Q&A: Between the Generations- An Anthology for Ama Ata Aidoo at 80


AiW note: The launch of Between the Generations- An Anthology for Ama Ata Aidoo at 80, due to be hosted by Nigerian Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka in March, was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The book, marking the Ghanaian writer’s 80th birthday, is a collection of short stories from writers around the African continent, influenced by Aidoo’s incredible career.

We caught up with Between the Generations’ editor, Ivor Agyeman-Duah, and contributors Ray Ndebi, Ayesha Harruna Attah, and Martin Egblewogbe for their Words on the Times, a Q&A that, in keeping with AiW’s spirit of community, we offer as a space to share experiences of how current times are changing.

Ama Ata Aidoo at Africa Writes 2014 © Africa Writes

Between the Generations is dedicated to the prolific Ama Ata Aidoo –  dramatist, novelist, accomplished poet, and writer of several children’s books (including The Eagle and the Chickens, 1986). Experimental with style and bold with the content of her writings, Aidoo is known and praised as a consummate storyteller that prioritises those conversations and dialogues that value their characters, particularly women and the concerns of women’s lives.

Aidoo’s The Dilemma of a Ghost was published initially in 1964 — this is a play concerned with the ‘been to’ that returns to feature in her later semi-autobiographical work Our Sister Killjoy: or Reflections From a Black-eye Squint (1966), the figure of ‘return’ found here in a Ghanaian student who brings his African American wife home to the extended family and culture he then finds restrictive, precipitating a series of dilemmas that causes her to struggle with the haunting legacies of her cultural past — making Aidoo the first published African woman dramatist to be recognised as such in the West, and the first among Africa’s published feminist literary writers.

Many of her complex female protagonists are women who defy gender stereotypes whilst rooting Aidoo’s feminism in and of the Akan tradition she was brought up in (see for example, ‘We Were Feminists in Africa First’, an Index on Censorship interview from July 1990, a position informing her work and advocacy to date) — we can think of Esi Sekyi in the witty Commonwealth Prize-winning Changes: A Love Story (1993, Feminist Press), who “is a thoroughly modern African woman”.

Also in The Africa Report’s mini-series asking writers to pay homage to their literary legends, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has described reading Aidoo’s women as a formative and “wondrous discovery: of Anowa, tragic and humane and many dimensional, in Aidoo’s play set in the 1800s in Fantiland [Anowa, 1970]; of Sissie, the self-assured, perceptive main character of the ambitious novel Our Sister Killjoy, who wryly recounts her experiences in Germany and England in the 1960s; or of the varied female characters in No Sweetness Here [1969], my favourite of Aidoo’s books”.

“If you are African, I can’t see how we don’t write for social change.” – Ama Ata Aidoo

Aidoo is also known to practise her advocacy for social change through a clear and ethical framework: from 1982–1983 Aidoo served as Ghana’s minister of education, resigning after she realised that her aim to make education free for all in Ghana was unreachable. In 2000, Aidoo established the Mbaasem Foundation, which promoted and supported the work of African women writers, creating an enabling environment for women to write, tell and publish their stories.

For more on Aidoo, Yaba Badoe’s 2014 documentary, The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo (a preview of which can be viewed here) provides a fascinating portrait of the author over a year in her life, exploring her multi-faceted contributions as one of Africa’s foremost woman writers and “a trailblazer for an entire generation of exciting new talent” in the process.

Or check out our AiW feature from 2014, where Réhab Abdelghany writes a smart, warm account of the Africa Writes event that saw Aidoo in conversation with renowned translator, editor and equally generous intellectual Dr Wangui wa Goro.

Between the Generations- An Anthology for Ama Ata Aidoo at 80 

Described as “international affairs through fiction” by its editor Ivor Agyeman-Duah, Between the Generations looks at issues of wealth and inequality, immigration, sisterhood and gardening, love lost and regained, and other contemporary issues of Africa in the world.

The original book launch was planned to coincide with the publication of Professor Soyinka’s fiftieth book: Beyond Aesthetics: Use, Abuse and Dissonance in African Art Traditions (published by Yale University Press and in Africa by Bookcraft in Ibadan), a work on his art collection.

AiW Featured: We have an upcoming review on Soyinka’s Beyond Aesthetics, and in the past, we covered his 2014 African Studies Annual Lecture at the University of Oxford.

The lead story of Between the Generations, “Aleppo”, is by Ama Ata Aidoo herself. The collection includes eleven other stories by contemporary writers including: Nigerian novelists, Sefi Atta, and Ogochukwu Promise, founder and director of The Lumina Foundation; acclaimed South African novelist of The Cry of Winnie Mandela and literary-critical activist work, Rediscovery of the Ordinary, Njabulo S. Ndebele; the award-winning Senegalese novelist, Boubacar Boris Diop; Ghanaian novelists, Ayesha Harruna Attah, Martin Egblewogbe, Gheysika Adombire Agambila and Bisi Adjapon; and from Rwanda and Cameroon, Louise Umutoni, the founder of Huza Press, and Ray Ndebi.

