Q&A: Writer and Filmmaker Yaba Badoe

This weekend at the Africa Writes Pop-Up in Bristol, Yaba Badoe will launch The Secret of the Purple Lake (Cassava Republic Press) – a collection of five interlinked stories that take us from Ghana to Orkney, and from Spain to Norway and Thailand. Yaba will be running a writing workshop for young people and families as part of the festival (Saturday 7 October, 11am, Hamilton House), creating zines to add to Paper Nation’s Dare to Write Library.

Yaba Badoe is a Ghanaian-British documentary filmmaker, journalist and fiction writer. She was born in Tamale, northern Ghana, in 1954. Following an education in Britain, she worked as a civil servant at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ghana before becoming a General Trainee at the BBC. She has also worked as a Research Fellow at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, and has taught in Spain and Jamaica. As well as being an author Badoe has worked as a producer and director of multiple documentaries for the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV and directed and co-produced the documentary film The Witches of Gambaga, which won Best Documentary at the Black International Film Festival in 2010.

Yaba kindly spoke with Africa in Words ahead of Africa Writes and the launch of this new book.

Elly Roberts: I wanted to start by asking you what inspired you to become an author?

Yaba Badoe: I just really like stories. I have always enjoyed listening to stories from an early age and can remember wanting to write stories as well. I have written from an early age and just continued writing, and also making films, into adulthood. It’s something I do in my spare time, and is just something I really enjoy doing.

EB: What do you draw on creatively when you write; where do these stories in The Secret of The Purple Lake come from?

YB: It’s really hard to say categorically where any story comes from. It comes from my imagination, from dreams, and from things one has read in the past that have touched and resonated with oneself. I can’t say this story comes from here or from there, or a bit of the story comes from here or there. It doesn’t work like that for me.

ER: To me, the stories in this collection are redolent of fairy stories and myths in form and composition. Do the stories draw on particular symbols or myths prevalent in African culture?

YB: I’m not in a position to analyse them like that. I really just see them as fairy stories. Maybe they resonate with things that an African might identify with. Though hopefully they resonate with people in all different parts of the world. I can’t say this bit comes from here and that bit comes from there. I have a mixed heritage from Ghana, Africa and Britain and the stories are a result of all my experiences.

ER: Which other authors do you admire and why?

YB: There are lots of authors I admire. I love the writing Ama Ata Aidoo. I also love Toni Morrison’s work. I love the Bronte sisters; anything Victorian and gothic. Elizabeth Gaskell, as well as Dauphine Du Maurier. But the top for me is Toni Morrison.

EB: Your previous novel published in 2009 entitled True Murder was described by Brandon Robshaw in the Independent as “one of the few novels about children for adults”. In September this year your next novel A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars came out, which I understand is written specifically for young adults. Now this new collection of short stories The Secret of The Purple Lake is also consciously aimed at children. What inspired you to write specifically for a younger audience here? Is the genre of children’s writing particularly suited to exploring ideas and issues that you would like to as an author?

YB: True Murder tells the story of the psychological repercussions of a trauma experienced by a child, but as they are remembering it as an adult. Though the psychological nuances are teased out from an adult perspective, a young adult can certainly get something from it too.

As someone who really loves folk tales and myths, I think the short stories in The Secret of The Purple Lake resonate with people of all ages. One of my favourite collections is Grimms’ Fairy Tales. They are for children but there was a time when they were thought too gory for children to take in. But I enjoyed them as a child and I enjoy them as an adult. My stories in The Secret of The Purple Lake are similarly ones that an adult can enjoy when reading them to a child. When I think of fairy stories I think of children, and when writing my stories I got the feeling they were folk tales rather than a collection of stories for adults. The age range of the characters in the stories varies, but the unifying theme is that they are written as fairy stories.

ER: The use of smart phones and modern technology has changed children’s reading habits significantly, even since I was a child. What place does children’s fiction in a traditional form occupy today?

YB: Well I’m told by some publishers that despite all such new technology, children still prefer to read from books than from kindles. I think if children read then they will read. If they don’t, they don’t. I mean a certain amount is required for exams and so on at school; essentially children are forced to read at school. But it’s much better for a child to enjoy reading and for them to search out different books. There is absolutely nothing like reading to open up different worlds to people old and young.

The Fisherman’s Daughter Dancing With an Octopus

ER: Moving back to the collection The Secret of The Purple Lake. The Purple Lake itself, from the title of the book, is under water in these stories. Indeed the sea is a recurring image and setting for a lot of the narrative action, which is traditionally a literary trope for the unconscious. Equally the stories repeatedly feature dreams – in particular in ‘The Fisherman’s Daughter’ when Ajuba visits The Pink and Grey Cave she “feels as if she were floating in a dream”. In fact, the opening sentence of True Murder is “Even now, after all these years, I can hardly bear to look in a mirror”, suggesting a fear of confronting one’s own inner mental space. Is the unconscious something you actively explore in your writing, and why?

