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…Romance with an edge

A: My first was a non-fiction book called Everyday Heroes: Learning from the Careers of Successful Black Professionals. My daughter roped me in to help with her Black History Month school project and it struck me as odd that BHM still focused on past heroes like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King rather than on the present day. In my online publication, ReConnect Africa, I feature many amazing professionals of African origin who are making their mark in different fields and I thought it was time to offer something new to young people. So, I interviewed 16 Black professionals (8 women and 8 men) and created a book to inspire the young – and the young at heart – with stories and role models who show what possible looks like today.

A: Reading has always been my first love and my passion. I decided when I was about 8 years old that I’d be a writer and I’ve been scribbling stories ever since. Quite a few were never finished (thankfully) but over the years, between studying, work and the demands of life, I kept reminding myself that I had to write that novel! Even so, it took quite a few years to really do it and after I wrote the first draft of From Pasta to Pigfoot, it took even longer to finally show it to someone and eventually find the right publishing home with Jacaranda Books.

A: The great thing about ideas is that they’re so random! Sometimes I’ll overhear a snatch of conversation and I’ll wonder what the full story is. Sometimes the lyrics of a song can inspire a plot. Simple things like taking a walk can jolt a creative idea that builds into a novel. I’ve had several great ideas for lines or dialogue when I’m in the shower, although rushing to scribble them down wearing nothing but a damp towel can be a little awkward, to say the least!

A: It’s been huge. I was born in Ghana, but I’ve spent most of my life in the UK. At one point, I moved back to Ghana for a few years and when I returned to London, everyone I talked to wanted to know how they could find a job in Africa. I set up an online magazine (ReConnect for professionals of African heritage and as our readership grew, added a jobs portal and careers and professional development articles. I wanted to connect people with career opportunities across Africa and in the process interviewed companies, entrepreneurs and all manner of global Africans to share their experiences.

After a few years, I decided to put together the advice I’d been giving people on finding employment in Africa, along with tips I’d picked up from interviewing recruiters and other professionals who had found work across the continent. The result was a comprehensive careers guide: I Want to Work in Africa: How to Move Your Career to the World’s Most Exciting Continent.

But fiction has always been my first love and living in Ghana inspired the story of under-achieving pasta addict, Faye Bonsu, in From Pasta to Pigfoot. Faye’s story is one that explores the African diaspora experience as she tries to find love – and herself. Faye’s story continues in the sequel From Pasta to Pigfoot: Second Helpings.

I enjoy writing stories set in Ghana and giving readers a different perspective on life in Africa, and I know one reader was so inspired by From Pasta to Pigfoot that he visited Ghana and absolutely loved it!

I want my readers to appreciate the fun, excitement and diversity of Africa – to quote the South African musician Hugh Masekela, “My biggest obsession is to show Africans and the world who the people of Africa really are.”

A: I once read that the most important relationship is the one that we have with ourselves. The stories I write are predominantly about people on their journeys of self-discovery and self-acceptance, and romantic relationships provide just one route through which my characters learn about themselves and grow. But my books also deal with tough challenges such as identity, belonging, class, self-esteem, pernicious cultural traditions, and race. So, while romance runs like a thread through my fiction, it doesn’t exclude some of these harder issues.

A: As a child, I read a huge number of books and loved everything from murder mysteries to historical romances – not to mention that Mills & Boon phase that had me scurrying back to the local library every weekend! Growing up, I was a massive fan of writers like Jilly Cooper (loved how she literally created her own world and a huge cast of characters to inhabit it), Agatha Christie (whose approach to understanding the psychology of a character I found fascinating), Terri McMillan (accessible and hilarious in how she captured the experiences of Black women), and many, many others. I’m reading quite a lot of non-fiction these days, but I still love to read relationship driven stories, particularly when they include diverse cultures, and I’m a big fan of writers like Dorothy Koomson and Ayisha Malik.

A: There seems to be a lot of debate about what constitutes ‘African’ writing and who gets to be called what or has the authority to tell which stories. Because of my heritage and some of the settings of my books, I’m often asked whether I consider myself to be an African writer, a diaspora writer or (sometimes with a slight tinge of disappointment) just a romance writer.

I really want readers to see my characters as more than their ethnicity and I hope my books show that irrespective of our backgrounds, we all share the same desires for love of self, love of others, being seen and belonging. So, I leave the labelling to those who find it useful while I focus on writing the stories that come to me and hope people continue to enjoy them.

A: Anyone who juggles different cultural influences will at some point have felt a sense of dislocation and wondered where to call home. So many people, including me, belong to more than one place and have both the privilege and the challenge of navigating different worlds. I describe how I’ve personally dealt with this in my TED talk about finding your place and feeling at home wherever you are.

A: Because it’s really important to me that people have a balanced view of Africa. I once watched a video of the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaking about the dangers of a single story about Africa. That phrase crystallised for me what I try to do when introducing readers to characters they don’t often encounter in rom-com novels, and who also show a different aspect of the Africa often portrayed in fiction. Of course, countries like Ghana have challenges, but they are also incredibly diverse and filled with beauty. I want my stories to transform the perceptions readers might have about people of colour and life in Africa. Most of all, I want to peel back the stereotypes to show a wider view and illustrate that our experiences, hopes, dreams, talents, frustrations, joys and tragedies are universal.

A: Hmm…that’s a tough one. Whoever likes reading my books? You know, writers are often told to imagine one ideal reader to help market our work more effectively, but quite honestly the people who say they enjoy my books are so diverse that I’m still trying to figure that one out. To paraphrase the late Senegalese film director, Ousmane Sembène, people of African origin are my natural audience, but the rest of the world is an audience I’d also like to reach.