Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, September 24, 2018

Monday, September 24, 2018: Maximum Shelf: The Hundred Wells of Salaga

Other Press: The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah

Other Press: The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah

Other Press: The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah

Other Press: The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah

The Hundred Wells of Salaga

by Ayesha Harruna Attah

In precolonial Ghana, Wurche and Aminah come from very different walks of life: Aminah is the eldest child of a shoemaker in Botu, and Wurche is royalty, the daughter of a Kpembe chief. But, in both women, author Ayesha Harruna Attah convincingly creates strong, independent spirits who push the boundaries of the society in which they live. The slave trade brings the two together in Attah's moving novel The Hundred Wells of Salaga, and they fight to survive a period of conflict and upheaval.

Aminah is a daydreamer. While her friends vie to be a 21st wife, she fantasizes of more--she would prefer to travel and sell shoes, like her father. Instead, Botu offers Aminah a predictable life. During the dry season, Sokoto caravans visit the village, as illustrated in Attah's vivid description:

"Camels and their riders filed by, moving almost in tandem with the beat of the drums, followed by women balancing enormous cloud-shaped bundles on their heads. They were trailed by donkeys saddled with sky-high loads, then porters, pitiful-looking men and women burdened with baskets and pans, wearing nothing but strips of cloth covering their private parts."

The caravans provide Aminah's family with a source of income. They cook and sell food to the travelers. And when the caravans leave, Aminah's father follows along to sell his shoes.  

But the predictable is abruptly halted when her father doesn't return. Then horsemen invade Botu in the night. Vulnerable in an already hostile landscape, Aminah and her sisters are kidnapped and sold into slavery. Attah's depiction of this heartbreaking scene is authentic and emotional, striking readers in the depths of their humanity.

Like Aminah, Wurche doesn't want to be relegated to the traditional female roles--she wants to participate in the politics of the tribes with her father. "Anything her brother did, Wurche felt she should be given the chance to try." And while her father indulges her, he doesn't go so far as to include her in the governing process or give her a gun, like he does with his sons. Wurche eschews the idea that she will soon have to marry, despite the growing number of people pushing for it, including her grandmother. "What she most desired was to help lead her people, the Gonjas. She hadn't been named Wurche for nothing. Queen. The original Wurche led a battalion of three hundred men to safety. That such a woman had existed two hundred years before she herself was born should give her hope."

Unfortunately, her hope is extinguished when her father arranges a union to secure the support of the Dagbon people in the inevitable intertribal war--the tribal leader has died and various factions are battling for the throne. Wurche soon finds herself trapped in an unhappy marriage.

The worlds of Aminah and Wurche collide when the princess sees the slave in the Salaga market. Wurche learns the clandestine lover who recently spurned her was supposed to buy Aminah. In a fit of jealousy, Wurche purchases her instead, despite the royal's growing opposition to owning people. The two maintain their roles of possessor and chattel, but develop a relationship of mutual respect, eventually striking out on their own in a neighboring village and supporting themselves.

Attah's independent, female protagonists will engage readers in this heart-wrenching look at a system that devalued women's potential, from the most highly regarded all the way down to the slaves. Aminah and Wurch defy odds because of their strength and intelligence, and readers won't be able to help but wonder what they may have accomplished had they been untethered from society's shackles.

Attah's striking imagery illustrates her love of the country and its people, but she also doesn't shy away from the ugliness of the slave trade she's writing about:

" 'Why are there so many wells here?' asked Aminah.
'They were built to wash slaves after long journeys,' said Wurche.
A town created to sell human beings, thought Aminah. A town like that could not prosper. It was probably why Salaga had suffered so many wars."

Contrasting the grisly scenes of human bondage, Attah confronts the idea of beauty and what it means. Aminah, who is regularly viewed as beautiful but is unaware of her own allure, stands as a symbol in the novel. When another slave tells Aminah she is beautiful, she thinks, "Otienu had carved her body. He could have chosen a tree for her spirit. She didn't pick her body or create her beauty, so it felt almost dishonest to thank people for something she didn't do." But the beauty Attah creates inside Aminah radiates through her every action and word.

The dichotomy of The Hundred Wells of Salaga makes for an alluring story. It is at once horrific and resplendent. Attah honestly relates an appalling part of Ghana's history while weaving in hope and light, with commanding characters capable of initiating change. This is a novel with the power to open eyes and hearts while filling minds with plenty of food for thought. --Jen Forbus, freelancer

Other Press, $16.99, trade paper, 240p., 9781590519950, February 5, 2019

Other Press: The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah

Ayesha Harruna Attah: The Meaning of Freedom

photo: Itunu Kuku

Ayesha Harruna Attah grew up in Accra, Ghana, and was educated at Mount Holyoke College, Columbia University and New York University. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times MagazineAsymptote Magazine and the 2010 Caine Prize Writers' Anthology. Attah is an Instituto Sacatar Fellow and was awarded the 2016 Miles Morland Foundation Scholarship for nonfiction. She lives in Senegal.

