‘If I had power over the lexical landscape, I would get rid of the word immigrant’—Nana Oforiatta Ayim talks to Wamuwi Mbao about her debut novel The God Child

Nana Oforiatta Ayim is a Ghanaian writer, filmmaker and art historian. On a balmy traffic-clagged Cape Town morning, I meet her for our interview in the lobby of a hotel whose plushness is a peculiar incongruity, positioned as it is in the docklands of the city. Ayim’s novel The God Child has its local launch in the week that we sit down to converse, but she’s actually in town for the Cape Town Art Fair. Over a chatty hour, we discuss her writing, her artistic process, and what it means to work across different creative forms.

The God Child
Nana Oforiatta Ayim
Bloomsbury, 2019

Wamuwi Mbao for The JRB: What is it like for someone who is already an established presence in the art world to write a novel?

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: It’s funny because people think that the art stuff came first and then the writing followed, but it’s actually the other way around. So I’ve always been writing, and I’ve been working on this book for a few years. I think for many of us from African contexts, it’s not enough just to be creatives. We need to create our contexts as well. That’s what I’ve actively been trying to do—to create a context in which my work could live. Funnily enough, now that this book has come out and I’ve been in context creation for so long, I feel now like I can move into my own creative sphere.

The JRB: I think it’s that thing where a novel appears in this miraculously complete format, so everyone just assumes you wrote it at the drop of a hat. So your work more generally in the art sphere—I’m being deliberately vague here—with projects like the Cultural Encyclopaedia, did you find that your writing bled over into those other creative spheres, or do you keep them separate?

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: They’re all in me, they’re all of me, so (of necessity) they’re all intertwined. They’re all part of the same impulse; just different expressions of the same impulse. I like the metaphor of polyphony or polyrhythmic kinds of expression: my work is different registers of the same energy.

The JRB: So I want to throw a few words at you, and I want you to relate them to The God Child—so here’s the first one: coming of age.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: I guess when I think of coming of age stories I think of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, or some of the early novels by Turgenev, Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin. Those are the stories that had a formative or shaping influence on my writing. There’s also that term, Bildungsroman …

The JRB: I’m always hesitant to use that word. I think it gets overused because we want to find easy ways to categorise things. I guess, in some ways, The God Child has elements of that, but I think it’s doing much more than being a bildungsroman. Let me throw another one at you: immigrant.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: Don’t like that word.

The JRB: Mmm.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: At all. I think it’s really loaded and patronising, and it’s devaluing. It pisses me off that white people coming to Ghana call themselves expats, and give themselves license to be elevated above so-called immigrants. If I had power over the lexical landscape, I would get rid of that word.

The JRB: Heritage.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: Also a word that I find a little bit limiting. Even though it points at something much larger, when I hear the word I think of English country houses or—

The JRB: National Trust buildings?

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: Exactly! Something quite staid and imperialistic. Whereas really it points to something much more than itself. I think there’s a lot more.

The JRB: Okay, so having cherry-picked those from the reviews and interviews that are out there in the public domain, how would you describe your book? What’s your elevator pitch?

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: [laughs] I’m really terrible at that.

The JRB: Nobody should be good at that. It’s a really unfair thing. But how would you describe this book?

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: [thinks] One of the things I’ve noticed in the reviews is that people are lamenting something I actually did on purpose. The structure of the book is inspired by drum poetry, this form of speaking on the drum in Ghana, and that form is really elliptical. It leaves out a lot. It’s abstract and cyclical, and I purposefully took those elements and put them into The God Child, and people went ‘you know the writing is good and blah-blah, but then …’

The JRB: I see.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: Which for me is interesting because there’s still this prevalent idea of how a book ‘should be written’, and in a way I’ve tried to deconstruct that.

The JRB: I think it works. It does work. Initially the rhythm catches you off guard because there are these lovely sentences that you float on, and then suddenly you’re somewhere else entirely. But after a while, you realise it’s deliberate, and it becomes something that works quite well.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: Yes. But maybe you’re only saying that because you’re African.

