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An Interview with Yaba Badoe

Your YA debut, A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars, powerfully intertwines myth and magic with the haunting realities of Europe’s migration crisis. What was the original inspiration behind this?

A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars was in gestation a long time. I remember going to a preview of the 1990 British drama, The March, written by William Nicholson for ‘One World Week’ and being struck by how visceral the issue of migration from the South to Europe is. In The March, a charismatic Muslim leader from Sudan leads 250,00 Africans on a 3,000-mile march towards Europe with the slogan ‘We are poor because you are rich.’

What’s happening at the moment is that war and the climate crisis often compels migration. I wanted to look at this from the viewpoint of a YA, my narrator, Sante, who’s tries to make sense of her situation by finding the traffickers responsible for her parents’ deaths. Another inspiration is that as a migrant myself, questions of identity and belonging are never far away. They’re always present, and at times can become fraught when politicians use fear of migration to whip up hatred of outsiders.

A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars is set around the beautiful Mediterranean. Why this location?

A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars is set in southern Spain, Andalusia, an incredibly beautiful part of the world. Most of the action takes place in the city of Cadiz, where I spent a year in the late 80’s teaching English as a foreign language and writing an early draft of my first adult novel, True Murder. I’ve visited Cadiz and friends in Andalusia ever since. It’s one of my spiritual homes.

If you were to join Mama Rose’s circus, what would your circus skill be?

Ha! Good question! I’d like to be as lithe and acrobatic as the gymnast Simon Biles but since that’s never going to happen, I’ll have to join the circus as a storyteller!

Your writing is infused with beautiful African folklores. Did you face any particular challenges balancing this magic with the realism of trafficking, refugees and displacement?

I’m very lucky to have an excellent editor at Zephyr/Head of Zeus, Fiona Kennedy. I trust her to let me know if I’m gone OTT. But to be honest, I found it useful mixing elements of the supernatural and magic with themes as traumatic as refugees, trafficking and displacement. Without a spark of otherworldliness, I think I’d find the themes too depressing to tackle.

What gravitates you to writing magical realism novels?

Life is magical. Life is a miracle. Being able to see and breathe, move about and talk to strangers and friends is a huge adventure. And when you start peeling away the layers of peoples’ lives and histories, I’m in awe at the thrill of being alive. My stories are a product of this gift. Stories are my way of looking at the world and trying to make sense of it, I suppose. They’re my way of finding purpose in everyday events by fusing them with the simplicity of fairy tales, while allowing my characters to achieve amazing things.

What’s your favourite Ghanaian myth?

In the oral traditions of West Africa, stories are everywhere. For example, the clothes we wear, their colour, the symbols on them and specific designs, have names and meanings, which many people know. The same goes for music and dance. If stories and music are the life blood of culture, we have it in spades. The most famous Ghanaian stories are Ananse folk tales, which travelled to North America with West Africans captured and sold as slaves. The tales of Ananse the spider/man were transformed into the tales of Brer Rabbit, the trickster.

I suspect myths are created where history meets religion and magic. If that’s the case, my favourite myth is about the creation of the Ashanti Empire. The story goes that Okomfo Anokye – a priest of traditional African religion worked closely with the first King of Ashanti, Osei Tutu, to create an empire. The golden stool, which according to legend Osei Tutu managed to conjure down from the sky, is a symbol of the Ashanti Empire and is said to have magical powers. Makes for a great story, doesn’t it?

What do you hope readers take away from Sante’s story?

I hope readers enjoy Sante’s story enough to identify with her and follow her search to know more about her birth family and where she comes from. I also hope that they relish Sante’s sense of adventure and drive for justice; and that once they’ve finished, they’ll recommend the story to their friends. Word of mouth is powerful!

Location, homelands and sacred sites are really important in Wolf Light, what made you choose Cornwall, Mongolia and Ghana as primal settings?

I chose those settings because I love Cornwall and have good friends who used to live there. I know Ghana as well and I visited Gobi Altai in Mongolia, a couple of times when I was making a documentary series for ITV. In Wolf Light I wanted to write about locations and communities that are very different. Locations close to water, forest and desert, which tell us something about the impact of the climate crisis in parts of the world where, traditionally, people experienced their connection to the environment as sacred.

In Wolf Light we witness heartbreaking climate disasters and environmental destructions. How much of an impact can storytelling for children and young adults have on protecting and preserving the environment?

If you believe as I do, that it’s our ability to tell stories that makes us human, I have great confidence that stories, combined with imagination, have the power to change lives – if only through imagining a future for ourselves which will be better and kinder for the planet we live on.

