Another Wednesday, another writer tagged! Writer to Writer, A Game of Writer Tag continues. Akwaeke picked Ghanaian writer Nana Nyarko Boateng. In conversation, Nana opened up about the personal nature of her writing, and having a foot in both camps - writing and editing.
AKWAEKE: To jump right into the deep end, what parts of yourself do you put into your writing?
NANA: I am not sure how to answer this, I think for me, it’s been the parts that I hadn’t discovered yet or hadn’t fully accepted. So, when I write about a broken character, I all of a sudden realise that there are parts of me that are broken too. And when I write about a happy carefree character, I see in me how I desire happiness or the ways in which I have that level of happiness in my life too. You started with a rather tough question, go a little bit easy on me.
My mother waited for us by the door. She lived with eyes that only saw mouths and teeth of people. Every Sunday night, we lined up for her inspection –our powdered armpits and pepsodent-fresh breaths were cast in our show for her approval. We were eager to sing in chorus with the television set, “Captain Planet he’s a hero, gonna take pollution down to zero…”
AKWAEKE: What are the themes that you find yourself most drawn to in your work?
NANA: I am drawn to finding the pieces of ourselves that exist in everyone else. I have an obsession with love. I like to explore what the absence of love can do to a living being. I have written about sexual and physical abuse a lot, loneliness, mental illness, people who seem to be aware of something more than what exists in this physical realm. I have been told that the kind of images I create can be extremely disgusting. Well.
We had watched Captain Planet in our next door neighbour’s room until one day his colour television set went off right after the show’s signature tune and never came back on. The catechist’s room was always dimly lit; he never opened his windows except for the one that faced our shared bathroom. The day the TV died, he was reading a newspaper with his green torch light. He wore a harrowing frown as he circled words in the newspaper with his black pen. He had forgotten to force us to get on our knees and say the Lord’s Prayer.
AKWAEKE: How does your role as an editor play into your own writing?
NANA: It’s a terrible jinx. I face my own work with a certain level of ruthlessness that can be paralyzing. An editor’s work really begins when the writer is done with several drafts and is ready to show it to a different pair of eyes. In my case, the editor is always here with the writer, interrupting the flow or just simply being impatient. Maybe, the only upside to this is that, the editor challenges me to do better. I have seen some breathtaking passages that naturally raise the standards for me. I can’t stand graceless, weak writing, particularly when it’s my own. So, when my work is not ready, I sit here and torment myself.
That galling prayer was the sacrifice we made if we wanted to watch his colour television set. We had always begun our prayers with the sign of the cross and he insisted that we thank Jesus for blessing us with the opportunity to watch television in colour. We had run out his room, that Sunday night, all six of us, like stray cats when the television died with a zip sound.
AKWAEKE: What qualities do you look for in writing that you consider excellent?
NANA: I admire greatly the power of simplicity. When writers convey images, stories, events, feelings in a way that just can’t be overlooked, I pause and bask in it. I can appreciate as well what is presented in a complex manner so far as it works.
Also, because I am first and foremost a poet, I do like concrete words and language that has rhythm. If you make me see, feel, smell, taste the blood and the sunshine, you’ve got me. I do like humour too, a lot actually, particularly when it is used in a situation where humour isn’t usually seen.
We had entered Kwesi’s parents’ living room panting like dogs. As we struggled for sitting space on the tiny living room floor, we knew we were too dirty to go elsewhere for comfort. We could have run to our bigger living room when the adverts were showing but my mother was most certainly not going to allow any sweaty kid in.
AKWAEKE: What are you working on at the moment and where can we find your work?
NANA: I am working on a short story collection. I actually finished it a few months ago but I am having a hard time letting it go. It’s terrifying. I will set it free before the year ends, though, so help me writing gods.
You can find my work mostly on my computer, ha ha! Well, I have both poetry and short stories in several anthologies including Lusaka Punk and Other Stories, Rhubarb, A Publication of the Mennonite Literary Society and According to Sources: A Poetry Anthology. I think some of my poetry will appear in the Aké Review this year.
Kwesi’s parents’ had a black and white television set and that night it became clear to us that Captain Planet was to be watched in colour. So, the following Sunday night we bathed and smelled of Saturday Night Powder before 6.30pm, all six of us. Captain Planet was in red, white, yellow and green again but my mother made new rules. We now had to brush our teeth too if we were going to sing aloud in her living room.
On Nana's Bedside Table
I am reading Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and I am re-reading A Squatter’s Tale by Ike Oguine.
Editor's Note: The text in italics is excerpted from Nana's short story, Small Holes.