The JRB: [laughs] I’ve got the inside track.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: I didn’t answer your question at all!

The JRB: I think you did. You mentioned that the writing is always something you’ve been doing. Tell us about your journey to The God Child.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: I remember lying on a bed when I was sixteen, and the idea of this girl came into my head. It was just there under the surface, and when I was twenty-three I decided I wanted to write this story. The journey from what I wanted to achieve [laughs nervously] to where I am seemed so insurmountable, and so big, and I had no idea how to get there. I suppose like many people’s first books, it’s a training ground for figuring out, ‘How do I actually do this? How do I inhabit these characters?’

The JRB: Yes.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: When I first started, it was going to be a very different book. There were two main characters, a man in his seventies and Maya. I felt when I was writing in the old man’s voice that I wasn’t yet able to inhabit him fully enough to make him as truthful as I wanted him to be. And because Maya as a character was much closer to me, I felt like I could write her more truthfully.

The JRB: When I read the book, I definitely got a sense that she’s a character you lived with and thought through—she’s not just an avatar moving through the world.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: She’s always kind of been there. She’s a mixture of fiction, some of my own spiritual impulses, and stories I heard and observed. I’m not sure.

The JRB: It’s a rather unfair question—characters aren’t always completely visible to their creators.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: Yeah.

The JRB: From a literary perspective, when you choose to tell a story through someone who’s a child, that usually imposes some conceptual difficulties. You have to manage the trick of making it a believable child’s voice.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: I think I remember what it was like to be a child. I identify with children and I really like them, so when I meet them and engage with them it’s as another human being, not an adult to a child. I find the journey from me to them quite short, in terms of empathising with what they’re trying to say or do or be. 

The JRB: That’s definitely something I see in how you’ve written Maya and Kojo. You don’t flatten them out. You afford them the intelligence that people have. 

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: As adults we can be guilty of flattening kids’ intelligence quite a lot, and diminishing their experience. I think kids are a lot smarter than a lot of people give them credit for.

The JRB: Can we talk about location? Why Germany? Why Britain? 

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: I know both countries quite well. I picked them because I felt like I understood the underlying dynamics of them quite well, especially in terms of race relations and the unspoken things that happen. I feel quite fluent in those dynamics, whereas places like France or, I mean, I landed in South Africa and I’m like ‘What is going on here?’ It’s so complex. There’s so many layers of things happening as soon as you land and you’re in the airport …

The JRB: And this is just Cape Town. But talking about those particular experiences, there aren’t that many novels I can think of that talk about what it’s like to grow up as a Black child in Germany. There are quite a few novels that talk about the English context, but setting the two countries up in close proximity makes for something quite different.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: There’s a writer—she actually has the same surname as me but we’re not related—she’s called May Ayim. She committed suicide in her mid-twenties when I was growing up. Her father was Ghanaian and her mother was German, and she wrote this book called Blues in Schwarz Weiss (Blues in Black and White).

The JRB: I’ve come across her work, yeah.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: And I remember reading her and being quite taken with it. It was the only thing I’d read about the German Black lived experience, and what she described in her poetry was very particular. It almost reminds me of Wole Soyinka’s early poetry. She’s the only one I can think of off the top of my head.

The JRB: It’s not a narrative you commonly find in English literature. It’s probably out there, of course. Everything has been written.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: Yeah, the Francophone and English stuff is there, but it’s an experience that needs to be told.

The JRB: The intimacies of this book are intriguing. In one sense, you’re telling a very big story, but in another, you have these really close relationships. Maya and her mother have an incredibly strong but complex bond.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: I really wanted her mother to be this larger than life figure—

The JRB: She is that.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: —Who is complex. When I was growing up, a lot of the mother figures that I read about were all sort of good and self-sacrificing—it just wasn’t realistic. Mothers are complex, they can be resentful but loving at the same time. They can be multifaceted. It’s not a straightforward experience. I have friends who are mothers and I see that you can hate your child at times and then love them in the same breath, and the same from daughter to mother. Especially for those of us who grew up with these strong mother-figures.

