Interview

Interview with Ayesha Harruna Attah, shortlisted for her novel Saturday’s People


Where and when did the idea for Saturday's People come from?

I have always loved stories about families and their dynamics—how blood relatives can seem haphazardly thrown together, and how strangers can become closer than one’s biological family. Also, for personal reasons, I have also wanted to write about illness, about the effects it has on the individual suffering, and what it does to the families of the patient. Saturday’s People is a novel about a dysfunctional family and opens up the conversation on illness, which I hope to explore more in other novels.

Can you tell us a bit about place or places you wrote Saturday's People from?

I started writing Saturday’s People in the second year of my MFA program at NYU. Most of the writing was done on a small desk in my apartment in Brooklyn, and some of it in libraries around New York City. I scribbled notes on the subway, on flights back home to Ghana, especially whenever I had long layovers (airports can provide a lot of color and drama). I wrote ideas behind receipts, on napkins, whenever and wherever inspiration struck, which was all the time. I’m afflicted with a form of literary self-centeredness: when I’m working on a novel, everything I see or encounter seems related to my project.

What inspires you to write?

Everything. For me, there’s a story in every situation, and every time I step out of my door a story gets thrown at me. A man slumped on my doorstep, a cat curled in my doorway, an abandoned bottle of liquor. How did these people and things get there? There are so many ways these snapshots can open up intriguing short stories or novels. I also come from a family of storytellers. I enjoy nothing more than hearing my father talk about his day. His turns of phrases, the way he describes people he encounters… He has a way of making even the mundane sound exciting. My grandmother’s stories of growing up and traveling through the Gold Coast (before it became Ghana) also constantly inspire me.

Tell us about 3 writers you admire and why?

I absolutely love the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz. He wrote character and place so well that I find myself reaching for his books when I want to make my characters memorable. His books are chockfull of people, yet each character is masterfully different and indispensable.

I admire Lydia Davis’ ability to write a short story out of anything. She can be wonderfully brief, and some of her stories straddle the line between fiction and poetry. She’s a writer I go to when I want to make my sentences pop.

I discovered Alain Mabanckou late last year, and wished I had earlier. He is such a fearless writer and can create comedy out of the most downtrodden situations. He too knows how to create an unforgettable character.

How did you hear about the Kwani? Manuscript Project?

I heard about the project from the Commonwealth Writers’ website.

If you had to describe Saturday's People as a cross between two other novels, what would they be?

It would be as if William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk had an African love child that was born in the 1990s.

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