Q&As: Nana-Ama Danquah – AKO Caine Prize shortlist 2022

AiW note: As part of our annual AKO Caine Prize coverage, we’ve been running AiW Guest reviews of each of the 5 stories shortlisted for the award, and this week, as we lead up to the winner announcement on Monday 18 July, we are very pleased to be sharing a new set of AKO Caine Q&As – with each of the authors on the shortlist, and with the publishers of their stories, as well as judges who read and selected the shortlist from all of the stories entered – so broadening our conversations around the Prize for its 2022 iteration.

Today, Nana-Ama Danquah (Ghana) responds to our Q&A. 

Danquah’s shortlisted story, “When a Man Loves a Woman”, was published in Akashic Books’ collection Accra Noir (co-published in the UK by Cassava Republic Press, 2020), a volume that Danquah also edited.

NB: Danquah’s happens to be a pretty musical set of responses, so with gratitude to this year’s newly apporinted Prize Director, Sarah Ozo-Irabor and her award-winning Instagram page and podcast Books & Rhymes, for our theme-tune question inspiration…

AiW: Congratulations on being shortlisted for the 2022 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing, Nana-Ama. Thank you for your story.

~ Could you tell us a bit about the pre-lives of “When a Man Loves a Woman” and/or how it came about? Any stories of your story that you can share – perhaps something that our readers might not yet know about (or that they should or need to know)? 

Nana-Ama Danquah: There are a lot of moveable parts that came together to form this story, but I suppose the largest was that a lot of my male and female friends started having illnesses that affected their reproductive organs. I had a partial hysterectomy and had to grapple with not just the loss of an organ but also what that meant to my identity as a person and as a woman. Thankfully, there were a lot of resources–literature, support groups, etc–to help. At the same time, a number of male friends had to have prostate surgery because of a cancer diagnosis. 

What I came to understand in my observation of their experiences was that patriarchal societies, as so many African societies are, condition men to have a very narrow working, real-life definition of masculinity. And that definition is usually tied quite tightly to virility.  

I wanted to explore what happens when a man comes face to face with the allowance, or lack thereof, for vulnerability in that definition of masculinity. I wanted to examine how challenging it is to change our own internalized ideas of what a man or woman should be–particularly because I, personally, do not subscribe to a binary view of gender, not biologically or socially.   

~ What is the earliest memory you associate with writing this story?

Years ago, I read an article while in the waiting room of a medical office. The article was about how most people who take medication do not look at the actual pill that they are swallowing to make sure that it is, in fact, what they should be swallowing. We just assume that because the prescription or pill bottle says it is that medicine then that is what it is. Unfortunately, that is not always so, and a number of people are poisoned or die each year because they’ve mistakenly taken the wrong pill. 

When I read the article (after becoming a bit unnerved by the realization that I never looked at the pills I was about to swallow) it occurred to me that someone could easily murder someone else by simply slipping the wrong pill into their bottle. I knew right away that it could work really well in a story, but I didn’t have a story, I only had this pretty clever means of murder, so I filed it away, as I do so many bits and pieces of dialogue, plot, character traits, etc. that will, maybe one day, find their way into a story.

~ What thing did you hear/say/do during the writing of this story that stuck with you?

I played and sang the song, “When a Man Loves a Woman,” every single time that I sat down to write, sometimes multiple times. The verse that I kept coming back to was:

When a man loves a woman/ Deep down in his soul/ She can bring him such misery/ If she is playing him for a fool/ He’s the last one to know/ Loving eyes can never see.  

The pain in those words really brought me closer to what Kwame must have been feeling when he believed that he was losing the woman he loved so much. It’s hard for me to listen to that song now. It makes me incredibly sad.  

~ What would you do differently if writing under a pseudonym?

I would do nothing differently. When I write, I put every ounce of truth that I have to tell on the page. It seems pointless to do otherwise.  

~ Could you tell us a bit about your (other) work — your writing and/or other kinds of work, roles, or more general and different sorts of professional hats you wear? (If anything here has particular relevance to your shortlisted story, could you share that with our readers?)

I am a full-time writer. I do teach, sometimes, usually workshops or in Creative Writing MFA programs. For over a decade I was also a ghostwriter; I wrote books that celebrities and other high-profile people then put their names on. I was also the International Speechwriter for His Excellency John Dramani Mahama, the former President of Ghana. But right now, I am focusing solely on my own writing.  

~ Have you produced work as part of a collective? If so, how did that go? (If not, would you?

Many years ago, I co-wrote a text-based performance art piece with two other writer-performers. I loved the process of collaboration and would absolutely be open to doing it again.

~ What would you change about how you work?

I wish I could clone myself so I can get more done. Other than that, there is not much else I would change. The imperfections of the process add to the work, I think. Take, for instance, when I loaf off and spend the day watching  a film instead of writing. Often, I will see or hear something that will make its way into my work.

~ Best or most surprising things (about said other work and hats)?

