Born in Accra, Ghana, Ayesha Harruna Attah wrote and published her first novel, Harmattan Rain, with a fellowship from Per Ankh Publishers and TrustAfrica. Harmattan Rain, was shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Africa Region. Ayesha was educated at Mount Holyoke College and Columbia University and received an MFA in creative writing from NYU in 2011. She is working on her second novel.
Geosi Reads: You come from a family of writers. How much of impact did that have on your becoming a writer?
Ayesha Harruna Attah: At first I tried to run away. My goody-two-shoes way of rebelling was choosing a different career from my parents so I studied science in school. I completely ignored the fact that I was always entering writing competitions, or that I kept tons of diaries filled with angst and bad poetry. Eventually I came full circle and luckily when I did I had my parents’ support. Sometimes you can’t fight what’s in your blood.
Geosi Reads: Angst and bad poetry! What comes to mind when you look at your old diaries?
Ayesha Harruna Attah: I cringe a lot, thinking I should burn them, prevent anyone from blackmailing me… But there are one or two good pieces that end up saving the whole bad lot.
Geosi Reads: Your debut novel, ‘Harmattan Rain’ was published by Per Ankh in 2008. Take us through the writing process?
Ayesha Harruna Attah: Per Ankh is a publishing cooperative run by a worldwide group of friends. They also operate a nine-month long writers’ workshop, Per Sesh, for young African writers. I was accepted to Per Sesh, and that’s where I wrote my first novel. Ayi Kwei Armah, the author of several novels including The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born and coordinator of Per Ankh, led our workshops. The process involved research, writing, workshops, editing, more writing, more research, more editing. The workshop was set up so we had no reason to procrastinate: our food, shelter, and well-being were completely taken care of.
Geosi Reads: The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born is undoubtedly one of my favorite books. Have you read the Beautyful Ones…? If yes, what are your impressions?
Ayesha Harruna Attah: I love that book! What’s interesting about it is that in many ways it could be describing life in Ghana right now, which probably doesn’t speak well about our progress since independence.
Geosi Reads: In my review of Harmattan Rain, I wrote that the first chapter ‘…hooked me in’. How much of attention was given to the first chapter alone?
Ayesha Harruna Attah: Thank you! A lot of attention has to be given even to the first sentence. Some writers can’t proceed if they don’t have the first sentence right, but I’m not that kind of writer, and the opening chapter wasn’t even the first chapter I wrote: it kind of developed half way through writing Harmattan Rain. I knew I wanted a strong opening, one that would show Lizzie-Achiaa’s ambition, independence, and wild spirit—the same one that lives in her daughter and granddaughter. Once the whole book was written, I went back to the opening chapter several times to make sure it captured the entire novel’s mood.
Geosi Reads: In Harmattan Rain, you do not only tell the story of three generations of women but you also weave into the storyline the political history of Ghana. How much of research went into the book?
Ayesha Harruna Attah: I did a ton of research. I read Dr. Kwame Nkrumah’s biography, his seven-year plan for Ghana, accounts of various missionaries in Ghana, but my biggest lifesaver was a compilation of 50 years of articles from the Daily Graphic. That book was such a gem, because not only did its articles recreate the zeitgeist of those years, but it also contained adverts of commodities like shoe polish, details that added wonderful local color and richness to the novel.
Geosi Reads: How much of your real life experiences go into your books?
Ayesha Harruna Attah: I try to create new worlds when I’m writing, but real life invariably seeps in. There are also times when real life experiences are just too good and juicy to pass on or to even make up. Ultimately I guess it’s a combination of imagining and stealing from real life.
Geosi Reads: You wrote your debut novel through the Per Sesh Writers Workshop based in Popenguine, Senegal. Can you tell us about the place and what went into the workshop?
Ayesha Harruna Attah: Popenguine is a lovely village in Senegal, by the Atlantic Ocean. It was especially great for me, because I thrive by the ocean! The workshop structure involved critiquing our peers’ work, discussing the craft of writing by reading literature from all over the world, and then learning about the publishing process—from how to layout books to the business side of publishing.
Geosi Reads: I understand that one of your mentors at the workshop was Ghanaian most celebrated writer, Ayi Kwei Armah. How was it like studying under him?
Ayesha Harruna Attah: He was tough, but supportive, like one would expect from any mentor. He was brilliant at editing both on a sentence and story level. He’s also very funny. I remember being shy about writing a sex scene so I’d emulated the style of Ghanaian movies of yesteryear: a couple goes into a bedroom, they cover themselves with a sheet and the rest is left to the viewer’s imagination. He laughed and said I couldn’t do that to my readers. Part of the reason people come to books is to escape or to learn, so I had to give as much detail as I could.
Geosi Reads: You had me laughing out loud! Very, very, true about the style of Ghanaian movies of many years ago. Would you ever mind venturing into areas like play or screenwriting?
Ayesha Harruna Attah: I have been toying with screenwriting and would love to see my writing on the big screen!
Geosi Reads: You hold a master’s degree in Journalism. How much of your journalistic background do you bring to your literary works?
Ayesha Harruna Attah: I think the way I write and the way I approach my stories borrow from my journalism background. I love to do research and interview people. Also, when I’m writing fiction it’s almost as if I’m sent to my imagined world to report back.
Geosi Reads: Are you optimistic about the future of Ghanaian literature?
Ayesha Harruna Attah: I am. There’s a growing list of serious writers such as Mohammed Naseehu-Ali, Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, Nii Ayi-Kwei Parkes, to name but a few and I know these numbers will keep growing. What I’d like to see is writers breaking into other genres of fiction, and I know it’s only a matter of time.
Geosi Reads: What have you been working on in recent times?
Ayesha Harruna Attah: I’ve been at work on my second novel. I’m also editing a number of short stories that have been on the back burner for a while.
See my review of Ayesha Harruna Attah’s Harmattan Rain.