The Score is Liberian writer HJ Golakai's follow up to her popular debut The Lazarus Effect. She spoke to us about writing, her sense of being and her favourite African crime writers.
The Score moves in staccato sets: the rhythm of the prose echoes the pace at which Vee, your main character, lives. As if she fears having to dwell on her inner demons if she slows down. Readers are left to cling on to Vee's heels as she bang-flash-stomps from one drama to the next.
Was this effect – having the prose reflect Vee – intentional, achieved with careful editing? Or is it a result of having to squeeze writing time into the cracks of a full life?
HAWA: I thought up the premise for Score about a year after Lazarus. It was a little scary because it was a subject area well outside my comfort zone – business and corruption. The first draft was meandering as hell; the plot kept trying to bolt. I had to rein it in and break it till it more or less ran like a trained animal, which every author knows ain’t easy. The pacing mirrored the last three years of my life, which had many major overhauls: I moved countries, changed jobs and battled to find a rhythm in my two careers, had a lot going on the romantic and familial fronts… A lot. Vee is my way of working out life’s glitches, so often there’s a bridge between the crap going on with her and the crap going on with me. And yes, it did take some crazy editing and stitching to get it all together!
The characters in The Score all appear to be struggling with where they belong – their place at work, in relationships and / or the country. Belonging is as much of a theme as dislocation. As someone who has travelled widely and lived in many places, do you find that people in South Africa, both immigrants and citizens, are collectively more unsettled than elsewhere?
HAWA: My sense of self and home was fractured at a young age and I had to build new Hawa-ware out of the pieces. It makes me highly sensitive to how people deal with belonging and self. How one filters oneself through the mesh of life and translates themselves to other people is a fascination of mine. Unease and being itchy in your own skin is part of the human condition, and it can be as much an identifier as a passport. South Africans have an inner war that’s bottled up for the most part; in my time living there I found people had a habit of coercing their personalities out before it would show. Y’all are governed by the tacit and the nicety – let’s not be crude and unpleasant, at least not to each other’s faces. West Africans are polar opposites – no boundaries, no brakes, all in. Regardless of where I’ve lived or visited, the culture and government shape who and how people ‘do their do’. The Americans are so pussywhipped by their currency (can I say that lol) that they don’t realise they’re enslaved. Or they do, and they only care how good they look working the grind. We choose our devils and worship at our leisure.
Your bio states that you are a medical immunologist and health consultant who enjoys performing autopsies. Your day job seems to be nicely matched to your writing world. Have your interests always been intertwined, or did one lead to an interest in the other?
HAWA: It certainly wasn’t planned; I meandered into both. I didn’t always know-know what I wanted to do, I wasn’t one of those creepy kids with a life plan. Whatever I wound up doing had to be driven by curiosity and creativity. My personality has always been a dichotomy, it straddles opposites easily, so in my mind there’s no contradiction between art and science. I studied science so I would have a ‘real job’, but that turned out to be a laugh. Biomedical research on this continent still has a-ways to go before it can be a solid career path. Meanwhile, I was bored faffing about in academia, trying to think in straight lines, so I brushed off a storyline that were gathering dust in a shoebox. The rest, as they say….
I laughed hard when eleven-year-old Tristan (a character in The Score) asks, ‘Who's Nancy Drew? Does she live on our street?’ Considering I read my mother's childhood copies, I suppose the books are becoming increasingly dated. Not sure if my son, of similar age to Tristan, knows who Nancy Drew is, either. Were you a fan of the teen detective?
HAWA: I was a rabid fan! Nancy, the Hardy Boys, the Famous Five, all of it. Then I graduated to Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Conan Doyle and that lot before moving on to harder fiction. Some people are embarrassed by how ‘bad’ some of these books seem now but I still love all that retro, and collect the books where I can. It’s sad that today’s kids don’t get literature the way we used to; everything we had has been turned into a video game or Hollywood blockbuster for them. Of course, in adulthood I’m a hypocrite – now I think Nancy is a sanctimonious witch who flitted around like she was clairvoyant – but the titian-haired sleuth fed my craving at a young age.
Following that, to my dismay, when people inquire about contemporary African crime and detective reads, Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith is routinely recommended. Could you help expand people's horizons, please?
HAWA: Oh I’d love to, because that’s a major annoyance I share!
Crime pokes its head into every genre and I love how the purist’s approach to writing it is being shattered – it’s not all white male cops smoking over a female corpse anymore. In my opinion, right now Sarah Lotz is the reigning queen of creep and dark deeds. She may not personify the crime procedural – a style that’s either dying or hybridising, I can’t tell yet – but what she does for suspense and horror sci-fi, wow! Angela Moabelo Makholwa also deploys a clean scalpel and sharp wit to her imagination, and ‘comedic crime’ is something we don’t have enough of. My old faithful in the form of Deon Meyer; the man’s not a bestseller for nothing. Mukoma wa Ngugi and his Nairobi romps. We also need to look back in our archives to find the old gems, unknown or underrated. For example, one of the fathers of African crime is Liberia’s own Bai T. Moore who wrote Murder in the Cassava Patch, a novel with a Hitchcockian noir feel. I think it should be on English syllabuses continent-wide, the way Soyinka's work is.
On Hawa's Bedside Table
I tend to read about several books in one spurt. Right now I’ve got Emma Donoghue’s Room, S.K Tremayne’s The Ice Twins, Rolling in the Deep by Mira Grant, I’ll Never Write my Memoirs by Grace Jones, What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty and a funny piece of girly smut by Tara Sivec (I’ll keep my dignity by not saying the name). I just finished Rick Yancey’s The Infinite Sea and am weaning myself off all the dystopian YA I rammed into my eyeballs last year.
Born in Frankfurt, Germany, Hawa Jande Golakai spent a vibrant childhood in her homeland Liberia. After the civil war in 1990 she bounced around the continent, and considers herself a modern-day nomad and cultural sponge. Her 2011-12 crime debut The Lazarus Effect was thrice nominated for literature awards, and its sequel The Score was released November 2015. Both novels are set to be relaunched worldwide by Cassava Republic Press in 2016-17. She is currently an honouree of the Africa39 Project, celebrating 39 promising contemporary authors under the age of 40. In addition to writing full-time, she juggles a career as a medical immunologist and health consultant. She lives between Monrovia and anywhere else she finds herself.
Interview by Tiah Beautement a.k.a @ms_tiahmarie