Author and Fashionista Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond Talks about Her Forthcoming Novel, NYU’s Closing Night of the Wole Soyinka Scholar-In-Residence Program, and the Presidential Election
“On the surface, we are talking about the very real problem of Western Gatekeepers deciding which Africans to publish and promote, and how to authentically express African life in letters - but beneath the dialogue is an older and unresolved debate about control and privilege.”
NYC author Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond is simply impossible to miss. She has a distinct style braided with magical African couture. Her intellectual and spiritual je nes sais quoi is as much a part of her appeal as any designer brand. “I try to work with a lot of up and coming African fashion lines or entrepreneurial brands.” she says, “Ghana, where my parents are from, is a clothier society. The clothes there are all tailored.” Likewise, with Nana who is the epitome of “nsaa”, the Akan symbol for “cloth” which means, “excellence, genuineness, authenticity”. I might also add “grace, innovation and leadership” but that was already pronounced for the world when her parents decided upon her name, Nana Ekua.
Nana is author of the 2010 critically well received Powder Necklace (Simon and Schuster, 2010), a coming of age novel about a young lady who is sent to school in rural Ghana by her mother to escape the fast life and the bad influences of London. Nana was also a 2015 speaker at TEDxAccra where she spoke of how Africans at home and abroad “can begin to write the continent’s next chapter... together.” She has been recognized as 1 of 39 of the most promising African writers under 39, her short fiction was included in the anthology Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of Sahara.
She recently took some time out of her hectic schedule to talk with me. I’m grateful as she is at the tail end of her forthcoming novel and busy as ever on the NYC literary and fashion scenes. Her fashion sensibility, I find, is however, secondary to an ethereal spirit, first rate mind and evolved sensibility on African literature and culture.
“I have always been interested in the reasons my parents and so many of their contemporaries left the country of their birth, their families, and their comfort zone, to come to America. About 3 million Ghanaians left Ghana for other countries between 1966 and 2006.”
Patrick A. Howell (PAH) What kind of projects are you currently working on?
Nana Ekua Brew Hammond (NEBH) I’ve just finished working on a novel. It’s set in Ghana 1962 – 1999 and it follows the complicated relationship between a house girl and the woman of the house she works for. As the women’s relationship evolves, we see Ghana’s evolution from the years just after Ghana’s Independence from the British through the successive military coups and dictatorships of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, to the return of democratically elected governance in the ‘90s.
PAH - What inspired you to write this novel?
NEBH - A couple of things really.
I lived in Ghana from age 12 to 15, and I remember seeing house girls close to my age working as servants and just thinking it was wrong. Some went to school, but some didn’t. They were often verbally humiliated and just relegated to second class status. I’ve also heard people say the maid is the first sexual experience of the “master’s son.”
Most of these girls were in this situation because their families couldn’t afford to care for them. I wanted to explore the circumstances that might have forced parents to feel they had no better option than to send their children away.
Concurrently, I have always been interested in the reasons my parents and so many of their contemporaries left the country of their birth, their families, and their comfort zone, to come to America. About 3 million Ghanaians left Ghana for other countries between 1966 and 2006—the bulk of them, 2 million, emigrated between 1974 and 1981—due to the volatile political and economic conditions in Ghana at the time.
I thought it an interesting parallel—on a micro level, these families who can’t care for their children and so they send them away; and, at the macro, a nation that can’t provide the stability and opportunity its citizens need, thereby forcing those who can to leave.
“It’s clear there is more healing and reconciliation that needs to happen between Africa’s many children on the continent and in the diaspora.”
PAH- You recently had the opportunity to attend NYU’s closing night of the Wole Soyinka Scholar-In-Residence Program. How was it?
NEBH- I really enjoyed it. It was an inter-generational conversation between Taiye Selasi, Awam Amkpa and Wole Soyinka that examined the ways African identities have been manipulated by colonialism and racism. It reminded me of discussions I’ve had with my dad.
I loved when Selasi asked Professor Soyinka and Amkpa their thoughts on why their generation can be dismissive of African-Americans as “second-hand” Africans. Professor Soyinka noted, in part, that the relationship between African, American, and Caribbean Blacks, has been bumpy for a long time, going back to the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. He recounted that, until Ghana won independence, many American Blacks did not want to be associated with Africa and their African identity. He also noted that in London, Africans felt like “princes” and looked down on Caribbeans as “the labor.”
“It’s just gross. I wonder if the bar has permanently been lowered for election discourse, and if we can come back from this. I’m curious what the legacy of a Donald Trump candidacy will be.”
The conversation inspired a lot of moving responses from the audience. A dancer spoke of cultural memory, specifically how she connected with her African identity in Cuba and Brazil through African dance traditions they’ve preserved. Another woman moved me to tears speaking about how slavery indoctrinated Blacks to hate ourselves and Africa. It’s clear there is more healing and reconciliation that needs to happen between Africa’s many children on the continent and in the diaspora.
Patrick A. Howell - What do you think about the current US Presidential elections?
Nana Ekua Brew Hammond- The rhetoric coming from Donald Trump has really lowered the discourse. We’ve gone from talk of “small hands” to grabbing genitals and deriding women’s looks. It’s just gross. I wonder if the bar has permanently been lowered for election discourse, and if we can come back from this. I’m curious what the legacy of a Donald Trump candidacy will be.
One thing I am optimistic about is the level of engagement I am seeing locally and on social media. During the 2008 election, Sarah Palin derided Barack Obama for being a civil rights organizer. However, Obama’s call for Americans to be direct, active participants in our Democracy seems to have taken hold. People on all sides of the political spectrum are organizing around the issues that matter to them and making their voices heard.