This month, Africa Book Club speaks to Ghanaian writer, Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond. Nana (nanaekua.com) is an accomplished author and copywriter, who has written for AOL, The Village Voice, JET Magazine, Metro, and Trace Magazine, among others. Her short stories have been published in African Writing and the anthology This Woman’s Work; while her poem, “The Whinings of a Seven Sister Cum Laude Graduate Working Bored as an Assistant,” was published in the anthology Growing up Girl. A cum laude graduate of Vassar College, she attended secondary school in Ghana. Her debut novel, Powder Necklace (published by Simon and Schuster) was released in 2010 and was featured as one of our 2010 Books of the Year.
Tell us about your last book, Powder Necklace?
Powder Necklace is my first book. It starts in London where the main character Lila Adjei is living her relatively ordinary urban adolescence. On her way to and from school, random dudes harass her with sexual come-ons. She’s scared so she asks a male friend from school to walk her home. It becomes their ritual, and not coincidentally, Lila has a crush on the boy.
She’s not allowed to have boys in her home when her mother’s not around, but Lila bends the rules for this crush. It’s all relatively innocent, but when her mother catches the boy in the house, she does not see it that way at all. The incident touches this nerve in her mother that Lila doesn’t fully understand–and will spend the rest of the book trying to figure out after her mother abruptly ships her to their native Ghana.
Once in Ghana, Lila is thrust into another scenario she doesn’t understand. The tension between the life she is used to in London and the identity it gave her; and her struggle to resolve it to her new existence in Ghana and her Ghanaian origin ultimately set Lila on the path to beginning to find herself.
One of the themes you explore in the book is that of displacement – your main character is a British teen who is sent to her parent’s homeland in Ghana. Given the parallels, I have to to ask, is this a semi-autobiographical book?
Powder Necklace is fiction, but was inspired by my actual experience. When I was 12, my parents sent me to Ghana to attend school. The three years I spent in Ghana completely changed my view of myself and my view of the world.
Before Ghana, I rejected my Ghanaian identity; I didn’t want to be associated with the negative connotations of famine and poverty associated with being from Africa. After my experience in Ghana, I knew there was much more to Africa than the negatives.
With Powder Necklace, I wanted to tell a more balanced story through the eyes of this girl that starts off with a Western superiority complex, then slowly awakens to the truth. I drew heavily from my own experience. Those years in Ghana living with my grandmother and other relatives, I felt completely displaced from all I knew and all I was. I was desperate to hold on to my American identity when I was there–my accent, my long hair; American programs like Video Soul and A Different World which sometimes aired on TV and the mix tapes my friend sent me from the States kept me going. But from 12 to 15, I felt my Americanness slipping. It was devastating. But what I realized when I was older, is that I wasn’t evaporating, my glass was just getting bigger–making room for all of me.
What did you enjoy most about the writing journey?
What I love most, scares me the most. Even though it was my goal and ambition to get the book published; seeing those words in a book, on a shelf or online, in the public domain was immensely gratifying and terrifying. It was out there, in black and white, and I couldn’t take anything back..
What would you say was the hardest part of it all?
The hardest part of my writing process was finding a literary agent. It took me four years to find an agent. When I did find one, though, she sold the manuscript in just two months.
Is there anything you wish you could have done differently with your first book project?
When I got the great news Simon & Schuster would publish the book, I was so paranoid something would happen to yank the opportunity from me. I wish I had been more patient during the waiting and editing period. Aside from that, there’s always something new that I catch that I wish I could fix when I read it afresh at a reading event. But I think I’ll have that feeling with all my books. When we’re talking about the work of human beings, there’s always something that could be better.
It’s been a while since Powder Necklace, what have you been up to since?
I have written my second novel, started on a third; and embarked on a non-fiction book project. In 2012, I was selected to join a group of writers and exchange on a fellowship/writing residence in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. I also recently founded a blog for writers called People Who Write. In the meantime, I continue to seek opportunities to introduce Powder Necklace to new book lovers.
How do you stay motivated after you’ve written your first book?
I’m motivated by my own head-over-heels love for writing, as well as my desire to grow into the responsibility to tell stories that educate, edify, and inspire readers. I know what books did and do for me as a kid, as far as helping me better understand the world and my place in it. I want readers to have that experience with my books too.
For readers out there who are new to African literature, what books would you recommend?
My favorite book is Buchi Emecheta’s novel The Joys of Motherhood. It’s an excellent chronicle of Nigeria’s post-colonial evolution through the eyes of a mother; it really resonated with me. I also love Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People, Ayesha Harruna Attah’s Harmattan Rain, Chimamanda Adichie’s award-winning novel Half of a Yellow Sun, and Catherine E. McKinley’s memoir Indigo which takes the reader on an unforgettable tour of West Africa in search of authentic indigo fabric.
I think the common theme among these books is they each offer deeply nuanced slices of African life and history–a necessary counterpoint as many still think Africa has nothing to offer but famine and disease. With their careful renderings of ordinary and extraordinary African life, these books help offer balanced portraits.