Pearl opened her eyes. She was not sure what woke her up. Was it her screams or the alarm clock chiming 6 in the morning? Or the smell of fresh human blood that always filled her nostrils whenever she woke up after having this same nightmare? Yawning she picked up the clock, stopped the alarm and threw it among her books and clothing that were all struggling for personal turf on the bed beside her sweating self.
She would find it when she returned in the evening. After all, that has been the evening ritual: going through clothes and books, in search for her alarm clock, and she always found it. Now she had to make herself some of that strong Chinese herb tea Mama sent to her a week ago. The thing always worked magic on her system; particularly on mornings when she woke up after that recurrent nightmare that left her hungry for fresh blood. She walked over to the window and drew back the curtains. Then she picked up her medical journal and pen lying among other books and clothing in the only sofa in the bedroom.
As she boiled water for her tea she wrote in her journal. This time she had not seen the man or woman’s face. But the last time, the last time was about four days ago. She recorded the date and time. She had seen their faces. The man’s was covered in blood from the woman. Sighing, she placed the journal on the kitchen counter and prepared her tea. Then forgetting the journal on the counter, she walked out with her tea.
Savior Korankye was watching her from his apartment window as she walked to her car ...
From the opening of the novel A Quarter Past Midnight
Faith Ben-Daniels treated me with immense generosity when I arrived in Kumasi, Ghana, to interview her—welcomed me to her home, gave me dinner, and insisted on paying for my hotel room. Later she was my guide and companion to a visit to the Asante royal palace (sadly a phone malfunction meant many of my Ghana photographs were lost). Faith teaches literature and seemed during my two-day visit to be surrounded by students who showed enormous affection and respect for her. The recording of the interview is punctuated by thunder and ends with the sound of hammering rain.
Her work intrigued me because it seemed so firmly in the genre of spiritual realism, only the spirituality is Christian.
Faith was, at the time of the interview (2017), the author of two published novels: A Quarter Past Midnight and Mimosa. In A Quarter Past Midnight both Christian and traditional beliefs are shown to work. A character we care about, Pearl, seems to have something to do with a murder, but we can’t think at first what it might be.
Faith: “Pearl’s possessed by a demon. The evil in this story rises out of the tradition of once you are a woman and are married you must have children. When you cannot have children it becomes a serious problem and you must try every possible means to have children. In this story Pearl’s mother has sought the help of a deity in her hometown of Kofiase (a city two hours north of Kumasi) to help her conceive. The agreement is, ‘We are going to give you a spirit child that is actually a wife of the Gods. When she is eighteen you must bring her back to serve in the shrine of the Gods, a particular shrine in the Kofiase area and it's called Kyenaman (the “Ky” is pronounced like “ch”).’
“The mother agrees to the contract. Then she gets pregnant, she gets Pearl, and Pearl grows up to be a lovely pretty girl, interested in school. She wants to become a psychiatrist. The mother is beginning to forget her bargain with the deities. And that’s where the problems begin. It is believed when you don’t fulfil your part of the bargain with these deities, they come and take by force. So they begin to possess the body of Pearl.”
GR: “A man attacks Pearl badly and she doesn’t remember but her friend and her mother do. She becomes strong and breaks his wrist. It’s like she has super powers. But she doesn’t fight for good.”
Faith: “She’s not getting those superpowers to do good. Just to defend herself. Which shows that she’s possessed. Once the spirits within feel threatened, they react.”
GR: “You have three evil characters in the book. You have Ato, the rapist ...”
Faith: “Who kills his wife.”
GR: “We have Felix, his friend who we are told is good. And Oscar, who we are told is evil. But he’s the one who says, ‘You must go to the police. Your wife was a bitch but she didn’t deserve it.’”
Faith: “Let me begin with Felix, who is a representation of good and the odd man out amongst the three. In a way, he is like the voice of reason or the conscience that those two need, a walking conscience. If he’s not there they would degrade. What happens is that he doesn’t fully control them. He has a soft spot for them and looks away when they are doing evil. He already knows Ato has killed his wife. I brought in a bit of a supernatural connection there. Like someone who is a natural psychic, that he can see things and feel things, though I don’t say that specifically. He could look into your eyes and look into your very soul. He is expecting Ato to do the right thing.