YB: I’m not in a position to analyse my stories like a literary critic would. The settings of the stories such as Ghana and Senegal are countries that happen to be on the coast. Even with the story ‘The Wild Princesses of Orkney’, I just love Orkney and I leapt at the opportunity of writing a story set in Orkney because it really lit up my imagination. To me the sea is a space where, well, we are surrounded by water and we come from water originally if we believe in evolution. It’s just a place for my imagination to dwell in. I’ll leave it to others to say if my use of the sea is connected to the unconscious or anything else. To me it’s just a place to marvel at and use as a setting for a story.

EB: The first and last stories in the collection can be read almost as inversions of each other – with the first one, ‘The Fisher Man’s Daughter’, featuring a young girl who turns into a mermaid-type goddess, and the last one entitled ‘The Fish-Man of The Purple Lake’, featuring a young man who turns into a sinister Fish-man. The two stories also explore similar themes such as parentage and one’s relationship with one’s family, as well as both protagonists actually featuring in each other’s stories. How would you describe the relationship between these two stories which bookend the collection?

YB: I don’t choose to analyse the stories like that. I always felt that the African stories should top and tail the collection, then the middle stories of the Norseland and Spain were to lie in the middle. The key thing is that the stories are all interconnected and link with each other. There’s a daughter story about a girl who doesn’t like staying at home and helping her mother with the chores, and a son’s story about a boy who doesn’t like being a Viking. There’s also a princess who is brought up as a boy and then made to wear girls’ clothes once she is grown up. They are stories about people who don’t fit in in some way and transgress, but who might find happiness and a place for themselves despite it all.

ER: Is there any significance in the fact that the first story has a female protagonist and the last one has a male protagonist?

YB: The stories in the collection feature multiple different protagonists, and they should all be looked at together as a whole.

ER: You’ve also done a significant amount of film work over your career, including Black and White in 1987 which is an investigation into race and racism right here in Bristol, as well as the award winning The Witches of Gambaga, which told the story of a community of women condemned to live as witches in Northern Ghana. In reference to this latter film, you have spoken of the importance of giving other people the chance “to hear what has happened to women who have lived to tell their tales.” How would you compare the process of telling factual tales and telling fictional tales?

YB: Factual tales have to be rooted in the real world, whereas with fiction you can make it say whatever you want. You can use your imagination and make people do all sorts of things; people can be transformed into all kinds of creatures for example. The imagination is a different thing all together from factual television, which is rooted in the real world. Of course you can’t lie in documentaries, whereas you are constantly telling lies in fiction. Because of course fiction is a huge lie, it is a work of the imagination but hopefully it does resonate in a way that is truthful.

ER: The last story in The Secret of The Purple Lake however touches on the dangers of fantasising, as well as exploring the relationship between a tale and its teller. What does this story reveal about the role of a storyteller, both as author and film maker, and the function of stories in society?

YB: I think that’s something you have to decide for yourself as a reader, rather than ask me for an explanation! Musa is a very attractive character who loves the stories he’s telling, but there are perils to over-identifying with these stories.

Yaba Badoe’s The Secret of the Purple Lake launches today and is published by Cassava Republic Press.

Storytelling Workshop: The Secret of the Purple Lake, Saturday 7 October, 11:00 – 12:00, Hamilton House, 80 Stokes Croft, BS1 3QY

This drop-in workshop is open to all the family, and is primarily aimed at young people aged 8 – 12.

The workshop is taking place as part of Africa Writes Bristol Pop-Up. Brought to you by the Royal African Society, this festival of African literature and books also launches today, presenting a vibrant programme of events at The Cube Cinema and Hamilton House over the next two days. Curated with Bristol-based partners, this literary weekend brings together writers from Nigeria, Cote D’Ivoire, Somalia, Rwanda, Ghana and across the diaspora for workshops, film screenings, panel discussions, performances and book launches. For African literature enthusiasts and newcomers alike, the festival presents an engaging programme looking at literary activism, adaptation, the cities we live in, forbidden love, hidden histories, and more.  Writers and literary producers appearing at the festival include: Elmi Ali, Yaba Badoe, Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, Edson Burton, Edwige-Renée Dro, Jowhor Ile, Chinelo Okparanta and Kivu Ruhorahoza.


Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A

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1 reply

  1. Too bad I can’t be in Bristol for this festival and workshops! Thank you for introducing a new-to-me author and filmmaker.

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