Born in Accra, Ghana, Benjamin Kwakye attended the Presbyterian Secondary School (Presec), Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School.
His first novel, The Clothes of Nakedness, was published in 1998 by Heinemann as part of its African Writers Series. It won the 1999 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book (Africa Region) and has been adapted for radio as a BBC Play of the Week. His second novel, The Sun By Night (Africa World Press, 2005), won the 2006 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (Africa Region). His third novel is The Other Crucifix (Ayebia Clarke, 2010).
Geosi Reads in a Conversation with Benjamin Kwakye:
Geosi Reads: Thank you very much for accepting to be interviewed here considering your busy schedules as a legal practitioner and a writer?
Benjamin Kwakye: Thank you! I admire what you’re doing here, GR. Keep it up.
GR: From the brief biography I have said about you, is there anything else that has escaped me? Would you like to add anything?
BK: I like it. It is succinct and to the point. The only thing I’d like to add is that at some point I also dabbled in journalism when I reviewed African titles and interviewed African writers on Window to Africa Radio in the Chicago area.
GR: In fact, you really amaze me. I think all your fans and daring readers are also equally amazed. You are legal practitioner and at the same time an award winning writer. E-h-m, E-h-m, how do you combine these two professions?
BK: The way you phrase this question makes me smile, but I don’t think it’s as difficult as it may seem. If you have a passion for something, you strive to find the time for it. Of course, it requires some sacrifice. But my point is, people find time for all kinds of hobbies. Some play golf or watch television, for example.
GR: Your first book, ‘The Clothes of Nakedness’ won the 1999 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for First Book for the African Region. In addition, your second book, ‘The Sun by Night’ won the 2006 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best Book for the African Region. Now, has being published and winning all these accolades changed your life in any particular way?
BK: I don’t think so—not in any significant way. You do get some more attention and invitations to speak here and there, and it’s always gratifying and humbling to receive such recognition. The greatest reward for me, however, is the process of writing itself. It’s absolutely joyous to take a blank piece of paper or computer screen and transform it into a work of art. That is what girds me and keeps me focused.
GR: Most writers’ face a great deal of difficulties getting their first book published. Would you put yourself as part of these writers? In any case, were there any challenges faced with the publication of your first book, ‘The Clothes of Nakedness’?
BK: Yes. “The Clothes of Nakedness” was rejected by a number of publishers. I did a lot of rewriting and submissions before it was accepted by Heinemann. My word of encouragement to unpublished writers is to persevere and never give up hope. Many writers, even those that go on to achieve success later, have had to deal with rejection at some point.
GR: Have you always wanted to become a writer? What must have inspired a legal practitioner to enter the world of fiction?
BK: I was a writer before I became a lawyer, so I suppose the question should be what inspired a writer to become a lawyer. I can’t pinpoint the exact time when I decided to be a writer. I think it was a process. My love for reading began at an early age, as I was surrounded by books at home. I devoured as many books as I could. And then I started reading African writers like Achebe and others who inspired me to pick up the pen myself. I started writing in secondary school and continued from there on, culminating in the publication of “The Clothes of Nakedness” many years later.
GR: You live abroad, specifically the United States of America, yet you write thought provoking books, rich in African content and you often explore themes relevant to African society. How do you achieve this, considering the fact that you live and work abroad?
BK: Don’t forget I grew up in Ghana, went to primary and secondary schools there, and even finished a year’s national service before coming to the US. You never forget the place that gave you grounding. Additionally, I visit Ghana often and maintain my connectedness to the country. I love Ghana. Given this, it’s not difficult to write vividly about Ghana or, for that matter, Africa in general.
BK: It is very germane. The proverb you’re referring to is, “If Nakedness promises you clothes, hear his name.” What is “Nakedness” referring to here? How can anyone give you something he or she doesn’t have? In the context of the novel, you realize that the morally bankrupt are not able to deliver anything worthwhile, despite what may appear to be great promises, except moral bankruptcy and its agents of destruction. This theme is at the center of the novel.
GR: A major theme that runs throughout your first book is the portrayal of man’s injustice against man and this we see in the character of Mystique Mysterious. Who is Mystique Mysterious? Is the name reflective of his character? How should your readers approach him?
BK: Great question, GR. I often say that a key to understanding the novel is how each reader answers the question: “Who and/or what is Mystique Mysterious?” I don’t think it’s in my place to answer this question for the reader. The beauty of literary appreciation is what the reader brings to a particular work. Therefore, each reader’s answer is as good as mine. Yes, the name is reflective of his character, given his chameleonic approach to things and how he manages to bedazzle the unwary. If I may offer a clue, I’d say that perhaps readers should endeavor to see Mystique Mysterious as something other than a mere human being.
GR: In the same book, we notice by the end that despite all Mystique Mysterious’s sinister acts, he is left unpunished. In fact, we see him as a free man harboring in the same society. Should we see this as a kind of metaphor?
BK: A lot of readers have expressed dissatisfaction with the ending of the novel precisely for the reason that you articulate. But as I tried to hint in the previous answer, we should perhaps see him as more than a human being. What is he? For example, is he a metaphor for evil? If so, does evil completely disappear or does it lurk in the background, waiting to pounce and wreak destruction if we let it? I think a critical reading of the novel suggests that it is how we react to phenomena that we can’t necessarily control that determines our fate.
GR: Not so many writers have had their books turned into a different medium say for radio or motion pictures, yet your first book was adapted by the B.B.C for radio. How did you feel as a writer seeing your work translated into another form?
