Nana Oforiatta Ayim author photo (c) Naafia Naah
The Ghanaian writer, art historian and filmmaker talks to OkayAfrica about the magical storytelling in her new book, exploring the complexity of intergenerational African identity, the writing process and more.
Nana Oforiatta Ayim's debut novel The God Child isn't your typical immigrant tale—in fact, despite it being about a Ghanaian family living in Germany and the UK, according to the art historian and novelist, it isn't one at all. "I refer to [the characters] as 'expats,' because I think it's kind of nonsensical that Westerners have co-opted this [word]," says Ayim who is also the creator of the African Cultural Encyclopedia project, dedicated to preserving Africa's artistic heritage. "When they come to work in Africa, they call themselves expats, and yet when we go to work in Europe or America, we are automatically immigrants."
The novel seeks to turn trite narratives about immigrants on their head, as it follows two young protagonists Maya and Kojo who come to terms with their cultural heritage while being brought up as first-generation children in Europe. When they learn about their homeland through mystical tales from Maya's mother, they take it upon themselves to try and restore the fictional Ghanaian dynasty back to its former glory.
The God Child colorfully explores the intergenerational experience of African children and parents living in the West, and how each responds to, adapts to, or reject the feelings of loss and sacrifice that often come along with it. Ayim depicts two young people determined to hold on to their culture despite the challenges presented by their environment. The book offers a nuanced perspective and challenges the notion that most Africans migrate to Europe or America out of an idealization of the West.
We caught up with the writer ahead of the release of her new novel to talk about its cross-cultural and cross-generational themes, how it relates to her own life, the book-writing process and more. She also shares an update on her upcoming African Cultural Encyclopedia project. Read on for our conversation.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Can you tell us more about the book, and particularly why you decided to call it The God Child?
It's strange because I've had this book in a way as a private or secret or hidden project for so long, and it's out in the world. I have to talk about it—I'm still getting acclimatized to that. The story is about a young girl called Maya. She's the central character, and it follows her from about the age of eight to her early twenties. She's Ghanaian, but the story starts with her in Germany as a young girl. Her parents are Ghanaian, and her mother in particular always describes and speaks of this homeland that is magical and mysterious. She comes from this fallen dynasty. It's a fictional kingdom called Kaba, and it's also abstract to Maya because she lives this kind of humdrum, quite suburban and European life—until Kojo comes into her life.
He's her cousin, but also her mothers' god child because his parents are not alive anymore. He connects her to this path which has been so abstract to her before, but he brings it to her and makes it come alive. These little children, make it their mission to restore the kingdom back to its former glory, and they're very, very serious about it. There's something that's been lost (which I'm not going to tell you about, because I want you to read the book), but they make it their mission to find it. [The book] is to do with losses, restitution, and things that have gone missing—but also things that have been taken, and how the younger generation feels a kind of obligation to reconnect that past to the present. It's a story about these young people, about the mother and father, as well as the uncle character, and their journey to rise under the burden of this journey.
Is any part of it autobiographical? How much does it draw from your own life as a Ghanaian?
That's everybody's first question. It's not a memoir for sure—it's definitely a fictional story, and it's made also from my observations of other people. But at the core, yes. My first aim was to actually write an epic history that spanned decades and decades and decades (that's actually the book I'm working on now). But when I started writing that story, it felt so big and so unwieldy (The God Child is actually a prelude to that book). A writer that I know, named Sulaiman Addonia, I was doing a reading with him and he said something like, "the epic is in the intimacy, or intimacy is epic." And I think that's the stage that I had reached where I needed to come into myself to find what the truth of the story was.
And so, I brought it into myself. I brought it home, so to speak. And in a lot of Maya's young struggles and concerns are struggles and concerns that a young me had as well. The story is kind of from my family. It's almost like I had to write a fiction in order to fit them into story form. If I had written anything resembling a memoir, people would've been like, she's definitely made all of this up.
'The God Child' book cover.
What's the intergenerational relationship like between the mom and the novel's protagonists? These stories that she's telling them really seem to shape their worldview.
