With the release of her latest book The Deep Blue Between, Ayesha Harruna Attah has now authored four books. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Ayesha about her journey to publishing her books, her writing routine, and what inspired her latest book.
As a bibliophile with a recent (healthy) obsession with books written by African authors, I was glad to be able to chat with the Senegal-based writer.
Tell us a little about yourself. What was the journey to writing and publishing your first book?
My name is Ayesha Harruna Attah. I am a writer based in Senegal. I was born in Accra, Ghana, and grew up in a family of writers and journalists, so I was used to the written word and talking about literature.
I actually took a roundabout journey to become a published writer. I wanted to go into medicine, so I studied biochemistry and was a pre-med major. While I was in college, I started taking writing classes. I had always written, but I felt like I should do something important and serious.
Once I took those writing classes, I realized that that’s where my passion lay. So I applied to journalism school. Getting in felt like validation that I could actually write. After journalism school, I lived in the United States, and once my visa was expiring, I decided to move back home.
Within two weeks of being back, I heard about a program for young writers with Ayi Kwei Armah. I applied and got in. That changed my life, and that’s how I became a published writer.
What keeps you motivated when you sit down at your desk and stare at a blank page?
I think it is becoming less of a perfectionist.
I have learned to begin with writing a bad first draft. This is what I call draft zero. It’s a draft that nobody sees, that I allow myself to play in and in which I get as adventurous and as creative as possible. Because I do this and because there is no perfectionism, I just get to travel and scribble on the page. Then I come back to it, and if it’s any good, I can use parts of it. If it’s not good, I start from scratch.
Over the years, that has become my way of getting inspired. It’s not waiting for an “aha” moment or waiting for the muses to speak to me. It’s just allowing myself to play and not being too hard on myself the first time around.
As with many things that many people aspire to, but not many people achieve, becoming a published author is a great accomplishment. How much talent vs. consistent hard work is needed to get there?
I would say that it’s a combination of both. You need to show up on the page every day and put in work. If you have the talent and you are not putting in that work, you’re maybe going to release one book but get nowhere after that.
Showing up every day and putting in a bit of work can also lead to finding your voice and honing your talent. When you join the two, you get a book out, and somebody is going to believe in your project and get it out there for you.
So it’s a combination of the two, but I think that if you put in hard work, talent eventually comes. If you are talented and don’t work hard, you won’t get the results.
Are there any routines that help you in the creative process of writing?
First, starting with a draft that nobody sees. I write over and over. The nice thing is that I have a group of friends that meets every month, and we help each other and critique each other’s work. That has also become a part of the creative process because when I finish my second and third drafts, I can show it to them, and they give me feedback. Then I go back to writing before sending it to my agent.
So it’s become a process of writing the first draft, honing it, sending it to my friends, sending it to my agent before it reaches the publisher.
I don’t really have any rituals. Sometimes I write with music, sometimes I don’t. It depends on what I am working on. A quiet space is usually helpful. Looking at the sea also helps.
You now have four published books. What moment of the journey, from a young aspiring author to now, are you proudest of?
It was meeting a girl (maybe she was 12 years old) who was so happy to have read my book, and couldn’t believe that she was meeting the author.
To me, it was that my words could have had some effect on her, that they might influence her to also want to write and, even that she found herself in my work. Realizing that the stories that I was writing could lead her to question something that was ongoing in her life.
What inspired you to write your latest book The Deep Blue Between? What did a typical day look like while you were writing your book?
I finished writing my third novel, The Hundred Wells of Salaga, in 2018. There was one character, Hassana, who stayed with me, and I really wanted to write her story.
I was at the Pa Gya Festival that same year, and I met Sarah Odedina, who is an editor at Pushkin’s Children. She said, “Have you thought about writing historical fiction for young people?” She didn’t even need to ask me anything else. I knew I would be writing about Hassana and her search to find her twin sister. So that was the inspiration for that.
I also knew I would write about twins at some point in my life because I come from a family with many twins.
My typical day was dreamy. At that point, I was homeschooling my son who was three at the time, so I would play with him, and when he went for his afternoon nap, I would start writing about the girls.
It was the first book in which I really leaned into the process of letting the characters guide me. I didn’t really plan the book, because I didn’t know how they would meet. I let each character just travel, whether it was to Lagos, Bahia, or Accra. I had done some research for my previous books, so I kind of knew what those places felt and looked like.
I would write until about 4pm, and when my son woke up, I would hand him over to the nanny and continue writing. So, I would have a stretch of research and writing from about 2pm to 6 or 7pm.
Once I finished the first draft, I showed it to my group of friends and to Sarah, my editor. Then we started editing sections, and we finished the book in a year, which is the fastest I have ever written a book.
Harmattan Rain was fast as well, but this felt even faster because I had the constraint of having a family, whereas, with the first book, I was a 23-year-old with no responsibilities.
Why do you think there are not more recognized African authors? Is it because of a lack of interest in reading or a preference for spoken word (or radio)? What can be done to encourage African authors?
It’s a tough one. I think things are changing on the internet. A lot of African publishers are taking charge of the publishing scene. There are a few young writers that are creating their own platforms, whereas before, they would have to go through the traditional publishing route. That was hard. There used to be only one or two published African authors a year, but that’s changing now.
I don’t think that there is a lack of interest in reading. The demand is there. There is a marriage between film, literature, and music. So if you write a book that gets made into a film, then there will be more interest in your book.
Things are changing, and what can be done to encourage more interest in African writing is further developing a platform for our work. More prizes, more bookshops, more libraries, more book clubs. All of these are growing on the continent, and I am an optimist when it comes to that. I find that on Instagram, there is a thriving African readership. Bookstagram Africa is really fascinating, and that is how I learn about new books. I think that the space will look different in a few years as there is a growing interest.