BK: It was exciting for me to see another person’s interpretation or reinterpretation of the novel. Again, it was gratifying to see this happen.
GR: Let me move on to your second novel, ‘The Sun by Night.’ This is a book that involved murder and its subsequent court case. How much of your legal profession influenced this book?
BK: I can’t say that it had no influence at all, but not so much in the large scheme of things. The kind of law I practice is usually transactional in nature. I think it will be more appropriate to say that I was more influenced in my general observations rather than in my narrow focus as a lawyer. I like to say that I harvest a lot from my day to day experiences and observations outside of my work as a lawyer.
GR: By the end of reading ‘The Sun by Night’ the reader comes to appreciate the title of the book. In fact, the titles of your books seem to be very appropriate and exact. How do you choose titles for your books? How much effort goes into choosing your titles?
BK: In general, I try to pick titles that capture the essence of my novels. I play with a lot of titles until I find one that I think fits perfectly. Sometimes, I even change titles a number of times.
GR: In the ‘Sun by Night’ the language at some point in time seems to be high for the normal and average reader. Was this as a result of the voices of the major players like the rich businessman, the politician and the lawyers who all played part in the development of the plot?
BK: Yes. I was telling the story from multiple viewpoints, with each major character telling a part of the story in his or her own peculiar voice that illuminates that narrator’s character. You will notice that one character speaks in very short sentences and another speaks in highly bombastic language. Why? Is one constricted by his circumstance and the other bent on a language that others can’t understand but still admire? I hope readers consider these questions as they read the novel.
GR: Your third book ‘The Other Crucifix’ was released this year and covers the African American immigrant experience. With respect to your first two books which were all set in Ghana, do you intend to gradually shift the focus of the settings of your books to abroad?
BK: I have no such intention. I will continue to set other novels in Ghana or other parts of Africa. In fact, my next novel, which I hope will be out next year, is set in Ghana. At the same time, having lived and worked in the US for a long time now, the migrant’s story is important to me, and I think many Ghanaians. So, other novels in progress aim to continue from where “The Other Crucifix” ended.
GR: Do you somewhat envisage that the frequent coups and their aftermaths that have hampered the growth of Ghana for many decades could be the reason why most Africans living abroad would not like to resettle back in their home country?
BK: A migrant’s decision to migrate is often complicated. That said, I think it’s true that instability and sometimes persecution prompts many Africans to leave their homelands. I have no doubt that we will see a reversal of the “brain drain” if conditions are stabilized. In fact, I think that is already beginning to happen in Ghana, as many who left are returning home.
GR: You often have political and historical themes running through your books. How much of research goes into these aspects of your writings?
BK: It depends on the novel. “The Clothes of Nakedness” did not require a lot of research. I wrote mainly from my memory and imagination. “The Sun by Night” and particularly “The Other Crucifix” required a lot of research. As you know, “The Other Crucifix” is set in the US in the 1960s and 1970s, when I was either not born or living in Ghana. Although it’s a work of fiction, such research lends context and texture.
GR: Being an accomplished writer yourself, do you have any writer(s) or people you look up to for inspiration?
BK: There are too many to name them all. Let me just mention a few who inspired me to believe that I too could become a writer: Ayi Kwei Armah, Chinua Achebe, Ama Ata Aidoo, Wole Soyinka, etc. These are the pioneers that paved the way.
BK: This is another question that I find difficult to answer because there are many.
GR: You are a legal practitioner and then a writer. Would you one day lay down your legal tools and turn up to writing full-time? Is there any possibility?
BK: There is a possibility, given that I enjoy writing so much. However, as it’s very difficult to make a living solely from writing, it is not an option for me at this time. Perhaps, some day, I will have the option.
GR: It has often been said that Africans (and in your case, Ghanaians) do not read. Do you believe in this statement? Can you share with us your thoughts on this?
BK: I think we could improve on our reading culture. We tend to be distracted by so much that reading often takes a backseat. Perhaps books are also too expensive. Unfortunately, it seems that, even among those who read, there is a general preference for foreign writers.
GR: There is a gradual penetration of electronic books in the publishing industry. There have been mixed feelings among writers and publishers alike. Do you think physical books would one day disappear? What is your take on electronic books?
BK: I think electronic books will take greater space in the future. In fact, that is probably a fait accompli. Especially among the youth, electronic books are gaining greater ground. Readers and publishers will adjust. But I don’t foresee paper books disappearing entirely. Personally, and perhaps this is “old school,” I prefer that tactile feeling and experience of paper books, although I do own a Kindle and occasionally read electronic books, which I find are good for travel. When all is said and done, I think it’s good to have the choice and I see both coexisting, at least in the foreseeable future.
GR: Do you have any online presence where your fans and readers can read news, updates and new releases of your books? Where can readers get copies of your books to buy?
BK: I do have a website (www.benjaminkwakye.com), where readers can read about me and my books. They can also email me from that website. My books are available on the Internet (e.g., Amazon). In Ghana, “The Clothes of Nakedness” and “The Other Crucifix” are available in a few bookstores. I am trying to make the books more available.
GR: Your last words?
BK: Thanks for this interview. I really enjoyed it. I am also impressed by the number of reviews and interviews you have undertaken. This is really remarkable. I also thank my readers for their patronage. To budding writers, never give up the dream. Read, write and persevere. Above all, stay positive.
This interview is part of my contribution to the Ghanaian Literature Week organized by Kinna at Kinna Reads.