Born in Accra, Ghana, Ayesha Harruna Attah was educated at Mount Holyoke College and Columbia University, and received an MFA in creative writing from NYU in 2011. She is a 2014 Africa Centre Artists in Residency Award Laureate.
Awarded a fellowship from Per Ankh Publishers and TrustAfrica, Ayesha wrote and published her debut novel, Harmattan Rain, in 2009. It was shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Her recently released second novel, Saturday’s Shadows (World Editions), was shortlisted for the Kwani? Manuscript Project in 2014. In this interview with the Africa Book Club, she talks about her writing.
Tell us about yourself. Who is Ayesha Attah?
Who am I? That is a tough question. Let’s just say I am still figuring that out! I was born and raised in Ghana, went off to Mount Holyoke College in the United States, and I’ve been nomadic ever since. I feel a bit like a spider or octopus with a home base in Ghana and spindly legs that stretch out to different places. Right now, I am doing a writers’ residency in Bahia, Brazil, but I’ve been living in Senegal since October of last year.
When did you decide to become a writer?
I have always written. As a child, I would write and illustrate stories and staple my little color-penciled pamphlets together and try to palm them off on my sister and the neighborhood children. In primary and junior secondary school, I took part in several essay and story-writing competitions. Suddenly in high school, I stopped sharing what I wrote. I became a reclusive writer, scribbling in my diary, occasionally tearing up its pages into shreds. Even though, I interned at my parents’ newspaper, it was also around that time that I told myself I wanted to pursue medicine—we often convince ourselves of things we don’t quite believe in. It wasn’t until college, when I started taking writing classes, that it became clear to me that I would make a pitiful doctor. I went to journalism school after college, and after frequent bouts of feeling like an imposter, I can now call myself a writer.
Growing up as a child, who were your early influences? Were there any writers you looked up to and wanted to emulate?
My parents were my first major influences. They ran a literary magazine called Imagine, which had stories about Accra; articles on art, science, film, books; cartoons—which I especially loved. They were (and still are) my heroes. I discovered Toni Morrison when I was thirteen, and I was hooked. I devoured everything she wrote. I remember reading Paradise, and while its meaning completely evaded me then, I was left feeling like it was the most amazing book written and that one day I wanted to write a world full of strong female characters, just like Ms. Morrison had done.
What has been the best advice you’ve received since you started writing?
I have two answers. The first is to learning to read. And I know it sounds crazy; what does it mean to learn to read— after all, we learn to read when we’re three! What it means is learning to read closely. Reading is the way to discover what you like and what you don’t. Read with a pen or pencil. Underline sentences you love and those you don’t. Make a list of words that take your breath away. The second piece of advice is good writing is rewriting. I personally find this advice freeing, because it allows you to make mistakes when you first start out on any project; you can write a “shitty first draft” (coined by Anne Lamott, the author of Bird by Bird) that nobody sees, and then you come back to it, chipping away at it, improving story, finding the best word or sentence until you get a gem you’re satisfied with.
Your first novel, Harmattan Rain, was shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. Was that your first big success and what impact did it have on you as a writer?
I recently listened to a talk given by art curator Sarah Lewis about her book, The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery. The book’s premise is that artists should aim for mastery, not success. And I totally agree with her. Harmattan Rain to me was a debut, an introduction. It was a way of saying, I’ve got this story to tell and here I am. Writers can be an insecure bunch, and what the nomination for the prize did was give me a push, a tap on the shoulder to keep going.
Your most recent book, Saturday’s Shadows, was released earlier this year. Tell us about it.
Yes, it was released in the UK in January. Saturday’s Shadows is the story of a family in a fictional country in West Africa, trying to heal after a military dictatorship. It is written from the points of view of a father, mother, son, and their househelp, each of whom is ultimately looking for love. Sometimes the line between their internal stories and the external story of the country blurs in heartbreaking ways.
What do you do in your spare time?
I love nothing more than to stare at the ocean and I am so lucky I get to do that a lot these days. I have been roped into the terrible, wonderful world of TV shows and I have a long list of go-to shows for moments when I don’t want to think (ahem, Game of Thrones, The Good Wife, Mad Men, Orange is the New Black… Don’t get me started!). Dancing, cooking, trying out new foods are also big pastimes of mine.
You are currently living in Senegal, where you are working on an interesting translation project. Can you tell us about that?
I am working with a group that translates ancient African documents. What this has meant is learning to read and translate the ancient Egyptian alphabet. The project’s aim is to give Africans access to the ways in which our ancestors lived—their philosophies, values, and worldviews—so that we can find African solutions to African problems.
As a writer from Africa, are there other African writers that you admire? What book(s) would you recommend to readers who are looking to explore books by African writers?
There are many African writers that are doing wonderful work. I’d recommend that interested readers start with some of the names I list below. The list keeps growing. Some of my favorites are Ayi Kwei Armah, Ama Ata Aidoo, Mohammed Naseehu Ali, Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, Alain Mabanckou, Doreen Baingana, NoViolet Bulawayo, Chinelo Okparanta, Sefi Atta, Brian Chikwava.