The Imported Ghanaian and its sequel, A Place of Beautiful Nonsense, are must-reads for any African that is able to find humor in self-deprecation. Though it focuses on the Ghanaian, most Africans will surely find bits and pieces of themselves in the satirical works of Alba Kunadu Sumprim.
Alba’s books humorously and concisely trace the emotions most Ghanaian returnees encounter, from their excitement on the plane going “home”, to their ready-to-conquer attitude, to their dismay and panic when reality sets in. Her writing style is a clever, ingenuous piece of work that will have you in stitches by the time you finish reading them. Her clear, concise illustrations inject additional components that bring her writings to life. In The Imported Ghanaian, as GoodReads aptly puts it, “each coming back home’ cultural reality weaves her (the subject of the books) through a world where ‘you can never be too sure,’ where ‘an invitation is not exactly an invitation,’ where ‘you have to die to find out how popular your are,’ and where ‘being a Ghanaian and being Ghanaian are often two opposing concepts“.
Design233 thanks Alba for the opportunity to interview her and hope our readers find this interaction as enjoyable as we did.
Design233: Before we go into your background and all the usual scripted questions, how does one suddenly think about creating a satirical literature about Ghanaian society and the Ghanaian individual? Or was this an idea that formulated some time ago? Please share. We’re quite curious.
Alba Kunadu Sumprim: My first year in Ghana was an excursion to Hades. Each day I wailed, in the telenovela sense, wishing I had the guts to admit ‘at least I tried failure’ so I could gleefully gallop to the airport and jump onto the nearest plan going wherever. Melodramatic, clearly, because I’m not a quitter. I couldn’t wrap my head around how alien my home was to me. All the ideals I’d wrapped myself with as I left the UK, with much ‘I’m going home’ bravado, simply crumbled around me; home wasn’t interested and certainly didn’t want or need me. My initial response was inertia, which lasted many months as I cast a side eye at the airport, at the same time reminding myself that I wasn’t a quitter.
Possibly at my lowest point, I become friends with Daddy Bosco, a Rasta DJ at Vibe FM. I would hang out with him at the studio; waiting for something to make sense. Then, one day, while narrating an episode of my many cultural clashes and misunderstandings, he interrupted, ‘If you write the way you speak, it would make a fantastic newspaper column.’ I had never written seriously before, but as something to take my mind off throwing in the towel, I sat that evening and wrote eight short vignettes about my society from the viewpoint of an outsider who was birthed from an insider. Two days later I was offered a column in The Daily Dispatch Newspaper and The Imported Ghanaian came into existence. It was an immediate hit, and it’s been my sounding board for all my whinging. I’m sure it’s also saved my sanity.
D233: So now, let’s get to your background. Tell us about yourself, family and growing up.
AKS: I was born in London. My parents divorced when I was very young and my mother took me to my grandmother in Kade, her hometown in Ghana. I was different, talkative, a practical joker and with a mind of my own – I was an assertive four year old – which didn’t go well with the school authorities. I was in Kade for five years, and then one hot day my father arrived and a few days later, I was back in the UK, living with a British stepmother and two stepbrothers. Twi was never spoken at home and I forgot how to speak it. My stepmother did her best, but she had no clue as to what black skin and hair needed, and I was eternally teased at school for my ashy dark skin and nappy hair.
I grew up in a socialist household and my brothers and I wore second hand clothes right into our teens. Gosh, were we teased! And because of that, I have never been in fashion! My parents (father and stepmother) weren’t into material things but we had the most amazing holidays to unusual places. That’s where my love for travel came from. My stepmother encouraged me to take what I wanted from the world. Opera, nothing in this world could touch Verdi’s arias. Classical music – I played the cello in an orchestra – I painted and would haunt the halls of any art gallery. The Tate Gallery on a rainy day was sheer paradise. I did all varieties of dance. I remember the first Latin dance class we went to. She had given me money days earlier and I had gone to the second hand shop to look for a skirt I thought befitted the cha-cha-cha. From then on I fell in love with dance and would later dance semi-professionally for two years.