“As for Oscar, he is pure evil but very intelligent. Evil excites him. He will not initiate evil, but the minute it is initiated he is there to support it all the way.
“Ato is just a confused and angry man, who made wrong choices because he followed his heart. He really loved Aratana, but he’d made a mistake. Instead of accepting that he made a mistake and moving on, he went on to make a graver mistake.”
GR: “The dreams everyone keeps having: Pearl keeps having dreams of a terrible event. Then the Reverend starts having dreams of her coming to him. What’s the role of dreams?”
Faith: “Personally growing up I had this belief that the physical world is planned from the spiritual. Whatever happens in the world has been planned in a spiritual sense. And that spiritual sense can only be visited in dreams. Once the physical body falls asleep, the spirit is active.”
GR: “What is the nature of evil in the book? A Christian might say we have all fallen. At one point you talk about the smell of evil. I don’t understand your sense of evil.”
Faith: “The sense of evil I was trying to represent has to do with getting out of what are the society’s norms, one. Two, turning against humanity in general. I perceive killing another person as turning against humanity. And three, I represent the Ghanaian society’s definition of evil, and evil is quickly represented in the traditional deities.
“The reason why evil is represented in the traditional deities is that it is believed they do not forgive. A bargain is a bargain. The traditional worship does not have the Christian way of, 'you can kill a man today, go to a church and say "Father, I have sinned," and your sins are forgiven.' Within the traditional deities, you kill a man, you are killed.”
GR: “For you the traditional deities are a real thing. You would not dismiss them.”
Faith: “No, I would not dismiss them. Because people still follow that way of worship, and it still works for those who believe. For instance, we have here in this region a town called Antoa, and the river is called Antoa Nyama. That river is worshipped not only by the people there, but by people from other areas. It is believed that the river is feminine and very aggressive.”
“So when someone is accused of doing something wrong, people from that area are quick to curse you, using the river. You see people go to the Palace (at Kumasi) and say ‘I was cursed by the river. So my feet are swollen, my tummy is swollen.’ And you see them actually die if they do not appease the river.
GR: “So for you Christian belief is something that controls the unforgivingness.”
Faith: “Yes. The Christian belief in a way comes in as a better alternative, because it has the way of forgiveness, that doorway that leads to forgiveness. Forgiveness that you do not have to buy or pay for in any way. Yes. Because when you are cursed by this river, you have to pay to have the curse reversed.”
GR: “At least you can pay to have the curse reversed.”
Faith (Laughs): “At least you can pay to have the curse reversed.”
GR: “A Quarter Past Midnight reminds me of Nii Parkes’s Tail of the Blue Bird. In both books a modern detective comes in to investigate a crime with links to spiritual beliefs.
Faith: “Detective Emmanuel comes in because a crime has been committed, the cold murder of a woman left on a deserted highway. But there are challenges. The police force is not technically equipped to actually investigate using forensic science. But he’s following the story of the woman who is dead and the story of people around her. He gets a warrant to search Pearl’s house. And he actually finds out who kills who and why. The detective does not really find out that what happened is something supernatural. The lawyer called Saviour follows the story and finds the supernatural connection.”
We talk some more about the plot of the novel—but let’s avoid spoilers. I ask Faith if her other two books deal with traditional or Christian belief.
Faith: “Not really. Mimosa just takes on the spiritual belief in the connection of dreams and the supernatural. The novel is based on a real building that collapsed, the Melcom Stores. I don’t remember the year. The Melcom Stores collapsed, killing a number of people.
“The characters have dreams about what each other are going through in the physical world. A husband and wife have a spiritual link. The husband Kobby was caught in the building collapse. His wife Yaa feels whatever he feels down there under the collapsed building, she feels. And he also feels what she feels.
“In the first chapter when Yaa sees the building collapsing, she knows her husband is in there. She runs towards the building and a group of men pin her down to stop her. Kobby is trying to escape and all of a sudden he can feel many hands pinning him down like his wife.”
GR: “The many hands also show up in A Quarter Past Midnight.”
Faith: “The many hands represent forces that try to suppress you whenever you try to take a step forwards. They hold you back; they put you down. These might be supernatural forces but also politics as well, the politics in Ghana.
