AiW Guests: Trang Vu, Hannah Judge & Naomi Osborne.
Ayesha Harruna Attah is a Senegal-based Ghanaian writer. She is the author of Harmattan Rain, Saturday’s Shadows and The Hundred Wells of Salaga and has recently published a young adult novel, The Deep Blue Between.
Ayesha has been nominated for the 2010 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, shortlisted for the 2013 Kwani? Manuscript Project and was a finalist for the 2020 William Saroyan Prize. She holds degrees in Biochemistry, Journalism and Creative Writing from Mount Holyoke College, Columbia University, and NYU. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Asymptote, Imagine Africa and the 2010 Caine Prize Writers’ Anthology.
We were excited to have the opportunity to speak to Ayesha over Zoom about The Deep Blue Between which is described on her website as “rich in historical detail, this epic, moving novel evokes a time of great change in West Africa, when slavery has been abolished but colonialism is taking hold, through the lives of two bold young women who are shaping their changing society.”
Trang Vu, Hannah Judge & Naomi Osborne for AiW: The Deep Blue Between is your first young adult book (although it is extremely enjoyable for adult readers too!) What made you want to share the story with a younger audience? You mentioned in a previous interview that the first draft of The Hundred Wells of Salaga read like a teen magical realist novel, was this something that you wanted to explore further?
Ayesha Harruna Attah: I think when I became aware of being enamoured with words was in my teenage years, so that magic of reading and discovering worlds never went away. I wanted my readers to be able to experience that. Even though I had been writing for adults for so long, in the back of my mind I knew I wanted to have younger readers because nothing compares to that feeling of being in your teens and being wrapped up in another world completely! That magic – I really wanted to try to produce in a book.
The Hundred Wells of Salaga, like you said, started out almost like a teen magic realist book but that idea didn’t quite go anywhere. I think deep down inside I wanted to fulfil that wish some way. There were these two characters, these two girls, who just haunted me and I couldn’t stop thinking about them.
I met Sarah Odedina, who is an editor-at-large at Pushkin Children’s Books, the year The Hundred Wells of Salaga was released and she asked me if I had considered writing for children. Within two months we had already signed the contract for The Deep Blue Between. So it tells you how fast things happened! I didn’t hesitate. I just knew I’d be writing about the twins and that’s how the story was born.
Your novel explores topics such as slavery, colonialism as well as different cultures and religions in a really rich and accessible way. Do you think it’s important that these topics reach a global and intergenerational audience?
When I begin to write a book, I don’t really think of the ‘global’, or that wide audience. I’m usually writing to me and my mum and maybe one other reader. Half the time it starts off with the feeling that whatever I’m writing about, other people might be interested in knowing. I start from a very local place and I guess in writing that way, other people are able to identify themselves in the stories – or not! – but then they can see a certain humanity to the characters and the storylines.
So if my book has that global impact then it’s really wonderful and I’m glad that’s happening because these are topics that should be discussed widely. But I’m always starting from almost a selfish place, because I realise that me, Ayesha, as a Ghanaian woman, have had certain lapses in my own education and I want to fill those holes that I felt along the way about who I am, where we come from, where we should go, where we are going. And I guess everybody is on a journey, so if you read my book and if you are able to find paths that cross then I’ve done my job well.
I think you see that in Hassana’s character as she’s reading Jane Eyre and Great Expectations. These books seem so disconnected from her world, but at the same time, she does see elements of her own experience within them.
Yeah, it sort of mirrored my own education because even though I grew up as a child in Ghana, I did read Jane Eyre and a lot of Shakespeare and Dickens. So for a long time this was what young people were reading. Even though the characters might not look like or talk like Hassana, she is able to identify herself within their story. So imagine the power of reading a book and really finding yourself in the story – it just takes you away.
I started a book club for adolescents in my little village, and we read last month a book set in Senegal. They were so excited because we were talking about their culture. They owned the book, they owned the story, so there’s power in reading about who you are as well. I am not limiting them to books about Senegal. I think that young readers now should be able to have books that feature people that look, talk, think like them, but then also read the Jane Eyres and as widely as they can.
How do some of these questions resonate with decisions around where you publish your own work? You’ve published with Cassava Republic Press for example, who are very committed to bringing African voices and culture to the continent and beyond. Did this impact your decision to publish with them?
I finished The Hundred Wells of Salaga in 2016 and I told my agents: what about Cassava? Because even though, yes, as a writer you want to have a wide readership and be on the bestseller list, if I wasn’t being published and read on the continent, then it would feel like a failure. So Cassava Republic made sense because Bibi Bakare-Yusuf is an African publisher and she got the material I was working with. Sometimes she’d say – well does this really exist on the continent? What does it mean? Think, think, think, push yourself to that work of going deeper into yourself.
