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A Ghanaian 'Housegirl' Navigates A Complex Maze Of Culture And Class

Sep 10, 2018
Originally published on September 10, 2018 7:10 pm

When you open the new novel Housegirl, you'll find a glossary on the first pages — dozens of words and phrases in Twi, a Ghanaian dialect. Author Michael Donkor was born in London to Ghanaian parents and the glossary hints at the push and pull between two worlds.

Take, for example, the term for second-hand clothes: "Oburoni wawu literally means 'the white man is dead,' " Donkor explains. "The idea is that when the white man dies, his family sends over his second-hand clothes to Africa, to be sold in the market."

Or the word for foreigners — abrokyriefoɔ — "is a word that's thrown at me and my family, when we come over to Ghana," Donkor says, "as a clear marker that we are different from Ghanaians that live in Ghana."

The two teenage girls at the center of Donkor's debut novel are trying to find their place between these two cultures. Amma is growing up in London to Ghanaian parents. When we meet her, a gap has opened up between the once-outgoing girl and her family.

The parents hire a "house girl" named Belinda, who leaves Ghana to come live with them — but Belinda's job is not to clean or cook. In exchange for an education, she's asked to befriend Amma. "You get this uncomfortable clash of upbringings," Donkor says, as Belinda enters Amma's privileged world.


Interview Highlights

On Belinda's job — which is more than simply drawing Amma "out of her shell"

Labor in the novel takes on many different forms. ... I think Belinda's real task that she's given by Nana and Doctor Otuo — the parents of Amma — is that she is meant to kind of teach Amma how to be a proper Ghanaian woman ... a woman who is submissive and obedient and quiet and conforms, essentially. And when Belinda meets Amma, she's not doing any of things at all. She's being kind of sullen and rebellious and Nana and Doctor are really concerned as to why that's the case. So that's really what Belinda's job is in London — it's to kind of tame Amma, I suppose, and also maybe to try and find out why she's suddenly changed the way she's behaving.

On grappling with certain aspects of Ghanaian culture

I think there's a kind of traditionalism which lots of people kind of talk about in the vein of wanting to preserve culture, and wanting to not lose a sense of the great rights and rituals that have been going on in various parts of Ghana for centuries. But there's also a kind of repressive aspect to that traditionalism as well. ... People who feel that they don't necessarily conform to the kind of expected behaviors or identities of Ghanaian people feel quite trapped. ... Some of the young people who don't fit the mold, as it were, find themselves in terrible positions and find themselves deeply troubled and fractured by being pulled between this desire to fit in with the culture around them and the desire to be true to themselves.

On the book beginning and ending with a funeral

The loop idea — I think it came from my sense that I wanted to think about progression and movement. ... This is a novel in lots of ways that feels like it's about moving forward. Belinda moves from the village to the city and then she moves from the city to the UK. But then there's always a kind of longing to go back. And so I'm sort of thinking in the shape of the novel about the idea of looping and returning and going back and I suppose the idea of home. ... We can't really escape from ... where we've come from. ... We can sort of move on in all sorts of ways, but there will always be a kind of core of us that's sort of deeply related to that place that we sprang from.

Melissa Gray and Connor Donevan produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When you open the pages of the new novel "Housegirl," you find a glossary, dozens of words and phrases in Twi, a Ghanaian dialect. Author Michael Donkor was born in London and is the child of Ghanaian parents. These words hint at the push and pull between those two worlds, like this one, the phrase for second-hand clothes.

MICHAEL DONKOR: Oburoni wawu - oburoni wawu literally means the white man is dead. And the idea is that when the white man dies, his family send over all of his second-hand clothes to Africa, and they're sort of sold in the market.

CORNISH: And then there's this word.

DONKOR: Abrokyriefoo, which means foreigners, is a word that is thrown at me (laughter) and my family when we come home from London to Ghana the whole time as a kind of clear marker that, you know, we are different from, you know, Ghanaians that live in Ghana.

CORNISH: Now, the two teenage girls at the center of Donkor's debut novel are trying to find their place between these two cultures. Amma is growing up in London to Ghanaian parents. When we meet her, a gap has opened up between the once-outgoing girl and her family. And so the parents hire a house girl named Belinda who leaves Ghana to come live with them. But Belinda's job is not to clean or cook. In exchange for an education, she's asked to befriend Amma.

DONKOR: It's based more than kind of drawing Amma out of her shell. I think Belinda's real task that she's given by Nana and Dr. Otuo, the parents of Amma, is that she's meant to kind of teach Amma how to be a proper Ghanaian woman and, by that, a woman who is submissive and obedient and quiet and conforms, essentially. And when Belinda meets Amma, she is not doing any of those things at all. She's being kind of sullen and rebellious. And Nana and Doctor are really concerned as to why that's the case. So that's sort of really what Belinda's job is in London. It's to kind of tame Amma, I suppose, and also maybe to try and find out why she's suddenly changed the way she's behaving.

CORNISH: It's interesting. At one point, Belinda is talking with Amma about what it means to be an adult. And she sort of says something along the lines of, like, well, you just can't be anything you want to be.

DONKOR: Yes, yeah.

CORNISH: It's both - right? - pragmatic, depressing.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: There's a lot of things wrapped up in that moment to...

DONKOR: Yeah, absolutely.