During my teens, my father started working in Cuba, and after a few years of going there for holidays, I stayed and studied at the language faculty “Hermanos País’, then I applied to go to EICTV film school that was set up by Fidel Castro and Gabriel García Márquez. I didn’t get in that year, so I went to Salvador in Brazil. The plan was to go for a month but I stayed nearly two years, learning folkloric ballet, delving into the world of Candomble, doing capoeira and at weekends, fishing with friends in the early hours of the morning while drinking caxaza and making bad jokes. I left Brazil because I was offered the scholarship to go to film school and so I returned to Cuba. If not for my love of film, I would have probably stayed in Brazil.
D233: Did your family play a huge role in fostering your literal talent?
AKS: Hmmm! Not really, though they are big fans now. Writing is something I discovered when I arrived in Ghana. I wrote an angst ridden diary for seven years, and Mr. Chambers, my English teacher, always encouraged me to develop my writing skills. I wanted to be a film maker and so didn’t give writing much attention.
D233:If you had to describe yourself in one word, what would it be? Ok, we’ll allow phrases as well.
AKS: The Wizard of Oz! (You know when Dorothy and Toto and co. get to the Emerald city and the powerful Wizard is bellowing and scaring the living daylights out of all of them – coming across as impressive. Then Toto goes around the back and pulls back the curtain to reveal a little insignificant man, pulling pedals to put the ‘boom’ in his voice and make smoke.) That’s me.
D233: Is there a particular individual, individuals or an event that inspired you to create your satirical literature of the Ghanaian?
AKS: I think the first thing that hit me was the constant need for people to ask ‘Are you sure?’ Though that wasn’t the intention, I always felt as if what I said was being questioned. So, someone would ask, “What is your name?” I’d reply, “Alba.” Then they would say, “Are you sure it’s not Araba?” Good grief, how long have I been on this planet?
D233:I found your books a good read and quite humorous. As a Ghanaian with a sense of humor, and as an individual open to self- deprecation, I had no problems with it. But I have a feeling, there might have been contrarian views? Did you have any critics of your satirical literature? And what do you say to these critics?
AKS: Before publishing, I worried I would offend people. Ghanaians are very sensitive but also often thick skinned when it comes to the sensibilities of others. Also, senses of humour vary from culture to culture. So, I thought, ‘If I add cartoons, perhaps, it’ll soften the blow.’ So I became a cartoonist, it took over six months to do them but I couldn’t find anyone to do them for free.
I’ve had much more approval of my work than disapproval; because I’m only writing about things we see daily. You need to be wearing blinkers not to see this. Granted, most readers of my books are those who have travelled and lived in other cultures. Interestingly, Ghanaian teens are big fans of my books, and it’s really gratifying to receive mails from teens who say I’ve inspired them to write, as well as those who send me their work asking for my opinion.
The one thing I’m happy about is that readers either love or hate my work. There are few in-betweens. There is nothing more painful than having someone say, “It’s interesting,’ or, ‘you’ve tried,’ or ‘it’s not bad.’ Shoot me first!
Saying that, there were two critiques that hit me for a long moment. The first one, the more painful, was an English guy who had written a blog talking of how much he hated Ghana and Ghanaians. He was here working for an NGO and hated everything about this country. He used my book to justify his hate filled rant, saying that if he had written my book, he would have be called a racist but I could get away with telling the truth because I was black. I found that hurtful, because I don’t believe my writing come from a place of hatred. Frustration and misunderstanding, perhaps, but never hatred. I was upset that he associated my work with his deeply negative feelings. The other critic, a Ghanaian, didn’t see humour, nor satire nor anything good about my books. He couldn’t call me racist, though he came close, but he did call me a man hater. He was very angry with me, so angry, to a point I wondered if secretly, he wanted to be me. But then, that’s vanity on my part.
