Nana Oforiatta Ayim on Being a Custodian of Ghanaian History
The author of "The God Child" on ancestral legacy and the problem with Western museums
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I first heard of Nana Oforiatta Ayim when she outdoored ANO, an art gallery and non-profit organization in Accra, Ghana’s capital city. Her name was also hard to miss as curator of Ghana’s debut at the 2019 Venice Biennale. A filmmaker and art historian, she is now in the thick of curating a mobile museum that allows Ghanaians to control their narratives and is spreading her reach to a colossal project—a Cultural Encyclopedia of African history.
In The God Child, Ayim’s expansive and contemplative debut, themes of art, history, literature, film, and legacy intermingle with Maya’s coming-of-age. Born to Ghanaian parents living in Germany and shuttling between there and the UK, Maya suffers the indignities that come with being an outsider—even as the child of a princess. A cousin from Ghana moves into their home, giving Maya a new view into the land of her parents’ birth, and together, they begin to work on unspooling, reclaiming and rewriting their history, one that is tightly woven with that of their country.
I asked Nana about her process, what it means for women now to be custodians of history, and the world’s obsession with royalty.
Ayesha Harruna Attah: There is a moment when Maya’s father is berating her for getting less than perfect grades, and she observes that it is not her father she is hearing, but her father’s father. I thought it was telling as a quiet nod to the book’s theme of the burdens passed down the generational ladder. From the very beginning, Maya tells us that she realized quite soon that her life was not hers, and when she learned of the word “ancestors,” she understood. Why is Maya chosen for this work and what does it mean to do ancestral work?
Nana Oforiatta Ayim: I am not sure if she is chosen or if it is that she knows how to listen. Do the ancestors pick just one or a few, or do they speak to everyone and only a few care to do the work of listening? I think I wanted to explore this notion through the very concept of The God Child, the Nyame Akola, the one who can see or hear between worlds. It reminded me of the process of creativity and the question of whether it is given to only a few; or whether it is imbued in all of us and that we grow it through a combination of circumstance, determination, diligence, and the capacity for stillness or listening.
So even in writing it, for example, it wasn’t clear whether the God Child was Kojo, Maya or her mother. They all had the capacity to carry forth what had been given, but only one prevails, and it was interesting to me to understand why that person did, and not the others. It is similar in a way to when you read about a group of artists or writers starting with the same prospects, the same abilities, and only one succeeds, with the others falling by the wayside, you often wonder why that person and not the others? Were they chosen or was it something else that led to their survival? Was it inevitable that it was her, or did she fight for that privilege or burden?
The book explores this carrying of ancestral legacy as both privilege and burden, especially in the context that Maya comes from, as a child of African independence, of thwarted revolution, of collective idealism, and the struggle of finding your own individual freedom alongside this, especially as a girl or young woman, within structures not made for you, and growing up as she does in societies where individual freedom is prized so highly. It is a constant pull towards one or the other, almost a kind of madness, which I think, I hope, she somehow overcomes, with a vulnerable, tenacious stillness.
AHA: Did you have easy access to the history of Maya’s and her family? What hat did you wear as you did your research—that of an art historian, a writer, or a child of Akyem? What does it mean for a woman to be doing this work of remembering?
NOA: I love this question of what it means to be a woman doing the work of remembering, it resonates very deeply in me. I think I had to wear many hats simultaneously; I did factual research through doing a research degree in the drum poetry and history of my kingdom; I dug into my own personal family and political histories. I was very aware that there is so much that is unspoken in the passing on of our history, so much that is necessarily elliptical and I wanted to reflect that in the telling of this story, the gaps, the things left unexplained and unfinished.
I have historians in my family, both in the Western tradition, my great-uncle J.B. Danquah obtained his PhD at SOAS, the same university where I studied for mine; and in the Akyem tradition, my great-grandfather and my uncle were Odumonkomakyerema, Divine Drummers, trained in telling the histories of our kingdom. As a woman, I am not allowed to be a Divine Drummer, because I bleed once a month, and my blood nullifies, or is more powerful than, the blood of animals that is used to sacralize the Atumpan, the sacred talking drum. So I have had to find my own way of telling history and in a way legitimize myself, give myself the power to create a new language that is mine, whilst still drawing on the elliptical forms of the drum poetry through which we have passed down history for so long.
AHA: The God Child touches on many topics, one of which is an exploration of loss—on a personal, familial level, on a much larger scale—the fall of a dynasty. What is it about the medium of fiction versus non-fiction, film or other art forms that let you tell this story?
NOA: I think fiction allowed me to get into the crevices that other forms did not. It is so meditative and limitless, it allows you to go places you cannot with non-fiction, or even with film, even though you can play with it, film is still representation. Fiction gives you freedom to delve into truths, its abstractions, its many different shades, maybe only music can do so more. I wanted to explore and delve into loss with all that was at hand to me, fiction and essayistic writing, the cyclical elliptical rhythmical nature of drum poetry and the more linear nature of many Western literatures I’ve read; and the page, the fictional page, allowed me to do that.
AHA: “She was wearing her Diana Ross wig, with its bouffant and side-parting, and patent black shoes with a gold buckle that perfectly matched her bag. The other mothers stopped shifting. … everyone was looking at her as if she had taken the little bulbs from all the lanterns and put them inside of her, and I wished that sometimes she would just turn the light off.” Maya’s mother, in all her extravagant beauty and confidence, is nothing like her daughter, which makes their relationship, at best, strained. And yet, when life gets tough for Maya, her mother is the first person she calls. Please talk about this.
