AiW Guest Réhab Abdelghany
Last month, the Royal African Society’s annual Africa Writes Festival brought to the UK an audience with the eminent Ghanaian playwright, poet, novelist and academic, Ama Ata Aidoo: a festive event in its own right.
Having seen her elegant photo in the British Library’s booklet announcing the event, I expected to see her walk in like the celebrity she is, but Ama Ata Aidoo’s entrance was closer to that of a beloved granny that you have been impatiently waiting for to regale you with enchanting stories.
Katy Eagleton, Head of Asian and African Studies at the British Library, introduced the interviewer, Dr Wangui wa Goro. It was only very fitting that an Africanist of wa Goro’s standing would play hostess to Aidoo whom she introduced as “a literary living legend”. Aidoo has been influencing generations of readers worldwide, including some who have grown into the new voices of the continent like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who Aidoo praised as belonging to “a category on her own”.
The aim of the conversation according to wa Goro was to reflect on Aidoo’s expansive literary career and the main themes that have emerged from her work. However, in addition to that, I believe that the beautifully witty, humble, and brave character of Aidoo herself was what really emerged, and that this is what we truly got to see on this rare occasion. Concluding her deservedly long introduction of the author, wa Goro hoped the event would be “our fireside conversation”; a wish that was immediately granted thanks to the friendliness Aidoo inspired, her eloquence, wit, and interaction with the audience.
We were then treated to a short film on Aidoo’s life and literary achievements, with a younger Ama among her people in Ghana speaking about the influence her mother’s stories had on her choice of themes and way of telling stories. The traumatic impact of the slave trade and the aftermath of slavery on Ghanaian consciousness stood out both in the film, and in Aidoo’s own ensuing conversation. I remain haunted by a shot of a huge stone gate near the shore leading to the ocean with the words “Door of No Return” carved on its top arch.
Talking about Ghanaian memory of a shared history with slavery, Aidoo explained: “I think we Ghanaians are scared of that part of our history. There is internal slavery and external slavery. Among Ghanaians you do not talk about slavery, you do not call anybody a slave.” She went on to suggest that this did not address the problem nor heal the memory: “It has gone underground and coloured everything in our life, because we did not face it and the people from the diaspora are coming to compel us to deal with it. These attitudes impacted very negatively on our ability to communicate properly with the diaspora.” She stressed that Ghanaians are still “very nervous” of the presence of people from the diaspora “because they remind us of what we don’t want to deal with”. This nervousness was succinctly evoked by Aidoo in the highly charged dialogue between little Anowa and her grandmother from her play of that name shown in the film.
Aidoo’s most intensive handling of the legacy of slavery in relation to the diaspora is in fact not in Anowa (1970), but in her first play The Dilemma of a Ghost (1965), which unfortunately passed unmentioned that evening. Anowa was central to the conversation and the folk tale motif that Aidoo brilliantly reinvests in it, drawing on the West African tradition of warning girls against selecting their husbands as opposed to suitors approved by the family, was given particular emphasis. Aidoo cited Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard as a pioneering example that reworked the same motif, commenting: “Tradition is that these marriages do not succeed. I am glad I held myself from making too big a departure from tradition.”
The Writer, The Character, The Critic
Interestingly, Aidoo also shared with the audience her experience of writing the ending to Anowa and the different possibilities she experimented with: “When they ask me why did you kill Anowa? I did not kill her; she committed suicide.” In the alternative ending she considered, Anowa would have stepped on stage mad and dressed as a Victorian English woman. However, Aidoo discarded it, explaining, “it would have been even more cruel to let Anowa survive as a mad woman”.
I found Aidoo a writer who is not possessive of her characters; she gives them voice, but then lets them decide their own destiny. The way she spoke about them showed that the line between her self as an author and her characters is so well defined that they emerge with a free will. Wa Goro’s attempts to peep behind that line went unrewarded as Aidoo was not persuaded to talk about Esi’s choices in Changes, even when wa Goro argued saying “you wrote her!” Aidoo retorted: “She is not me!”.
Although she is also an academic, the critic in Aidoo perhaps vanishes when her creative self reigns: “I don’t sit down saying I am going to write a novel about transition and a woman etc.; it is you critics who pick these things.” Indeed she is no less defiant an interviewee, surprising and challenging, as she is a thinker, writer or critic. No wonder wa Goro, describing her, said: “each time we’re surprised and shocked by the new things Aidoo brings and challenges us,” and went on to tell her: “You don’t shy away from controversy.”
