On the bridge between Fiction & Non-fiction: An Interview with Ayesha Haruna Attah

Ayesha Harruna Attah is the author of Harmattan RainSaturday’s Shadows, and The Hundred Wells of Salaga. She grew up in Accra, Ghana and was educated at Mount Holyoke College, Columbia University, and New York University. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Asymptote Magazine, and the 2010 Caine Prize Writers’ Anthology. Attah is an Instituto Sacatar Fellow and was awarded the 2016 Miles Morland Foundation Scholarship for nonfiction. She lives in Senegal. Carey Baraka had a conversation with her about The Hundred Wells of Salaga, her writing, and other things in-between.

CAREY BARAKA: Your novel, The Hundred Wells of Salaga, is centered on two women: Wurche, who is royalty, and who is living a life of luxury; and Aminah, who lives a humbler background, supplementing the family income by selling food to the caravans who pass by their village. Or in other words, the relationship between the slaver and the slave. But then the relationship between the two becomes an important tenet of the book. So, I’m curious about this: The decision to center the story around two people, who, apart from both being women, are completely dissimilar in their lives.

AYESHA HARRUNA ATTAH: When I first started writing, this was going to be a book about my ancestor who had been enslaved. I wanted to tell her story: who she was before home, family, and village were taken away. There was even a YA version in which a modern girl fell into a well and got taken back in time to meet her great-great-grandmother, but it became a never-ending story. After situating my ancestor in the Salaga slave market in 1890s, I found that it was a turbulent time in Salaga’s history, one in which the place was up for grabs by the British and the Germans, but also one in which the local leadership was feuding. I then wondered how an ambitious well-to-do young woman would have lived like, in contrast to my ancestor who would have found herself in chains under a tree in the market. Then it just made sense for their two paths to cross. It’s an old way of telling stories: Osiris and Set, Ananse and the Sky God, the tortoise and the hare.

CB: So Aminah is, in a sense, the story of your ancestor, or at the very least, a character whose story is inspired by that of your ancestor? I’m curious then, about how much of Aminah’s story is fictional, and how much is a retelling of your ancestor’s story?

AHA: The story is fictional, just inspired by my great-great-grandmother. No one could even tell me what her name was. I like to think she used me as a medium, but part of me also hopes she didn’t go through the horrors Aminah suffered.

CB: That’s fair. And it brings me to my next question. What was the research process for this novel like?

AHA: A lot of reading. I spent quite a bit of time at the Schomburg Center in Harlem when I lived in New York and the Balme Library at the University of Ghana in Legon. Both had excellent sources of information. Books such as The Salaga Papers, a compilation of letters about Salaga put together by Marion Johnson; Salaga: The Struggle for Power, by J. A. Braimah and J. R. Goody, were indispensable for writing about Salaga. The poems of Nana Asma’u offered glimpses of women’s lives in pre-colonial West Africa.

CB: And so what’s the difference between conducting research for this book, a work of historical fiction, and the research process for a book of non-fiction? I am aware that as a Miles Morland scholar, part of your remit involved producing a book of non-fictive writing on the kola nut. I guess a better question would be, is there a difference?

AHA: For the most part, it’s been quite similar and some of the research that didn’t make its way into the narrative of The Hundred Wells of Salaga is being put to good use in the book on the kola nut. In addition to human lives, Salaga was also the market to go to for kola nuts in the 19th century. Where the difference comes in is that with fiction, if I really can’t find what I am looking for, I have the creative freedom to make things up to fill in those gaps. With the kola book, if I can’t find what I’m looking for, I have to go at the subject with another angle. With non-fiction –at least the kind of book I’m writing– there’s no room for inventing facts.

CB: Tom Wolfe, who died very recently, also wrote fiction and non-fiction. In his Paris Review The Art of Nonfiction interview, he says that he found writing fiction more constrictive than nonfiction. Sure, he has to keep the non-fiction factual, but when writing the non-fiction, he is sort of free to do whatever he wants to do. When he was writing Bonfire of the Vanities, he kept on thinking of all these things he had been taught in college and grad school: “Henry James’s doctrine of point of view, Virginia Woolf’s theory of the inner psychological glow.” Is this a similar experience for you? Or do you find fictive narrative easier to create?

AHA: It’s the opposite for me, because I studied journalism before I did fiction, so I hear the voices of my professors asking, “Where’s the nut graph? What’s the lede? How many people have you talked to? Have you covered all the angles?” And because of that I find more freedom in fiction than in non-fiction, where I have fewer voices in my head. Now that I am deep in this creative non-fiction book, though, I have begun to discover the pleasures of non-fiction, which could be what Wolfe means by doing whatever he wants to do: taking one small question and stretching it past its limit, without worrying about plot or moving a narrative forward.

CB: And the ‘one small question’ in this case is that of the kola nut, right? Let’s talk about that. Why a book about the kola, a food item? Is the kola a metaphor for something? Or is it a model for writing around a much bigger subject?

