BOOK CLUB Michael Donkor talks women's roles and cul­ture shock in Hold.

In the Moment - - Contents - Words: Sarah Di­tum


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.

Hold (4th Es­tate, £12.99), is out now. You can nd Michael on­line on Twit­ter (@MichaelDonkor).

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