Q: When you had the ambition as a girl in secondary school, and later, at university, to write, did you, as an imaginative person, ever think of what you could probably be doing or might have done at 70?
A: No. I never did. I could not have because I imagine that when you are 15, you don’t think of 70. You see people who are 30 and think they are old.
Q: What comes out of these years as obvious accomplishments in your literary career?
A: I think, as a writer, those who should do any assessment ought to be critics, teachers, and reviewers. It is difficult for me to assess myself. What I can say is, I could have written a whole lot of things. I did not exactly [do so] because I am bad at managing my time.
Q: In what sense do you say this?
A: Time management comes in several ways – you could be born with a sense of how to manage time; one can also learn or be taught how to manage time. I was not born as a good manager of time and it never occurred to me to do anything about it.
Unfortunately for most African writers, and for most writers around the world, we have to teach, and do other jobs in order to earn revenue, to organise our lives. As an observation, given when I started to write and given what I have written, I could have done better. Other writers have been able to produce more than I did considering their late start.
But all modesty aside, maybe a couple of books that I have produced are good enough for me to think that if I had done nothing else but those two or three, they would still have been good.
Q: One of the issues that fascinates me, as I guess it does many others, is the various meanings that people put on works of literature. When you wrote the Dilemma of a Ghost, you were in your 20s and perhaps had not thought about the implication of some issues, like African and African-American heritage, as they play out in the roles of your protagonists.
A: Ah, you are brilliant [huge laughter]. This has been one of the admissions I have to make and I have being making it without being embarrassed. I started writing as you said, when I was too young to understand the implications of the issues I was writing about. Issues of Africans and African-Americans are too sensitive but I am also happy I did it and for bringing up controversial issues for discussion.
Q: What was the mission of your generation of African women writers – including Mariama Bâ, Flora Nwapa and Efua Sutherland? Was there a conscious effort to define the field from a feminist angle?
A: People like Mariama Bâ and Efua Sutherland were a bit ahead of us – more or less a generation earlier. I had no idea about the definition of any mission, I just wrote. I became conscious of being an African and a woman writer much later in life; my responsibility of consciousness came later.
I had already written the Dilemma of a Ghost and a couple of short stories. I am glad there was no mission involved because that becomes a burden for the writer. Even more than that, I know where I stand historically. I do not tell myself, “I want to do this”, “I want to clarify this”, “I want to write on this”. Probably I am lucky in terms of not burdening myself with an overt consciousness of my commitment and responsibility. I admit, however, that nearly everything I wrote and have written so far has been taken as being political and [as having] a social consciousness that becomes clear after I have written.
Q: I say this because the influence that some of you exert on the current generation of writers is still enormous. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, for instance, that you are her role model for the creation of effective, assertive females, whether in Anowa or Our Sister Killjoy.
A: Chimamanda does me a great deal of honour. She has always said some fantastic things like that about me. It’s wonderful that a young African woman writer, as brilliant as she is, can acknowledge me as her role model. However, as she might also want to confirm, I have not had to sit with a clear consciousness of what I am going to do with a particular novel or play. She has confessed to some very clear ideas when she sat down to write Half of a Yellow Sun, which was a tour-de-force and I used to teach it.
I think you have raised a philosophical question within creative writing – which is to what extent can one define oneself in terms of the impact you will want to make on society and still [have the capacity to] be able to make an impact?
Q: You have lived and taught at universities in Ghana, Zimbabwe and are familiar with Africa. Is there a oneness of stories – a sense of the same afflictions or joys and challenges? Many Africans were so familiar with stories in the African Writers Series and now, many are as familiar with what is called the “Nigerian movie” or the Africa Magic channel.
A: You need to have travelled within the continent to know there is a oneness of stories as you say. But staying in one’s own country and listening to the news, one gets the same feeling of oneness. The details might be different about the reality of contemporary Africa – food, clothing, language, but clearly the larger patterns are the same and unfortunately they are negative. For instance, just the other day it hit me with a force how all over the continent leadership – political and otherwise – is problematic. Civil engineers and planners still build open gutters in a tropical environment only for them to fester. If the colonial government did not bother to give us proper infrastructure in terms of architecture with good sanitation, why can’t we do it ourselves? And Ghana for example, is over 50 years old since independence.
Q: Chinua Achebe, who I believe is contributing a blurb in the forthcoming book of essays about you entitled: Essays in Honour of Ama Ata Aidoo At 70, has twice rejected Nigeria’s highest honour. Some of your generation – Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka and Kole Omotoso – live outside the continent, sometimes out of depression and dreams of Africa’s unfulfilled progress. What is so depressing in Africa and what is comforting?
A: Take healthcare – it is depressing in Africa. The leadership is depressing, but what are the rest of us doing, to be sensitive to problems and the needs of our people?
An African-American playwright and poet, Sonia Sanchez, once wrote that “a people without a leader is like a lion without a head”. Africa is a lion with a problematic head. We are like a people without love; it affects health and education. Which African country do you go to where the health system is very good?
When you have an African leadership flying overseas for medical check-ups, it tells you that things are not well. Health is everything and if the leadership cannot provide this, then there is a problem. Just to have the confidence that when you are ill you can get medical attention is itself primary healthcare. The lack of confidence in the system’s capacity to deliver is such that people have become superstitious. They believe other people make them ill and so they go to religious leaders– charismatic and Pentecostal – first. I know in Ghana we are trying with the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) but it still leaves much to be desired. Why do people who can afford it still fly abroad for medical check-ups? As long as they do that, it means the NHIS has not become good enough for us.
Q: Will you say that there is a greater opportunity for a cultural Pan-Africanism than other variants of this philosophy, such as having political union?
A: That is probably because writers and musicians, for example, can do things without permission from political overlords. But I even refuse to define culture in terms of the arts and humanities. I think when it comes to political union, until recently, I was on the side of those who thought we have to have a union but then, looking at the EU and what is happening, one begins to pause a bit and reflect.
It should not however dissuade us – we need to learn from the mistakes of others. At the end of the day, I still wish we could come together and have one voice on major international issues.
Q: Your latest collection of short stories, Diplomatic Pounds & Other Stories, will be published at the end of February by Ayebia Clarke Publishing. With that, is it fair to ask what kind of a writer you are?
A: I am working on two books at the same time, one of them for the last 20 years and the other [has been going] eight years. The first is based on left-handedness. In fact I had got a grant to go to the Africa Gender Institute in South Africa, supposedly to work on the novel, but when I got to Cape Town, I found myself working on another book with the working title Zero Means Downstairs, so I put the writing on left-handedness aside. That too has become a casualty of my lack of time management.
In between the two, I found it a lot easier to put together my third collection of short stories, which is Diplomatic Pounds. I should probably relax and admit that I am a short-story writer because this is the third collection.