NOA: The book is a lot about love and the difficult painful nature of love as you’re growing up, especially if you grow up unmoored. Maya in a way grows up in the shadow of her luminous mother, and is at once in awe of and repelled by her, but has such an all-encompassing love for her, and all of those emotions exist in the same space. In many of the books I read growing up, especially as a young girl, love was so simple, mothers were good and kind and hardworking and sacrificial; Maya’s mother is not, she is selfish and determined and swallows the whole world around her into herself until it feels like there is nothing left, yet she is still wonderful. I wanted this book to be about the complicated nature of love, and how at the same time it is so simple; you can hate and be repelled by someone and they can still be the first person you call to give you succor. They can be all those things and more at the same time, and it does not necessarily need to be explained.
AHA: You write this book in English, and it is peppered with German and Akan phrases. What was your thought process on what language to write in, on when to translate and when not to?
NOA: Language has always been very important to me. I grew up trilingual and learnt other languages on top of these. Many Ghanaians grow up at least bilingual, with their mother tongue and English at least, and maybe one or two other local languages, and I think it does something to your notion of reality to be able to dive in and out of different languages and different modes of being, I wanted to bring some of this polyphony, this polyrhythmic way of being, to the story and make it natural, so that you don’t necessarily have to understand each word so much as the flow.
AHA: Maya and her mother receive totally different responses when they let others know of their royal heritage. People fawn and fuss over Maya’s mother, while Maya even loses a friend over her announcement. Maya’s mother wholeheartedly embraces the idea of royalty, while Maya, acknowledging the privilege it comes with especially in her Ghana stay, seems lukewarm to it. In popular culture now, everyone is a queen. What’s your take on the world’s fascination with royalty?
NOA: I identify with Maya in that I come from a family whose lineage spans many centuries, and that trajectory brings with it an abundance of traditions and rootedness, which you can see in the mother character, but also this notion of hierarchy, of one class of people being better than another because of an accident of birth, which to me is nonsensical. In the end, like much else in the world, it’s about navigating power, and royals because of practice, are often more skilled, at least in the navigation of the narratives of power, than others, which can be of use to nations, like it is to the English or the Ashantis, for example.
I think the fascination comes from the personification of this power, the storytelling we attach to this, the parts that are played. Ultimately it’s about lifting yourself to the highest potentiality of your being, the ability to use your power at will, which I don’t think is a bad thing. What is unfortunate is that royalty by its very nature differentiates and is always the provenance of a very few. I guess the endurance of the fascination with royalty is how does one get to those heights if not born to them, and how does one maintain (or lose) them? I think it’s at the root of so much of the dynamics of the stories we tell.
AHA: You refer to Maya and her family as “expats.” Can you say more about this? What is it about Ghana that keeps its “expats” so tied to it?
NOA: I purposefully used the word “expats” and not “immigrants,” because I am tired of how the Western world differentiates and allocates value through words. What really is the difference between an expat and an immigrant other than the color of their skin? It is really about time we stop having words, and therefore value, allocated for us and start allocating them for ourselves.
It’s amazing how you can be born somewhere else and never visit the country of your parents’ birth and yet identify wholly with it, more even than the country you’ve spent your whole life in. Again I think it’s about storytelling, the stories we hear as we grow up, the stories in food, in clothing, in rituals and traditions, in laughter, in the timbre of voices, in the smells of creams and lotions; they all come together to give us a sense of belonging to a certain place, even if we have not necessarily been in that place, and there is beauty in that particularity, especially when it’s about communion and not separation.
AHA: “The arts are just a part of the weapons of life,” said poet Jayne Cortez in a speech she once delivered. Maya and Kojo are determined to use art as a way of reviving a stolen legacy. What was it about working in the British Museum that sparked off the conversations that were had in this book? And can you tell us about your museums project, and what comes next for you?
NOA: The whole museums debate is such an emotional one. I’ve been in the storerooms of the British Museum and many other museums across Europe and seen masks and objects in their hundreds, and felt as I’ve entered these spaces, an energy that feels so wrong and conflicted. It is such a complicated issue, but at its simplest, many of those objects were imbued with spiritual import and energy; many of those objects were stolen in gross acts of violence, or taken out of their contexts with no consideration of their importance to the balance of things; and it is not right for Western museums to pretend that enough time has gone by for the objects just to “belong” to those museums with no regard to their places of origin. It is dishonest, and it is cowardly.
The complications are in how and where to return some of these objects, but this is a matter of logistics. First, there needs to be honesty, and then the negotiation of movement and collaboration can be built on this; but it is inevitable, we no longer live in a world where one side decides how things are, and everyone else accepts it. In the book, Maya and Kojo both understand the importance of repatriation in the process of mending fragmentation, and in a way dedicate their young lives to this act of healing, even though they are not sure at first how.
I have two projects, the Mobile Museums and Cultural Encyclopedia projects that both work on recreating structures of collective narrative-building. They are sourced from communities, and rehabilitate and reinvent some of our historical knowledge systems and ways of navigating the world. I am also working more internationally on a large project, the Action for African Cultural Restitution, on national museums in Ghana, and I’m speaking about the possibilities of new kinds of models and the impact they could have across the world. Speaking about and creating these ideas and spaces for new realities and possibilities is exciting.
AHA: How long did it take to write the book and what was your writing process?
NOA: It took many many years. I was doing so much alongside the writing, setting up an arts institution in Accra, creating a Pan-African Cultural Encyclopedia, a mobile museums project, making films. A lot of the writing was done in residencies, which were a blessing; residencies in Norway, Brazil, France, Senegal, Benin, and Ethiopia. A lot of it was written during early mornings and late nights. Sometimes when the exigencies of creating context in Ghana took me away from writing for longer periods, it was an act of training to get back to the book again, of warming the muscles little by little, with a kind of hellish soul amnesia of the fact that you would eventually get back into the flow, until suddenly you were there again, and it was like coming home.