Benjamin Kwakye is an award winning author, whose book, The Sun by Night won the 2006 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (Africa Region). Currently based in the US, he is an attorney and a director of the Africa Education Initiative, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting science education in Africa. He talks to Africa Book Club about his latest book.
Tell us about yourself – what do you do, where are you based?
I was born and grew up in Accra, Ghana. After secondary school and national service, I enrolled at Dartmouth College and then went on to Harvard Law School. I currently work as legal counsel but I have served in the past as Resident Novelist of Window to Africa Radio and Afriscope Radio in the Chicago area. In that capacity, I reviewed African titles and interviewed African writers. I am also a director of The Africa Education Initiative, which has instituted a number of programs designed to promote education in Africa.
Was writing something you always wanted to do? What triggered you to write your first book?
I’ve always had a keen interest in books, consuming a wide range of them even at an early age. But I think the decision to write was a process, largely influenced by my love of literature and the African writers I began reading mostly in secondary school. Their success encouraged me to redirect some of my energy into writing. I started with poetry but I have always been drawn to prose. After a few false starts, I recalled an imaginary trickster from my secondary school days. We joked that he came around campus selling examination questions ahead of time, taking on different guises in order to elude capture. For example, he was tall one day and short another day. The result is the Mystique Mysterious character in The Clothes of Nakedness.
What did it take to get your first break? How did you get your first book published?
I think it was primarily a matter of persistence. I sent The Clothes of Nakedness to a number of publishers and received rejections. I never gave up hope, though, rewriting and doing my best to polish it as I continued to send it out. Eventually, one of Heinemann’s US editors at the time, Jean Hay, liked it and made a few editorial suggestions. She then passed the novel on to the UK office, where it was eventually accepted for publication.
You have had quite some success as a writer. What impact did receiving an award like the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize have for your writing career?
I have always said that completing a novel is ample reward for me. That said, it is extremely gratifying to receive the recognition. Given that African literature generally has low readership, such awards can expose your work to a wider audience. It doesn’t assure that your next book will be published, but it makes things easier.
Are there African writers that you admire? What are some of your favorite books about Africa, or written by African writers?
There are so many of them that I find myself omitting some when I begin to make lists, but let me try to name a few: Chinua Achebe, Ayi Kwei Armah, Nurrudin Farah, Ama Ata Aidoo, and Wole Soyinka. In terms of books, Farah’s trilogy Variations on the Themes of an African Dictatorship and Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born come to mind. The list wouldn’t be complete without Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. That book and its author have done so much to open doors for writers from the continent. There are so many more that I could fill pages naming them, so let me stop here.
Tell us about your latest book. Is it autobiographical? There seem to be lots of parallels between you and Jojo Badu, your main character.
Generally, The Other Crucifix is about the experiences of a Ghanaian migrant to the US. It traces his experiences as a college and law school student from the 1960s through the 1970s. I think it captures a slice of the immigrant experience quite truthfully in a way that is germane to present day experiences. I also like to think that it is much more than a chronicle of his experiences, as it also explores human relations in a way that hopefully reveals a little bit about ourselves.
It is not autobiographical, but I can see why some might think otherwise as I also attended college and law school in the US. Although I drew from those experiences, Jojo Badu’s times were quite different from mine and our stories diverge in more places than they intersect.
Why the title?
Typically, when we consider the cross we think of suffering and redemption. The title is meant to capture the way we subject others who seem different to all forms of indignities, in effect metaphorically crucifying them. At the same time, it also symbolizes the possibilities that can arise from it all.”
What would you like your readers to take away from reading The Other Crucifix?
I hope all readers find it entertaining. I hope Africans and perhaps other migrants can identify with the experiences of the novel’s protagonist. For others, I hope it can draw them closer to some sense of empathy.
What has been the response to this new book and your earlier works?
I have been overwhelmed by the response to The Other Crucifix. It has been very well received and reviewed. Overall, the responses to my novels have been positive, although I wish I could increase their availability and readership on the African continent.
Can we expect a sequel down the road? What projects are you currently working on?
My take on the African immigrant experience is a multi-book project. I am continuing to explore the experiences of the African immigrant. So, yes, there is a sequel in the pipeline, although it can be read on its own without reference to The Other Crucifix. Also, my fourth novel, Legacy of Phantoms, is scheduled for publication soon. No date has been set yet, but it should be sometime this year.
As a writer, and as someone who has promoted African writing over the years, what are your thoughts on the future of African writing, and what advice would you give aspiring writers?
African writers face huge challenges, including low readership, limited publishing opportunities, and even harassment in some places. Still, in the face of it all, they manage to write and do so impressively. I think there are enormous challenges ahead, but I am encouraged by the resilience of writers from the continent and the relative success of some of the younger ones. I would encourage aspiring writers primarily to draw inspiration from the joy of writing itself. They should be persistent and not give up when they face setbacks. Three parting words: read, write, persevere.