Name: Ayesha Harruna Attah
DOB: December 1983
Place of birth: Accra, Ghana
Ayesha, you once said that as a novelist, you write to find out who you are. Is that still your main motivation for writing these days?
I think so, yes! I'm still finding out who Ayesha is, I'm still finding out how I got here, why I'm here, what my purpose is. I feel lucky to be able to write because it helps me also do this work of self-discovery, and I don’t think people ever truly figure themselves out. It’s a lifetime's work to search for oneself. That still very much holds true for me.
What are some of the things you’ve learned about yourself over your years as an author?
What I've done is I’ve worked my way out. My first book, Harmattan Rain, was set in Ghana, where I’m from, and it covered about 50 years of the country's history. I was really digging deep with that, and I tried to figure out, for example, what my mother would have experienced during that time, what my grandmother would have gone through, but in a way that allowed me to explore myself as a woman who had also grown up in that space. And then as I wrote subsequent books, I reached further into that space, looking at the ethnic groups all over Ghana — I started peeling back the layers, almost like an onion and I'm in the nub of this vegetable, trying to find out the whole story, trying to find out how I ended up where I am.
“I use the world I live in as a guide, I’m in constant conversation with my characters, and with the people around me, so that in a way, I kind of live my books as well.”
The author Sheila Heti likewise says that a big part of writing comes out of an attempt to understand yourself; and because of that, often your own words and feelings wind up in your characters. Have you found that’s happened to you?
Sure, I mean, I spend time with myself when writing, so it’s inevitable that the way I see the world and the thoughts that fill my mind end up in my characters’ voices and thoughts. But I also mine from the world around me, so sometimes just a walk in the village I live in, a conversation with a perfect stranger could inspire me to explore more with a character. I use the world I live in as a guide, I'm in constant conversation with my characters, and with the people around me, so that in a way, I kind of live my books as well.
Is that somehow moving or even cathartic, to craft your work and your real life as mirrors of one another?
Yeah, it is. It's sort of two pronged because I think with any book that I'm working on, it is a personal story, but then there’s also a larger global story. Sometimes there'll be my own life experience that I want to deepen or explore, so my characters might do the same. But then for example, with my third book, The Hundred Wells of Saga, the main character was enslaved, her context was so removed from mine. It ended up inspiring me to explore what it's like to have your freedoms taken away in different ways, not just in that big context. I explored what it meant to be a woman; to ask myself, has any of this changed? It's a dance between the two methods, but yes, I am doing a lot of work figuring things out.
What does your research process look like when a character’s life and world is so removed from your own?
When I'm lucky and a book comes to me that takes place in a place that I've already been to, I’m able to utilize my memories. That can be really nice. But I do also like to make trips for my stories, I've had fellowships I've had some grants that have allowed me to move around and visit these places. Otherwise, I can also set up a call with somebody who lives there, it’s a bit of a journalistic technique! I'm also able to read research papers, travel documents, articles, academic papers… I watch videos and find out about the customs that take place in this in this environment. I listen to music and songs, read poetry, prose and myths from those places. I’ve usually got a lot to work with, and then I take that detail and blow it up and expand it.
One of your earlier steps is that you write down your idea and let it sit for a bit, and when you find yourself unable to stop thinking about it, that’s when you know it’s time to write.
Yes, it is like that for me sometimes, like a siren song drawing me in. For example, the idea for the book I'm writing now was sparked when I encountered one of these ancient Egyptian goddesses. I saw this a beautiful rendering of her, sort of bathed in this light, she’s this blue star-studded figure that covers the earth, like she's pulled over the earth like a blanket. And that image… I just haven't been able to stop thinking about it! I knew at some point I would write about her.
“That kind of meeting never leaves you. That kind of inspired encounter is just so powerful, it is hard to let go of it...”
Apparently you’ve always hoped to write about strong women, ever since you read Toni Morrison’s Paradise at age 13.
Yeah, that kind of meeting never leaves you. That kind of inspired encounter is just so powerful, it is hard to let go of it. She was just so strong as a writer, her voice was just so lyrical. I didn't understand some of the things that I was reading at the time, but I know that I thought, “Wow, I'd love to write this kind of book.” I always go back to that sense of wonder that I had when I first read Toni Morrison, if ever I’m doubtful of where I'm going, she's a writer I go back to often. Another writer that really moves me and is forever interesting and inspiring to observe is Bernadine Evaristo. She’s an incredible author, and I’ve gotten the chance to work with her for the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. I'm so thankful to be working with her because she has such positive energy. That's the kind of thing that writers need in a field where it's so easy to give up.
I can imagine that the insight you get from the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative has really opened up your quest to discover yourself and your writing.
Exactly! Because it’s not just feedback, which is obviously so invaluable for anyone doing any kind of creative work — it's also the chance to be with someone who has walked this same path for a long time, to see how they handle the things that come at them, and to just have a conversation with somebody who inhabits this same world. We get to bounce off ideas one another as well, and that is a treasure and a treat. To work with someone who's done this before and who's made these mistakes… It’s just been really, really useful. I grew up in a country that hasn't traditionally supported the arts! My grandmother at some point told me to find a real job, you know? I think most people where I grew up did not and do not see the value of art, so having an esteemed organization like Rolex come and say, “I support you,” it really is wonderful and affirming.
Is that apathy towards art something you’re hoping to change in Ghana?
Absolutely. One of my dreams is to open a library in my little village! I recently started a book for teen readers, but with the library, I hope for it to be a safe space that people can come to to have access to this world of literature and art. In that space, one of the things I'd love to do is to have mentors or even to be a mentor myself, help students with homework or run writing workshops. I would love to be a mentor down the line, like Bernardine has been for me. In some way or another, I want to transmit my knowledge and leave that kind of legacy.