CORNISH: ...Be coming out of the mouth of a 17-year-old because she does not come from privilege. And so she's not completely wrong.

DONKOR: Yeah. And I think, you know, the - that description you offer there of Belinda's words kind of sums Belinda up quite brilliantly. She is sort of incredibly insightful at times, but often what she says is really just saddening (laughter).

CORNISH: Yeah, yeah.

DONKOR: There's sort of no...

CORNISH: But she has such a different background, you know?

DONKOR: Absolutely.

CORNISH: And I think that's the thing. Like, if you're poor, you're from another country, your paths out of whatever situation you're in are just so limited...

DONKOR: Yes.

CORNISH: ...Compared to a Western teen that's like, I say anything that comes into my brain (laughter).

DONKOR: Yeah, and I don't police my thoughts at all.

CORNISH: I want to be rewarded for it.

DONKOR: Yeah, absolutely.

CORNISH: Like, I mean, it just - it feels so different.

DONKOR: Absolutely. And I really enjoyed writing those conversations between Amma and Belinda for that very reason, because you get this uncomfortable clash of upbringings.

CORNISH: Right, which is another theme of the book. Amma is somebody who in a lot of ways is divorced from her culture.

DONKOR: Yeah.

CORNISH: She sees it through the lens of her parents. And she looks at it as something of like, oh, what do they know?

DONKOR: Yes. Yeah.

CORNISH: And they look at her completely confused (laughter).

DONKOR: Yeah, absolutely.

CORNISH: It's weird having that double vision, right?

DONKOR: Yeah.

CORNISH: You sound empathetic to both sides of it.

DONKOR: I try to be. I think there are lots of things about Ghanaian culture that are quite troubling, and I try and address some of those particular issues in the novel. So I think there's a kind of traditionalism which lots of people kind of talk about in the vein of kind of wanting to preserve culture and kind of not - wanting to not kind of lose a sense of the great kind of rights and rituals that have been going on in various parts of Ghana for centuries.

But there's also a kind of repressive aspect to that traditionalism as well that means that people who feel that they don't necessarily conform to the kind of expected behaviors or identities of Ghanaian people feel quite trapped. And I think it also means that some of the young people who don't fit the mold, as it were, find themselves in terrible positions and find themselves deeply troubled and fractured by being pulled between this desire to fit in with the culture around them and the desire to be true to themselves.

CORNISH: So one aspect of the book - and this is very much a spoiler for people who want to pause - is that the character of Amma, her outsiderness is compounded in that she is wrestling with her sexual identity. How did you want to illustrate this story? Like, what is it about the character of Amma that you thought maybe hasn't been told before?

DONKOR: I think there's a feeling for LGBTQ young people that mainstream society has a problematic attitude towards non-heterosexual sexuality. And that problematic attitude is even more aggressively presented in lots of cases by black communities. This is something that I've encountered a lot in my life where, you know, your people, as it were, are supposed to be a source of kind of warmth and comfort from perhaps a kind of hostile world. But the moment that that kind of black community finds out that you aren't straight, that kind of source of comfort and communality is immediately withdrawn from you. And so it's that kind of tension that I was interested in sort of hinting at with Amma's story.

CORNISH: You also have an ear for dialogue and accents. And I am thinking of the scene where Belinda takes on a group of Jamaican girls on a bus.

DONKOR: (Laughter).

CORNISH: Very vivid language.

DONKOR: Yeah.

CORNISH: Are these accents you can do out loud as well? Like, how does this work in your mind?

DONKOR: Yeah, I don't know. I think I listen very closely and try to kind of pick up on the kind of tics and kind of singular features of any given kind of accent or dialect that I'm hearing. And I also enjoy doing, like, imitations (laughter).

CORNISH: Really?

DONKOR: And I think - yeah, I do.

CORNISH: Can I ask, like, what?

DONKOR: Oh, my Ghanaian accent is my favorite thing to do.

CORNISH: OK.

DONKOR: And I've been honing it for years and years.

CORNISH: Do it. Do it. Your poor parents - they've probably been brutalized by this. But please...

DONKOR: (Imitating Ghanaian accent) My mother feels so mocked, so mocked and belittled by my renditions of her voice. She can't stand it. She won't have it. But I persist in taunting her with my very accurate imitation of her voice (laughter).

CORNISH: That is so sweet. I love it.

DONKOR: You know, when we sit down to write novels, we're often quite imaginative with the way that we get our narrators to talk about setting and so on. And I think we should be equally inventive and creative with the way that we present speech as well.

CORNISH: The book begins and ends roughly the same way, with the scene of a funeral. What about this story lends itself to a kind of loop?

DONKOR: I suppose in one way, the loop I did - I think it came from my sort of sense that I wanted to think about progression and kind of movement and how this is a novel in lots of ways that feels like it's about kind of moving forward. So, you know, Belinda moves from the village to the city, and then she moves from the city to the U.K. But then there's always a kind of longing to go back. We can sort of move on in all sorts of ways, but there will always be a kind of core of us that's sort of deeply related to that place that we sprang from I think.

CORNISH: Well, Michael Donkor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DONKOR: It was a pleasure to speak with you, so much fun. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMBAY DUB ORCHESTRA'S "STRANGE CONSTELLATIONS")

CORNISH: Michael Donker's new novel is called "Housegirl."

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMBAY DUB ORCHESTRA'S "STRANGE CONSTELLATIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.