Historical Fiction and the Documentation of Dreams in Young Adult Literature: A Dialogue with Ayesha Harruna Attah
Ayesha Harruna Attah is a Ghanaian-born writer living in Senegal. She was educated at Mount Holyoke College, Columbia University and New York University. She is the author of the Commonwealth Writers Prize-nominated Harmattan Rain, Saturday’s Shadows and The Hundred Wells of Salaga, currently translated into four languages. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, Elle Italia, Asymptote and the 2010 Caine Prize Writer’s Anthology. The Deep Blue Between is her first book for teen readers.
BY SALIHA HADDAD
This conversation took place between Senegal and Algeria, via email.
Saliha: Hello Ayesha. Congratulations on your upcoming novel and thank you for taking time to do this interview. I have to say that this was such a surprising read for me; I didn’t know that I was about to be taken into such a wonderful journey into time, space and consciousness all at once, but I was.
The Deep Blue Between, though it is described as a young adult book, with its focus on two little twin girls and their growth, is definitely a book both young and older people must read. What motivated you to write a young adult novel, especially one that is so fascinatingly heavy with historical themes? The novel has been a big eye-opener to me into a part of history I was unfamiliar with. You said in a previous interview with Africa in Dialogue that you have a desire to preserve history, is the novel your way to reach out to younger audiences and get them more interested in history, or was the choice of the genre a purely artistic one?
Ayesha: Thank you for this lovely introduction. After writing The Hundred Wells of Salaga, I couldn’t stop thinking about the twin sisters who appear in the beginning of the novel, especially because one of them has a dream connecting her with her sister. While that story hangs in the air at the book’s conclusion, it accurately shows what it would have been like to live in that world. And yet, I couldn’t stop thinking of them… So, when the opportunity came to write a historical fiction book aimed at young readers, after I met Sarah Odedina of Pushkin Children’s Books at the Pa Gya! Festival in Accra, I knew right away that it would be about the twins. They were already living in me and were searching for a way to get out.
As a teen reader, I was interested in history but often found it too drily told or when I did read fiction with a historical bent, most of the characters were so removed from my world. I wrote a story I would have loved to read.
Saliha: The story, which deals widely with the history of slavery on the continent, doesn’t shy away from talking about the role of Africans in slavery. I think many stories related to slavery are yet to be uncovered on the continent, especially in North Africa. Why do you think we still need to uncover those stories? And why is it essential for us as Africans to know about the role our ancestors played in slavery?
Ayesha: It’s very human to want to shift blame away from ourselves. I do it all the time. It’s not nice to feel guilty about anything, even anodyne everyday things. So I don’t think many of us—Africans—want to turn over the stone to find these ugly truths about our role in slavery, but the ghosts of the past have a way of festering and coming up if they are not dealt with. When I write, I don’t want to just glorify the past—I want to find out everything our ancestors thought about and lived through, and use the good lessons they learned to propel us forward, while trying not to repeat their mistakes or to hold on to the things that no longer serve us.
“My process was to document my own dreams—their texture, color, and flavor—and to transpose these into the dreams the girls would have.”
Saliha: The two main characters, Hassana and Husseina, go through journeys full of twists, heartbreaking moments and more happy times. And though there is a permanent connection and similarities between the two, there is also uniqueness in how each one of them made her journey inwards. I was half through the novel when I noticed that one of them is narrating her own story and the other’s story is being told.
Why did you choose to let one use her own voice while the other not? Was it a literary choice to show the individuality of the twins by using two different narrative perspectives?
Ayesha: Good catch! Hassana becomes literate quite early in the novel, while Husseina does not. I imagined that Hassana would be able to write down her own story, while Husseina would have to rely on Hassana to preserve her story through the medium of the written word. So Hassana’s story would be told in the first person, while Husseina’s would be the reported third person. And yes, it’s also a craft trick to help the reader distinguish between the two characters.
Saliha: In their journey towards growth and towards each other, both Hassana and Husseina have dreams that are symbolic in nature guiding them most of the time. Dreams in literature are mostly used to reveal a character’s hidden desires and fears, to reveal past or future events and to foreshadow the future. I feel that your use of dreams has fulfilled all of these functions.
Can you tell me more about your process of writing the dreams into the story? And are there any authors or books that inspired you to do that?
