“I was the subject of an experiment in love. I lived my life
under her gaze, undergoing certain trials for her so that she
would not have to undergo them for herself. But, how are our certainties
forged, except by the sweat and tears of other people?”
An Experiment in Love
Shortlisted for the Hilary Mantel/Kingston University Short Story Competition
Photo by Catherine McNamara
My new colleagues were backstabbing and merciless and came through inching, dust-choked traffic from the hinterlands to work. In turn, they wasted no time in slamming each other over milky Liptons in plastic mugs or warm Guinness bottles passed across the desk. Very quickly the office mystery was established as Meredith. Meredith was filmy white, coiled blonde hair dropping down her back and the way she moved was staunch. I was informed that Meredith slept with her dogs.
The dimensions of the Accra agency were tighter than the huge Jo’burg office where I’d been stationed before but there was just as much piss-taking with the accounts. Everyone else was tar-black except the caramel secretary. I was looked at warily (mixed-race, shaven head, Eraserhead T-shirt) for good reason amongst their yellowing business shirts, and they didn’t ease up until Kwame Djoleto made a smouldering crack and they could see I wasn’t a jerk.
More than once Meredith glided from the staff room with a floral mug wearing a pleated apricot skirt, a shade of Sunday bazaar. Someone blurted that the husband had left her for a Nigerian hooker three years ago and she was frozen here, the sickly salary better than any amputated return to her confectioned home town. Kwame said the hooker had been squealing on top and Meredith had burst in with a gun from the kitchen, the dogs howling and the husband in grovelling tears.
This brought forth light, worn-through sniggers.
The company had given me a bungalow off a road of better streets and I was told that Meredith was a neighbour. She’d had to scale down when the husband’s salary moved away. I didn’t envisage us having awkward drinks on the porch but Meredith, one afternoon while handing in a budget estimate, said it was a quiet part of town. Ingrained along her forehead and the grooves either side of her mouth, were fresh and deepening lines of hardiness. I asked what breed were her dogs.
‘Labradors. Black Labradors. They suffer the heat.’
Never once in my life had I owned a dog, wished for a dog, even studied a dog. I find them breathy.
In the mornings a group of local soldiers jogged along the street in front of my place. This area of town backed onto the sprawling military camp with its lurching fences and colonial shacks. The soldiers carried guns across their bodies and shouted marines’ chants as they jogged to the end of the street. Every morning I watched their caps and olive shirts through the blinds. Some time afterwards, just before the driver swung around the corner to take me to work, Meredith would engineer two glossy black shapes down the empty street. Their spines snaked along, their thick tails levered and whacked around, their mouths were large, pink, wet.
At the nucleus of my clan of colleagues I soon realised it was not Kwame Djoleto, who made a lot of noise and was wide and pungent, but a thin man named Solomon who did little more than retrieve the post. Solomon sat straight-backed on his seat. He walked with a polio limp. A son of Solomon’s had died recently and the funeral notice was still on the staff board, showing a bright boy with buck teeth. Though I was the boss I realised that it was Solomon who commanded the team’s fluctuations and temperament. He looked congenial, long-suffering.
All hands came on deck any time there was a photo shoot as these were few and far between, dogged by many interpretations of the theme at hand. Take cooking oil. Weeks were spent on divergent storyboards, meetings were left in disgust. Brainstorming in the small overheated conference room took on the dimensions of frank warfare as each colleague within the creative department (and several others without) unfolded his or her heartfelt story of Frylove. Kwame Djoleto wanted a romantic scene: husband comes home, embraces wife from behind while she is cooking. There was a valid debate about the trappings of the kitchen, about whether the wife should wear Western dress; whether the husband should be fat or slim. How dark their skins should be. I noticed Meredith paying attention in a freefall way. Was she thinking about her dogs? When a handful of ideas had been cobbled together Solomon was consulted and the fine-boned man mentioned his preferences while twisting a leaky pen. Kwame’s scene, for example, didn’t involve any offspring. The grasp of the husband could be perceived as sexual (guffaws). Western dress was better, though the food should be rigorously local. As Kwame attempted baldly to defend his idea I stopped scribbling and saw that Meredith’s eyes like a watershed were upon me. But I was just in the way of her blinding thoughts. It was not the dogs she was thinking about.