The JRB: There are lovely scenes in the book—like Maya and her mother walking somewhere, and Maya’s trying to figure out how to blend into this world, and her mother is this character who doesn’t blend, who can be that loud African mother when she wants to be.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: I think in terms of that mother thing, it’s also generational. Our generation is much more diluted—that unapologetic Africanness hasn’t carried over as much.

The JRB: Let’s talk about writing. I think a number of critics have picked up on this in your work, but in The God Child there’s an attention to word use and diction that makes me wonder what your influences are. 

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: I studied Russian literature.

The JRB: I think that definitely shines through …

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: And I studied it because I wanted to be able to read the literature in the original, because language is something that is really important to me. So even though translation is an incredible craft, the closer you can get to the author’s words … like Pushkin, for example. He’s supposed to be the greatest Russian author, and yet you read his works in English and … they’re okay, but they’re not brilliant. But when you read him in the Russian (especially if you’ve read his predecessors) and then you see what he’s managed to do with language—there’s a complete shift in what he does. I’m quite obsessed with language, and I wanted to distil different parts of the rhythm of language into the book. I also love John Berger—

The JRB: Yes. The book is dedicated to him!

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: I love him. When I was studying, he was living in France, and he would come to England every time he was launching a new book. And I would be like the zealous superfan in the front row. I actually managed to meet him and become friends with him!

The JRB: That’s fantastic!

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: I was always there, eagerly making notes. One time, I was at a reading in a tiny little church, and I had all these books with me. I called a friend and I was like, ‘Should I get my book signed? I don’t want to bother him.’ And my friend was like ‘He’s in his eighties—you might never see him again. Get your book signed.’ So I went up and I got my book signed, and he was like ‘Tell me about you.’ And I was the last person in this long queue of people. And I told him I’d started writing a book, and he said ‘sit down!’, and he said ‘send me your book’, and I didn’t, and the next time I saw him—

The JRB: Superfan!

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: —and the next time I saw him, he said ‘Where’s your book? Why haven’t you sent it to me?’ And I said ‘It’s not ready yet—I’m scared to send it to you.’ And he said ‘Don’t be scared—send it to me.’ And so there was this back-and-forth for quite a few years where I was too afraid that the book wasn’t formed enough to send it to him, but in my mind he was always my first reader. And then he died, and it was really sad because I’d finished the book, and he was always going to be the first person I sent it to. In a way I think it’s still for him as a first reader, because even though he’s passed on bodily, his words are still a guiding light for me.

The JRB: My final question to you: fiction is one of many forms of doing art. Did it help you to think through some of the ideas that come out of the book around loss and restitution, in a different way?

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: I think it’s a deeply emotional and spiritual subject, and a tough one to tackle. I’ve worked at places like the British Museum, and I’ll be talking about museums tomorrow, and it’s a subject I’m deeply involved in. I’ve been to many storerooms at these big European and American museums, and felt that weight and constriction of something empirical. It’s not just a matter of going ‘these masks and sculptures have been stolen—they’re not where they belong’. It feels empirical. It’s what propels me—this notion that people came in with purpose and intent to destroy the core of what we were, for material gain.

The JRB: Yeah.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: And we’re still living the remnants of that. I feel like that’s my generation’s purpose. This moment that we’re in hasn’t quite been defined—it’s not the postcolonial moment any more. We’re living and defining a new moment, and I don’t think there’ll be a term for it until it’s over. But there’s something new that’s happening, and it’s about loss and restitution. We’re finding new ways of navigating and defining and going both back and forward.

  • Wamuwi Mbao is an essayist, cultural critic and academic at Stellenbosch University. Follow him on Twitter.
Author image: Nana Oforiatta Ayim on Facebook/Composite: The JRB

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