Aidoo was also unwilling to answer questions without questioning what was in them for her audience. When asked to talk about her stories, Aidoo exclaimed in disbelief: “if you google it, you will get this information!” Humorously pretending to respond to wa Goro, she turned to face the audience and satirically conjured up what I may dub as mock-storytelling: “Ok, once upon a time!” which sent the charged audience into waves of giggles. Similarly when wa Goro asked her to tell us about Changes, Aidoo again, going against the tradition of the conventional interview, retorted ironically “No!” and added: “What shall I tell you? The book is there!” Aidoo, like her characters, is a woman who is outspoken and alert to ironies, bringing the theatrical and dramatic into play within the framework of the formal conversation set up.
Influences & Beginnings
The highlight of the evening for me was Ama Ata Aidoo emerging from wa Goro’s questions as an oral storyteller: telling us about her beginnings, sharing memories of some unforgettable situations that shaped her life, and retelling one of her mother’s stories.
Writers very often owe the fostering of their talent to parents or grandparents whose act of telling stories instilled the passion and motivation to contribute their own. Aidoo appeared in the film proudly saying: “I definitely remember that my mother told us folk tales. I was a good listener to my mother. ‘Maybe I should add to the world’s wealth of stories,’ that was what I thought.” Earlier on in the day, talking about her debut novel Kintu with Kate Haines, Ugandan writer Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi acknowledged her debt to her father and grandfather. Similarly, Olabode Ogunlana dedicated his book The Rare Leaf: Yoruba Legends and Love Stories, launched at Africa Writes, to his paternal grandparents whose oral stories inspired him.
Aidoo’s skill with storytelling, oral and written, is not only owing to the influence of her mother, but also of the village storyteller, some of her teachers, and the books she read. She explained that back then, it was not usual for mothers to tell stories to their children. Interestingly, the village had its own professional storyteller: “we would gather in his place of an evening and he would tell us stories.”
Aidoo remembered with the audience certain situations in her early life that seemed to foreshadow her future literary distinction. When she was 15 years old attending Wesley Girls High School, a teacher asked her about her dream career. “Without thinking, I said I wanted to write poetry.” The teacher replied that poetry could not earn young Ama a living. Aidoo thought the teacher must have felt her words could be discouraging to the aspiring student, and the next year, she presented her with an old silent Olivetti typewriter. Aidoo’s smile beamed as she told us how that became a great source of encouragement prompting the start of her publishing in the school magazine.
Encountering the Book
Aidoo started her education in a one-classroom village school: “We didn’t have a library at the village, of course, but we had one at Wesley Girls.” There, Aidoo humorously remarked, “Jane Austen was definitely in the library, but Enid Blyton was not in the great tradition,” expressing how fond she was of Blyton’s and R.L. Stevenson’s adventure books, and boasting of coming across Bram Stocker’s Dracula in the 1950s “long before Hollywood”.
Her first encounter with the published word was in the village school through primers written in her own Akan language. Ama discovered another secret trove when she went to live with her cousin and his family. She found out he kept lots of book in drawers: “So I would wait until my cousin and his wife are out of the house and I would open the drawers,” and there Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poetry came out to her for the first time.
Although she happily shared the titles she liked best by other authors, Aidoo withheld her favourite among her own works, wittily unyielding to wa Goro’s attempts: “I will quote my sister Buchi Emecheta at this; they are like my children. I do not have favourites and even if I do, I won’t tell you.”
Storytelling, Different Ways
Commenting on having been named the first to publish flash fiction in Africa by the Etisalat Prize for Literature, the unconvinced Aidoo retorted: “I do not believe in being first in any business; who steps? Where did they get this?” Then, the magnificent oral storyteller picked up her tablet, tapped her fingers on the touchscreen and read out to a mesmerized audience “Tuppence”, a condensed story about a minister’s young son who, taking advantage of his father’s powerful position, oppresses his school classmate.
The conversation closed with Aidoo expressing hope for Ghana’s publishing scene to flourish and lamenting the fact that it is still largely limited to school textbooks: “I wish we had in Ghana one tenth of that energy in the publishing in Nigeria.”
The evening was a wonderful experience of oral storytelling from a master craftswoman. Ama Ata Aidoo keenly allowed her audience into areas of her world, which, in her view, excluded all that can be ‘googled’. Afterwards, she appreciatively signed every copy presented to her, refusing to turn down any one in the phenomenal queue despite the approach of the British Library’s closing time and entreaties from her staff.
Perhaps I have stopped short of giving Aidoo her due honour by presenting her substantial list of continuing achievements and well deserved host of prestigious prizes, but I am tempted to follow in the master’s own footsteps and ask you “google it”!