Discussion reignited in a bullying way when Kwame insisted upon the wife’s fair tones and narrow waist. I glimpsed Meredith roll her eyes.
The two black Labradors were also walked in the evening. That was when I sat on the porch with a neat gin. Like Meredith, my spouse had taken off. But deservedly. I hadn’t had an email since. I watched Meredith’s arid walk behind the two animals with their slack leather leads. The dogs progressed slowly, heat-stricken in the musk air, heads bobbing, tongues gluey. Meredith filled out a tracksuit and wore a peaked cap.
I was still sitting there in the dark eating peanuts when Kwame Djoleto and two of the others made the visit they had been promising, wearing tight open shirts. Kwame was carrying a further bottle of gin. Their faces were beaded and the smallest man wiped his temples with a handkerchief. Kwame looked up at the rusted fan blades suspended from the teak-cladded ceiling and said that Solomon knew a good electrician. The fluorescent light made my skin look green, while they were a trio of black faces with violet flints. I brought out extra glasses.
Kwame drove us up through the suburbs to a nightclub called the Red Onion. I held onto a bottle of beer as women became wavy before me. Cocks were crowing when with ears ringing we came outside into the damp. I wondered whether Meredith in the arms of her Labradors was awake.
Solomon was absent and the office was in disarray. It was not known whether it was something connected to the son’s recent funeral, or whether fresh problems had arisen in his household. No one knew where Solomon lived. No one knew which trotro he caught to work. We went ahead with the Frylove photo shoot. The kitchen of the house next door served as a set. Lights on stands were placed apart and Meredith positioned fans. But there was an uncertainty, a negligence, in the air. Everyone looked lethargic. Kwame snapped at the Frylove models under the hot lights. The woman who was the ‘wife’ snapped back at him and folded her thin arms, while the ‘husband’ slumped in a kitchen chair and sent text after text. Any sort of orchestration dispersed. Meredith came across with her folder, standing between Kwame and the woman. I couldn’t understand Twi and didn’t know if Meredith in all her years of living here had grasped their tongue. It didn’t seem to be the case. As she led the woman up the hall to the bathroom I heard her say,
‘Now just come this way, Nana. You don’t want to spoil your makeup now.’
The model ‘children’ rolled up bits of paper and flicked them about the room.
As boss, I knew I had to call Kwame into line and re-establish the dynamic of the day. Kwame scowled at me in anticipation, his head swinging on his considerable neck as he looked around for Solomon amongst the helpers one last time. The maps under his armpits clung to his skin. He went over to the cooking pot and stirred the cold brown stew. He checked the yellow Frylove bottle was in sharp light. He told the unruly girl and boy to behave themselves before he took them outside to beat them. After Jo’burg’s tetchy egos and gauzy models it was hard not to laugh.
Meredith brought the ‘wife’ back from the bathroom. They had agreed upon a tawny girl, far too young to have produced the ten and twelve-year-old at the table. Meredith positioned her over the pot, showing the lumpy ‘husband’ how to clasp her. Kwame nodded. Someone had handed him a plastic mug of milky tea. I waved away mine and watched the white woman giving a honey-I’m-home embrace to the ticklish Frylove ‘wife’.
The end of the day produced two feasible shots we uploaded onto the computer. ‘The Hug’ and ‘At the Table’, an alternative which showed the mother placing a platter of jollof rice and chicken on the printed tablecloth, flanked by husband and children. Given ‘The Hug’ was devoid of any sort of sexual or marketing charge, I preferred the rigid table shot with its acidic yellows and greens, its gasping comedian faces. There was an irresistible lyricism at the base of its poor logic and composition.
Kwame wasn’t happy with either and roamed the set like a lost dog. Two weeks later the table shot plus titles was on billboards about the town.
