Ellen Banda-Aaku was born in Woking Surrey in 1965. The middle child of three she grew up in Zambia and has lived and worked in Ghana, South Africa, the UK and Zambia. She has a BA in Public Administration from the University of Zambia, an MA in Financial Management with Social Policy from Middlesex University and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town. Ellen has worked as a tutor in Literary Studies and as a Writing Consultant with the University of Cape Town. She’s currently based in the UK where she lives with her two children Saada and Kweku.
GEOSIREADS: Your name is often associated with several African countries as varying as Southern and Western Africa. What took you to all these parts of Africa?
ELLEN BANDA-AAKU: My parents returned to Zambia from the UK when I was 2. I left Zambia as an adult to study in the UK. I lived in Ghana because my husband was Ghanaian. And I went to South Africa to study.
GR: How much of your experiences from your travels go into your books?
EB-A: Not much. All my stories so far are based on what I saw growing up as a child. Meaning they are in a way set in Zambia. I believe my travels have yet to filter into my writing.
GR: You have an interesting combination of educational background – thus – from Public Administration to Financial Management to Creative Writing. What landed you in the creative industries?
EB-A: After I wrote my first piece I decided to invest in writing hence my studying for the MA in Creative Writing.
GR: You started off your writing career by writing for children? Was that the case?
EB-A: Yes – I enjoy writing for teenagers and hope to continue doing so.
GR: How difficult is it for a writer to take on the voice of children in books? In other words, is it difficult writing for children?
EB-A: I enjoy it as I tend to go into the mind of a child with ease. I have been told by many readers of Patchwork that the child Pumpkin comes across more authentic than the adult Pumkin and this is probably because the voice of a child works better for me.
GR: Your first book, Wandi’s Little Voice won the 2004 Macmillan’s Writers Prize for Africa. Tell us a little about this story? Where and how did you get the idea for the story?
EB-A: I saw the call for submissions to the competition rather late. So I decided to write a simple story about a child giving her honest thoughts about all the members of her household and her extended family. Wandi sits in the living room with her mother and some guests, and as they ask after each member of the household, Wandi’s mother responds. Wandi then gives her own narration in her mind and often contrary to her mother’s words. By this narration the reader gets to know Wandi and the challenges she faces as a young girl growing up in an urban city of Africa.
GR: Your short story, Sozi’s Box also won the 2007 Commonwealth Short Story competition. How is the process of writing short stories different from full length stories?
EB-A: The Commonwealth Short story competition at the time was only 600 words. I struggled to write Sozi’s Box as I was constantly trying to figure out what to leave out than to put into the story. I find short stories more challenging to write as one has less time and space to make ones’ point.
GR: How easy or difficult is it to market books for children?
EB-A: Marketing any kind of book particularly in Africa – my books so far have been published by publishers in Africa – is a challenge. Fiction for children I ask fares better in that publishers in Africa publish mainly for the Ministry of Education. So if a title is picked by the government it will sell better than a book of adult fiction in a book store.
GR: Patchwork is your most recent book geared towards adult audience. Why the departure?
EB-A: I started Patchwork as a book for children. It changed somehow without me realising it. I remember reading an extract from the story in my MA in Creative Writing class and my colleagues telling me that it was not a book for children. So I decided to classify it as adult fiction.
GR: Would other works continue from where Patchwork ended? By that, I mean would you now solely write for adult audience?
EB-A: I am currently working on another book for young adults. I want to focus on writing for young teens.
GR: You have interesting characters in your book: Pumpkin, Joseph Sekavungo, Grandma Ponga and so on. Are they characters you know in real life?
EB-A: The characters are fictional with a few characteristics from people I have come across in real life thrown in here and there. I am pleased to know you found them interesting.
GR: Are you selective on the theme(s) you write for your stories?
EB-A: So far, I have written stories that grow in me naturally without giving too much thought to the themes.
GR: Has winning the Penguin Prize for African Writing changed your life in anyway? Has it posed any challenge(s) to your next work as your fans would expect much from you?
EB-A: I try very hard not to pressure myself into writing a better story. I prefer to focus on writing a story I enjoy writing; a story that is different from others I have written and can only hope my readers enjoy it.
GR: In your view, has your career as a writer been fruitful? Why do you write?
EB-A: I have a passion for writing. Writing is not financially rewarding but it has been fruitful in that it fulfills that passion.
GR: My last question is a matter of choice. Cape Town, Lusaka, Accra? Which of these African cities are you likely to spend writing holidays?
EB-A: I love all 3 cities for different reasons. But I pick Lusaka because I have yet to write a story whilst in Lusaka. Being home, there is just so much else to do in Lusaka I can’t find the time to write.
Ok, she’s inspiring especially her passion to writing for young people.Doing so she arouses the love of reading cum creative mind among children particularly those who invest much of their time reading her works.Writing for children is a little bit complex.Not only children enjoy the beauty of the text but also adults. She writes for children but adults also enjoy coz no clear cut for the two literatures.I wish her well in that career.
A very good interview, Geosi. I enjoyed reading this so much, partly because i’ve met Ellen once, ages ago at a workshop organised by Ama Ata Aidoo. I do think she is a good writer too, though I’ve not read any of her books yet.
Nice interview, Geosi! She has an interesting background! And it’s good that she’s writing for different age groups – often people become known as only a children’s writer or only teens or adults, but really there’s no reason why a good story-teller can’t write for all ages.
I think this is the first interview I’ve read of Ellen’s which is surprising because she is very accomplished. Nice interview! Best of luck with your newest book.