Zambian author Ellen Banda-Aaku won the 2010 Penguin Prize for African Writing for her first novel, Patchwork, which came out in June this year. Born in 1965 in Woking Surrey, UK, Ellen grew up in Zambia and has lived and worked in Ghana, South Africa, the UK and Zambia. Ellen has worked as a tutor in Literary Studies and as a Writing Consultant with the University of Cape Town. She’s currently is based in the UK.
Until she wrote Patchwork, Ellen was mostly known for her short stories and books for children. She has published three children’s books and her short stories have appeared in anthologies published in Australia, South Africa, the UK and the US. Her first children’s book, Wandi’s Little Voice, won the 2004 Macmillan’s Writers Prize for Africa. In 2007 her short story, Sozi’s Box, won the Commonwealth Short story competition.
She talked to Africa Book Club about her new book, and the relative challenges of writing for children on the one hand and adults on the other.
When and why did you decide to become a writer?
I had often thought of writing but never got around to it. I started writing by chance. I was based in Ghana at the time when I saw a call for submissions to the Macmillan Writers’ Prize for Africa. It was a call for stories for children – I entered and to my surprise won the New Children’s Writer Award. That was in 2004.
Tell us about your journey as a writer since then.
I was lucky in that my first manuscript won an award and was published as part of the prize. However, I have had my fair share of rejections since. So although the ride has not been bumpy it has not been smooth sailing either.
It’s been nearly a year since your manuscript for Patchwork won the Penguin Prize for African Writing. How does it feel to finally have the book out?
Patchwork has been out two months now and it’s interesting to hear other peoples’ take on it.
What went into getting the book from manuscript to print?
I wrote the manuscript over about 15 months whilst studying for my MA in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town. I started the manuscript as a book for children. Then I was told it had an adult tone so I changed it into a novel.
What was your inspiration for writing Patchwork, and what do you want your readers to take away from reading the book?
Although I can’t pin-point what exactly inspired me to write Patchwork, my writing generally comes from my life (particularly my childhood experiences) and those of others.
What I would like is for the readers to decide what they take away from Patchwork – I imagine it will be a different experience for each reader. More crucially, what I would hope is that whatever readers take away, they enjoy the book all the same.
Patchwork is a departure from your past focus on children’s writing. How would you compare the two experiences – writing for an adult audience and writing for children?
When I write for children I keep checking that the language and style is appropriate for the age group I’m targeting. I recently wrote a book for 5 -7 year olds and I can say it was the most challenging piece of writing I’ve ever had to do. As I wrote Patchwork, I felt freer to write as I pleased.
Although the story revolves around Pumpkin, J.S. is also quite dominant. Were there specific themes you were trying to explore in your depiction of J.S?
It didn’t occur to me as I was writing the story, but now I think of it, JS shows the contradictions within a human being and how differently one person is perceived by different people. JS is a womanizer but is also a very generous man. He is loved and hated in equal measure depending on the character you ask.
What’s been the reception to the book so far? Is it available globally?
The book was released on the June 1, 2011, so it’s early days yet. I have been asked some interesting questions about the characters and themes and I’m sure as I go around promoting the book there will be more questions. To date Patchwork is available in bookstores in South Africa and on Amazon UK and Canada. I hope it will be on available on Amazon in the US soon.
Will there be a book tour?
My publishers have not made any mention of a tour, so I guess not.
Any advice for aspiring writers out there?
Read and write! It seems obvious but often people who have stories to tell and want to be writers don’t realize their writing dreams simply because they don’t get around to it.
The secret is to read and write a lot of the time!
Do you have any favorite African writers?
South African writer Damon Galgut is one of my favorites and I have read all his books. I also admire Chimamanda Adiche Ngozi’s writing. There are loads more favorite African books and writers – but my memory fails me and in any case there are too many to list.