Solomon refused to surface over the next few days and voices trailed along the corridors. Where did he come from? Was it Teshie? Did he catch a bus from Nungua? A chair was kept for him at the next round of meetings, where Kwame clashed severely with a colleague called Patrice. It was a hair straightening product, an ongoing campaign. Patrice’s first ideas were overturned and sliced in the belly, then given a final pounding on the head. I noticed Meredith looked distracted, someone or something had pulled the plug on her concentration. The conference room was small and full of bad breath.
I watched Meredith walk the dogs in the evening and almost felt like calling out to her from my porch. One of the dogs seemed to lag a little, and directly outside my scrappy hedge she crouched to the road and massaged the dog’s ears while the big dog licked her face. I recoiled. The other dog turned around limply.
A staff member who travelled a long way into town along the coast had found a funeral notice on the trotro. It was Solomon’s. Employees gathered in the office foyer and the poorly printed sheet was passed around. Kwame pushed into my office. Clutched in his hands was the streaky photograph showing Solomon’s face tilted upward, the mouth open and his front teeth tugged slightly out of line. It was now clear he was the father of the bright boy with buck teeth. Kwame cast down the sheet of paper, taking out a handkerchief to wipe his face. His trousers had an oil stain on the thigh and I saw he had small, clutched ears that wanted to hear very little.
Meredith entered the office and examined the page with a depleted expression. Outside a man burst into tears while a woman named Comfort led a procession into the conference room where murmuring and sobbing began. Kwame followed his colleagues and I soon heard his voice lifting above in a reverent, stilted backwash. Meredith and I stood staring at each other. I felt as though I were bagged inside her head and looking at myself. I saw my jaw clench and lines buckling my forehead.
Meredith flushed and we followed the others into the room.
What I in no way expected was to see a hired trotro parked outside the office a few days later and a coffin being unloaded under Kwame’s sweaty direction, then slipped through the narrow front doors. The driver squatted by a roadside tree in ragged shorts as staff members filed into the building after the swaying cargo.
Inside the conference room the tables were jammed together and I heard shoes scuffing and the squeaking of wood. I stood transfixed in the doorway to my office, fingers hooked in the belt of my jeans. Meredith walked grimly to the staff room, came back with a floral mug of tea. I heard the box jimmied open and there was a chasm of silence, a collective exhalation mixing with the aura of Solomon’s embalmed body. A questioning, chemical smell arose. My stomach heaved. I turned away to my desk and switched on the monstrous air conditioner plugged into the wall. Then Kwame was at my back looking like a man plummeting, his fists empty and his face stripped. The whites of his eyes had red hairline cracks.
Solomon’s face was puffy, like he was in a process of chewing a big mouthful of food. His skin looked finer, the lines on his forehead fleeting. The stretch of skin between upper lip and nostrils was more rounded than it had been when he had sat here twisting the leaky pen. He wore reading glasses, a beige suit, a bow-tie, a late-70s Elvis shirt with ruffles. A part of my brain was laughing, scavenging this experience, while another examined the brown shoes like boats on his feet, the crooked tennis socks, and wanted to buckle over. The body already looked flattened and false, a rasping snakeskin with all moisture erased though there was oil or shea butter through his hair. I stood in the line around the tables as each staff member waited for a moment with the odourless corpse. When my turn came I spoke softly, a few words. But as I walked away I felt a powerful excavation in my body. I wanted to shit, or vomit, writhe on the ground, pluck my own eyes from my head. I wanted rapture before it would come to me. At the door I turned back to the coffin with a pit in my chest, currents shunting in the soft ellipsis of my brain, each organ inside of me vaporous. I sat on the loo for a good ten minutes then poured gin for everybody.
Solomon’s funeral notice joined that of his bright young son on the staff notice board and they became a pair of comrade saints. Staff members glanced at Solomon’s easygoing photograph as they passed and Kwame, hands on hips in conversation, looked up to his quiet colleague as though for confirmation or advice. Kwame’s aggression moved someplace else and Patrice’s ideas for the hair straightening campaign were revived.