From the moment a writer or artist or whoever chooses to birth their work and put it into the public domain, they should be ready to accept that in doing so they are opening themselves up to criticism, fair or not. Those critics have their rights to expression in exactly the same way I have my rights to expression. And remember, they are probably only critics because they can’t write like us.
D233: Do you keep abreast with the Ghanaian comedic scene? What are your thoughts on what you’ve seen so far on the comedic scene in Ghana? Do you have any favorite Ghanaian comedians that you follow?
AKS: Not particularly! Neither the comedic scene or comedians! Saying that though, l find Fritz Baffour very funny; he’s naturally comedic. I’ve never set out to be comedic or satirical in my writing, it’s just the way I am. My sense of humour and what I tend to find funny is not particularly influenced by Ghanaian culture, though the longer I stay the more I understand and use it. I’m not completely there yet.
D233: Are there any favorite or nostalgic moments that you’ve experienced in Ghana? And have any of these influenced any of your literal projects?
AKS: With hindsight, every experience is nostalgic, though I probably didn’t have many laughs when a lot of it was happening. Though many Ghanaians take themselves too seriously and are often not good at making fun of themselves, they are some of the most naturally humourous people you can come across. There’s a lot of nonsense but there’s a lot of beauty too, you just have to look for it. Many of the experiences, either intact, or in collage form have made up The Imported Ghanaian and A Place of Beautiful Nonsense books.
D233: In creating your books on Ghana, was there ever a sense that you had to straddle a fine line between offending Ghanaian citizens and letting your freedom of expression shine through, in your work?
AKS: Definitely, but at some point I had to let go and express myself, if not the books would never have been published. If anyone doesn’t like what I say, they are well within their rights to become offended. I don’t care.
D233: Are there any authors that have shaped and influenced your literal style? Any African writers per say?
AKS: Not particularly! Though I wish I could write like Buchi Emecheta, Sembene Ousmane or Yambo Ouologuem.
D233: Do you visit Ghana often? What would you recommend to your readers who have never visited Ghana to look out for, if they find themselves visiting and what is most endearing about the country to you?
AKS: I’ve lived in Ghana for the last 15 years. I wanted to run away like hell during the first few years but it became a battle that I refused to lose, so I stayed. I get moments when I want to pack and go, but then the hassle of packing up fifteen years, sorting out the house and other material things puts a halt to that train of thought. Ghana is a great and at the same time, frustrating country. If someone is simply visiting for a holiday, they will have a fantastic time. There is so much to see and Ghanaians will bend over to be as welcoming as possible. I worked as a consultant on a project that had me travelling around Ghana for three months and truly, Ghana is a gorgeous country. Accra is not a good representation of Ghana. So, if someone wants to visit I would suggest they spend more time outside of Accra. Now, if the person is planning to live here, I’d say, do major homework, take a year or two out and think it through very well. It’ll take a long while to properly adjust, if you ever do.
Over the years, my relationship with Ghana has changed. For many years, I lived in Ghana for about four months and worked abroad for the rest of the year, so really I was like a visitor. However, I’ve been in Ghana for most of the last four years and many of my views have shifted, though I regularly swing from love to hate. However, it’s the little things such as buying oranges in traffic, or hearing a funny story on the trotro, of waiting for all that shouting to turn into a big fight and two minutes later they are laughing like old friends, azonto, that terrible Kumawood movie that has you hooked from part 1 to 3 and you don’t know why; it’s those things that on the surface don’t mean much and seem inconsequential that make Ghana ‘a place of beautiful nonsense’, which I used as the title of my second book.
D233: Did you find it a challenge in creating the illustrations in your book, The Imported Ghanaian? Was this your first experience in creating a book with illustrations and will we be seeing more of these similar works from you?