Ayesha: Many writers use dreams to play with their narratives, so I was simply joining the back of a long tradition. There’s actually an ancient African story, The Shipwrecked Sailor, which precedes The Odyssey. It follows a sailor’s journey onto a magical island with a big snake on it. The story reads like a dream. One of my favorite books is Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, and the vignettes almost read as if many dreams have been captured on paper. My process was to document my own dreams—their texture, color, and flavor—and to transpose these into the dreams the girls would have.
The strangest thing also happened as I was writing: my father, who is an amazing raconteur and who has vivid dreams recounted some of them. Once, he dreamt about a carriage, and I’d written about Husseina dreaming about a carriage, and the two situations were strikingly similar. My connection to these twins is technically through my father’s line, but I’ll leave it to the Jungian analysts and others who study dreamscapes to do their interpretations!
Saliha: The novel focuses on two young girls, but it is fascinating in how it introduces and familiarizes readers with its other older characters like Yaya Silvina and Mr. Nelson as well. How did you manage to write such a varied and fascinating set of characters?
Ayesha: Writing this book was really magical. The girls led me into their worlds and the group of people they met along the way, some of them based on real people, like the Ramseyers of the Basel Mission. Yaya Silvina is a composite of a number of women leaders in the Candomblé faith in Brazil, while Mr. Nelson is based on the influential craftsmen who moved from Brazil to the Gold Coast and whose work helped shape present-day Accra. No doubt the research process also played a big role in character development. Sometimes, I would stumble upon some piece of information which would lend itself to the creation of a whole new character.
Saliha: The Deep Blue Between is set in many different places—I feel like I truly visited without leaving the house, and it’s thanks to your simple yet captivating use of language. The description of Bahia is especially sensuous:
“Salvador da Bahia was like the yellow inside a flower. It was the moment after rainfall, when the sun shone in full force. It was every skin shade in the world gathered in one place. As she and Yaya rumbled along in a steam tram, she marvelled at how rich everything was around her. It was as if she were seeing, smelling and tasting for the first time.”
I read that you have been a writer-in-residence in Bahia. How much did your stay in Brazil influence the novel? And how much research went into captivating Bahia in the late 19th century?
Ayesha: Many thanks. It was in Brazil that I first learned that the movement of Africans to the Americas wasn’t unidirectional in the 18th and 19th centuries. Of course, I knew about the “back to Africa” movements of Sierra Leone and Liberia, but in those cases, people had moved back to settle on the African continent. In Brazil, I learned that some individuals would make these trips to the continent and return to Brazil.
Thanks to The Hundred Wells of Salaga, I’d already visited some West African locales in the 19th century, so I just extended my literary voyage to Lagos, Accra, and Bahia. I’d spent time in all three places, so I let the different atmospheres I’d experienced there also guide me. My research lent credibility to the look and feel of the places.
Saliha: Your novel, besides introducing me to historical events I wasn’t aware of, has introduced me to a genre I am not familiar with. What is the position of African young adult fiction in African literature? And do you think we should attach more importance to producing works that are mainly for younger audiences?
Ayesha: There are writers like Yaba Badoe and Nnedi Okorafor who have written a lot of young adult fiction. Akwaeke Emezi’s Pet came out last year to critical acclaim, and I have a few friends at work on books aimed at teen readers. I think we should do it all: produce literature that touches everyone in society, starting from our youngest readers.
Saliha: In a recent article titled “White Eyes”, which appeared in Africa is a Country, the writer, Emeka Joseph Nwankwo, argues that African writers shouldn’t be policed on what they should focus on when writing, be it about struggles and poverty or dynamics and relationships between individual characters. As a writer who has already produced four works at such a young age, do you think it is fair to criticize a writer on their choice of themes?
Ayesha: I fervently believe writers should write whatever they want to. Policing will mark the end of literature and art and any kind of heart-shifting creativity.
Saliha: The Deep Blue Between is a novel about two girls living through slavery, colonialism, trauma and loss but I can’t help but feel that it is also a feel-good story that has one of the best character developments in literature. Thank you so much again for taking time to answer my questions.
Ayesha: Thank you for these thoughtful questions!
This dialogue was edited by Kylie Kiunguyu.
Saliha Haddad is an Algerian part-time teacher of English at the university and a volunteer interviewer for online local magazines. She is one of the top graduates of her department in the Anglophone literature and civilization field. She is passionate about art and literature, and she recently became vegetarian. She is currently working on a series of personal essays under the theme of “family”, and on a short story about an aspiring painter. Her philosophy in life is to always try be the best version of yourself and to always keep on learning.