She might as well be the youngest Mount Holyoke alumna to write and publish her first novel in nine months, but from the creativity, attention to detail and high-caliber of writing in Harmattan Rain, she could easily pass for a connoisseur. Ayesha Harruna Attah was born in Accra, Ghana, graduated from Mount Holyoke in 2005 with a major in biochemistry, and thereafter pursued a Master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University. In the warm confines of the Buckland living room, Ayesha recounts her memories of the comforting whistling sounds of Buckland’s radiators, and how what began as a few thoughts scribbled on a page came to be an entire book detailing the lives of three generations of women in Ghana.
Jemila Abdulai: How did you get into writing?
Ayesha Harruna Attah: It’s something that I always did in primary school in Ghana. I took part in writing competitions and at home my sister and I would create these little booklets and just write stories or make up things. Even in our games there was always a story involved. Both my parents work in the newspaper industry so I was surrounded by so much creativity, writing and writers. It was always something I thought I’d do, but when I went to high school and was good in science, I thought about developing that. There was also the societal pressure to go into the sciences, so I came to Mount Holyoke and did that by majoring in biochemistry. I started taking creative writing and journalism classes and realized that I really enjoyed it and wouldn’t mind doing it for a living.
Jemila Abdulai: What was your inspiration for writing Harmattan Rain?
Ayesha Harruna Attah: I wrote the idea down in a notebook about two years before I actually started writing the book, and thought, what if I write a story about what my mother’s experience was and her mother’s experience as well and tie them in with a narrative about my own experience of life. I am interested in the tiny details of life that many people tend to gloss over. I like taking an idea and creating a world around it, so I took the simple idea of our respective times, the music, the kind of clothes worn, and the political scene and developed a story around that.
Jemila Abdulai: How did you decide on the title?
Ayesha Harruna Attah: That was a long painful process and it didn’t come until after the book was done. I was looking for a title that would tie all three women’s stories together. So instead of looking at the characters, which for me is the most important thing, I looked at the plot where there’s a single and sudden violent happening. I thought about an event in nature that would reflect that, and in West Africa there is the harmattan season where it’s dry, so rain is a rare thing and is sometimes violent.
Jemila Abdulai: During your book reading you mentioned that you wrote the book through a writer’s workshop. Can you tell us more about that?
Ayesha Harruna Attah: It went wonderfully. It was the Per Sesh Writer’s workshop ran by Per Ankh, a publishing cooperative that looks for African writers and publishes their work. Four fellows, including myself, were selected based on our writing samples, to go to Popemguine, a peaceful seaside village in Senegal. We were fed, housed, and given instruction in the craft of writing and the process of publishing a book. Our mentor was Ayi Kwei Armah, a Ghanaian writer and author of Two Thousand Seasons and The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born. It was a chance I never imagined I’d get; to actually write a book in such a short period of time with such attention given to every single word I put down. We exchanged our work, gave each other suggestions, rewrote our stories several times and thought about the values we were projecting.
Jemila Abdulai: Who is your favorite character in the book?
Ayesha Harruna Attah: My favorite character is Akua Afriyie, the woman from the second generation. Her life is completely different from mine. She gets pregnant at 17, and she is sort of a passive character. One thing we learned at the workshop was to avoid passive characters as they are characters who just let life happen to them. I took a risk with this character who is just floating through life, but when life is thrown at her, she begins to act. I like that she is able to pick up values as she goes along and the values she picks up are things that resonate with me, like reasoning, fairness and equality. There’s a scene in the book where a political party is just forming and in typical African-style, one guy decides he’s the leader and President-elect and starts delegating tasks to everyone. Akua Afriyie stands up and says “Let’s vote on it.” With that example alone, I think her character is the strongest.
Jemila Abdulai: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Ayesha Harruna Attah: First things first. Just write. Don’t let anyone discourage you and don’t let anyone tell you can’t. Even now, I’ve had people ask me why I’m doing this when there’s no money in it, but I do it because I just find it so much fulfilling. I know its hard sometimes, and half the time you might not believe in what you’re doing, but just do it and get other people out there to read your work. If you can, get people who are in the same field as you are to share ideas. It’s a very lonely profession but if you ask other people who are writing poetry, articles etc, you can come together and start sharing ideas. Especially for African writers, I think that’s a way for us to get our writing out there because there isn’t enough work from young African writers out there.
Jemila Abdulai: How would you describe your style of writing?
Ayesha Harruna Attah: Having come from a journalism background- both from a family point of view and from school – my writing is influenced by the reporting style. I just go along with the characters, carrying a hidden camera and recording everything they see and do, so that’s the style. But then, I use the third person voice in the story so I also get the chance to go into the characters heads and talk about their feelings and emotions.
Jemila Abdulai: Where did you see yourself in four years while in college, and what are you looking forward to next?
Ayesha Harruna Attah: In my first year at MHC, I thought four years after graduation I’d be in Med School or finishing Med School. Then in junior year I became so confused and even thought about going into architecture in order to do something else. By senior year I was pretty sure I wanted to do something with words so I went to Journalism school. But even in Journalism school, if you asked me where I’d see myself in 4 years, it was still not clear. Right now, it’s still not clear, but I’d like to write another book in the next four years. We started a writer’s cooperative in Accra, Ghana, so hopefully we’ll have something that’s really well-established and holding literary events. I just hope to remain productive.
This interview was conducted and transcribed by Jemila Abdulai and originally published in The Mount Holyoke News.
Connect with Harruna Attah: Website