Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond (nanaekua.com) has written for Ebony Magazine, JET, AOL, Nike, L’Oreal, the Village Voice, Metro and Trace Magazine. Her short story “Bush Girl” was published in the May 2008 issue of African Writing and her poem, “The Whinings of a Seven Sister Cum Laude Graduate Working Bored as an Assistant,” was published in 2006’s Growing up Girl Anthology. A cum laude graduate of Vassar College, she attended Mfantsiman Girls’ Secondary School in Ghana. Powder Necklace is loosely based on the latter experience. Keep up with her at facebook.com/powdernecklace, twitter.com/nanaekua, and on her blog: http://powdernecklace.blogspot.com.
GeosiReads: I’ve been struggling coming up with a suitable title for the interview because I’m unsure where exactly to place you. Where do you belong? Ghana or the United States of America?
Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond: I belong in/to both Ghana and the United States. I was born in America, but my parents raised my siblings and me as Ghanaian children. We ate jollof, banku, fufu and the rest for dinner. My father told me Kwaku Ananse stories. When we misbehaved we certainly did not get off with a “time-out.” However, being born in the States, I grew up amidst a flurry of cultural influences on television, in books, and on film that were decidedly American, and definitely contributed to shaping the person I am. I don’t think I have to choose between Ghana and America one way or the other; there is great advantage in being part of both cultures.
GR: It’s been more than a year since the publication of your first novel, Powder Necklace. Have you gotten over its success?
NEBH: Seeing Powder Necklace on physical and virtual shelves is a feeling I’ll never get over. It remains a dream come true, and I do not take it for granted at all.
GR: What inspired your novel, Powder Necklace?
NEBH: When I was 12 years old, my parents sent me to Ghana where I attended Mfantsiman Girls’ Secondary School. The experience was a crash course in Ghanaian culture that completely changed my outlook on life.
I went to Ghana with a major superiority complex. I felt privileged to have been born in the States, and to grow up in a situation that made water shortages, and regular power outages foreign to me.
Living and schooling in Ghana for three years gave me the beginning of a much-needed context and understanding of why there is this quality of life disparity in the West versus Ghana and other nations labeled as developing. My experience in Ghana also forced me to interrogate why I presumed being from the States or Europe was better than being African.
I wrote Powder Necklace because I wanted to inspire readers to ask themselves these questions about Western superiority and the like, and challenge them to explore the worlds beyond their borders.
GR: You’ve written a number of poems and short pieces among which I can recollect ‘Bush Girl’ published in the May 2008 issue of African Writing. In a sense did the short story genre challenged you to pick on the novel form?
NEBH: I love writing and try to exercise my craft in as many genres as possible. I believe it’s important as a writer to try your hand at all forms to strengthen your overall proficiency. Poetry is great training for learning how to express emotion, and to lyrically articulate what you’re trying to say. Short stories are great practice for developing plot. Scripts are all about dialogue and character development, as well as showing versus telling.
GR: You seem to have enjoyed working in the creative industries over the past years, for instance, you’ve worked as a copywriter and an editor. How do these careers influence your writings?
NEBH: My experience as an editor has been helpful as far as not taking critique too personally. I understand that things need to be cut for the greater good of the story. I also learned how important concept and clever wording is from my days as a copywriter, which has been helpful in both writing and marketing my work.
GR: How much of Powder Necklace is a true story?
NEBH: It’s inspired by my experience leaving New York for Ghana in 1990, but most of the details of the experience are fiction. What is true is that at the time I attended Mfantsiman, it was going through a major water crisis.
GR: Where do you pick your character names from? I am curious, for instance to know where you got the name Lila?
NEBH: For Lila, I wanted a name that bridged Ghanaian and Western culture, hence, “Lila Adjei”. “Dadaba” in Ghanaian slang is a euphemism for a spoiled child. I named the school that to signal that even though these girls were suffering a severe water shortage, they were actually quite privileged. The names of the dorms at Dadaba were inspired by Ghana’s “Big Six” – historic leaders who helped pave the path to Ghana’s independence.
GR: Have you read any good fiction from young Ghanaian writers in recent times? Are you optimistic about contemporary young Ghanaian writers?
NEBH: I have, and I am! One of my favorite Ghanaian authors is Ayesha Harruna Attah. Contemporary authors like Kwei Quartey, Marilyn Heward Mills, and Man Booker nominated Esi Edugyan also seem to be doing great! It’s really encouraging that there is a contemporary community sprouting, and that there are platforms like African Writing where writers from/inspired by the Continent can share their work. I love that we also have successful contemporary African authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Nnedi Okorafor to help smooth the way for all of us.
GR: You’ve consistently mentioned Chinua Achebe, Buchi Emecheta and Zadie Smith as some of your favorite authors. How have these writers influenced your writing and which of their books have you enjoyed?
NEBH: Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood is my absolute favorite. She explores gender, the impact of colonialism, and motherhood so powerfully with incredible insight. I could read Achebe’s Man of the People in particular again and again. It’s just so sharp and funny and brutally honest. And Zadie Smith! Wow. She was among a wave of authors telling stories about a multitude of cultures – it wasn’t just black, but Jamaican, Pakistani, British, etcetera. I aspire to write wit these authors’ with and vulnerability.
GR: I read from somewhere that you started Powder Necklace as a memoir. How true is this?
NEBH: It’s very true.
GR: Have you ever thought how your book would have turned out if it were to be a memoir?
NEBH: I have, and I’m glad I chose to write it as fiction. Tackling it as a story that wasn’t constricted by the exact details and circumstances of my own experience freed me to explore more universal themes.
GR: When are your fans to expect your next book?
NEBH: I just finished my second book, so my prayer is very soon!