A Conversation with Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, Author of Powder Necklace
Q. You’ve written a range of material. How does the novel-writing process differ from writing a play or short story? How is it similar?
A. For me, writing a novel is much harder than writing a play, poem, or short story mainly because the format is longer and requires undistracted extended periods of time, attention, and good friends to read your work and make sure you aren’t writing a love letter to your ego.
My interest in and foray into other genres helped with the actual craft of writing the novel. I’m a big believer that all genres of writing inform each other. At the risk of oversimplication, poetry is about expressing emotion lyrically, plays are about dialogue and character development, and short stories are about plot. I called on these as I worked to develop the characters and pacing of the story.
Q. Powder Necklace is loosely based on your own personal experience attending school in Ghana. How much of your story is part of Lila’s?
A. Lila’s experience in Ghana is very similar to my own. When I was twelve my parents sent my siblings and I to Ghana. Because of the way the school system works over there, we couldn’t all go to the same school, and I had to cut my hair – my long, thick hair that I LOVED flipping like a white girl. J As if that weren’t enough for my twelve-year-old mind to process, when I got to the school, I learned I was required to wake up at five a.m., bathe in an open bathhouse, make my bed with perfect hospital corners, perform daily chores like scrubbing a sidewalk-length patch of concrete or sweeping a large plot, hand wash my own clothes, etc. Oh, and to make things interesting there was a wicked water crisis going on.
But unlike Lila, my grandmother and aunt visited me pretty much every weekend, loaded down with home-cooked food and water, and my parents sent me goodies and dollars when they could. I also clung to my newfound faith. I became a born-again Christian at the beginning of my visit in Ghana, before I started school there—in that respect I was a lot like Brempomaa and Ivy—and it helped A LOT just to cry out to God in the many moments of loneliness, desperation, misery, and fear I experienced. I released Lila from her school experience after six short months as a fantasy gift to my twelve-year-old self J; I had to stay in Ghana for three long years!
Outside of the Ghana portion of the novel, the similarities between Lila’s story and mine are more subtle. I made her British because Ghana was colonized by the British, and so a lot more of the bronis in Ghana were from London; I also have tons of family in London and spent a lot of time with them on summer breaks en route to New York. Lila’s parents’ divorce was my way of dealing with the feeling of separation from my parents. Even though I saw them each summer, I felt so disconnected from them at that time. On one summer vacation in the States we went to Disney World. Looking back on it, it was such an American moment in my life/American place to be when I was starting to feel more Ghanaian than anything else.
Finally, the feeling of being at the mercy of the adults in her life was something I felt during that time and definitely wanted to explore through Lila. Ghanaian culture is heavily into seniority. As noted in the book, any adult in your life is reverentially referred to as “Auntie” or “Uncle” whether they’re a blood relation or not; seniors at school are respectfully called “Sister”; and, as a rule, “children are to be seen and not heard” (that was the constant refrain I heard growing up in the States). It was important to me to stress that though the events in your life may feel random and out of your control, if you believe that God is in control of all the factors in your life—even the adults—you’ll see that a lot of those random moments actually had more meaning than you first realized. That very turbulent moment in my life gave me a story that helped me realize my dream of writing a published novel.
Q. Was it difficult at all to detach yourself from Lila and her journey while writing her fictional story, since you were drawing in part on your own life?
A. Yes, it was extremely difficult and at times painful to write this story because it was inspired by many real events. I started writing Powder Necklace as a memoir, but decided against it after workshopping it. One of the members of my writing group suggested I try writing it as a novel instead of a true story and I’m glad I took her advice.
As a memoir, I was too obsessed with the exact details and events of the story, and after a while I realized that even my best attempts would still be filtered through my own biases and perspective. Writing it as fiction freed me to explore my own beliefs in God and Ghanaian culture; the decisions the adults in my life made for me; the way I handled myself before, during and after my experience in Ghana; and how my time in Ghana impacted my identity as an American citizen.
Q. Despite how extraordinary Lila’s journey is, do you think her struggles and questions about identity and fate are universal? Do you think other teenage girls can identify with her even if they haven’t experienced similar situations?
A. I do think the themes explored in the book are universal—not just for girls or even teenagers. So much of our time as children and young adults is spent being talked at and over; decisions are made without our consent, etc.—meanwhile we’re going through all these physical and hormonal changes, and struggling to figure out who we are independent of the people in charge of us—all while trying to please them. It’s a soupy time in the life of a young person, and I think young people and older people can relate—though older people can be glad they’ve passed that stage. (I know I am!)
Which brings me to the question of fate; I like to think of fate as a “divinely ordered steps.” I think it’s important for young people to know that what they’re feeling isn’t crazy or unusual—it’s natural—but they will get through it okay; as an added bonus, all the drama they are dealing with and suffering through is fashioning them into a unique and special entity who has real value and purpose.
