If you have been following Literandra for a while, you’ll know that we have loved Ayesha Harruna Attah and her work for a long time. We first came across her work with ‘Harmattan Rain’, before going on to read ‘The Hundred Wells of Salaga’, and it was at this point that we knew that she wasn’t a one-book wonder. Needless to say, we’ve been lovers of her work since then. Ayesha was also one of the first people we ever interviewed on Literandra, so you can imagine how thrilled we were when Pushkin approached us to read and review Ayesha’s latest novel (which is also her YA debut) ‘The Deep Blue Between’ and spearhead the blog tour the publisher organised to mark and celebrate the official publication date of Ayesha’s new book. We decided to open the tour with an interview with Ayesha – something we were hoping to do in person, but alas, the pandemic had other plans. Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to speak to Ayesha, albeit from a distance, about her latest book. We asked her about the genesis of the book, where the idea came from, how long it has been in the making, what kind of research she has had to do, and the significance of the historical relationship between West Africa and South America.
We hope you enjoy this interview and, if you didn’t know, ‘The Deep Blue Between’ is now available for purchase, so if you haven’t ordered your copy yet, do so now, and let us know what you make of it.
A: Let’s start with the basics, for those readers who don’t know you yet, could you please introduce yourself, who you are, what you are passionate about, and anything else that you’d like to share?
AHA: I was born in Ghana and now live in Senegal. I have published four books: Harmattan Rain, Saturday’s Shadows, The Hundred Wells of Salaga, and The Deep Blue Between. I’m crazy about books, girl power, gardening, and spreading kindness in the world.
A: Before we delve into your latest book ‘The Deep Blue Between’, let’s talk a little bit about your writing career so far and your work more generally. When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer, and what has the journey so far been like?
AHA: From the moment I could write my first words, I was taken with storytelling. My parents are both journalists, so quite early in life I was surrounded by people who worked with words. As you can imagine, Scrabble was a big hit at home. I tried to follow a different career path, thinking that I wanted to become a scientist or a doctor, but that didn’t last very long. I finally took the plunge and officially became a writer when I went to journalism school. Although sometimes fraught with financial insecurity, it’s been a fun, educative, and enriching journey. The thrill of seeing your work in print, even if it’s a short article in the local newspaper, is unparalleled.
A: ‘The Deep Blue Between’ is kind of a spin-off from your well-known and widely read novel ‘The Hundred Wells of Salaga’. Given how comparatively long ago you wrote ‘The Hundred Wells […]’, how long ago has ‘The Deep Blue Between’ been in the making for?
AHA: The Deep Blue Between has probably been in the making for the same amount of time as The Hundred Wells of Salaga, because that’s when we first meet our protagonists Husseina and Hassana. And maybe because their story had been brewing from the minute they appeared in The Hundred Wells of Salaga, it took about six months to write their book. In comparison, I spent close to six years writing The Hundred Wells of Salaga.
A: ‘The Deep Blue Between’ is your first YA novel. Was it always your intention to write a YA novel or did the story just turn out that way?
AHA: I knew I wanted to write for young adults, because I remember the magic of the reading I did at that time in my life. I met Sarah Odedina at the Pa Gya! Book Festival in 2018, and she broached the subject of writing historical fiction for teen readers. I knew right away, that I would be writing about Husseina and Hassana. So, yes, it was always my intention to write a YA novel.
A: You recently announced, on social media, that translation rights for ‘The Deep Blue Between’, that will make the book available in Brazilian Portuguese, Dutch, German, and Italian, have been sold. So, first of all, congratulations! How excited are you to know that this book will be read by an even wider audience – especially a Brazilian one, given the fact that Brazil is heavily featured in the book?
AHA: Thank you! When I learned that this book would be published in Brazil, I was over the moon. I stayed in Brazil for two months a few years ago, and one of the most telling experiences there was meeting an afro-Brazilian woman cleaning a bus station. She stopped my friend and me and wrapped us in the biggest hugs. She reminded me of any one of my next-door neighbours back home in Accra. There was a lot we weren’t saying, but what I felt the most was connection, that she was family. I hope that this book shows people in Brazil how connected they are to the continent of Africa.
