Told through the perspective of a British born teenager,’Powder Necklace’, is Nana Ekua Brew-Hammonds critically acclaimed coming of age debut novel. The story follows lead protagonist Lila Adjei as she embarks on journey of self discovery. Nana Ekua effortlessly weaves themes of cross cultural navigation, parent-child relations and adolescence, all while transporting readers to the rich and vibrant sights of Ghana.
Powder Necklace is a book that I’ve had on my wish list for many years and it wasn’t until June that I decided to bite the bullet and purchase my copy.
I was excited to meet Nana Ekua during the Rhode Island Writers Colony event in Brooklyn this summer. She read and shared details of her upcoming work and after introductions and a brief conversation, I felt extremely blessed when she agreed to do an interview.
In the interview, I learnt about Nana Ekua’s inspiration for ‘Powder Necklace’ and quizzed her about the similarities between herself and main character Lila. View the transcript below:
What inspired you to write the Powder Necklace?
When I was 12, my parents sent me from Queens, New York to live and school in Ghana. Prior to my experience in Ghana, I had really stereotypical, negative perceptions of Africa. Despite what my parents told me, and the fact that I knew my family members in Ghana were not impoverished, I believed only what I saw on the Save the Children commercials and the news—that Africa was wholly populated by starving children covered in flies. When I saw that Ghana was much more than what had been broadcast on American television—that there were people of all stations going about the business of life, I knew that I wanted to write something that would present a more three-dimensional perspective.
How did you come up with the characters? Were they based on people you knew?
All of the characters in Powder Necklace are composites of people I encountered in my three years living in Ghana and at other times in my life. Lila and Brempomaa, in particular, are an amalgamation of myself and two of my closest “broni” friends at secondary school.
Seeing as Lila’s story is loosely based on your life, was there a reason that you chose to make her British as opposed to American? Did you find it hard to write from the perspective of someone from London?
I chose to make Lila British because a large portion of my family lives in London and I spent a lot of time there growing up. During the three years I schooled in Ghana, I would spend six weeks of my summer holidays in London. It was interesting to me to see how they lived their immigrant experience.
Additionally, I was struck by how vibrant the Ghanaian community in England is. When I was older, and had more understanding of Ghana’s historical colonial relationship with England, it made more sense to me why the family members that chose to leave Ghana went to England instead of America—my parents were the only ones who settled in America.
Furthermore, I wanted to make the point that the black experience in America isn’t always solely American. There are many black people for whom America is a second or third stop.
How long did it take to write the book? And how were you able to capture a lot of detail when it came to specifics about school life in Ghana?
It took me about six years total to complete the book. I wrote the first meaningful draft in two and a half years, then spent about four years revising it on the advice of potential literary agents.
I relied on memory and my imagination to portray the details about school life in Ghana. When I was done with the first draft, I asked a few friends who had gone to boarding school with me to read it over for their thoughts.
Boarding School in Ghana seemed like a culture shock to Lila. That paired with many other things including gaining her first period, experiencing a draught and basically having to grow up fast. Were these issues that were reflection of your time in Ghana? And if so how did you overcome these obstacles?
My entire time in Ghana was a culture shock. I lived there from 12 to 15 years old, which is a period fraught with major change from emotional to hormonal to psychological to physical, no matter where you live. It was incredibly difficult to leave my parents, and everything I was familiar with, and be thrust into a situation that was so foreign to me. But it was an incomparable education.
Being uprooted in that way, and exposed to a different environment than I was used to, ripped open my perspective. Prior to living in Ghana, I had a very narrow, misinformed, and culturally chauvinistic view of the world. After Ghana, I began to understand how interrelated the world really is; and that context is important. Those kids in Africa that were all over the news and the Save the Children commercials were hungry because of a host of geopolitical issues. My parents left Ghana for America for reasons more complicated than “America is better.” I wouldn’t have cared to dig deeper if I hadn’t gone to Ghana when I did.
The core of the story focused on Lila’s relationship with her mother. Lila felt abandoned by her mom and I got a sense that Lila’s mother was dismissive to Lila’s cries for attention. How important was it for you to zone in on that relationship?
The relationship Lila has with her mother is euphemistic, to me, of the contrasting cultural norms related to childrearing. In my experience, Ghanaian parents are far less accommodating of children’s whims than American parents. Obviously, if you are a child being raised by Ghanaian parents in America, you feel this difference acutely. I don’t think Lila’s mother was dismissive; she was just exerting what she believed to be her right as a mother, total authority over her daughter. What was important for me to note was that Lila’s mother was going through her own emotional struggle that caused her to act so seemingly callously.
What has been the general response to the book?
My family and friends have been so supportive of me, especially my mother whom everyone thinks is the inspiration for Lila’s mom.
What books did you read as a child? Have these influenced your writing in any way?
As a kid, I read everything and anything I could get my hands on, from young adult series like Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley High, The Girls of Canby Hall, and Cranberry Cousins to romance novels to stories by African-American authors.
In school in Ghana, I was exposed to Ama Ata Aidoo, Peter Abraham, and Thomas Hardy. In the early ‘90s, when I returned to the States, bookstores began segregating African-American literature into specific sections. There is, understandably, a lot of criticism about this, but it was how I became exposed to authors like Bebe Moore Campbell, Virginia DeBerry, and Jamaica Kincaid. Around the same time, I discovered James Baldwin, Dorothy West, April Sinclair, Gloria Naylor, and others. All of these writers’ works that I’ve read have definitely left their imprint on me; when I stumbled upon Buchi Emecheta, it clicked for me what kind of writing I want to produce.
I would like to thank Nana Ekua Brew Hammond for granting this interview. To learn more about Powder Necklace and to stay posted on future updates, visit http://nanabrewhammond.com. Powder Necklace can also be purchased via Amazon at the following link.