Ghana­ian au­thor Nana Ofo­ri­atta Ayim is rewrit­ing the typ­i­cal im­mi­grant tale

The National - News - - ARTS & LIFESTYLE - Lucy Sc­holes

While The God Child is Ghana­ian writer Nana Ofo­ri­atta Ayim’s first novel, you might well al­ready be fa­mil­iar with her name. In 2002, she set up the Ano In­sti­tute of Arts & Knowl­edge in Ac­cra – the city’s first gallery space without some kind of colo­nial his­tory – and in 2017 she was named one of Apollo’s 40 Un­der 40 Global Thinkers. This year, she cu­rated Ghana’s first pavil­ion at the Venice Bi­en­nale, while she is also the cre­ator of the pi­o­neer­ing pan-African Cul­tural En­cy­clopae­dia Pro­ject, the aim of which is to map and archive his­tor­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary cul­ture across Africa in 54 vol­umes (one for each coun­try).

Although she was raised in Europe, grow­ing up in Ger­many and at­tend­ing board­ing school in Eng­land, she moved back to Ac­cra eight years ago and has lived there ever since. We meet in Lon­don, though, at the launch of The God

Child. It’s early Novem­ber and we’re at the Royal Academy of Arts. Look­ing around at the de­cid­edly white, mid­dle-class au­di­ence, this long-stand­ing, rather fusty English in­sti­tu­tion seems a world away from the more dy­namic, in­ter­sec­tional art world that Ofo­ri­atta Ayim is at the heart of.

“It’s funny,” she says. “On the one hand, I was ed­u­cated in the west­ern sys­tem that’s so ob­sessed with doc­u­ment­ing and ar­chiv­ing and pre­serv­ing, but on the other hand, I’m re­ally rooted in my own cul­ture, which has such a dif­fer­ent way of his­tori­ci­sa­tion. It’s very much about the lived ex­pe­ri­ence. We have ob­jects that are hun­dreds, some­times thou­sands of years old, but they are left for life to eat away at them. Time is not de­nied in the way it is here.

I feel like mu­se­ums here are mau­soleums.”

This isn’t to say she’s im­mune to their power, though. She re­calls go­ing to visit a Mon­drian ex­hi­bi­tion at Tate Bri­tain as a teenager on a school trip and be­ing “blown away” by see­ing so much of an artist’s oeu­vre in a sin­gle, con­cen­trated space. But she’s also acutely aware that mu­se­ums can be “houses of hor­rors”.

Her work, for ex­am­ple, has taken her to plenty of stor­age spa­ces packed with African ob­jects, pur­loined as the spoils of em­pire. “There’s so much en­ergy to them, but they’re all stacked up and you feel, ‘this is not right. This doesn’t feel right.’”

In The God Child, Maya, a Ghana­ian woman who spends her child­hood and ado­les­cence in Europe, comes to un­der­stand her and her fam­ily’s ex­ile through her re­la­tion­ship with her beloved cousin Kojo. Kojo teaches Maya about how colo­nial­ists looted Ghana’s trea­sures, spir­it­ing them away to dusty ar­chives abroad, “sa­cred ob­jects that had been bought or taken for the en­ter­tain­ment of oth­ers”.

Af­ter re­turn­ing to Ghana, Maya even­tu­ally comes to un­der­stand that it’s both her duty and her pur­pose in life to tell her fam­ily’s story – on her own terms and in her own voice. In do­ing so, she’s premis­ing an in­ter­nal story “of be­com­ing” rather than the ex­ter­nal story that’s long been pre­sented to the world, that “of wars and vic­to­ries and de­feats”.

Those “lin­ear, mono­lithic sto­ries of the past, they’re just not valid any more”, Ofo­ri­atta Ayim says.

This sen­ti­ment is echoed in the pro­ject she’s work­ing on in Ghana. It’s a mo­bile mu­seum, an itin­er­ant ex­hi­bi­tion in a struc­ture de­signed by Lat­i­fah Idriss, an ar­chi­tect who lives in Ac­cra, that can be taken apart and put on the back of a lorry to tour the coun­try. Con­sti­tuted by the sto­ries of the peo­ple in the com­mu­ni­ties in which it ex­hibits, the pro­ject chal­lenges tra­di­tional ideas of what mu­seum space is.

“Ev­ery­one has a story,” Ofo­ri­atta Ayim ex­plains. “It doesn’t have to be a per­son who’s worth mil­lions of pounds and has been hyped up by a cer­tain gallery. There’s a rich­ness and a wealth in each of our nar­ra­tives.”

So what about her own? She be­comes ir­ri­tated, she ad­mits, when peo­ple ask her whether The God Child is au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal. For her, writ­ing is at least in part about hid­ing. But she says that there are some par­al­lels be­tween her and Maya’s lives.

She says they both come from il­lus­tri­ous fam­i­lies. Ofo­ri­atta Ayim’s grand­fa­ther was the ruler of one of Ghana’s king­doms, while the coun­try’s Pres­i­dent, Nana Akufo-Addo, is her cousin. But more sig­nif­i­cantly, Maya’s ex­pe­ri­ence of feel­ing lost in her English board­ing school – her “daily strug­gle to mas­ter the tightrope of ex­is­tence, or risk fall­ing” – comes from her cre­ator’s first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence.

“You see it with Meghan Markle now,” Ofo­ri­atta Ayim says. “It’s to do with race, but also class. You have to act in a cer­tain way or you’re just wrong. You’re al­ways re­minded of the fact you’re a black woman, you’re never just your­self.”

De­spite her fam­ily’s sto­ried her­itage, her par­ents still had to work hard to send her to good schools. “It’s the clas­sic im­mi­grant story, strug­gling to do your best for your chil­dren,” she says. And so, too, Ofo­ri­atta Ayim says she feels a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity to­wards oth­ers. “Be­cause of what I do, I’ve had to be­come a much more ex­tro­verted per­son,” she ex­plains.

She says that as a child she was much more com­fort­able not be­ing the cen­tre of at­ten­tion and pre­ferred to be the one in the cor­ner watch­ing oth­ers, thus “ev­ery­thing about writ­ing – sit­ting in a room, not be­ing seen – is a com­fort to me”.

It’s not sur­pris­ing to learn that she ac­tu­ally be­gan work on The God Child about 10 years ago, long be­fore much of the more pub­lic work she’s be­come known for. Writ­ing, she ex­plains, is her first love and it’s what she wants to fo­cus on even­tu­ally. She’s al­ready work­ing on her se­cond novel, a his­tor­i­cal epic in the vein of a Ghana­ian War and Peace.

But dis­ap­pear­ing to an ivory tower to write in peace isn’t quite on the hori­zon yet. “As a young black woman, I don’t have the lux­ury of anonymity be­cause whether I like it or not, there needs to be more of us in the room,” she says. “If I ex­tract my­self from that, it’s an act of self­ish­ness. And ev­ery­thing I’m try­ing to do is the op­po­site of that.”

The God Child by Nana Ofo­ri­atta Ayim is out now

Nana Ofo­ri­atta Ayim is work­ing on a pro­ject to cre­ate a mo­bile mu­seum that can be packed on to the back of a lorry and toured across her na­tive Ghana, as well as a fol­low-up to her first novel, ‘The God Child’, be­low AP

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