AHA: Yes; I was intrigued by why such a seemingly small bitter nut is so important in West African culture. And your questions are precisely the foundation of my book–I wanted to know if kola had something intrinsic in it that West Africans found important or if it was a stand in for something else. Sometimes, it was both of these things. One nut of kola packs in more caffeine than a cup of coffee and was therefore invaluable for sustaining the long caravans that cut across West Africa. In Igbo culture, kola with three or more lobes is prized, as it is a symbol for keeping the peace. When a third person is present, I was told, she can act as mediator.

CB: Would Wurche be able to act as a mediator? In A Hundred Wells of Salaga, her father and the other men ignore her attempts at mediation. Does the kola nut distinguish between man and woman and non-binary person when deciding who ought to wield its power?

AHA: Probably not in Wurche’s patriarchal culture. I don’t think the kola nut distinguishes between people, but the people who create the myth around the nut do. From my research, in places like Onitsha in Nigeria, kola is linked with masculinity. Women aren’t allowed to climb kola trees. Some even go as far as likening the shape of the kola pods with the shape of male genitalia.

CB: The shape of the male genitalia? That seems an odd comparison to make. Why is it made? What is the significance?

AHA: You should take a look at a kola pod! For a woman, the corresponding fruit is the palm nut. The link between masculinity and the kola nut has to do with bitterness as a stand in for manliness and/or virility and for women the palm fruit signifies fecundity and a constant source of life (the palm tree provides wine and two types of oil).

CB: Wow, that is intriguing. Going back to Wurche, she gets married, and falls in love with Moro, who is not her husband. Years later, Aminah, her slave, also falls in love with Moro, and that sort of equalizes the two women, the fact that they could fall in love with the same man. Why did you do this, make a man a bridge between the two women?

AHA: Moro might seem like a bridge across or between these two women, but I think for Aminah and Wurche to really connect, he has to disappear from the picture. I do like the idea of Moro equalizing the two women. I hadn’t even thought of it that way!

CB: Yes, he did disappear from the picture. Okay, let’s talk about Wurche. Is she a queer woman? She had a female friend with whom she was very close as a child, but her grandmother did not approve of that relationship, and so the friend was banished from the king’s household. Then, years later, when she was married to Shaibu for militaristic purposes, she had an affair with Moro. And then after him there was the German, and it was highly-frowned upon for such a thing to happen. She’s quite the exemplar of sexual freedom for women, isn’t she?

AHA: If Wurche had a life motto it would be live freely. She falls in love (or lust) with both men and women. And while her grandmother doesn’t approve of Wurche’s relationship with Fatima, even she realizes that Wurche is born into a woman’s body, but her spirit wants other things. Wurche is also fortunate to have the cloak of royalty to protect her from being ostracized in a society that is deeply conservative.

CB: Does her having the cloak of royalty protecting her negate the value of her freedoms? Does it negate, for instance, the fact that she fights to take part in the political processes around her?

AHA: No, it doesn’t negate the value of her freedom. Royalty then was the equivalent of modern-day privilege, and it’s all about how you use it. People like Shaibu and Wurche’s father used it for benefiting themselves and to wield power over others. Wurche eventually realizes that she can use it for the greater good.

CB: Do you consider A Hundred Wells of Salaga a piece of feminist writing?

AHA: It is. Aminah and Wurche know, from an early age, what it is they want from life, and in both cases, their interests go against what society expects of them. In Botu, women were not shoemakers and in Wurche’s society, it was men who were the leaders. They both persevere, even as everything around them tries to kill their desires.

CB: What are your writing habits? When do you write?

AHA: I don’t really have any, and some of my friends have said I’m the most boring writer they know. I just show up, face my laptop, and do the thing. I save the drama for my characters! Also, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez said, “I don’t believe in the romantic myth that a writer must be hungry and in a wreck in order to write,” which vindicates my boringness.

I used to be a night owl, but now, as my wise 5-year-old nephews say, “The night is for sleeping.” I am often too exhausted after chasing after the toddler all day to stay up late. I write in the afternoons, when his babysitter comes in.

CB: Which writers/books have shaped your development as a writer?

AHA: Toni Morrison, for her collection of beautiful books. Ayi Kwei Armah, for his mentorship. Ama Ata Aidoo for making it seem incredibly simple, when it’s not.

CB: I found out that you and Makena Onjerika were roommates in college. How important are these relationships, friendships, between writers to one’s writing?

AHA: We were roommates in grad school. It was great to have someone around who understood exactly what I was going through, with whom I could discuss story ideas, and who could give me solid feedback on my work. I treasure my friendships with my writer friends like Makena.

CB: What’s a sentence you read somewhere that you wish you had written?

AHA: “We hugged at the departure gate,

waifs with bird chests clinking like wood, boyish,

long skirted figurines waiting to grow

into our hunger.”

This is from Warsan Shire’s “Things We Had Lost in the Summer.”