AKS: Hell, yes! The Imported Ghanaian is my first book. I love challenges and when all the artists I approached quoted large sums to cartoon for me, I jumped in feet first. This is one of the things I love about Ghana, it allows you, if you want, to learn so much, because regularly, people are unhelpful and if you turn it around so it’s of benefit to you, you learn a lot. I couldn’t find anyone who would cartoon for me, so I spent six months, often up to fifteen hours a day, teaching myself and creating cartoons that would work for me. You’d notice that most of my characters have big heads and most cannot look sideward. I couldn’t get the features to be the same, so most of my characters are looking forward, even if they bodies are facing in another direction.
I think the cartoons gave my book an edge. I know parents whose children like looking at the book because of the cartoons. I think this is a way to go, because the culture of reading is diminishing and if cartoons and text can be used to attract, particularly, teens and children to book, then why not. I’d love to one day write a book made up of 90% cartoons. Graphic novel, or something like that.
D233: So what literal projects does Alba have, coming up? Any other Satire works?
AKS: I have a couple of projects in a semi state of undress. I’m not like those writers who can write religiously every day for a certain amount of time. I write when I feel like it and sometimes, I can be inspired to write for months on end, for long hours, as if my life depended on it. And then the drought sets in and I don’t write for months because I don’t feel like it. The projects will get done, I just don’t know when. I would love to see The Imported Ghanaian on screen, so I’m now writing the pilot for a series, which I hope will go into production next year.
D233: What is Alba currently reading? Or is there a particular book that you find yourself going back to read periodically?
AKS: I’m currently reading ‘The book of secrets’ by Deepak Chopra. I’ve been meditating for a year, so spiritual reading matter is a big deal for me at the moment. As in music, I also have eclectic tastes in reading, and I just finished reading Burma Boy by Biyi Bandele. I love Latin American literature, and two books I’ve read over and over are ‘La casa de los espíritus’ and ‘Bel canto’. Gosh, I can’t forget ‘Love in the time of Cholera.’ I also love African literature, particularly female writers. I also like the writings of women who straddle two cultures. In fact, my idea of heaven would be to be paid to read. Bliss.
D233: Now, the fun starts: What is one food or beverage that Alba can’t do without?
AKS: I’m an Akyem girl, so it has to be apim with nkontommire, koobi and boiled egg. Hot on its heels would be waakye, with all the trimmings, wele, garri, macaroni, salad, fish, beef with stew and shito. And you can’t beat washing any of these down with a seriously ‘heart constricting’ chilled Muscatella.
D233: Musically, what is one song that you find yourself repeating on your ipod, or music player?
AKS: I have eclectic tastes in music and always buy music on my travels. For the last couple of days, it’s been Tina Turner’s ‘It’s only love’ and ‘Cose della vita’. today, ‘El Carretero’ and ‘Candela’ by Buena Vista Social Club are on auto play. Tomorrow, it could be Tedi Afro, Fela, Césaria Évora, Beyonce or Bruce Springteen. Who knows!
D233: As an author, what would you say are the biggest challenges you face in the literal business? And do you have any advice for any would be authors?
AKS: The arts have a rough time in Ghana and writing is no exception. Probably at the bottom of the pile. The reading culture is slowly becoming a dodo. So, the challenges start from the moment you decide to write and get worse when the books arrive. For me, distribution has been the biggest challenge. I find the book shops incredibly unhelpful. Many take books on sale or return so they don’t invest in pushing your books. When they sell, they can take up to 40% commission and the icing on the cake, you have to chase them for your money, which can take up to months before they pay. I do most of my sales personally, and I have books in only three outlets I trust. Thankfully, we now have access to a wider market via the internet so many of us are putting our sales efforts in that direction.
The only advice I have for would be authors is ‘start writing and keep on writing until you achieve what you want.’ Also, no one I know in Ghana writes because of the money, it’s always about wanting to express and share. If it were for the money, there would be no authors in Ghana. As Nike says, ‘Just do it.’
Thank you for the opportunity to interview you. Design233 and its fans look forward to your future projects and works.
Visit The Imported Ghanaian website for more on Alba Kunadu Sumprim and her upcoming projects.