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In Conversation: Yaba Badoe

Yaba Badoe’s first novel, True Murder tells the story of Ajuba Benson, a pre-adolescent girl who is disturbed due to her family background in Ghana. Ajuba finds herself in the world of Polly Venus, an Anglo-American who is defiant and everything Ajuba is not. Their world soon collides with grave consequences which leaves Ajuba with a lot of questions in order to resolve the mystery around her own life. When I interviewed her for the New African Woman in 2009, she told me about the inspiration behind her the book.

Yaba BadoeWhen you started writing, who were you writing for?

Yaba Badoe: I just wanted any body who reads and who enjoys reading and who could be African, could be American, could be British but anyone who enjoys the genre of mystery or detective writing to feel that they could pick it up and enjoy it. So whether you were 30years old, 13years old or 83years old, I hope that it will appeal to you and that you could pick it up and enjoy it.

True Murder is a detective genre and mystery, where did the inspiration to write a book centred on those two genres come from?

Yaba Badoe: I enjoy detective fiction very much. I remember once for a new year’s resolution, I thought I had sort of start from Edgar Allen Pole and work my way through down to Denise Lahan and Mick Donald. I like the idea that there are things you don’t know that you would discover. It is a very popular genre and it is also very flexible. And you can deal with quite serious themes in it and that is what switched me on to it. And also it comes from an experience I had when I was 14 and when someone I knew was murdered and it was such a shattering experience that I thought if I ever wanted to write anything in the future, it would sort of be the impact that that had on me and other people within the community, something as traumatic as that. You know the repercussion it has on people.

There is an obsession with the mystery of death and solving crime mysteries in your book, does that stem from a personal experience of yours?

Yaba Badoe: I think it must do in part but at the time, what struck me was how powerful adults are in the lives of children and how behind the facade behind the most perfect family, there are all sorts of things going on which as an outsider, you have no idea about. Where families are sort of where people are nurtured and brought up are also a source of violence and explosive emotions. I wanted to sort of examine some of that?

Why did you write this story through the eyes of a child?

Yaba Badoe: I think that was for dramatic impact because a child is telling story and in fact it is an older woman remembering her childhood in Devon and most of the story is seen through the viewpoint of a child. So, you are aware of the vulnerability of the narrator and the things the narrator has gone through and it also, I think puts you on your guard because not everything children tell you is necessarily the way that it is in reality. So, I think it’s because of the dramatic potential of that and the way a first person narrator would be most powerful.

Why did you use Devon, England as the backdrop for your story and not Ghana which also features culturally in the book?

Yaba Badoe: Actually, I grew up in Devon, I went to prep school there and so there are certain auto-biographical elements to the story.

How long did it take you to write the book?

Yaba Badoe: It must have taken a total of 3 years of hard work but that was spawned over 18 years from when I did the first draft to last year when I was going through the copy-editing with Jonathan Cape. In total it took me about 18 years but I think as far as working and focusing on it, that was about 3 years to write but that was over a long period of time.

You got the story idea 18 years ago and working on it from the first draft to what it is now, did you ever feel like giving it up or it was about keeping the story safe?

Yaba Badoe: The aim was to just keep working on it. The original draft is nothing like the final draft although the elements are the same, that is, a child us murdered but the way it all came together is all very different to the was in the beginning. I mean originally, it was not written in the first person, it was written in the third person. Then it want through another transition where a mixture of third and first person narration and finally when I met an editor who liked it but felt that it could be much better, I did it all in the first person because that was where the power of the book was. And the more drafts you do, the more you add to it, the more you embellish it and various people along the way gave their criticism and actually gave advice and made suggestions which all led to the book being the rich mixture it is.

Among the authors that you admire and respect; which one stood out for you and may have influenced you while writing True Murder?

Yaba Badoe: It’s really hard to say that because although a large part of the book is an investigation into a murder and part of it is that children are playing detectives. It is not what I would call a traditional detective novel because it is actually about childhood and someone recovering from a bad childhood. For instance you can say it a gothic thriller, a gothic mystery, so, it’s not specifically detective but more gothic and gothic covers a multitude of sins from all sorts of things. From Donna Tartt and the Secret History to Daphne Du Maurier and Rebecca but I also rate authors like Toni Morrison, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from Nigeria, Ama Ata Aidoo highly. But whether they influence me, I think it would be for other people to try to see the influences because I just write the way it comes out.

The elements of friendship and relationship stand out in the book, why did you pick those themes being that we are hearing the story from a child?

Yaba Badoe: I don’t know how one decide on themes or how themes come to you but one of the strongest part of the story is a very strong friendship between two pre-adolescent women, two girls and that is the core of the book. This intense friendship, which although it is not perfect, it is quite difficult and there is an element of bullying in it, an element of ambiguity just like many young women at school. They might be enthralled to someone who they think has so much but that person who has so much might have a lot of bravado to mask a whole lot of insecurity.  For one reason or another, Ajuba and her friend Polly are very close and through the course of the book, the relationship, so it actually becomes, not just a sense of hero worship or bullying but it becomes close friendship and I was interested in how relationships develop and how people within families operate. So, I was interested in Ajuba’s relationship with Mrs Venus, Polly’s mother and her relationship with her own mother because I think women are especially influenced by the mothering they have.