“The third novel I am still writing has a supernatural connection in dreams, spirits, and all of that, entitled Gray Skies. I’ve been working on it for ... it’s hitting its third year. And I still haven’t finished it. I’m so busy these days, that’s why.”
GR: “You’re a teacher, yes? I find teaching is a bit too much like writing.”
Faith. “The barriers to writing. (Laughs) I prefer writing in the evenings after the day’s work has been done. But when I’m so tired I can just write one sentence and my hands can no longer type. So I have to stop. And all the next day and the next, and it’s taking more and more time to complete. I personally do not have a block on what I want to write. I always know what I want to write. The challenge is time, combining it with work and family and all of that.
“I teach African and World Literature at the University of Education, Winneba, Kumasi Campus. The main aim is training people to become teachers. Most of the programmes are tailored towards education. There is a creative writing course in the Department of Language Education and it falls under the English Unit.”
GR: “What books does it cover?”
Faith: “In African literature the focus is on postcolonial literature. The course is split, the first part being the earlier generation of African writers, the second part being contemporary writers writing about Africa from the continent and in the diaspora.
“There’s lots of activities, teaching, the university. Basically we teach all year round. This is the first time in my six years of working with them that we are having a break. Our regular students are leaving in May, and our sandwich students are not going to come until July. I intend to use this break to finish Grey Skies.
“We used to teach all year round. And there are other activities. I hold yearly undergraduate student seminars where they present academic papers on writers they have researched. So it’s a yearly event. They look forward to it.”
We talk for a while about the books Faith teaches in her course. The information box at the end of this part lists them. I then ask her what books she read as a child.
Faith: “I fell in love with books at a very young age, probably about seven or younger because my mom used to buy books for us. I remember our favourite book was Sugar Girl (by Kola Onadipe). I’m still looking for Sugar Girl, so if there is anyone out there still remembers it and who can get it to me I would be so grateful.”
[Kola Onadipe’s first book, The Adventures of Souza, was published in 1963. Some twenty books followed, most of them for children. Many of them have spiritual realism or fantasy elements. In this first book a young boy joins a cult and meets a magician. In Sugar Girl (1964) a young girl leaves home and has a series of adventures, including facing a witch. In The Magic Land of Shadows (1970) an abused girl finds a magic land hidden in shadows. Many of Onadipe’s books were published by the African Universities Press in their series UBE Reader Boosters. Later, his work was published by Natona Press.]
Faith: “Mom would to read it to us every evening, read a few pages and tell us that she would continue the next evening. Sometimes she’d be like, ‘Oh I’m busy, I’m tired, go to bed.’ So I decided to pick up Sugar Girl and read it for myself. I remember actually finishing Sugar Girl.
“And then I remember she bought us two books. I remember the books so well because they were beautiful. One was blue and the other was red with glossy cover. In those days glossy covers weren’t really popular. What I remember in one was a poem ‘I Am Mr Crocodile.’ The crocodile begins to list the rivers in Nigeria. She would read it to us even when we were around the house doing chores. She would start, ‘I Am Mr Crocodile.’ I don't know where those books are now. I can’t even remember the titles.
“I think I wrote my first full story when I was nine. It started as a school project. In the class, we all decided to write one book. So we all contributed the sentences and the story line. You know kids. (Chuckles). We got to the point when there was a huge argument: ‘I want this in,’ and the other says, ‘No, it’s not good enough.’ The project collapsed. I went home and decided that I’m going to write my own. I started it and I finished it.
“By nine, ten, eleven, I was reading a lot of the Enid Blyton series. I was already reading a lot of Mills and Boon, Harlequin and Silhouette. By twelve or so I started reading James Hadley Chase’s novels. Then I think the first time I read a Sidney Sheldon, I was in junior high school. I graduated from Sidney Sheldon to John Grisham. So for a while I think I was reading African writers because that’s what my mother used to buy for us. One person I remember reading from a very young age was Amma Darko, her novel Beyond the Horizon. She was a Ghanaian woman who went to live in Germany. She wrote the book in German and then it was translated into English.
“And then I read the woman from Botswana, Bessie Head, who wrote Maru and When Rain Clouds Gather.