On the cancellation of the launch, we spoke to Ivor Agyeman-Duah, Ray Ndebi, Ayesha Harruna Attah, and Martin Egblewogbe via email about their involvement with the anthology and for their Words on the Times – an AiW Q&A connecting our experiences of now around our common interests in African letters…

Ivor Agyeman-Duah is a Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London and was Chairman of the Literature Jury of the Millennium Excellence Foundation. He has held fellowships at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University and a Hilary and Trinity resident scholar at Exeter College, Oxford.

Between the Generations is preceded by two other edited anthologies, All the Good Things Around Us (2016) and The Gods Who Send Us Gifts (2018); he co-edited, with the University of Oxford’s Lucy Newlyn, May Their Shadows Never Shrink- Wole Soyinka and the Oxford Professorship of Poetry (2016). Shepherds of New Dawn- African Literature and Its Elders is published by Caroline Academic Press in North Carolina in 2020.

AiW: Tell us about your contribution to the book and your involvement with Ama Ata Aidoo’s birthday celebrations.

Ivor Agyeman-Duah (IAD): This is the third anthology I have edited and Ama Ata Aidoo has contributed to all: All the Good Things Around Us, The Gods Who Send Us Gifts, and now, Between the Generations. When she agreed that I could use her contribution- “Aleppo” in this last collection, it was getting to her 80th birthday so I decided to do this anthology inviting writers from parts of Africa in respect of her standing in African literature.

AiW: Tell us a bit about your own work and the ways that the pandemic has derailed your plans.

IAD: In fact, I had arranged for the Nigerian Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka who I have worked with in the last ten years to come over to Accra to launch this. He was almost set off from California when the flights and aviation architecture collapsed as it were.

AiW: In what ways are you working now that you weren’t before?

IAD: I have written extensively and almost completed a book on the art collection of the former Ghanaian President John Agyekum Kufuor. It is as exciting as it’s unfortunate with the behavior of this virus and the new world order it has created.

AiW: What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?

IAD: Tending plants in my garden as an English friend emailed to say of “what the English do in times of crisis.”

AiW: How can our communities support you?

IAD: Community support in social and literary senses have been very good.

Ray Ndebi is a Cameroonian writer, literary analyst, translator, editor and creative writing and reading coach, and author of the novel The Last Ghost: Son of Struggle (2013).

AiW: Tell us about your contribution to the book and your involvement with Ama Ata Aidoo’s birthday celebrations.

Ray Ndebi: When I received a mail from Ivor about this collection, I immediately accepted. Being part of such a project is always rewarding, as the chief objective of writing is reading.

AiW: Tell us a bit about your own work and the ways that the pandemic has derailed your plans.

RN: I’m a literary analyst, a translator and Quality Book promoter… I hold reading and writing workshops, and I work with many analysts to find new methods to help authors write better and readers best understand what they read. I’m also co-founder of Ônoan – Agence Littéraire (a literary agency that supports and promotes young authors, publishers, translators, and others). The pandemic has considerably affected my programs; I’m used to moving around the country and the continent to meet groups of authors and literary promoters, and also hold workshops. Now I’m forced to avoid gatherings and just wait for the lockdown to end.

AiW: In what ways are you working now that you weren’t before?

RN: Now I’m preparing my coming activities at home. Phone calls and video conferences are my best tools… Answering questions on social media and leading online workshops and masterclasses are great ways to keep working.

AiW: What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?

RN: Family relationships getting stronger and friends calling regularly to check on me… And I am more connected to my own house… (I’m mostly away)… All those aspects keep me believing that life is fragile and truly needs deeper attention. I hardly rest, though I’m working more, I can feel the importance of my environment.

AiW: How can our communities support you?

RN: I think your communities can support by spreading the word about actions taken to make today’s Literature in Africa greater than ever… Initiatives from Europe or America are mostly talked of, yet we have talented growing projects in Africa that can effectively change things and make Literature here more than just books waiting desperately to be considered…

Ayesha Harruna Attah grew up in Accra, Ghana, and was educated at Mount Holyoke College, Columbia University, and New York University. She is the author of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize nominated Harmattan Rain (2008), Saturdays Shadows (2015), and The Hundred Wells of Salaga (2018), currently translated into four languages. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Elle Italia, Asymptote Magazine, and the 2010 Caine Prize Writers’ Anthology. Attah is an Instituto Sacatar Fellow and was awarded the 2016 Miles Morland Foundation Scholarship for nonfiction. She lives in Senegal.

AiW: Tell us about your contribution to the book and your involvement with Ama Ata Aidoo’s birthday celebrations.

Ayesha Harruna Attah: I wrote a short story called “Sisters” in homage to Ama Ata Aidoo’s “Two Sisters” in her gorgeous collection, No Sweetness Here. In the original story, two sisters are so close that the younger one is able to confess that she has a sugar daddy. Without giving away too much, let’s just say the older sister’s husband is even able to get the whole family benefiting from that relationship. In my story, the relationship between the sisters is the opposite; it’s one in which a lot is left unsaid. Ama Ata Aidoo is a writer I admire, so I was very pleased to be able to celebrate her, because I also think she’s one of the most underrated writers on the African continent.

