Michael Donkor | 'Ghanaians have a really silly and often quite absurd sense of humour'

Michael Donkor | 'Ghanaians have a really silly and often quite absurd sense of humour'

Fourth Estate snapped up the rights to Michael Donkor’s debut novel Hold at auction last July.

A rich and evocative coming-of-age story, Hold travels between Ghana and Brixton, following the fortunes of three teenage girls: "bright and sensible" Belinda, "wayward" Amma and "attention-seeking" Mary. 

Dubbed a "new face of fiction" by the Observer, we caught up with Donkor to discuss his inspirations, writing processes and the difficulty of juggling writing with his career as a teacher. 

What inspired Hold
I suppose my primary inspiration came from my curiosity about the live-in maids who cooked, cleaned and waited on me and my sisters when we visited Ghana as children. The maids were an intriguing and ubiquitous feature of these trips, but they were incredibly silent, very deferential and I had few opportunities to learn more about them. So writing Hold allowed me to think more deeply about how these girls - isolated from their families and working very hard - might have felt about the alienating place that they found themselves in. Equally, I grew up in a very female-dominated household, surrounded by intelligent, kind, fascinating women. I wanted to write a novel which honoured some of their brilliance and wit.

What are the main themes you were keen to explore?
I didn’t begin the process of writing the novel with particular ‘themes’ in mind. But there were questions that I became interested in as the story grew and grew; questions about what we expect of our parents, what it’s fair to expect of them, what it’s reasonable for parents to expect of their children; questions about the different ways in which people manage solitude, questions about how friendship work. Also, Ghanaians have a really silly and often quite absurd sense of humour, one which I think influences the Ghanaian 'world view' (if such a thing exists!) and I wanted this to be a prominent part or ‘theme’ of the novel too.   

What was the most challenging aspect of writing from Belinda, Amma and Mary’s perspectives? 
All three characters have aspects about their personalities that are, perhaps, irritating: Belinda’s buttoned-up reticence, Amma’s pretentions, Mary’s attention seeking. I was keen to make sure that, while not ‘airbrushing out’ these rough edges - because these rough edges felt honest and important - I didn’t want readers to feel unnecessarily hostile towards the three girls, or to dismiss the difficulties that the girls were going through because their behaviour was frustrating. Finding the balance between presenting the girls’ foibles and sustaining the reader’s empathy was tricky.

The story is set in 2002 - was this a significant time for you? 
Yes, I look back on 2002 with a lot of affection. At the time, I was applying to study English at university, so adulthood and all of its thrilling, terrifying freedoms were glinting on the horizon. Hopefully some of Amma’s characterization conveys the feelings of restless excitement that I felt then. In 2002 I was properly coming to the realization that being a writer was what I wanted to do and so, as evidenced by my stacks of old notebooks, I wrote endlessly and inexpertly in all sorts of forms; poetry, short stories, plays. It was also the year when I read Woolf and Achebe for the first time and was awestruck.

Importantly, I 'went out' a lot in 2002: I had done well in my GCSE and AS exams, the parental leash was somewhat loosened and my friends and I took full advantage of the rather lax door policy/casual attitude to underage drinking in Clapham and Balham’s pubs. And there were an inordinate number of houseparties too, and at each party something seemingly dramatic or salacious happened. I loved and still love the soundtrack to these parties; the audacious, empowered pop and R&B of the early noughties - TLC, Destiny’s Child, Misteeq, Usher, Ashanti - which is why references to Missy Elliott and Christina Aguilera pepper the novel. 

Who or what are your main inspirations and influences?
Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Toni Morrison are huge inspirations for me; because of the commitment with which they undertake the art of storytelling, their refreshing observations about the politics of and the slipperiness of identity, and because of how – in their very different ways – they manage to write about these pressing, serious matters with tenderness and compassion.

How has your experience as a teacher shaped your writing? 
I often moan about how teaching is time-consuming and demanding in ways that are counterproductive to prolific writing. But there are some aspects of teaching that are excellent training for making fiction. In the classroom, I’m always observing and analysing my students, trying to understand what makes them tick so that I can figure out how best to work with them. This kind of thinking helps with crafting characters and understanding characters’ psychologies, I think. Also, a huge part of what I do in lessons involves expressing complicated ideas interestingly and with clarity, something that I’m always mindful of when editing.

What impact do you hope the title will have on its readers? 
The title has all sorts of connotations and suggests various ideas about endurance and intimacy and the connection between these two things, but I don’t want to say too much about this for fear of colouring readers’ views! Readers should feel free take from the title - and from the novel as whole - what seems most compelling to them.

In 2014, you were mentored by Daniel Hahn as part of a Writers’ Centre Norwich scheme. How did you become involved and how did you find the experience? 
I found out about the wonderful Inspires scheme through a fantastic - and now sadly defunct - organization called IdeasTap that offered guidance and support to creatives at the beginning of their careers. I applied for the programme at a time when I was feeling despondent about the possibility of the novel ever being published. Winning a place on the programme was hugely encouraging.

Being mentored by Daniel was transformative; it was incredible to have someone scrutinise my writing with such thoroughness, and the conversations that Daniel and I had about the shape of the narrative - contracting this chapter, expanding that one, fleshing out this character a little more - were so helpful. Often, we think about how early readers of novels provide valuably objective, detached critiques, but I’ve always thought that there is something curiously dispassionate about this description of the reading/editorial process. Danny was anything but dispassionate; he engaged in the process with creativity, offering suggestions that sparked my imagination and really made me interrogate my choices of plot and language. 

Spending time with the other participants on the programme was another highlight. They’re such an impressive bunch! Throughout the Inspires scheme, we were all working on very different projects, had very different voices and distinct approaches to the task of creating fiction. I loved the variety. 

What was your experience of finding a publisher? 
The process of finding a publisher was ably managed by my stellar agent Juliet Pickering (at Blake Friedmann), who I first met at one of the events organised by WCN as part of the Inspires programme. After I had worked with Juliet on one or two final drafts of the novel, Juliet then asked me which publishing houses I wanted the manuscript sent to, and she added to this list the names of editors who had already expressed interest in the novel, as well as the names of other editors who Juliet thought might connect with some of the novel’s concerns and aspirations. Juliet then wrested the manuscript from my grasp and sent it out on submission.

Waiting for responses was agonising, but Hold was eventually picked up by 4th Estate. I will never forget the moment that I found out the news. I was walking down Brixton High Road weighed down by bags of shopping when my phone buzzed. I awkwardly stopped in the middle of the street to take the call and when Juliet told me that I had finally found a publisher I burst into tears and had to steal myself away into a little alley to conceal my blubbering from bemused onlookers!     

How did it feel to join the Fourth Estate list?
Absolutely brilliant! To my mind, Fourth Estate is one of the most innovative and discerning houses around, and they’re publishing some really exciting stuff at the moment like Zinzi Clemmons and Imbolu Mbue. Their array of authors is a prodigious one: Lessing! Franzen! Eugenides! Fantastic.

Are you working on anything new at the moment?
A little idea is very slowly and very tentatively germinating…