“I remember reading a novel as a teenager entitled Possessed by a Ghanaian writer, Atu Yalley. It combined science and traditional belief as well as Christian belief. In the end the problem is solved by traditional belief. Unlike A Quarter Past Midnight where the problem is solved by Christian faith. That novel made a huge impression on me as a teenager back then.”
GR: “Was your mom a teacher as well?”
Faith: “Yes, she was a teacher and then later on a kindergarten teacher. I think she spent more time as a kindergarten teacher than a primary school teacher. So she was the one who taught me how to read, taught me my first words, the two-letter words, and my alphabet.
“Her own language was Twi. I spoke English as a child and learned Twi as an adult. I think the reason is that I was born in Nigeria and where we were staying there were a lot of languages and there wasn’t one they could choose to learn so they said, ‘OK everybody, speak English.’
“We moved to Ghana when I was about to start secondary school. I was just about fifteen years old. I used to miss Nigeria, but I don’t any more. I have a sister. She stays in the US.”
GR: “When and how did you get published?”
Faith: “When I came to work here at the university in 2011 I was sharing an office with a man who was now my boss. In a conversation I told him, ‘I’ve written a couple of novels but I haven’t published them.’ And he was like, ‘Oh, I have this young lady, a daughter of mine in another town who is a bookseller and she’s just told me getting into publishing.’
“She was looking for young people who are writing, so she can publish and market their books. And I said, ‘Let me call her.’ But he called her and she drove all the way to the campus and we spoke. And that’s how the relationship started. She published A Quarter Past Midnight and she published Mimosa.
“The first time someone told me that I was good was when I was a child writing children’s stories in junior high school. It was said to me by a volunteer couple from America, Mr and Mrs McCoy. I gave them my story in an exercise book and Mrs McCoy came to class a few days later saying, ‘Oh, Faith has written a story and it’s beautiful.’ That was the first time.”
I talk about the validation Malawian writers get, as young as sixteen. They start winning high school and local newspaper story competitions. We talk about the importance of getting more fiction published in Africa.
Faith: “When it comes to books in Africa, you have a problem. I remember I used to fall on a bookstore called Readwide for my books from Africa and the West. I would go there all the time. But one day I go there and the shop is closed. I assume they didn’t open that day. I go the next day, I go there nearly every day for a week and the shop is always closed. I asked another shop and they said ‘Oh that shop, they folded up. They're not coming back.’
“They had a branch in Accra too, I hear, and it’s folded up. They were devoted to the sale of books, especially novels. There are other booksellers; they are selling more stationery than books. Textbooks, self-help books.
“I remember I was in London last year and earlier this year as well. I sat in a bus. There was this young man reading Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Half Of a Yellow Sun. I was excited. (Laughs). He was so much into it. Oh, that’s a big step.”
I ask if, when she writes, she has an African in mind.
Faith: “I have Africans in mind as my audience. But of course anyone can read it. Once you have an interest in reading novels with supernatural elements you would enjoy it.
“I think it’s the notion of being accepted internationally. It’s important for especially those contemporary African writers to be accepted internationally. In a way. As they write they have it in the back of their minds that their work should also appeal to an international audience. And by an international audience, the focus is on the West as well. Personally, I don’t have that in the back of my mind. I'm writing for an African audience. If others are interested and want to read, fine. But that is it for me.
“If there are going to be great new opportunities for African writers, it would be as African writers coming together to create these opportunities. First and foremost, understanding that one could sell a million copies all in Africa. It doesn’t have to be a million copies focussed on the West in order to sell.
“Once we understand this we’ll be able to rope in more up-and-coming African writers who will be interested in discussing subject matters and themes from the continent and for the continent—which contemporarily writers these days don’t really find interesting and want to push aside in order to focus a bit more on subject matter and themes that are diasporan or what is called Afropolitan.”
Since this interview
Faith did indeed finish her novel Grey Skies and it’s with her publisher, Flozzie’s Company Limited in Ghana. She also had published another story, ‘Blue Ixora’. She is now working on her first science and supernatural fiction novel. The working title is Gray Dawn.
She has also at the end of 2019 given birth to a little girl, Nana Ekua Nkunim Frimpong.