Writing work that would be credited by other people taught me to believe in myself as a writer, to trust my talent. When the first United Nations General Assembly speech that I wrote received both laughter and ovation in a room that is generally devoid of any emotional response, it gave me a tremendous boost in confidence. The same goes for the bestselling and/or critically-acclaimed books that I’ve written but are credited to other people.  

~ What is the best investment you’ve made in your creative self?

The best investment that I have made in my creative self is time. Taking time away from friends and social obligations and just allowing myself to live inside my writing. It’s difficult and scary because you wonder if everything you left will still be there when you are ready to return to it. You wonder if you will even be missed. But you take the time and you emerge with these stories and essays and books that are your offering to the world, offerings that will live on beyond you.

~ Please confess any and all creative tics, overuses, bad habits.

My worst bad habit that was linked to my creativity was smoking. I was never a heavy or serious smoker, but I was consistent and committed. I would light a cigarette, take a few puffs and then let it burn out in the ashtray as I wrote. 

About a dozen years ago, I quit smoking entirely because…well, I’d like a long life. Quitting was more difficult psychologically than physically because I believed that I wouldn’t be able to write without it but that, of course, was not true. I suffered from anxiety, and smoking was a crutch; it eased that anxiety…or, at least, that’s how it made me feel. 

What’s hilarious is that sometimes when I make mention of quitting or having been a smoker, friends who have known me for years will be surprised and ask, “You used to smoke?” That’s because I mainly smoked when I was writing. I don’t have any “bad” habits or tics these days. I try to meet the page as I am and do my best to be true to what I am trying to say.

~ What would you choose as your writing/creator mascot/avatar/spirit animal?

A seahorse.

~ What is your writer/creator theme tune (i.e. the track that would play behind the montage section in the film of your working life, that captures your spirit when making, thinking, producing…)?

Unwritten by Natasha Bedingfield.

~ Tell us a bit about your bookshelves – how they are arranged vs. how you would like them to be arranged.

A few years ago, I decided to build myself my dream bookshelf. I hired a company and we did it, complete with a rolling ladder. Every time I look at it, it just takes my breath away.  

~ Are you deliberate about materials/designs; where treasured finds and gifts go? 

I am extremely deliberate about designs, colors, textures. I think in a previous life I must have been an arts curator.  

~ What do you do often before/after reading?

I turn off the phone and anything else that can distract me. We live in a world with so many distractions. They’re not all bad things, but I am learning, more and more, how to make sure that my devices and gadgets are here for me and not the other way around. After I turn everything off, I curl up in a comfy chair and let the world fall away as I fall into whatever world exists within the covers of the book I am reading. 

~ What is the most serendipitous book-related thing that has happened to you? Perhaps a happy, weird accident that has occurred around books that you can share with us? 

I was sitting next to a military man on a flight and we started chatting. When he learned I was an author, he asked if I had a copy of my book. He said he would trade me the book he was reading for it. I agreed. He was reading Big Fish by Daniel Wallace. It wasn’t the sort of book that I would look at in a bookstore and decide to buy, but reading that book was such a wonderful experience. A few years later, it was adapted into a film by Tim Burton.

~ Finally, as a writer, reader, and/or otherwise in your working life, what are the most ethical and/or heart-lifting practices you’ve seen happening recently in your industry, perhaps particularly given our experiences over the last few/couple of years?

I was particularly moved by the #publishingpaidme movement that took place in 2020. Having authors, black and white, open up about how much they were paid for their book contracts allowed the world to see the economic disparity in the publishing world between writers of color and white writers, and it created an opening for change.   

Nana-Ama Danquah was born in Accra, Ghana and immigrated to the US as a child. She is the author of the memoir Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Depression and editor of the anthologies Becoming American, Shaking the Tree, The Black Body and, most recently, Accra Noir. Her work has been widely anthologized and published in magazines and newspapers such as Essence, the Washington Post, the Village Voice, and the Los Angeles Times. She has taught at Otis College of Arts and Design; Antioch College; University of Ghana; and, NYU in Ghana.

Nana-Ama’s short story, ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’, has been shortlisted for the 2022 AKO Caine Prize. Read ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ here.

For our AiW Guest review of Nana-Ama’s story, by Joseph Kwanya, a Postdoctoral Fellow in the English Department at Stellenbosch University, “Till Death Do Us Part”, please click through direct here.

Our accompanying AKO Caine Prize Q&A today is with French-Guinean author and literary scholar Elisa Diallo, the first of the judge’s responses for the 2022 Prize in our AKO Caine Q&A series this year.

To find out more from the publisher of Nana-Ama’s story, one of the three shortlisted that appeared in Akashic Books’ Noir collections, Accra Noir and Addis Ababa Noir, see our Publisher Q&A with Johanna Ingalls from Akashic.

And you can follow this link to read our other reviews of the 2022 shortlist, plus more from our AKO Caine Prize Q&A series, this year, and with coverage going (way) back…

The 2022 AKO Caine Prize winner will be announced on July 18th. Head to the AKO Caine Prize website – http://www.caineprize.com/ – for more, and for details of the line-up of related events and author/publisher appearances.

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