Meri Nana-Ama Danquah is gifted with the prowess of playing with words which compels one to continue to read her works and even call for more. The native Ghanaian is versatile and her literary works exude professionalism. She authored the groundbreaking memoir, Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Depression.
She also edited three anthologies: Becoming American: Personal Essays by First Generation Immigrant Women, Shaking the Tree: New Fiction and Memoir by Black Women, and most recently, The Black Body. Danquah’s writing has been featured in several magazines and newspapers – The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Village Voice, Allure, Essence, Emerge and Los Angeles Magazine.
I caught up with her in the West African nation of Ghana to tell us all about herself and her profession:
Briefly tell us about yourself
Wow. Where to even begin? I was born in Ghana and raised mostly in the United States. I am now based primarily in Accra, Ghana. I’m a mother, an avid reader, an actress, an author, an editor, and a ghostwriter. Hopefully by 2012 I’ll be able to add filmmaker to that list.
Obviously, you’re a woman with many hats. Which do you enjoy doing most?
That’s like asking a parent to choose which one of their kids he or she loves the most. Each one of the things I do contains a spirit and a magic all its own and, as such, offers its own unique joy and satisfaction.
What motivates you to write?
The need to continue eating and paying bills. Just kidding. Well, maybe I’m being a little serious. I don’t think most writers have the luxury, financially or creatively, of being motivated. By that I mean most professional writers, people who are publishing or trying to publish, cannot afford to write only when the “spirit” hits them or when they suddenly find themselves inspired. Completing a full length work requires discipline and hard work, not just inspiration and talent. Also, I think most writers have a backlog of projects. If I didn’t have to worry about money for survival and I could devote every hour of every day to my writing, it would still take me more than one lifetime to get through all the ideas for stories, books, plays, and movies that I have floating around in my brain. And as if that’s not bad enough, I get new ideas every week so the “to do” list keeps getting longer!
Any role models?
Ah, another “impossible” question. I started out as a poet. In that genre, I admire the work of Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Kim Addonizio, Yusef Komunyakaa, LeRoi Jones, Kofi Awoonor, Kofi Anyidoho, and Reetika Vazirani. In fiction and nonfiction my tastes are quirky and inconsistent, I can talk more about individual books than individual writers. The Stone Boat by Andrew Solomon is brilliant, as is Drown by Junot Diaz. Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work really spoke to the core of who I am in a way nothing has since, perhaps, Eavan Boland’s Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time. Danzy Senna’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night? taught me a lot about the importance of honesty in a writer’s work and the price we must sometimes pay for it. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Purple Hibiscus, Helon Habila’s Waiting on an Angel, Aminatta Forna’s The Devil That Danced on Water, and Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come are all breathtaking and they have taught me to not be afraid to write about Africa, in my way and on my terms. I’m anxiously awaiting the May 2011 publication of Catherine McKinley’s book Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the World. I’ve read the first few chapters and was blown away. It’s an important and powerful book.
Take us through your leisure time.
People call me a workaholic but I don’t see myself that way. I have been blessed with the ability to make my living doing what I most love, so shutting down the computer at 5pm and calling it a day is not as appealing an option for me as it is for some workaday folks. I will often spend my evenings and weekends reading or writing, not because I have to but because I want to. I want to finish that poem or that story and I can think of no place else I’d rather be than at my desk. I also enjoy spending time with my daughter. When she’s home from university, she and I hang out a lot. We go to the movies, we travel, we go shopping, we eat out at restaurants or we just sit around and talk. She’s got a great sense of humour so we do a lot of laughing together. I have a very small group of girlfriends in Accra, and in Los Angeles, and in Washington, D.C. and in New York. I spend a good deal of time in all of those places. Wherever I happen to be, I always make time to see my sister-friends, as I call them. If I’m dating or in a relationship with someone I will, of course, spend some of my leisure time with him as well.
Which subject(s) interest you most and what are your reasons?
I like to say that I know a little bit about everything in general and a whole lot about nothing in particular. Every subject fascinates me, especially if the person who is teaching or speaking with me is clearly passionate about it. That said, I’m more fascinated by some things than others. I often say that I’m not political but that’s not entirely true. I’m extremely political, but not in the way that people use the word these days; I’m not political in the US’s Republican/Democrat way or Ghana’s NDC/NPP way. Party politics, in my opinion, can be narrow and destructive, with people getting so caught up in the game of one-upping the other side that they forget entirely that their purpose is to serve their constituents and citizens and to do what is in their best interest. I’m more interested in grassroots politics, in everyday people becoming active and realising that they are empowered to navigate their own future and the future of their land. To that end, I’m interested in issues of social justice, especially ones that concern themselves with ending violence against women, exploitation of children for labour, trafficking of human body parts, eradicating poverty and bridging the gap between the haves and the have-nots. I try to do my part to raise awareness about these issues. My reasons? I’ll answer that by quoting the English statesman, Edmond Burke, who said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
Once again, it’s like asking a parent to choose their favourite child. I’m sure that even if the parent could offer up the name of one child, the answer would change the next day to the name of one of his or her other children. I am proud of all the work that I’ve done. There are times when I’m more drawn to one than the others but that changes so quickly and often that it’s impossible to label any of them a favourite.
Are writers born or created? Explain.
You’re asking me? How would I know? I can only speak for and of myself…and in that case the answer is, “Both.” I believe I was born with my love of language, but it was nurtured by all of my mentors, many of whom are people I’ve never met, authors of books that changed my life and that drew me deeper into this desire to put pen to paper. I also studied. I took independent workshops, I went to formal school programmes.
Who is your audience?
My audience is whoever picks up my work and reads it. The whole point of reading is to be introduced to a world of the author’s creation, to see the world from his or her point of view. I would venture to say that it is every writer’s wish to have an audience that is beyond his or her wildest imagination, comprised of people who may seemingly be the most unlikely to be drawn to the author’s work.
On the average, how long does it take you to complete a book?
When I’m ghostwriting, I can complete a client’s book in as little as a few months. The downside, though, is that it means my own work has to be placed on the back burner. Because of this, it has taken me over ten years to complete a book of prose. I’ll be spending the months of May and June at a writer’s colony in the US to finish that manuscript.
Whose memoir are you hoping to pen one day?
As a writer of literary nonfiction/memoir, I have no desire to pen anyone’s memoirs except my own.
How would you describe your style of writing?
I’m the wrong person to ask that question. My job is to write. I’ll leave the reviewing, critiquing and describing to those whose job it is to do such things.
When should we expect your next major book?
My next book should be out by 2012, insha’Allah [God willing].