You mentioned in a previous interview that historical research was really significant in the creation of The Hundred Wells of Salaga. Was the same true for The Deep Blue Between?
Definitely! Luckily, because I’d done so much historical digging around, when it came to The Deep Blue Between for certain parts of the book I already knew the story. I knew what it was like in the town that the book opens in. I had done a bit of work with the Basel Mission, though I hadn’t drawn on it before. But I had to find out more about Lagos and Bahia, and the Gold Coast as well because Accra didn’t really feature in The Hundred Wells of Salaga. I think because I had been using that muscle, it was a lot easier and it went surprisingly quickly. I could dig through archives much faster.
Also, because it’s a young adult book it’s more focused on plot. Not that character development doesn’t matter because it does. But it’s more about getting the characters from one place to another. It was different, because usually I would immerse myself in research, and let it simmer, and then I begin the writing. But with this book, I did both at the same time.
That’s really interesting. So you mentioned archival research, but did you visit any of the different cities that Hassana and Husseina travel through?
I had been to Bahia. I spent two months there before I wrote the book. There was that element of having been to some of these places and having felt a certain energy that I wanted to translate into a book or a short story. Lagos I had visited a couple of times as well. And there is just something really charming about Old Accra. Every time I walk through Old Accra I just want to hear stories behind the buildings and what it looked like in the 19th-century and even in the 18th-century, because it had been an outpost for a while.
So I had been to almost all of the places mentioned except for the Basel Mission home. But, my family comes from the forest areas and we used to travel a lot into those regions. So I had memories that I could go back to when I was describing those scenes. Then I went into places like the Basel Mission Archives which are online. They have tones of photographs and drawings which are really amazing! And from a drawing, I could describe the dorm that Hassana slept in.
The cover art and naming of the book very much feel connected to the ocean. Plus, on your website it states that you enjoy “staring at the ocean” and we like to think of you writing The Deep Blue Between while listening to the waves! Can you tell us a little bit more about the importance of the ocean and the other spaces that the twins have to navigate?
I think that the ocean is almost a character in this book, because even in The Hundred Wells of Salaga it becomes a bogey man/woman, because it’s the big water. People haven’t lived by the ocean. They’ve lived in dry desert-y areas. Then suddenly there is this big water that they are supposed to end up in after they have been kidnapped from their homes. It takes on a larger than life appearance in people’s minds. It’s almost like a spectre. When some people do get to the big water they realise: yes, some people disappear. So it does become this scary thing. When the book opens the ocean is almost the antagonist, because it’s the thing that frightens Husseina the most. It’s the thing that Hassana has in her head that is separating her from her sister.
Then as the book wears on this changes, because you have these spirits living in the water who are able to shroud Husseina in safety and keep her from spiralling. It’s this thing that has scared them for so long but keeps them together. It’s a glue, a liquid glue between them. I think for people of African descent it has been a thing that has taken away so many of our families. But then at the same time, wherever they ended up, the same ocean connected us. It takes on this double-edged role.
As to the question of cities and spaces. I was a city girl for a long time and my favourite place in the world is New York City. I love how cities themselves are characters in people’s lives. For me, New York City can feel almost like a lover and when I am there I’m filled with this longing feeling in my heart, so I wanted to play with place in The Deep Blue Between in the same way. For Hassana, the forest is a place that constricts her because she is a wild person who is used to open spaces. And now she is in this place that is closing in on her. So I wanted to play with all of that because I find it fascinating. But, I will leave the interpretation to readers.
To me space is important. And now I live by the ocean in a tiny village and I like it. I don’t miss the big city in Senegal which is Dakar. But I know that there is always a part of me that yearns for the infiniteness of a place like New York City. Here too I have that, because I have the ocean which also feels eternal and vast. I guess it is the play between the spaces and what those spaces evoke for us, and how as people we are able to either go crazy in those spaces or live well in those spaces. So I was just looking at personalities and how the environments around them can shape them or break them.
We wanted to talk a bit about the twins themselves and how you chose to write them. Why did you write Hassana in first person narrative but Husseina in third person narrative? What does this reveal about their individual characters?
It’s a craft trick; as a reader sometimes it’s hard to differentiate one character from another, so the author has to do a good job of making them as different as she can. Then you have twins; imagine in real life, twins who look alike, playing tricks on people. I have twin nephews and even though they’re not identical, for a long time you couldn’t tell one apart from the other.