Q. At the novel’s beginning, Lila is a child who “lived to please Mum” (p. 3) and acted according to what would make her mother happy. By the end of the book, she has become a fiercely independent thinker, making decisions for herself. Did you always plan for this emotional independence from her mother to be an essential aspect of Lila’s development?
A. I didn’t plan this, but I’m glad Lila evolved as she did. Part of growing up is coming to understand that loving and respecting your parents and family members does not always mean pleasing them. You have to live your life. Period. Full stop.
Q. At the end of Powder Necklace Lila ultimately decides the answers to questions she was grappling with throughout the novel are unimportant. Instead, you write that “Maybe the point was to keep your head up—wear your powder necklace—no matter what” (p. 276). Did you know when you started writing Lila’s story that she would ultimately reach this conclusion? What, if any, alternate endings did you draft for Lila?
A. I didn’t plan this as the ending. I toyed with ending it at Lila’s mother having the baby and Lila holding the newborn in her arms and just shaking her head at all the craziness the baby didn’t even know was ahead of her. In the end, I’m glad I ended the book where I did because there are some things Lila will have to grapple with for much longer before she arrives at an acceptable resolution for herself—like her parents’ divorce, how her time in Ghana has shaped her, how her relationships with Enyo, Gamal, Auntie Flora, and the rest will shape her worldview, etc. I wanted the reader to walk away with being comfortable with the fact that the answers may still elude, that they aren’t necessarily what’s most important—what’s crucial is coming out of whatever situation you’re in intact.
Q. Lila has several moments of overwhelming culture shock when she first arrives in Ghana. Did you have any similar experiences when you traveled to Ghana for secondary school? If so, how long did it take you to adapt to the differences?
A. I did have several instances of culture shock in Ghana. There were the big things like poor infrastructure—dirt roads, electricity and power outages, goats and cows roaming the streets (and leaving turd presents in their wake)—and there were the subtle things like the way you address elders, or the way people treat bronis versus Ghanaians; and the acute class system that basically leaves poor young girls and boys no choice but to seek work as maids and houseboys in wealthier relatives’ homes.
I don’t know that I ever fully adapted when I was there. It helped that I learned the language while I was there; that I made some really good friends; that my family visited often; and that I knew that no matter how long I was there I would ultimately be returning to the States.
Q. Hari tells Lila to “go and tell them the truth about Africa” (p. 121) as Lila prepares to leave for London. What do you consider to be the truth about Africa? If there was one impression about Ghana you could choose for your readers to take away from Powder Neckace, what would it be?
A. I can’t speak for all of Africa, or even all of Ghana, but I think the truth is that Africa is an incredibly complex place. There is a lot of poverty and as a result there is a lot of unnecessary mortality and suffering, acute classism, and corruption, but there is a lot of beauty too.
When people get old they are not ignored or edged out of society—they rather gain more respect and value in the culture. The people are incredibly industrious. The people selling wares on the roadside or under kiosk shacks are entrepreneurs who—with the proper funding—could form a powerful merchant class. The family structure is pretty airtight, one of the reasons the homelessness rate there is low. There are homeless people in Ghana but not near at the percentages you find in more developed nations. In spite of all the negativity that surrounds them, people, inspiringly, hold hard and fast to their faith. Also the food can’t be beat!
Q. In Powder Necklace Lila fell into writing her book through a series of happy coincidences (or perhaps fate). What has been your own literary path? Have you always wanted to have a career in writing?
A. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but being immigrants, my parents wanted me to pursue a more stable (and clichéd) path to success: doctor, lawyer, or investment banker. Even though I graduated college with a poli sci degree, I sought writing internships (and interned at the Village Voice newspaper), and after college skipped I law school and decided to try my hand at writing. I took office jobs, but during my lunch breaks, after work, and on weekends, I wrote up query letters to different magazines, which I would hand deliver.
I got a few paid writing gigs and eventually landed a dream job as an assistant editor at an international fashion magazine, where I got to write and edit professionally—and meet celebs! J When funds ran too low, I started over as an intern in the acquisitions department at Sony Pictures Classics, where I got to read and review screenplays. During that time I wrote a script that was a Sundance Screenwriter’s Finalist. My editorial experience and fashion background helped me land a gig as a copywriter at an interactive agency where I got to write for the NikeWomen, L’Oreal Paris, and Avaya accounts. I continued to freelance for newspapers and magazines on the side.
In the midst of all of this, I was working on Powder Necklace.
Q. Do you have any upcoming projects you’re currently working on?
A. Yes, I’m working on a novel that examines the themes of faith and class in a Ghanaian-American family.