For Colored Girls Book Club + Ayesha Harruna Attah

 

Ayesha Harruna Attah is the Ghanaian born, Senegal-living author of Harmattan Rain, Saturday’s Shadow, and recently, The Hundred Wells of Salaga, a story based on her great-great-grandmother who was enslaved in pre-colonial Ghana.

The Hundred Wells of Salaga tells the story of Wurche and Aminah, two women who seek to define and achieve freedom during a time and place when that was unheard of for most women.

We caught up with Ayesha over Skype and talked about her inspiration for Wurche and Aminah, the stories that plague her, and how she became a writer.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

 
Ayesha Harruna Attah. Photo by Itunu Kuku

Ayesha Harruna Attah. Photo by Itunu Kuku

 

FOR COLORED GIRLS BOOK CLUB:

Of all the women to write about, why Wurche and Aminah?

AYESHA HARRUNA ATTAH:         

Aminah came to me first because she's based on my great-great-grandmother, and she was a woman who didn't leave my consciousness. I’ve thought of different ways of writing her story, but the best way to tell her story was to have her to tell it herself. I did research to situate her in her time and place, but the rest of it feels kind of like she was the one doing the guiding. Wurche was born because I read a line in a book about Salaga, where my ancestor ended up, in which princesses from the royal family in this region were described as being able to have unparalleled amounts of freedom. And I thought, here is a woman you don't hear about often. So I thought I’d play with this Wurche character because she'll be interesting to hold up against my ancestor who's enslaved. How does a woman who is supposed to be the freest woman in society hold up against someone who has been kidnapped and placed in the lowest rungs of society?

FCG:              

Wurche, I find, upholds patriarchy at the same time she's imprisoned by it.

AHA:             

While doing research, I found out about women like Nana Asma'u based in Nigeria, learned women who taught other women through poetry in the 19th century, around the time just before Wurche was born herself. Nana Asma'u could be accused of the same thing: she wants everyone to fall in line with her father's teachings and she's a foot soldier of the patriarchy, and yet, she's doing things that challenge ideas of women from that time: she's a translator, she's leading women, advising her brother, a sultan in the area. She's challenging stereotypes and yet she's still keeping it going. The idea that people like that have existed in history and continue to exist was one that I wanted to play with with Wurche.

FCG:              

How did you navigate all of those moving parts of this book: the dynamics between the women, pre-colonial Ghana, and the internal slave trade, which is not something I’ve read a lot of in fiction?

AHA:             

I think what I did, first of all, was choose to tell the women's stories. I wanted to tell my great-great-grandmother's story; that was my anchoring. The challenge for me was to tell that story without making it too textbook-ish, without having it overwhelm the book, and then without having it be too obvious either. So I had to figure out who would be the best vehicle for getting this across. So Wurche was great because she was in a position to know some of these things going on, and sometimes she wasn't. I had to think of how to give information through her. Aminah didn't even understand the language half the time, so how would she know this information? Then sometimes I thought, maybe if I should add a third or fourth or fifth voice. So in one draft there were multiple voices telling this story, because [having different points of view] seemed like the easiest way. But then I gave that draft to a couple of friends and they said it was too much. So these are things that as a writer you go through with each draft. Ultimately, I like how tight the book was, and how we just got Wurche and Aminah to tell these stories themselves, because it was their story, not anybody else's.

FCG:              

How long did it take to write? From conceptualization to "Now I'm done"?

AHA:             

The seed was planted, say, in 2009 early 2010. I think it was 2014 that I really started working on this version that's out there in the world right now. It was first published in 2018 so I guess I've been thinking about this book for about eight, nine years. I'm actually working on Hassanna and Husseinna’s story now. Hassanna is going to find her sister across the big water. I won't say too much, but she goes in search of her sister.

 
The Hundred Wells of Salaga  by Ayesha Harruna Attah. Image from @forcoloredgirlsbookclub on Instagram

The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah. Image from @forcoloredgirlsbookclub on Instagram

 

FCG:              

Do you think of this story challenges common conceptions of what constitutes African history and was that your intention? I kind of hesitate to say that because Africa is neither a country nor a monolith.

AHA:              

I am drawn more to the idea of an Africa without its borders, an Africa where people could move freely. But I wrote this book for myself, to do the work that my professors or teachers didn't do. Because there was a lot of glorification [of the history] when I was growing up in Ghana. We would learn about the Ghana Empire, the Mali Empire, the Songhai Empire. Between all these places, what were regular people doing? That's lost to history. And these empires were only so many, and the continent is vast. But also I wrote it for us as Africans to open our eyes and to also stop telling one side of the story. As children, we’re told, “Europe came and first, they enslaved us and then they colonized us." But how did they do that? With the help of very willing Africans who profited from the slave trade as much as Europe did. So I think these are the two reasons I wrote this book. For me to wake up, and to learn more about myself and where my people have come from and then two, for my people to also wake up and see that we've been looking at just one side of the story, either willfully or through blindness.

