, could have never imagined this new life. She was a student at the University of Khartoum but her focus in life was on fashionable clothes, pop music, and parties. When a political coup forces Najwa’s family into exile in London, she soon finds herself orphaned and completely alone. For the first time in her life, Najwa turns to the solace and companionship among the women at the mosque, and when she adopts the hijab, she begins to see the world anew. Then Najwa meets Tamer, the intense, lonely younger brother of her employer and they find a common bond in her newfound faith and slowly, silently, begin to fall in love. Written with directness, simplicity and force, Minaret is a stunning and insightful novel about one woman’s journey toward spiritual peace.

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 Review – ★★★ (3 stars)

I loved Leila Aboulela’s short story ‘Museum‘ which won the first Caine Prize in 2000. I read ‘Museum‘ from the anthology, Opening Spaces – Contemporary African Women’s Writing and I thoroughly enjoyed it, mainly because Aboulela is Sudanese and writes about Khartoum. We rarely read or hear about Sudan in the African literature scene, so Leila Aboulela’s writing excites me!

I preferred reading the beginning of Minaret: Najwa was born into an upper-class Muslim family where her father worked with the president of Sudan, and her mother came from a rich family. Najwa and her twin brother who are very secular compared to other Muslim youth went to the best private schools of Khartoum and the best university in the nation. The family had several luxurious cars, superfluous food,  partied with their rich friends regularly and enjoyed vacations in several countries, including London where they owned a townhouse. Life was great for Najwa’s family.

Since all was well for Najwa and her family, she was very oblivious to the fact that Sudan was a very poor nation with majority of the citizens under the poverty line and with a government- which her father was associated with, that was very corrupt. Things turned upside down for Najwa and her family when Sudan faced a coup d’etat, hence her family- excluding her father, were forced to escape to their townhouse in London. The storyline cuts through 10-15 years later and after a series of unfortunate events, Najwa who was once a rich, secular university student becomes a lonely, poor housemaid. As a housemaid, Najwa finally starts to take Islam seriously by wearing a hijab and going to the Mosque to pray daily.

The storyline towards the middle of Minaret gets a bit annoying. Najwa (now a housemaid), who is now about 40 years old falling in love with Tamer – her employer’s son, was a bit strange to me. Why is this 40 year old in love with a 19 year old university student? I found Tamer to be very judgmental as he felt he was a better Muslim than everyone. Towards the middle of the story, I realized Najwa was a little too naiive for my liking. Her fate was very sad as she was orphaned quite early due to political instability in Sudan, but I didn’t find Najwa to be a strong Muslim woman I could learn from. Surely, she had her strengths- she had a calm spirit, she was meek, she was very kind and regarded others’ feelings. Throughout the novel, she was trying to grow spiritually and was trying to become a better Muslim, but by the end of the novel I didn’t really see the depth of her growth. The conclusion of the novel seemed incomplete as well since Najwa’s character seemed stagnant. It was as though she was content being a housemaid and did not aspire to do anything better with her life or even go back to Sudan. I was quite disappointed that Najwa did not want more for herself.

Leila Aboulela is a great writer. I loved the calmness and simplicity of her writing in this novel. This book made me appreciate the Muslim culture and the importance of women wearing hijabs and tobes. I just wish the love story between Tamer (the 19 year old) and Najwa was more realistic and didn’t take up 3/5ths of the storyline. But I still look forward to reading more of Aboulela’s books!

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

Purchase Minaret on Amazon