I think one thing that's a gap between Maya and her mother, is that her mother is living in Germany, but feels so completely and utterly rooted in herself. She doesn't doubt herself. She doesn't feel split between herself. She feels like the Germans are lucky to have her in their country—almost superior to them. Maya feels embarrassed for her mother because she's not walking in a straight line, she's being loud and she's not acting like the Germans, and Maya having grown up in a white world feels very much her otherness, and that the effort to disguise her otherness, and camouflage it so that she becomes invisible. Whereas, because her mother grew up in Ghana—and not just any Ghana, but this fictional dynasty—she has this kind of rootedness, and connection to her ontology.
So her mother is continuously telling her these stories. Her grandfather in the book is a great King, and one of the stories the mother tells her is that her father (Maya's grandfather) would turn himself into a cat at night so that he could walk through the kingdom and hear what the town's people were saying. She says it as if it's completely normal and natural. She doesn't say it like it's a kind of supernatural thing. And I think this expands [the children's] reality, they gain an expanded sense of the world as being visible, and non-visible at the same time.
Also, her mother is deeply Christian, but at the same time that doesn't deny that she unfailingly believes in this other existence where human beings turned themselves into animals. Where witches exist, where witchcraft exists, where there's this other dimensional world: the world of the ancestors, and the world of other beings existing alongside this one. It's that kind of natural co-existence that Maya struggles with a bit because she's inside and outside of the world. She's not fully rooted in either of them. She's an outsider to all of her worlds. And so, the book is also in a way her trying to find a place within these multiple worlds that she inhabits.
We've heard a lot of immigrant narratives. I think this one is different because it's centered in Germany, which we haven't seen a lot of. But how else do you think this book is set apart from other immigrant novels that we've read?
I think, first of all they don't see themselves as immigrants. Never in the book will you see them think of themselves as immigrants. They are there to learn from the European and then go home. They are Ghanaians through and through. Even though they're there and they end up staying, they never see themselves as wanting to be British or wanting to be German. So actually when I refer to them, I refer to them as "expats," because I think it's kind of nonsensical that Westerners have co-opted this [word]. When they come to work in Africa, they call themselves expats, and yet when we go to work in Europe or America, we are automatically immigrants.
"The book, without even saying it, removes the stigma of what an immigrant is. It's not somebody that's come to milk the system. It's not somebody who sees necessarily the Western world is better than theirs."
The book, without even saying it, removes the stigma of what an immigrant is. It's not somebody that's come to milk the system. It's not somebody who sees necessarily the western world is better than theirs. It's very, very clear in the novel that Ghana is the dreamed of country, that it's the one that you will return home to once you have enough. Once you've got the "golden fleece" or whatever you came to Europe for, you're going to go home because that's the goal, the aim. I think the immigrant myth is always that the Western world is where the gold roads are paved and you're escaping in some way—there's no sense of that in the book.
It's much more complex than that. Of course things happened in the homelands, but the parents are very much of that independence era of hope, where they were sent on scholarships to Germany. And I know there were a lot of people that went during that time from Ghana to Russia or Germany—a lot of the Eastern European countries because Kwame Nkrumah had a pact with the Eastern European states and he got scholarships for many students to go and learn medicine, engineering and law in order to come back and build a new nation. And so, rather than this being an immigrant story, it's really about the building of a nation as well as the faltering of the building of a nation. You see these kind of juxtapositions between this ancient kingdom that's fallen and this nation that's been trying to build, but has somehow kind of stumbled, but it's still very much in the process. Maya and Kojo literally take it in their hand to [fix] the process. To get it running on a smooth path—both the kingdom and the nation.
Is it fair to say that the two children have varying reactions to how they deal with the experience of being "expat children," and to what the mother tells them?
I wanted to show the difference between a boy's experience and a girl's experience. I know when I was in Europe, a lot of young black males that I knew had nervous breakdowns, or really struggled. One of the advantages we have as women is that we talk about our emotions. When I moved back to Ghana for example, I realized that I had this existential mantle the whole time I was in London of walking out of my house and being a black person. Wherever you go in London or Europe or wherever, you're always a black person. And you hold that as a kind of mantle, and you don't realize until you go home how heavy that is. That before you are anything else, you'll defined through the color of your skin and all that comes with that.
