Ayesha Harruna Attah

Interview: Five questions with Ayesha Harruna Attah.

Ayesha Harruna Attah is the author of the new novel The Hundred Wells of Salaga published by Cassava Republic Press. This is the writer’s second novel. She agreed to answer five of our questions.

Ghanaian writer Ayesha Harruna Attah is a writer of no mean repute with her first novel, Harmattan Rain, being shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Since then, she has been shortlisted for the Kwani Manuscript prize with a manuscript called Saturday’s People.

A few years later she would win the Miles Morland Scholarship 2016 for her nonfiction proposal, Kola! From Caravans to Coca Cola where she would outline the history of the kola nut from its West African origins.

Her newest project is the fictional history novel The Hundred Wells of Salaga. She was kind enough to accept to give us answers to these five questions.

What is the novel The Hundred Wells of Salaga about?
The Hundred Wells of Salaga is about two women whose lives intersect in the Salaga slave market in pre-colonial Ghana. Aminah is kidnapped and sold into slavery, and Wurche is the daughter of a chief who becomes Aminah’s mistress. It is the story of how both women liberate themselves and forge an unlikely friendship at the same time that Britain, Germany and, to a smaller extent, France, are slowly encroaching in on the area.

You picked historical fiction for this book. How come? What were the influences that led you there?
I love historical fiction! I remember reading One Hundred Years of Solitude and marveling at how much Gabriel Garcia Marquez packed into a family’s history while also revealing the makings of modern-day Colombia.I gravitate towards the historical also because a part of me is searching for who we are as Africans, for what our essence was before outside influences of religion, philosophy, and ways of living became so rooted in us. Writing historical fiction is a way of chipping away at the question of who we are.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Naguib Mahfouz’s The Cairo Trilogy, most of Toni Morrison’s novels (Song of Solomon and Jazz especially), and E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime were books that made me want to write a historical novel.

Seeing as the long held conventional wisdom is that Africans didn’t have records before the European conquest, how did you do the research for your novel?

The oldest sources of writing are actually from this continent, and I found some of them very instructive as I wrote. The Eloquent Peasant, written in Egypt about four thousand years ago (4000 years!), about injustice done to a commoner by a noble man, offered lots of insight for writing the relationship between Aminah and Wurche.

For the era I chose for this book (1890s), while it’s true that there is a dearth of African writing, there were still good sources. Accounts such as the Khitab Ghanja  schooled me on the history of Wurche’s people; poems by Nana Asma’u illuminated the ways in which women led their lives; and a first-hand account of the war in Salaga, written by Alhaji Imam Imoru, gave me facts to work with. I also consulted reports by missionaries and explorers – and at the time there were many in the region, some of whom were even African. My problem was what information to filter out.

What other historical novels can we find to scratch that itch?

On my to-read list are Dance of the Jakaranda  by Peter Kimani and Butterfly Fish  by Irenosen Okoji. I  also can’t wait to read Victoria Princewell’s In The Palace of Flowers  , a book about an Abyssinian woman who ends up enslaved in a Persian royal court, which Cassava Republic will be publishing next year, and Elnathan John’s book-in-progress on the Sokoto Caliphate, but since we have to wait for these two to hit bookstands, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing , Ama Ata Aidoo’s Anowa , Naguib Mahfouz’sMidaq Alley , and Ayi Kwei Armah’sThe Healers  should satisfy the itch.

When you are not writing, what do you do?

I have a toddler whose biggest wish would be for me to spend every waking moment with him, so he takes up most of my non-writing time. We go for walks, point out animals and cars and flowers; we paint and try not to eat play dough and crayons; and have good dance jams. After bedtime battles with the little one, my husband and I often begin a board game, but are usually so exhausted we hardly make it through.

You can follow the author’s progress through the literary blogosphere over the next few days at the following addresses;

Monday: www.thebookbanque.com – an excerpt of the novel

Tuesday: www.jamesmurua.com– This Q&A.

Wednesday: www.literandra.com

Thursday: www.chouett.com

Friday: www.tinyurl.com/bookworminghana

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