There was excellent dope to be had in this country. After a string of demolishing hangovers I organised a good supply of undoctored weed and smoked every evening. Kwame disapproved. He refused even the slightest puff, folding his arms like an old woman and curiously watching me filling a skin. Tonight he sat on the porch and stared at me lighting up, his forearms on his thighs and his large hands pummelled together. He eased back into the cushions to avoid the cloud I exhaled. He had no companions this evening. His shirt burst apart in scallops and dark lozenges of his belly showed through. His chest was hairless and his neck had thick rings of flesh. His eyes travelled over the rusty fan I had failed to have fixed, its tilted blades on their axis and the knot of wires escaping the dislodged plastic cup. I knew he was kicking himself for not finding out in which Tudu slum Solomon’s electrician lived before Solomon had died.
I inhaled again, beginning to feel the easy fissuring, the wandering explosions. I dropped my head back on the thick bamboo of the chair. Kwame shifted and I told him there were more beers in the fridge. He came outside, uncapping the bottle tops in some mysterious local way, his movement wobbling the light given off by three candles on a saucer. Tonight there was no power. The neighbourhood lay black and dense beyond us. I inhaled a third time and the memory of love in my bowels, my brain rank with it, sprang forth inexplicably. My heart rate surged and I felt my body veering. I looked down at my belly and thighs, my arms chucked on the varnished bamboo armrests.
Kwame stared into the darkness. In Solomon’s absence the office staff clustered around him and I knew he felt wrought. I knew Kwame came to sit here in silence. Perhaps he had begun to understand his own deference to the smaller man, and the serenity of listeners when Solomon had whispered his words. Kwame saw me studying him and he twisted around to point out a bright beacon of electricity up the road through the trees. A generator rattered loudly. It was where Meredith resided, he said.
Sniggering, I asked him who the hell had started the rumour about her sleeping with the dogs, whether it was some sort of fixation or score-settling or a sick way of wanting the broad blonde woman.
‘I did,’ said Kwame.
His teeth appeared in the darkness and we both laughed loudly, crazily, until our laughs tailed off. I did not ask him why. I now felt the full throttle of the overloaded spliff and wanted to roll downward, brakeless, curl in a ball, think of Solomon on his flight meeting the buck-toothed boy on a corner somewhere in a place as merciless and rundown as this.
Meredith came to me with a problem. She said that Patrice’s ideas for the hair straightening campaign had been plagiarised. She pulled out an African-American magazine and I could see why Patrice’s lavish storyboard had initially been slaughtered by Kwame. It was damned good. A light twinkled on above Patrice’s head.
I convened a meeting in the conference room. I decided to exclude Meredith and not reveal my source. I sat there, Kwame and Patrice before me nursing milky tea, both bristling slightly. I saw that their newfound collaboration had thin and tangled roots.
I swung around the magazine. Kwame glowered. Patrice’s eyes popped out. Kwame instantly began a tirade in local language which I allowed him to terminate. He apologised to me. But not to Patrice who sat glumly in the chair, his first gainful moments now stamped in the dust. He confessed he had found the magazine at his sister’s house, she was just back from Atlanta.
Kwame shook his pointed finger in Patrice’s face and both men shouted. I wondered whether I should have told Meredith to pipe down and take her magazine home with her. But the company was a conglomerate, our work traversed borders; lawyers might have been flown out. I tapped my pen on the desk and neither of the men heeded me. I had a flash of the most galvanising moments of my previous life. The sense of being a faceless, fleshless absentee in the room.
‘Kwame,’ I said.
Kwame pushed back his chair and stood. He suggested I sack Patrice on the spot.
‘Otherwise I will be leaving here this noon,’ Kwame said.
Here I longed for Solomon’s counsel. I knew enough of Kwame’s volatility not to want to agitate him further. I noticed the small deaf ears were like creased flowers, the deepening central folds bearing no stamen. I saw that nothing would stop him from travelling this tangent to its absurd end.
‘You will choose. One of us will go.’ Kwame walked over to the frosted windows with his hands on hips. Patrice stared at the desk. I saw he’d put a lot of effort into his hair cut. He was an earnest young man, an asset. I looked at his crinkled, embarrassed face and remembered when a priest had placed his fingers on my forehead at school. My prime thought had been to knee him in the groin. Until a current had passed through the intersection of our skins. Heat. Transmission. An everlasting imprint.