FCG:              

Any suggestions on other writers who focus on this same time frame?

AHA:             

There's a beautiful book called Season of the Shadow by Léonora Miano. She's a Cameroonian writer whose work was translated from French into English, and it's so beautiful. One day a village wakes up and the mothers find that 12 of their sons have gone missing and they begin this mourning when suddenly, a black shadow that appears over the village. Ayi Kwei Armah's The Healers is another one that talks about pre-colonial Ghana and Africans who were very willingly working with Europeans. Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing is a good one that fans out into the diaspora.

FCG:              

So let’s go back to Aminah’s character. Since Aminah’s character was inspired by your ancestor, in what ways did you hold back because of your relation to her? And what liberties did you take when writing her?

AHA:             

I think she probably could have gone through worse. She goes through a lot already, but I was a little protective, like even when she was with Wofa Sarpong. I remember going through a draft and then a friend saying, "Come on, he has to do worse to her than what he's doing.” It's like writing about your mom or your grandma, you feel protective of them. But then I also wanted to tell a true story, so she had to stand in the sun naked and be paraded in front of buyers. And I sort of knew where her story would end because we're here today, so I stayed true to that story. I didn't take liberties with that, even though I'd have wanted it to end differently. My great-great-grandfather was a slave dealer, a slave trader who thought Aminah was so beautiful that he married her. Moro is a funny character; some people hate him and some find him sexy, but he was also based on an ancestor as well.  

FCG:              

I feel like these stories could not have been told without you. These characters, this life, this period. And I like to think of storyteller as people who are flagged down by others in a specific time and place by history who are waving at you, but you can't hear them and so you not so much give them a voice, but turn up their volume.

AHA:             

Yeah. I definitely feel like a medium. Even with this story of the twins, sometimes things happen, and I'm like, "I didn't even invent this." Sometimes, my big head says, "Oh, I'm a creator. I'm creating stories," but the truth of the matter is I feel more like a medium and I just write the stories. This happened with The Hundred Wells of Salaga and with this book I'm working on.

FCG:              

In writing your other two books, Harmattan Rain and Saturday's Shadows, did a story plague you in the same way that you say that Aminah's character or this story specifically plagued you?

AHA:             

No, I wasn't plagued by a story. With Harmattan Rain, it was more that I wanted to write an intergenerational story. Then with Saturday’s Shadows, it was the fact that I lived in Senegal and saw lots of similarities with living in Ghana, and also my becoming more West African, more African than Ghanaian. I don't think I had the same urgency [with those books] as with The Hundred Wells of Salaga, where I felt like I needed to write this particular woman's story, and this next book where I feel like I need to figure out where the twins went.

 
Image from @forcoloredigirlsbookclub on Instagram

Image from @forcoloredigirlsbookclub on Instagram

 

FCG:              

You studied biochemistry in undergrad. So how did you get into writing?

AHA:             

Writing was always a thing. My parents are journalists and I was just running away from them by studying science. But I've always loved books. I've loved stories. I enjoyed Biochemistry a lot, but when it got very micro, it began to lose me. I liked the big picture when I could see the systems working together, like how the body works fascinates me. But it got so, so, so detailed that I sort of lost myself and my interest in it, whereas with writing, I could open up the world and sort of be a god looking down. I made the switch right after undergrad. I went to journalism school because it seemed like it would be easier to make money writing articles first before becoming a book novelist.

FCG:              

How often do you write? Do you write every day?

AHA:             

When I'm in a project, yes. I'm working on this book on the twins and I write pretty much every day. And then when I get a working draft done, I usually go through a period where I don't feel like doing any writing. Sometimes it lasts for like two or three months, but sometimes it's shorter.

FCG:              

What stories inspire you? Who do you love to read? Who inspires you?

AHA:             

I love Toni Morrison, although I haven't read her in a long time. The last book of hers I read was Song of Solomon, it was a reread.

FCG:              

She was also plagued in the writing of Song of Solomon. So I thought of her when we were talking about that.

AHA:             

Yeah. Big, big, big influence. I'm on an African-Caribbean literature kick right now. I love Nicole Dennis-Benn. I loved Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. I loved Novuyo Rosa Tshuma's House of Stone. I think African writers are killing it as well now. I think any story that just immerses you into a world completely and wholly and just sucks you right in I'm down for. I read Tolstoy and he does that with Anna Karenina. Any story that's fully immersive and where I don't hear the author's voice so much, it’s got me.