I don’t normally read the introduction of books, but on a whim I did so for the short story collection Accra Noir. Edited and curated by Nana-Ama Danquah, her lyrical descriptions of modern and historical Accra drew me into her perspective of her home and left me feeling taunt with anticipation for the stories to come.
“Accra is a city of storytellers,” Danquah wrote, “people who speak and live and love in parables and aphorisms and proverbs…. Accra is more than just a capital city. It is a microcosm of Ghana. It is a virtual map of the nation’s soul…,” she explained. Her short story from this collection, When A Man Loves A Woman, focuses on a middle-aged couple dealing with a medical condition that has altered their sexual relationship, and I wanted to discuss the themes in this story with her.
Danquah is an accomplished author, editor, ghost writer, speech writer, freelance journalist, actress, teacher, and public speaker. Her short story When A Man Loves A Woman from the Accra Noir collection, was shortlisted for the 2022 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing.
I’m grateful to Ms. Danquah for joining me on the series and for allowing me to pick her brain on this intriguing story. Below is our conversation.
Tricia: Ms. Danquah, thank you so very much for your time and for joining me on the In Conversation series. How have you been doing?
Ms. Danquah: Thank you for having me. I suppose I have been as well as one can be considering all of the turmoil and concerning events taking place on the world stage.
Tricia: Adwoa and Kwame are a middle-aged couple who are sexually vibrant and make sexual intimacy a priority in their relationship. Society tends to focus on this type of intimacy in younger couples, so what made you decide to have your couple be older in When A Man Loves A Woman?
Ms. Danquah: I so appreciate the change to address this topic of age. Many interviewers have tiptoed around it, so I am thrilled that you took it head on. My answer to the question is that because…[laughing]…as I age, my concerns are more focused on what is around and ahead of me, not what is behind me. Some of us are at the age of menopause—with its hot flashes, hysterectomies, and surprise pension babies—and prostate enlargements and removals, and erectile dysfunction. Some of us are at the age where we are having the best, most self-possessed and unencumbered sex of our lives. Better even than in our twenties. But you are correct when you say that society is youth-focused, which is why it was, and continues to be, important for me to write characters who are real to my experience as a middle-aged woman in this world; characters who are grappling with some of the same issues as my peers and I.
Tricia: Kwame’s prostate cancer diagnosis completely changes his intimacy with Adwoa and his insecurities eat away at his self-confidence. I noticed that he doesn’t have any close friends to confide in about his struggles. Although this dynamic isn’t unique to Ghana, I wondered how do Ghanaian men generally deal with such personal trials in seeking emotional support from other men?
Ms. Danquah: Not being a Ghanaian man, I wouldn’t know how to answer that. What I do know is that patriarchal systems rob men of many essentially human traits and qualities, and vulnerability is one. It is quite comfortable for me, as a woman, to speak with other women about the physical and emotional aspects of an issue with my sexual organs. I’m not sure how comfortable or common that is for men. Men are not encouraged to go to therapy, to speak of their feelings—their fears, their disappointments and anxieties—so they keep those feeling bottled up. And the results of that can be quite dangerous. I wanted to address this in my story.
Tricia: As a reader I found it troubling that Kwame’s insecurities grew the more Adwoa took care of herself physically. Though he had a strong sexual desire for his wife, he never seemed able to acknowledge that his jealousy was a threat to their marriage. What do you hope readers will take away from this situation you’ve created?
Ms. Danquah: My greatest hope—which, I suppose is the hope of any writer—is that my work provokes thought and inspired dialogue. If these characters move you to care, then I have done my job. If you are able to see the situation from more than one perspective and consider that other perspective, or have a discussion with someone who can strongly explain and defend it, then I have done my job.
Tricia: Adwoa is so trusting of Kwame that she doesn’t expect his jealousy. She even says, “If I didn’t know you were such an honest man, I would fear you!” Sometimes long-term relationships instill such comfort in people that we’re not expecting turmoil. Was there really any way for Adwoa to foresee that Kwame’s frustrations were becoming dangerous?
Ms. Danquah: What a wonderful question. The writer, Maya Angelou, famously said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” I believe that people reveal themselves through their actions, through their words, sometimes even through their silences. We often dismiss the person that they are showing us, the person they really are, in favor of the person we choose to see, which is the person we believe or want them to be. Even before his illness, Kwame displayed his jealous and insecurity every time Adwoa tried to get healthy—and she ultimately chose husband over her own health and wellbeing.
Tricia: You were also the editor of Accra Noir and I appreciated the boldness of each story in the collection. Can you describe how you went about curating this installment of the Noir series?
Ms. Danquah: Thank you. I am so very proud of each and every story in the collection. The writers all worked quite hard to offer a glimpse of a town they love very much. I approached Akashic Books about editing an installment to the series based in Accra, then send them a proposal, which they read and approved before commissioning the project. I hand-picked the writers because of their storytelling abilities, as well as their love and knowledge of Accra. I wouldn’t do anything different; I am quite pleased with the book.
Tricia: In the introduction you wrote, “Accra is a city of storytellers…Remember that it is the culture that defines a city, everything holds meaning and is sending a message.” What message did you want to send with When A Man Loves A Woman and with the Accra Noir collection as a whole?
Ms. Danquah: The message that I wanted to send with the Accra Noir collection as a whole is that Accra is a large, modern, multicultural and international cosmopolitan city that is rich with history and also riddled with as much crime as any other modern urban center.
As for my story, the message that I wanted to send is that maybe we should start looking at the unnecessary pain that the patriarchal system under which we are living is causing both men and women; maybe we need to consider doing away with these old gender constructs and start welcoming new ideas and definitions of masculinity, femininity, as well as everything between and beyond.
Tricia: All of the writers shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize are exceptionally talented. What is your personal opinion about the caliber of writers coming out of Africa and the diaspora, and the impact they are making on African literature?
Ms. Danquah: I think Africa, like everywhere else, produces amazing, innovative, cutting-edge writers; and, Africa also produces mediocre writers who maintain the status quo. The issue isn’t with the writers that Africa is or isn’t producing; the issue is with the opportunities that these writers are given to publish and to find a readership. Currently, there are numerous avenues for publishing that an African writer can take. Also, there seems to be less editorial intrusion on the stories that are being told; that is to say, we are not being pressured to write about Africa as a monolith or through one stayed lens. African cultures, languages, boundaries, politics, and populations are constantly changing, and the literature that is being published reflects this movement away, toward, and around all that we have been, will become, and are right now, respectively.
Tricia: Kwame is such a flawed character, as we all are as individuals, and you paired him with a partner who is seemingly flawless in her devotion to him. You pointed out in Accra Noir’s introduction that people like Kwame are woven into the fabric of everyday life in Accra. How has this city influenced your writing throughout your career?
Ms. Danquah: I challenge your notion that Adwoa is not flawed. I think the important word that you used is “seemingly.” The point is that we are all flawed. The ways in which we live and love are flawed as well. In the Southern California desert, where I have a home, everything is neatly manicured and perfectly in place, quite picturesque, and I always find that a bit disquieting. Accra is chaotic, but in a way that I find rather invigorating. Everything has its own rhythm, but all the movements are happening at once. Being in Accra reminds me that life is not clean and organized and sterile; life is messy and if you’re going to embrace it, you’ve got to get your hands dirty.
Tricia: Thank you so much Ms. Danquah! I wish you continued success in all you do in the future.
Ms. Danquah: Thank you, again, for giving me the space to discuss my work. I am deeply grateful.
Photo courtesy Tanya McKinnon.