I heard Meredith pass outside in her squeaky wedges.
‘Patrice, you will leave us,’ I said. ‘You realise this is a very serious error in judgement. It’s unacceptable, as Kwame has pointed out.’
Kwame nodded at the window without looking satisfied or easing his stance.
I left the room. Meredith tagged after me in the hall and I turned around and looked at her face. It was downy, it had been licked by dogs. I thanked her for her astuteness and her lips pursed.
I closed my office door and made a strong cup of instant coffee from a tin of Nestlé and the kettle atop a filing cabinet. I sat there downing the hot, dirty drink. I turned on my computer and began an email to my estranged wife.
The following day a shabbily-dressed woman stood in the hall and was ignored by everybody. Finally Kwame swung around and demanded to know what she wanted. I had just visited the bathroom for the third time and saw him descend upon her. Her voice was inaudible as Kwame bent over. She wore busted flip-flops that had been wired together and her feet were skirted in dust.
Kwame turned to me and his face was draped in guilt. He took the woman’s fine arm, leading her to the conference room. I saw her hair had been straightened many times and she had lost patches of it. As they walked Kwame’s hand opened on her back.
Before Kwame strode in to inform me I knew what he would say. The woman was Solomon’s sister. She needed money. I felt another cramp shifting through my gut.
‘I cannot believe,’ said Kwame. He sat opposite me at the desk, his head rocking in his hands. ‘That we have forgotten his family. This cannot be.’
I asked what was the common practice here.
‘Gifts of rice,’ he murmured. ‘Gifts of rice.’
I opened the top drawer of the filing cabinet and took out a wad of greasy cash in an elastic band.
These words seemed to devastate Kwame a great deal.
‘How much is a man’s life worth? And a small lifeless son?’
I stood there waiting. I felt very light-headed.
‘Might it be better to send someone out to buy some bags of rice?’ I said.
Kwame released a mighty humph! ‘Who now shall go out to buy rice? When we are even without Patrice?’
I handed him the wad of cash. The money came from my own pocket. Kwame’s shirt was tight across his back as he crossed the hallway.
Three days later a second woman was standing in the hall. Where the first woman was eroded and unobtrusive, this woman was large and gay, staring up and down at everyone who passed. She wore a bright print and her feet and cheeks were plump and scented. A glittery scarf was tied over her hair. Kwame stopped by her soon after she struggled up the outdoor steps and let the door slam. She announced that she was Solomon’s wife.
I stepped back into my office with the armful of back files Meredith had just retrieved. The dust made me sneeze and the massive splutter travelled down the ratchets of my spine. By now the dysentery had made a wreck of my body and I was living on flat Coke and rice crackers. I saw Kwame march her into the conference room and command a cup of tea. I half-closed the door and sat down. I pushed the files aside and stared at my hands on the table. They were shaking. I wondered if you starved a human body of love or food or kinship – which loss would be the most ruinous? I continued to look at my hands, recalling the lifeless morsels alongside Solomon’s body. I touched my fingertips to my neck and they were cold. I heard Meredith politely bring in two mugs of Liptons and open a can of Ideal milk before the woman’s eyes. Kwame thanked her. He introduced Solomon’s spouse. Other office staff joined the trio in the conference room and I heard laughter. It sounded as though the woman was telling stories. Kwame led an eerie applause that travelled through the building.
I juggled with the idea of making an appearance but felt that Kwame would have called me if my presence were required. I was not informed of the arrangement he came to with the woman, and when I next went to the bathroom Solomon’s spouse was gone. The office was quiet for the next few hours. Kwame and two colleagues had gone to scout for a location. Before lunch I abandoned the dusty files and had the driver take me to the house where I dropped to my bed, head pounding.
I rose in the afternoon. I showered and the water was icy on my skin. I ate some cold rice and opened a tin of local tuna. On the porch the heavy air felt chilly. I wore an old sweater of my wife’s that was laced with her smell. I sat there in the midst of the neighbourhood. Children were crying out; there was an argument at the fruit stall down the road; a shoe shine boy trudging along tapped his wooden box with his brush. I made a cup of hot black tea and sat with its fusty heat beneath my face, making me perspire. I opened my laptop to the email I had begun to my wife a week ago, on the day I had sacked Patrice. I wrote two more sentences before all sense, all emotion, failed me. She had used the word irretrievable, many times.