You have mentioned that reading Toni Morrison's novel Paradise inspired you to want to write strong female characters. Was this also your inspiration to write novels?

It was more than Paradise. Toni Morrison's whole body of work inspired me to write fiction. My parents have journalism backgrounds, so I grew up bathed in stories. My father, in particular, loves to tell a good story; some of his characters have even become part of the family. When I started writing fiction, his voice, his eye for detail and his humor served as great guides to me.

Your first two novels deal with more current events, but The Hundred Wells of Salaga takes your readers back over a century.

I learned that my great-great-grandmother had been enslaved in precolonial Ghana, and I knew immediately that I would write about her. It was also because of how fascinating this period was. In Salaga, the scramble for Africa played out live as its citizens saw Europeans competing with each other for a piece of their land, and it was a very confusing time for them. The third element was because I wanted to start conversations about topics like internal slavery, which no one seems to want to talk about. Writing fiction is a somewhat gentle way to open up discussions.

How did you approach your research for the book?

It was threefold. I went up to Salaga to experience what it would have been like firsthand; I interviewed family members; I did a lot of reading about Salaga, and books like Marion Johnson's Salaga Papers were gems of local color and information.

You chose to tell this story through the eyes of two different women whose lives converge. Why was it important for you to use this approach?

Aminah was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Wurche was the daughter of a chief. Their lives converged in the Salaga slave market. As I was doing research, I learned that princesses like Wurche had unparalleled amounts of freedom. It was clear to me that a character like that would be perfect to hold up against that of my great-great-grandmother, who had been enslaved. As their stories unfolded, however, sometimes the line between who was free and who was not grew quite blurry.

You stated that there was a lot of material for you to work with when creating the character of Wurche, but not much for Aminah. You said you had to search for her character within yourself. How did you go about that?

I didn't know where my great-great-grandmother came from; I didn't know her name. To have had a name would have meant having a nugget, even if a small one, to work with. I, therefore, had to go with intangibles, such as the values that had filtered down through generations to me. For instance, when my father talks about my great-grandmother, whom he adored, he says she was the kindest person he knew, that she collected strays, and fed all the madmen in the town. It was in examining the parts of myself that could have come from her that I was able to write her character.

Did it make Aminah's character harder or easier to bring to life?

Both. It was easier because I didn't have the constraints of historical research framing her story. I could get carried away with my imagination. On the flip side, I didn't have the kind of rich details I got to use in writing Wurche's character, down to the kind of riding boots her father wore.

And do you think that ultimately makes you more like Aminah?

Aminah and Wurche both have parts of me and in some ways are aspirational versions of myself. Although my temperament makes me more like Aminah, so you might be right.

Two characters who play a minor role are Aminah's twin sisters, Husseina and Hassana, who share a special connection. Why include this as part of Aminah's story?

My last name, "Attah," means twin, and I would have given my right arm to have twins, so I guess subconsciously they feature a lot in my work. On a more serious note, they were a nod to Africa and her diaspora, and how even though an ocean eventually brutally separated them, they never lost their connection. While Aminah and her sisters were mostly clueless about the transatlantic slave trade, they also suffered from it.

There is a question that Aminah ponders at one point in the novel--"What was it that made one person attractive to many people?" How would you personally answer that question?

Aminah's beauty is what simultaneously saves her and damns her. The ancient Egyptians had the best answer to the question Aminah ponders. They had a god called Osiris, the beautiful one. His beauty ran deeper than the external; he was pleasing to the eye, but he was also good inside and wanted to do good in the world. It wasn't surface beauty.

Another way of looking at this question is thinking of our favorite movie stars or pop stars. We first idolize them because we think they are beautiful or they have allure, but as soon as we find out they are terrible human beings, their beauty fades. The kind of beauty that I grapple with in The Hundred Wells of Salaga is deep and flawed, but constantly in conversation with itself, and I think that is attractive to many people.

Readers in the United States have a different history but not one devoid of slavery. If you could ensure readers all take one thing away from your novel, what would it be?

I would like readers to see what West Africa was like in all its complexity before being colonized, and by this I mean both the good and the bad--for instance, there were female teachers who spread information through poetry, and yet, internal slavery was a solid institution that many wanted to hold on to. --Jen Forbus

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