Diaspora Voices : Q&A with Author Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond
Author and fashion iconoclast Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond harnesses a unique creative voice to share her experience on the African diaspora. She is among 39 of the most promising African writers under 39 as seen in Africa 39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara and has written short stories and articles for numerous publications worldwide. Her debut novel, Powder Necklace, tells the rich, colorful story of a girl’s experience navigating between cultures and introduces important themes around this delicate balance. Nana recently sat down with Djembe’s U.S. Drummers, Zara Bott-Goins and Debbie Ghamkhar, to discuss her life experience, growing body of work, African fashion and her vision for the future of the African diaspora.
ZBG: I started reading your book Powder Necklace. This was fairly loosely based on some of your childhood experiences in boarding school in Ghana. Why did you decide to write about it and why using fiction [as a medium]?
NBH: Yes, when I was 12 my parents sent me to school in Ghana. We were living in Queens and basically they wanted us to go to school in Ghana. We thought we were going on vacation and, at the end of the vacation, we ended up [staying there] – three years for me and two years for my sister.
I actually did write it as sort of a no-truth story because back when I was younger there was a wave of parents sending their kids to school in Ghana because parents felt, especially during the 90s during the crack epidemic in the States, they did not want their kids subject to what they felt were bad influences in the States.
So it was something that happened a lot. So when it happened to me, it was definitely a shock and, at the time, it was a very traumatic experience but a lot of good came out of it. Spiritually it kind of anchored me in a way that I don’t think I would’ve had that experience if I was in the States because here you have everything you need. I really developed a strong faith and resiliency there but also, my self-esteem.
DG: From your interviews and writings, it seems that you used this duality—being both American and Ghanaian—to your advantage in both settings. How would you describe this?
NBH: Absolutely. I think at the time I definitely was wrestling with this sort of duality because a part of me really appreciated, as I said before, this kind of affirmation that were so many ‘Nanas’. In Ghana, [the name] ‘Nana’ is as common as Jane Doe [in the States]. So it was affirming to be in a place where my name wasn’t this complication. I was also really resistant to claiming a Ghanaian identity because I just felt that I really wanted to hold on to what felt familiar to me.
There were a lot of negatives associated with being African and I’d fought so hard in America to be this American girl and then to come to Ghana and be immersed in this boarding school situation where everyone is making fun of me. I felt very isolated and alone and lonely. I didn’t understand the language at the time. So it was just all a lot at once but I started learning how to use different aspects of my identity to my advantage while I was there and leverage it.
ZBG: Was writing then an outlet for you? When did you start getting interested in writing?
NBH: I’ve always been sort of a writer [since childhood]. I would always keep journals from a very young [age]. I wrote letters to family members [particularly] begging my mother to let me out of this situation. But I always knew that as I was going to write about my experience. For the longest time, when I got back to the States, and when I was in college, I would always try to write little pieces. I was initially going to write [my book] as non-fiction but being in Ghana there were other people that I met that had also been sort of shipped to Ghana by their parents. There was this loose assembly of us at school. It was something that felt bigger than my experience and I wanted to explore what it did to us–this idea of isolation but also the affirmation that it gave us. So I wanted to make it fiction so I wouldn’t have to be stuck to the details of my personal experience or story.
DG: What genre do you want to try your hand at that you haven’t [to date]?
NBH: I’ve written a screenplay that was a Sundance [Festival] finalist. I’ve [also] written a play that I produced several years ago…[but] I guess I would love to write a song. I feel like who cares if you’re not perfect at it. That’s the whole point. I feel like every genre has some muscle that really works whether it’s screenplays for dialogue or short stories for plot development. So I’m just open to keep trying but fiction is definitely my main love, my first love.
ZBG: With your first book, did you do any touring or reading in Ghana and how was the book received there?
NBH: I did. I actually did a book launch there and it was a really amazing experience. In terms of reception, it was received really well. A lot of people were remarking that the boarding school experience is kind of endemic to the culture and that it’s almost something that people take for granted. So people were grateful that I had documented it in the way that I did and then, in some quarters, it raised conversation about the state of our boarding schools. I think a lot of people romanticize the kind of conditions and the abuse, the hazing that happened so it started sparking some conversation. From the school that I attended, I actually got a lot of support and they invited me to come and speak to about 400 girls at the school and it was just this amazing full circle moment.
ZBG: Taking a step away from writing, you have an incredible sense of style. What has inspired your interest in fashion and what led you into that?