By making Hassana have a first person voice, it shows her confidence. She’s literate as well, so in my imagining of her when I was writing the book, she could be telling and writing her own story, putting it down on paper. Whereas Husseina didn’t learn how to read and she’s less confident about her abilities so she would tell her sister her story and her sister would write it down. That was how I imagined the story to go.
Hassana’s confidence, belief in who she is and what she wants in life allows her to use the ‘I’ voice successfully. I could’ve done that with Husseina, but I think because she was less sure of herself and she lends herself to be possessed by another, it is easier to have somebody else tell her story. Hassana is more extroverted so her personality lends herself to saying – hey, this is me! I am here. Whereas Husseina is a person who her sister would have to speak for, or, in the past her sister spoke for her, so it made sense for her to begin in the third person. At some point, Husseina grows into herself enough that she could’ve had her own voice speak but it would have been too confusing for the reader so I just left it as is.
One of the things we discussed is how through their journeys, they learned each other’s traits. Can their separation be seen as a source of strength rather than weakness?
Yeah, I think as they were growing up, Hassana would be in the centre of attention. She would be singing or she’d be the one who would speak for them. There is strength to that, but it meant that her sister was stifled and didn’t get to express herself in whatever way she wanted. So, there was a certain codependency that they had. Hassana depended on Husseina’s reserve to be able to shine and Husseina depended on Hassana speaking for her to curl into herself some more. Their separation definitely is a strength – they learnt to draw on their own strengths and the strength of others when they needed to. To me it was a good thing, although the circumstances of their separation were really gruesome and very heartbreaking!
Talking about heartbreak, we noticed that the twin’s connection is strongest when they’re sad. Why did you decide to tie sadness to their dreams rather than a happier emotion?
I don’t know that I did it with intention; it was one of those things that just appeared as I was writing and that I leaned into. Sometimes writing is a magical process and with this book I allowed myself to listen to my heart. But I think sadness is an emotion that people have decided is negative and is one that we shouldn’t encourage. Like when a child is crying, we are used to telling the child – don’t cry, don’t cry! I think there’s growth that happens in sadness. When you’re happy you don’t stop to think and say – okay, let me recalibrate, maybe I should do things a little differently. Happiness is a wonderful feeling but you hardly root yourself and think about the bigger picture and what the next step should be. Whereas with sadness you sit with yourself and your emotions. With the girls, I think that sadness was the key to them coming together because, imagine if they had both settled into happy lives, they would never have begun to look for each other.
Yes, I think sadness is like a motivating force – it makes you uncomfortable, but that’s when you grow the most. We are curious about the strong female characters in your novel. A lot of them act as mother figures to Husseina and Hassana. Does your experience of motherhood affect how you portray mother figures in your work?
*Please note this answer contains spoilers about the ending of the book.
Probably! I love being a mother and I’m so happy that I got to experience this. Watching my son grow up has been the most amazing thing I’ve experienced, and I have a really good relationship with my mother too. I think having that strong motherly bond in my life and trying to transfer it onto my son is good for him. The twins have no mother because they’ve been separated from her. So, for them to be able to do well in life, they’re going to look for that same bond from other people. Hajia is interesting because she pretends to be all strict and ‘evil stepmum-ish’ to Hassana but all along she was protecting her and trying to get her to find her sister. I think this is just one of those things that happens underneath the hood: what I’ve experienced has seeped into the book naturally. For the girls to thrive, they needed protection and some of the male figures in the book, like Richard, don’t provide that. He seems like he’s a safe figure for a while, but he abandons Hassana! But the women stay through to the end. Even when Yaya Silvina dies, she leaves Vitoria with Maria. So, there’s just something about a good mother – because not all mothers are good – that the girls needed to help them find themselves.
Are you working on any other novels or projects at the moment?
I wrote a really light novel about New York City last year because I love New York! I hope I get to share it with the world soon but I’m sure there’ll be more work to be done before it gets out.
Then I have a non-fiction book that I’ve been working on about the kola nut and it’s becoming like a thesis. But because of restrictions of travel, I haven’t been able to go out and complete the research that I wanted to do so it’s sort of on pause for now but I’m hoping soon I can pick it back up.
Trang Vu, Hannah Judge, and Naomi Osborne are three final year undergraduate students studying at the University of Exeter taking the African Narratives module. They are particularly interested in historical research, women studies and postcolonial narratives. Reading Ayesha Harruna Attah’s The Deep Blue Between enabled them to explore these interests in further depth.
Ayesha Harruna Attah’s The Deep Blue Between is available to buy through Bookshop.org.
More information about Ayesha Harruna Attah’s work or new releases can be found on her website.
Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A