Your three heroines are such admirable, empowering and fierce characters. Where did you get your inspiration to write your characters for Wolf Light?

That’s a really hard question to answer. Where do characters come from? Are they neglected parts of ourselves seeking expression? Or aspects of people we’ve admired that have taken root in our unconscious minds? I find that some characters find their way on to the page easier than others. In Wolf Light, Adoma from Ghana was great fun to write, as was Zula from Mongolia. I had to work harder to open up to Linnet from Cornwall, but when she came through, I really enjoyed writing her and I’m tempted to return to write more about water witches in Celtic mythology.

What’s next for your writing journey?

I’m busy finishing the first draft of a novel – Lionheart Girl. Born into a family of West African witches, Sheba’s terrified of her mother who can turn into a crow. After Sheba learns to shape-shift as well, she must protect the hunted from the hunter – mother.

What’s the last ‘armchair travel’ book you read?

I’m going to cheat in my answer to this question because I suspect that every book I read is, in one way or another, a ‘travel’ book. Don’t we travel into someone else’s imagination in every story we read? Don’t we enter new worlds when we pick up non-fiction books? The last non-fiction book I wolfed down was Anna Funder’s Stasiland, which a friend recommended some years ago after I started raving about the film The Lives of Others written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmark. Stasiland plunges you into the fraught lives of East Germans before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s a wonderful account of a strange, secretive world of uncertainty and betrayal.

Does travelling have a big impact on your writing?

Travelling has a HUGE impact on my writing. I think the best part of travelling is the opportunity to give mind and body space to relax and imagine new worlds and possibilities. I wouldn’t have been able to write The Secret of the Purple Lake – a collection of inter-connected fairy stories for younger children without spending time on Rousay, in Orkney, Andalusia in Spain, the island of Kho Samui in Thailand, and coastal Ghana. While in Rousay, I felt a Viking vibe and underneath that a love of seals and mermaids. A belief in Mami Water – sea and water spirits - is rife along the coast of West Africa. And having spent time in Spain, I definitely sensed the ghosts of the Moors and Islam wherever I went in Andalusia. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to set A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars in Cadiz if I hadn’t a great deal of time there and got to know the city quite well.

This question is about your favourite children’s/YA books. What’s a book you loved as a child, a book you love now, and a book you can’t wait to read?

I loved reading as a child, especially Grimms’ Fairy Tales. I was a sucker for Greek Myths, Robin Hood and His Merry Men, and tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Books I enjoy now are Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials; Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness; and Sally Gardner’s, I Corinader and Maggot Moon.

There’s a stack of books I’m eager to read. Among them are: The Ghost of Gosswater by Lucy Strange; Rawblood by Catriona Ward and The Wolf Road by Richard Lambert.

If you could invite any five people – past and present, real and fictional – who would you invite and why?

Mmmm. I think I’d enjoy hosting a dinner party for fierce, powerful women who’ve fired my imagination.

First up is pharaoh, Queen Hatshepsut, a very canny political operator who ruled on behalf of her son for much longer than he wanted. I visited her temple in Deir el-Bahri as a guest of the Luxor African Film Festival and was blown away.

I’d invite Yaa Asantewaa, the queen mother of Ejisu in the Ashanti Empire, who’s famous for leading the Ashanti rebellion against British colonialism to defend the Golden Stool.

Next up is Amanirenas, Kandake of Kush, a one-eyed warrior queen who led the Kushite armies into against the Romans and defeated them.

As a schoolchild I enjoyed hearing the story of Boudica, queen of the British Celtic Iceni tribe who led an uprising against the conquering forces of the Roman Empire.

Finally, I’ll ask Nina Simone to join us. I love her music and exult in her talent.

Finally, we’d love to know three random and/or interesting facts about yourself!

I adore eating cold Ambrosia rice pudding out of the tin.

My favourite colour is turquoise.

I’ve never learnt how to ride a bicycle.

Yaba Badoe is an award-winning Ghanaian-British documentary filmmaker and writer. A graduate of King's College Cambridge, she has taught in Spain, Jamaica and Ghana. Her short stories for adults have been published in Critical Quarterly and in African Love Stories: An Anthology, edited by Ama Ata Aidoo. In 2014 Yaba was nominated for the Distinguished Woman of African Cinema award.

Her debut novel, A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars, published by Zephyr, was shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award 2018 and has been nominated for the 2019 Carnegie Medal. Yaba is based in London.

Follow Yaba on Twitter @yaba_badoe.


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