THE BIG INTERVIEW: Ayesha Harruna Attah Seeks the Sun & the Sea

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In her blood, Ayesha Harruna Attah has more than just plasma and cells. Flowing in there, too, is a thick stream of words, inherited from parents who are Ghanaian journalists of fame.

Ayesha was initially drawn to both cells and words, but her innate curiosity nurtured a bias toward the former. She dabbled extensively in the sciences, eventually majoring in Biochemistry.

“Growing up,” Ayesha tells Daily Mail GH, “I was always trying to understand how human beings worked, internally and outside, and science was one way to take us apart and piece us back together.”

That desire soon faded, however, quickly replaced by overwhelming disillusionment.

“The more I studied Science,” Ayesha intimates, “the smaller its picture seemed and that was what ultimately pushed me away from a career in the field.”

Given the overflowing fountain of literary goodness Ayesha drank from as a child, there was only ever going to be one appealing alternative. And so the microscope was dropped, pen picked, and the career of a writer pursued.

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She’s come far, following up the 2009 release of Harmattan Rain — her first novel and a product of nine months’ work — with two more publications that have earned her rave reviews and sent her stock soaring.

Ayesha bears a famous surname, as implied at the outset, but opting for a path of writing different from her father’s may have spared the 35-year-old the burden of expectation such a tag might have imposed on her. Initially, though, it was a cross she was willing to bear.

“I did go to journalism school in the hope of working with my parents’ newspaper,” Ayesha confesses. “But along the way I got the chance to develop my fiction, a genre in which I now feel the most comfortable.”

Ayesha may have veered from the family business, but those experiences that impacted — positively and negatively — her formative years twist and merge into a common thread which runs through her writing. It’s why, despite her focus on fiction, much of her work feels so real. And it’s also why, as a writer, Ayesha believes she’s never struggled with “a lack of material.”

Flip through the pages of her books and you’d find hints that all but spell out Ayesha’s past in black-and-white (pardon the pun): the writer-father who enjoys/endures a love-hate relationship with a dictator-turned-democrat of a president; the mother who gets sick; a family with Northern roots, et al.

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Actually, you don’t have to go through all of Ayesha’s novels to find the aforementioned; they’re all captured in one: Saturday’s Shadows, her sophomore piece.

“Every book I’ve written draws on some of my experiences,” says Ayesha, “but Saturday’s Shadows might be considered the most autobiographical because it is the most contemporary of the three I’ve written, and also because of specific stories that mirror events in my own life.”

That mirror is blurred, though, deliberately revealing only a hazy outline of factual “big themes” but fictionalizing all else — “characters, the day-to-day, as well as the plot and narrative.” In other words, the reader is treated to a mere sample of the personal, just enough to separate fact from fiction.

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It’s same for the two books between which Saturday’s Shadows is sandwiched, Harmattan Rain and the more recent The Hundred Wells of Salaga — well, almost same. While that pair also come with personal ties — strong and faint — Ayesha had to dig deeper for them, tapping into periods of pre- and post-independent life this side of the Atlantic. The task was great but, never one to flee a challenge, she deemed it a treasure-hunt to be embraced with passion. Hear her:

“I love research into everything about the past, in trying to understand who we are now, and how we should face our future. I try to read as much as I can, even about minutiae.

“What kinds of windows did housing have in the 1890s?; What kinds of clothing were people wearing?; What were everyday preoccupations at the time?

“It involves being very patient and sometimes going down rabbit holes.”

And that’s how Ayesha came by details which describe so accurately the times of her mother and grandmother (Harmattan Rain) and even a more distant ancestor who she only heard of but never met (The Hundred Wells of Salaga).

Back to the previous paragraph, though. Read it again — carefully this time. See what I see?

Yes, a brief list of female characters — strong ones at that — and there is no shortage of such in her lineage. Ayesha’s mother is an accomplished journalist, her sister — Ayesha’s auntie — a former, two-decade First Lady of Ghana. That’s some background: empowering, yes, but — as I do point out to my interviewee — intimidating, too. Ayesha doesn’t agree; not wholly, anyway.

“I have always danced to my own music, so any pressure I have felt has been internal,” she insists. “That said, I think the fact that I had women like them to look up to has meant that I’ve never limited myself. I’ve never said “a woman can’t do that,” because in my family women do it all.”

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You’d imagine, then, that Ayesha has rather fiery opinions regarding the burning issue of feminism — but no; her take on the matter, when she does offer one, is surprisingly mild: “All I have to say is that I am happy the world is finally listening to women. It is about time.”

Womanhood has been a significant influence on Ayesha’s career, not unreasonably, but a less pronounced yet equally strong male figure serving as a guide has helped provide some balance. Under the mentorship of renowned Ghanaian novelist Ayi Kwei Armah since the late noughties, Ayesha has matured. Flourished, even. Rightfully, she describes him as “a spiritual father” — and then some.

“Through him, I’ve learned of Africa’s long history,” Ayesha says of grey-haired Armah, whose The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born remains an enduring classic. “I’ve learned to tap into some of his ancient knowledge in my search for who we are and for where we can go.”

The fruitful fellowship Ayesha describes was enjoyed in Senegal, and — like Armah himself — Alhaji Abdul-Rahman Harruna Attah’s eldest daughter has settled in that West African nation. There, she enjoys life with family and a generous view of the sea, “the sheer vastness and relentless waves of which helps reset [Ayesha’s] clock.”

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And, of course, she spends lots of time at her writing desk, too, never tiring out in a constant quest to refine her craft. Like her friend, the sea, Ayesha is always at it — time and again. What keeps her going, so long after she served the world her first offering?

“Everyday, I come to the blank sheet with enthusiasm, energy and, hopefully, some of the wisdom that comes with growing up. Being persistent and being hungry to keep learning has kept me going. There is so much I don’t know, and that thirst to learn more is what motivates me.”

For all life in Senegal has given her, however, Ayesha never forgets where her roots are planted, although she likes to think of herself “as a tree whose branches have to keep spreading wide to find the sun.”

Someday, regardless of how long it takes, that sun will set and Ayesha would be back home in Ghana. And even if she says it with a smile, perhaps jokingly, her parting words to Daily Mail GH give a not-so-subtle hint of just what her homecoming mission might be.

“Who knows, maybe down the line, I will revive my parents’ [now defunct] paper!”

Sammie Frimpong — Daily Mail GH

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