The more a book is translated, the more legs (and lives) it gets, so I am very excited to reach readers in as many languages as possible.
A: Looking at the publishing space right now, especially with regards to YA fiction that appeals to African young adult readers (with African sensibilities), what would you say the space looks like at the moment and what do you hope your novel may be able to achieve within it?
AHA: There are many writers working in the young adult space, and I feel like the newcomer in the classroom. Nnedi Okorafor, Tochi Onyebuchi, Ruby Goka are some people who have been doing the YA thing for a long while. The space could be even bigger. We should have romance, politics, thrillers, African futurism, historical fiction – all the genres, for teen readers. When I look back to the kind of reader I was at age 13-14, I was voracious and I read across genres. One minute I was in Toni Morrison’s world, the next Dean Koontz’s. African writers targeting young adults should go big!
I’m hoping my novel starts conversations around the movement of Africa’s diaspora, around religion, and especially around bridge building. I’d love for this book to connect a teenager in Lagos with one in Kingston. For them to have conversations about family, around what it is they believe in, about how they can connect and shift the current direction in which the world is moving.
A: Given the cultural intricacies (both West African and South American) in ‘The Deep Blue Between’, could you talk to us a bit about the research process behind the writing of the book, and how different (if at all) it was from the research you may have done for your previous books?
AHA: This book piggybacked on the research from The Hundred Wells of Salaga, which was a deep dive into 19th century West Africa. I did, however, have to find out more about Lagos, Accra, and Bahia, which involved similar processes I’d used before: reading traveller accounts, digging through chronicles about migration of the inhabitants of these places, learning about the local flora and fauna, and drawing on my own visits to each of these locales.
A: Which parts of writing ‘The Deep Blue Between’ did you enjoy the most? And which parts did you enjoy the least?
AHA: I loved the research and I loved that I got to spend more time with Hassana and Husseina. I didn’t enjoy the confusing parts of religion. As a person with scientific training, who likes to observe, feel, touch, smell, and see, the esoteric parts of Christianity, Islam, and Candomblé sometimes had me scratching my head, but I let the characters’ experience of all three religions guide me.
A: A lot of your work is representative of real life, and in this book, Hassana and Husseina are twin sisters. They could have been friends or sisters of different ages, but you chose to make them twins – is there any reason why you chose to make them twins or was that just a random occurrence?
AHA: With a last name that means twin – Attah – it is a theme that has fascinated me my entire life. Twins run in my family and in almost every book I’ve written, there’s been some nod to twins. This was my first attempt at actually teasing out what that experience must be like. Most of us are born and have to travel through life by ourselves, but twins have each other, and I personally think that is truly special.
A: Hassana and Husseina are inextricably linked to each other, even when one of them travels across the ocean to South America. Brazil in particular plays an important role in the book, and in terms of localisations and geographical backdrops, it almost becomes part of the West African background, which is predominant in this novel (and also in ‘Hundred Wells’). Why did you decide to focus on the connection between West Africa and South America in this novel and what inspired you to do so?
AHA: I knew Hassana and Husseina would be separated by sea, and it’s true that Husseina could have ended up in the Caribbean or even North America. The direction the book takes is thanks to the time I spent in Bahia. It was there that I learned about the movement of Africans back and forth between Brazil and what would become Nigeria. Not only did this movement help shape the cities of Accra and Lagos, it also galvanised the Yoruba nation. I wanted to look at how staying in West Africa versus going off to the Brazil, would determine the life of each twin.
A: What’s next for Ayesha Harruna Attah?
AHA: I have three books cooking at the same time. My on-going non-fiction book on the kola nut; a rom-com; and a historical fiction set in the 16th century about Islam’s introduction into northern Ghana.