Meredith appeared at the far end of the street, heading out from her gate with a single dog this time, on its leather lead. I watched her pace down the road. She wore a peaked cap that darkened most of her face, but today she held her head higher. Swinging around, it looked strangely mobile and engaged. The dog’s head was low, close to the road surface, a slinking along more than a walk. The lead slackened between them. When Meredith was level with my house she looked directly into my porch and saw my eyes trained upon her. She stopped. I had the feeling she had been hoping I was there. I waved, motioning to her to open the gate. I lifted out of the chair and moved to the railing as she crossed the small stones. The dog cast glances from side to side, nose roving over the new terrain.
‘Hello, Meredith. Anything I can do?’
Meredith’s erect walk became a stagger and I saw how hard she had been pushing herself originally. Why the fuck had she stayed on here?
‘It’s Bobby McGee,’ she announced, hauling herself closer in the scalding sun. ‘My other dog. I think he’s dead.’
Now a suffering shudder collapsed her shoulders. She removed the peaked cap and brought her hands to her eyes, her pink forehead rippling and bright. The dog folded its black shape on the ground.
Meredith peered up. ‘Would you mind coming to see?’
I closed my computer and trod down the steps. She pulled her cap back over her coiled blonde hair. I felt her eyes comb my chest and realised I was wearing a woman’s sweater. I did not wish to explain. I looked down at the orange laces in her running shoes.
‘This is Janis,’ she said, indicating the Labrador now swaying a thick tail.
I opened the gate for Meredith and the dog, and followed them the short distance down the street. In this direction the houses became slightly larger before the road reached the crooked fences of the military camp. Meredith’s was freshly painted and ringed by leafy coleus plants, with two travellers’ palms crammed between the house and the fence. She unlocked the metal grills over carved front doors.
I followed her down the hall. The house smelt as I would have imagined. Soap and hair products: it was now clear how much Meredith prized the long blonde coils. There were no photographs, just clean surfaces, empty chairs, a shocking emptiness. I wondered if her cheating husband and the Nigerian hooker had lasted longer than three months. It was probable that they had. I thought of young, bright Patrice who had been quashed by Kwame Djoleto, and how Djoleto would soon have the final word on every project in the office. I thought of the last time I had made love with my beautiful wife, how we had lain there erased, the bed sheets blank, the room vacant, our fluids slid away from us into crevices where they would drain away and there would be no embodiment.
Meredith showed me the dead animal lying on her bed. The front paws were crossed, the hind legs a little astray. There was urine on the sheets and the belly seemed swollen. She had left the air conditioning on high so there was no smell. The dog’s eyes were open. Meredith sat on the end of the bed. I stood there looking at the dense black carcass thinking of the weed sitting in a drawer of the wall unit at home, thinking that if I phoned Kwame he would know who the hell to call and what to do with this.
"The Wild Beasts of the Earth Will Adore Him" was first published in What Lies Beneath, Kingston University Press 2015
Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney, ran away to Paris, and ended up in West Africa running a bar. She studied African and Asian Modern History and was a secretary in pre-war Mogadishu, and has worked as an au pair, graphic designer, photographer, translator and shoe model. Her collection The Cartography of Others is forthcoming with Unbound UK, and her book Pelt and Other Stories was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Award and semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize. Catherine's short stories and flash fiction have been Pushcart-nominated, shortlisted and published in the U.K., Europe, U.S.A. and Australia. She lives in northern Italy and has impressive collections of West African art and Italian heels.
MY CREATIVE PROCESS
Can you tell us a little about the origins of this piece and why you wrote it?
'The Wild Beasts of the Earth Will Adore Him' was directly inspired by my experience in running a small advertising agency in Accra, Ghana, and watching colleagues at work with the larger agencies in town. I wanted to talk about localcharacters, and foreignerscoming to terms with the environment, bringing in all the humour of cultural exchange and the low stream of tragedies somewhat frequent in West Africa. Aligned with that, I wanted to mention love, broken-heartedness. And dogs.