You also work as a filmmaker and make documentaries and you are a well known broadcast journalist? How has your filmmaking influenced your writing?

Yaba Badoe: As a film maker, I look at text in a visual way and I enjoy painting a scene and I think a scene is full of textures, physical, the smells and so on and so, I think my skill as film maker has sort of fed into my skill as a writer. Not only is there lyricism as a writer, that sort of sense of smell and the environment is also present. People write in different ways but that’s how it turns out that I write.

The Book - True Murder

The Book - True Murder

The story is about two young women and their friendship, why did you create the kind of juxtaposition between the lead characters the way you have?

Yaba Badoe: I think as the novel evolved, one thing that I found really important was to create characters that enhance the drama of the book and Ajuba as the narrator, she is surprisingly strong but she is also a bit disturbed. And you are not quite sure exactly, the source of her disturbance but you know from the get-go that she has an obsession and she has problems. Nevertheless, she is writing this book in the hope that she will overcome her problems and that if she tells her story as she sees it, it will somehow release her from the difficulties she has experienced. And like I say, Ajuba is quite a likeable character, she is sensitive, she is in an outside environment, a Devon Prep school and she misses her family very much. So much of the book is about family and longing. So, when the new girl Polly Venus arrives at the school, the whole school changes. Polly is what I would say an adult would call a challenging youngster. Whereby she is not obedient, she does her own thing, she is subversive, she is domineering and she gets all the other kids to do what she wants to do and one of the things she wants to do is to get the other kids to play a dangerous game where she gets the other kids to plays a game which she gets from a magazine which she is obsessed with called True Murder which describes all of the world’s sensational killing in a comic form. So any adult who came across that would be ponderous as to why this girl was obsessed with violence. Those two different characters actually create a mix which leads the book and leads things on in the narrative.

Where you concerned about the title and how people might react to that or the theme of murder and mystery in the book?

Yaba Badoe: There are lots of mystery books for children. And death is part of life and there is no doubt that lots of people are fascinated in reading about investigation and murders. So, I think anybody would enjoy it.

Why did you fuse two parts of your life, your Ghanaian heritage and your life in England into the book?

Yaba Badoe: I was very keen on showing a British like or middle class western like or something other. You know usually in stories, it’s the black child who is seen as exotic.  I wanted to look at all of this from a young point of view of a young black child, who looks at it and says the way this people are behaving is not the way I behave. They don’t have respect, they cook from books, they are touching each other all the time, is this something I want? Is this something I like? And so, I wanted to feed that. That sense of strangeness wasn’t because of Ajuba but because of the environment she was in. I wanted that African sense that she is from Ghana to be very strong and to inform the book and how she sees the world.

The trend of family dysfunction in the book is not just in Polly’s family, it is also in Ajuba’s family, what was the relevance of being able to tell that children can and do understand when all is not well in the family?

Yaba Badoe: I heard somebody talking yesterday that nice people and ordinary scenarios are not so interesting and that it is families who are going through crisis that makes it interesting for the writer. I am sure they are dysfunctional families and there are happy families who have challenges but do not resort to violence but I guess I was more interested in something that wasn’t working and the impact that this would have on children.

How do you feel about the reviews you have had so far?

Yaba Badoe: I’m absolutely thrilled and delighted. It’s that sort of conversation that a book creates between the person who wrote it and the wider world.

And when you hear the not co complimentary compliments, how do you handle those type of reviews especially for your first book?

Yaba Badoe: The good thing is that I have had about 10 good reviews and two negative reviews. So I really feel alright. the day I read the Guardian review, I also read one from a blogger called the DoveRay…one of the things about the book is that it does not fall into a clear category and its not something that can be put in a clear category?

How did it feel to pick up your first novel in a bookshop?

Yaba Badoe: I was thrilled. It was terrific to pick it because it was like all of those years of hard work, it finally came to something but the funny thing is that that doesn’t stop you from wanting more.

Yaba Badoe is a writer, documentary filmmaker and broadcast journalist. She is currently working a film about a community of witches in Ghana and her aim is that it would have an impact on the human rights of women who are accused of witchcraft in Northern Ghana.

True Murder is out in paperback and hardcover, and published by Jonathan Cape/Vintage

Book Cover By Vintage

Image of Yaba Badoe by Niall McDiarmid

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One Response to “In Conversation: Yaba Badoe”

  1. Temitayo says:

    Interesting and insightful interview. Love the book cover…now I want to read the book 🙂 Hmm…that’s for what she’s working on now–she’s gonna dig up a lot. And it’s good, what’s writing/art that does not dig up? Even if it’s so subtle…

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