AiW: Tell us a bit about your own work and the ways that the pandemic has derailed your plans.

AHA: I am a writer of mostly fiction, but I’m also working on my first book of non-fiction. I live in the village of Popenguine in Senegal, and, to be honest, my day-to-day hasn’t changed much. I mostly work at my desk and leave the village only if I have to grocery shop. I was also homeschooling my son before the pandemic hit, so most of the things that surprised people about how I live are now the new normal. What has been difficult is having travel plans canceled and not seeing family and close friends. I had a few festivals lined up for the year, which are always wonderful opportunities to meet readers and other writers, but those have all been canceled.

AiW: What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?

AHA: I have found human innovation so heartwarming. That we can’t meet physically isn’t stopping us. I love Zukiswa Wanner’s Afrolit Sans Frontieres festival which takes place on Instagram live; the different online yoga classes friends have put together; online storytelling sessions; and dance parties over Zoom and House Party apps. We’re still finding ways to be positive.

AiW: How can our communities support you?

AHA: A lot of us creatives have had projects dry up during this time. If you can buy our books, in e-book or physical form, you’ll be making such a difference in our lives. My books are available on Amazon or through Indiebound. I also have a new book for young adults out in October 2020, and it can be preordered here. It doesn’t have to be just about my books. Support an author or artist you love!

Martin Egblewogbe is a senior lecturer in Physics at the University of Ghana, and a writer. He is the author of the collection of short stories, Mr Happy and The Hammer of God and other Stories (Ayebia, 2012). His writing has appeared in a number of collections, such as the 2014 Caine Prize anthology, PEN America’s Passages Africa (2015), All The Good Things Around Us (Ayebia, 2016), and Litro #162: Literary Highlife (2017).

Martin also co-edited the anthology of short stories, The Sea Has Drowned the Fish (2018) as well as the anthologies of poetry Look where you have gone to sit (Woeli, 2010) and According to Sources (Woeli, 2015). He is a co-founder and a director of the Writers Project of Ghana, and was director of Pa Gya! A Literary Festival in Accra in the 2017 – 2019 editions. He also hosts the radio show, Writers Project on Citi FM. His latest work, The Waiting (lubin & kleyner, 2020) was released in February 2020, and his short story “The Wild Place” will be published in an anthology this year.

AiW: Tell us about your contribution to the book and your involvement with Ama Ata Aidoo’s birthday celebrations.

Martin Egblewogbe: I contributed a story, “A Domestic Misunderstanding” to the current anthology, Between the Generations edited by Ivor Agyeman Duah. Incidentally, Ama Ata Aidoo and Kinna Likimani, her daughter, were responsible for my first publishing contract, when they recommended my first collection of short stories to the publisher.

Writers Project of Ghana (WPG) [which Egblewogbe co-founded with Laban Carrick Hill] has also in the past organised several literary events featuring Ama Ata Aidoo, the highlight of which was in 2017 during Pa Gya! A Literary Festival in Accra, when the headline event was a conversation between Kobena Eyi Acquah and Ama Ata Aidoo. WPG looks forward to being a part of any events organised in Ghana to celebrate the life and work of Ama Ata Aidoo.

AiW: Tell us a bit about your own work and the ways that the pandemic has derailed your plans.

ME: Apart from the launch of the anthology, Between the Generations, which was slated for late March 2020, my latest book, The Waiting was released in February 2020. There were a number of readings and a book launch being planned, but these have been put on hold. Though I haven’t written anything significant during this time, several writing ideas are forming, and old ones developing, and I hope these will be realised as stories in due course.

For WPG, the current situation has thrown almost all our events out of gear. Our public readings have had to be suspended for the meantime, as well as meetings of our book club and writing club. Our radio show (run in collaboration with Citi FM) is currently airing previous editions.

The yearly literary festival, Pa Gya! A Literary Festival in Accra, which WPG organises in collaboration with Goethe-Institut Ghana, has seen some delays in planning but we anticipate to have more clarity about the possibility of having the 2020 edition in the coming weeks. WPG is increasing our online activity in response to the situation.

AiW: In what ways are you working now that you weren’t before?

ME: My time teaching my children, and interacting with them, has increased a lot on account of the fact that they are having to stay at home because schools are shut down. Much of my other work has been moved online, and my classes and student interactions are making more use of electronic communications. Obviously, preparing for lectures and grading scripts has not changed.

AiW: What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?

ME: Time spent with my immediate family has been more intense and enriching, and connections with my friends has deepened even though I have not been in regular contact with some. I have spent a great deal of my leisure reading time reading a bit more history, religion, philosophy of freedom and science, and European politics of the early 20th century. I have watched a few movies and documentaries as well. Reading of science literature continues apace.

>>>Between the Generations- An Anthology for Ama Ata Aidoo at 80 is published by Vidya Bookstore, inquiries can be made to [email protected].


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