BOOK CLUB Michael Donkor talks women's roles and culture shock in Hold.
EVERY ISSUE WE’LL PICK OUT A BRILLIANT BOOK THAT WE THINK YOU’LL LOVE TO READ. HERE, WE TALK TO MICHAEL DONKOR ABOUT HIS ENGAGING DEBUT NOVEL
Three girls; three lives split by class, nationality and culture feature in Michael Donkor’s exuberant and moving debut novel. In Ghana in 2002, 17-year-old Belinda and 11-year-old Mary work as housegirls for ‘Aunty’ and ‘Uncle’ – not actual relatives, but members of Ghana’s middle class, wealthy enough to keep a small staff in their home. One day they have a visit from Aunty and Uncle’s friend Nana. She makes a proposal: Belinda will come and live with her in London as a companion for Nana’s teenage daughter Amma. Brilliant, beautiful Amma; but also silent, shrugging, Anglicised Amma, a mystery to her parents.
“Being a grown-up is about needing less then less,” explains Belinda to Mary in an effort to comfort her about the desertion. “As you get older, things get taken away.” It’s a philosophy borne of a life of losses, as we gradually discover: lost father, lost mother, lost pride. Belinda’s consolation is in fastidiously executing her domestic tasks, which makes adapting to a British teen’s life of learning and leisure one more culture shock in a move that brings many. She is fearful of white people, baf ed by the behavioural codes of England’s tribes, and perplexed by Amma.
But Amma’s teenage dif dence hides its own pain, and gradually the two girls nd their way to understanding; even intimacy. Donkor inhabits his characters’ perspective with absorbing completeness. Belinda’s anxiety, Amma’s frustrations and Mary’s vivaciousness all resound on the page thanks to Donkor’s marvellous skill in shifting between their voices. As the story rises to a deeply-felt conclusion, questions of identity and belonging are deftly explored. “We’re born where we’re born, led to believe what we’re led to believe,” says Amma – but the lesson of Hold is that humans are so much more adaptable and complicated than that.
Q Was it a big imaginative leap to access the lives of teenage girls?
A Lots of people have asked me this, and rather oddly when I was writing I wasn’t aware of it being something unusual. These characters felt very alive and familiar to me. I grew up in a household full of women, my strongest friendships are with women, and I teach at a girls’ school. Ghanaian society is still – like most societies in the world – a deeply patriarchal one. I wanted to write something that enables us to look at not just the big man’s role, but also to think about how women and young women exist in society.
Q Did you take a lot of pleasure in writing the sections set in Ghana?
A I did, I did. There’s so much richness in the lives of middle-class Ghanaians, and so many con icts at work. Obviously, there’s this profound desire to remain Ghanaian, but equally there’s a pull of Western tradition or Western ideas as well. That struggle to nd your place in this new world is something that I think lots of Ghanaian middleclass people are grappling with at the moment. I was really interested to shine a light on that particular portion of Ghanaian society, because Nigerian authors are doing it really brilliantly and have been doing it for a good few decades. One of the reasons Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was propelled into the limelight was because she was showing this bit of African society that people had forgotten about, but that’s very powerful in African countries and is expanding too. Countries like Ghana and Nigeria are economically quite important forces and so their middle classes are growing. These people are going to be much more prevalent on the world stage, so it’s worth spending time thinking about them.
Q Do you think that other African diasporas will catch up with Nigerian literary dominance?
A I’d really like to think so, because having a variety of voices coming out of the continent can only be a good thing. Nigerian writing is quite far ahead of anyone else, and Ghanaians have got a way to go. But we’re getting there.
Q You write the complexities of identity brilliantly in the contrast between Belinda and Amma. Was that something you purposefully wanted to explore?
A I wanted to use this novel to get Ghanaians to think about some of the rigidity of the more traditional ideas that they encourage young people to take up, and to start thinking about ways that one can be Ghanaian in all di erent kinds of guises. Being a lesbian doesn’t make you any less Ghanaian. Having a mother who doesn’t kind of conform to conventional ideas of Ghanaian femininity doesn’t make you less Ghanaian. I was interested in pushing the boundaries of what that identity means.
Q Mary, Belinda and Amma are all di cult individuals sometimes...
A I really wanted to make characters that frustrated the reader in some ways, so that it wasn’t a novel where you immediately had a sense of what this character is like. I wanted there to be a sense of the reader being surprised by what characters did sometimes, and being annoyed by what characters did sometimes, and so on. I wanted there to be that tussle between the reader and Belinda and Amma, but also of course to feel a lot of a ection towards them and to wish them well. I hope that people kind of read this and want the best for these three girls in the novel. I loved writing Mary’s dialogue. She’s so fun and anarchic and wise.
Q What are you working on next?
A There’s still so much stu to do with book number one – my mind is very much still in the world of Hold. A little idea for book number two is slowly germinating, but I really want to give it time and space to become what I think it might possibly be. I’m looking for a period of quiet, maybe in the autumn, when I might start putting pen to paper again.
Hold addresses identityand what it means to beGhanaian through the voicesof three teenage girls.