NBH: I was always sort of a bookish, nerdy child. I was always getting negative responses to my appearance or my looks because I was dark skin. But I remember when [model] Naomi Campbell was big and then, in the 90s, there was this crop of black models and people would start saying, ‘Oh my goodness, you remind me of [models] Alek Wek or Kiara Kabukuru’. And so fashion became the really cool place where I felt ironically affirmed even though there were so few black models or black representation.
It was kind of cool that they had African or exotic names and they were very dark skinned. I felt I had found a place where I would be accepted in my sort of “otherness.” I mean, some of it I recognize now was just pure exoticism but, at that time, it felt good and it helped me to really embrace the Africanness in me.
ZBG: How have you seen Ghanaian fashion, African fashion change here [in the U.S.]?
NBH: I definitely think that there is this surge of interest and opportunity to buy African fashion [like Nigerian designer] Amaka Osakwe. There [are so many designers] and I think back in 2012 when I went to Ghana Fashion and Design Week. It was just really cool to see this kind of burgeoning industry on top of what I already knew. There is a really strong seamstress, tailor class that have been making things forever [on the continent]. So, I just think that as there’s a lot more exposure and acceptance of difference globally and that sort of coincides with more people who can have easier access to going to the continent, sourcing materials and making them relatively inexpensively. Then the internet makes it easy to find an audience for them. I think the confluence of all those things has sort of made this a really wonderful time for people who are trying to leverage African fashion.
On the philanthropic side, there have been a lot of people forming coops or [establishing a] collective of women who can make things and [maintain a] sustainable income or business. Now we’re [also] seeing it on the for-profit end where local talent and global talent are saying, ‘Why don’t I go home and do what I’ve always been doing, like amongst my family members and try to see how I can monetize this?’ So, I think people are trying different things. I know there are some people trying to figure out an online model, others are trying to figure out a mass market model. There’s really a kind of exciting, experimental renaissance phase but it’s definitely picking up and it’s exciting.
In terms of what’s working, it’s persistence and then a sort of stick-to-itiveness because business is business. Some things take off quickly and some things take a while. But to really build a core market, not only do you need to have a smart model but you need to have the ability to keep it going for some time to gain traction. I think people have great ideas.
DG: There seems to be something very distinctive about the African diaspora. It’s more than reconnecting with one’s cultural heritage. How would you describe this link between the continent and the African diaspora in the U.S. in building something larger?
NBH: You know it’s interesting you say that because I’m inside looking out and, [conversely], on the inside looking in so I never really thought about it in that way. But I do know that I have a ton of friends that are really interested in moving back to Ghana or at least are buying property and having a physical stake in the well-being of the country. I know that a lot of friends from Nigeria or Liberia are also doing the same so I think that there is a real sense of responsibility amongst the [diaspora] not to just give back but really do something to reverse the sort of narrative and reverse the situation there.
I have a friend who started [a nonprofit] called African Health Now. Basically, she goes to Ghana on annual trips and organizes mobile health fairs and they’re free. She brings doctors to places where either there’s no clinic or hospital nearby or where people just don’t have the funds or access. So I think there are initiatives like this but there’s a sense that home is elastic. In Ghana alone there were about two million people that emigrated from the country between 1966 and 1972. So basically we’ve all grown up and now we’re sort of one foot in and one foot out. [We’re] the generation that’s really connected and wants to do something. [But] I don’t know what the next generation will do.
By Zara Bott-Goins, Senior Account Executive, US and Debbie Ghamkhar, Country Manager, US
Photo Credit: JOJO ABOT / Gold Coast Art House
“View Outside My Window”
In articulating her uniquely creative diasporic voice, Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond provides a fascinating glimpse into her everyday surroundings. As part of this intriguing African narrative, Djembe Communications is genuinely interested in learning more about the “View Outside Your Window”, and would therefore like to encourage our readers to share a snapshot of your very own ‘window view’ via your preferred social media platform with the hashtag #ViewOutsideMyWindow
My bedroom window.
Just a week after New Year’s Day, there was a fire in the house across from my building. When I got home from work that evening, there were fire trucks everywhere. The street was partially blocked off and my neighbors were standing outside watching firefighters throw what belongings they could salvage out the second floor window onto the lawn. It was terrifying and humbling. Almost all of the windows in my apartment face the street so for several hours into the night, my bedroom and living room were red with the glow of the fire truck lights.