The black woman has her own issues. The young black male has a whole other kind and a lot of the time that's bottled in. It's also the kind of violation that happen towards young black men—they're breaking. And so, I kind of also wanted the two of them to go through all of those breakages that happen on a daily basis for young black children in a white and European context. It's not talked about because it's treated like it's normal. It's completely normalized. It's normal that your parents say to you, "you've got to be better than them, you've got to get better grades than them, in order to even be seen as equal as them."
You can imagine as a young child, you're carrying that burden of "in order to just be a human being, I have to excel." I mean, that's and "aspirational mindset." But I think there's a lot that young black and African children or children that don't see themselves as belonging to the center have to carry, and how heavy that is. You're also from the newly independent states if your parents are that way inclined, you feel the burden of building as well. So you're carrying all these different layers. And so yeah, for Maya and Kojo, they're very different experiences, and you'll see at the end it kind of has different outcomes for each of them.
You're like a true polymath. You're an art historian, a filmmaker, a writer, and now a novelist. So what made you want to write this novel, and take this step in your sort of career that you've built?
It's funny because I think the novel probably came first before anything else, but it's been underground because I've had all this other stuff to do. I think the reason I did the other stuff first was because I wanted to create a context in which my novel could land. I very much wanted it to be understood and mediated on the terms of my origin, and in order to do that, I had to build what I needed because it didn't exist in the form that I felt I needed it.
It's kind of an attempt to create a world in which works like my novel can exist, and be mediated, and be understood, and supported. I felt like we had to build structures on our own terms, in our own way, so that we weren't dependent on other structures. And of course, there's always going to be a kind of coexistence, all of the things that I've done are really in support of creating a kind of context in order to create.
Comparatively, what would you say the writing process was versus maybe curating a show, or working on your encyclopedia? Does the process intermingle? Does one inform the other?
They inform each other, I think. I mean, I think I'm much more naturally a writer than a curator. I don't really like hanging out with people all day [laughs]. I don't like managing people, it wears on my psyche to be surrounded by people all day, and to be trying and pushing, and all of that. It's not my natural habitat at all, and therefore I struggle even though I've kind of achieved various things, it's a serious struggle for me on a daily basis. Whereas the writing, even though it comes with its own struggle and its own kind of dynamic, for me it feels like home. It makes my heart lock into place like nothing else. Even when I think about it—and I hunger for it, when I'm doing all the other stuff. I feel like when I write I'm much more in balance, I'm a much nicer person, and much more myself. That's how the processes differ.
In terms of how they feed each other, I feel like this generation that we are in now of Africans—of young Africans— we're creating multiple worlds. I feel like our parents' generation, the post-colonial generation: the Achebes, the Soyinkas, the Felas and Ayi Kwei Armahs and Ama Ata Aidoos, et cetera, they had to create themselves in defense, or in contradiction to the colonial.
So they always had to be like, "we have a past, we have dignity, we have our stories," and it was all in reaction to the colonial because, the colonial have made such an effort to denigrate our experiences, our culture, our projects—everything. Coming out of that colonial experience, I feel like the creative process for that generation was a re-claiming of identity, of purpose, of sense of self.
I think what's really interesting about this generation (and it's not yet been defined) is that we are [multifaceted]. That's why I really want to see the culture encyclopedia [come to life] because I looked at the Enlightenment period in Europe, and it was a time when people were multidimensional. They were writers and scientists and painters and geographers because they were trying to create a new reality for themselves. That was one of the impetuses behind the encyclopedia project. I thought, if I can bring all of these minds, and all of these expressions into one place and one space, then it could be similar to what the encyclopedia did for the cultural revolution and enlightenment in Europe.
Speaking of the cultural encyclopedia, could you provide any sort of update on the project?
In about a week or two we're going to have a new encyclopedia online, which is based on one of our indigenous knowledge systems. We are looking at an investigation now, and it's just the most incredible thing I've ever come across. Also, at the end of November, beginning of December, we start with our mobile museums project where we travel around the country collecting cultural knowledge. We have a really great, dynamic, incredible young team. We have some funding in place as well. It's been a really hard project to get off the ground, because it's so ambitious, but it's happening. I think by early December people are going to really see the work and I'm going to be able to get excited about what's happening.