Why do you write?
As a quiet child I read copiously, and dreamed of writing short stories and novels. I started early with corny, illustrated texts. After a family tragedy involving my young cousin I found solace in reading, and felt closer to writers than to living humans for many years, revelling in this evasion. Later, I read translations of the Russians and the Frenchin original language. It became an obsession that chased me to Paris when I was twenty-one, where I finally stepped outside into the vivid world with all its risks and pleasures. Living above a sweatshop in the then-drug-ridden-but-now-chic 11th arrondisement, I began to write.
As a young woman, I married an Italian economist and moved to East Africa. There I quickly learned that what I wished to write about was home-brewed and not yet enriched by true experience. I left off with writing and went back to work, a pattern that would continue throughout my twelve years in Africa, where I moved between the world of isolated creation and back to the world of employment or child-rearing - ever guilty in either sphere that I was neglecting the other. But these non-writing phases - embassy secretary in Mogadishu, translator from Italian to English, co-manager of a bar and art gallery in Accra - charged the short stories I had begun publishing in literary reviews, providing characters and contrasts and blueprints that triggered my imagination and fuelled my words. I travelled extensively in East and West Africa, lived hard and my personal trials were many. I learned to listen and observe and step outside of myself, not only to make myself a better writer, but for the joy of being human, and my enduring love of story-telling.
I continue to write because I enjoy the act of creation, the collusion of experience, observation and invention. The themes that inspire me most include the impact of historical injustice upon contemporary life and migration, the human experience of cultural displacement and adaptation - these are the areas where I attempt to make a meaningful and heartening contribution.
Who introduced you to literature? Were you born into a family of writers or artists?
My mother was a pianist and music teacher so I studied classical piano throughout my childhood. But my father raced speedboats and listened to Stevie Wonder and Janis Joplin. So I grew up on Bach, Mozart, Lizst, Wonder and Joplin. But I was a shy, brainy kid who read a lot and very quickly aspired to write.
The books and poetry I studied at high school became companions for life. I was thrilled by language. John Donne, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence, Patrick White, Joseph Conrad, Simone de Beauvoir were my core interests and I devoured their works. However, at university, I studied French and Modern African and Asian History - not wishing to have my love of literature conditioned by study.
I received a copy of my first published short story when I was a new mother with a baby in a basket on the floor, living in Mogadishu. Throughout those years in Africa I began to write and submit work, although feedback and interaction were rare. The solitude was challenging, but this was when I developed my craft, made many of my beginners' mistakes, and felt my way blindly ahead, all the while waiting - this was pre-internet - for the diplomatic pouch to deliver my latest rejection letters.
When I returned to Europe after almost a decade in Ghana I settled in northeastern Italy. Again I found myself isolated by language, although this linguistic island in truth allows one to work and explore ideas with tranquility, while the knowledge of another tongue (in my case Italian and French) also provides another plane of thought. Gradually, I built up my editing and submission skills, published further, and began to go to conferences and festivals when I could. In London I participated in masterclasses with authors I admired, and when my first books came out I learned to read and discuss my work in public. I consider myself a self-taught, grassroots writer who is still learning her craft.
Your writing is very visual. What other art forms and disciplines interest you?
I am also interested in music and photography, and find I often have characters who are involved in these worlds. When younger, I was torn between the image and the word, and to date there is a strong visual component in my work. The riches of music and performance are often present also, and the vicisstudes of the artist's life.
In our household we often discuss the merits of each art form - my daughter is a soprano - and while literature is where I have experience in expressing myself, I have great admiration for singers and classical musicians, who live their art through performance. It seems to capture the present in a vital, resounding way.
My dream is to see one of my stories produced as a film and I am currently working towards this.
Can you tell us about your film collaboration and some of your current projects?
My short story collection The Cartography of Others is coming out with Unbound UK in 2018. The stories speak of the geography of the mind and the migration of the heart, and are set from Hong Kong to Bamako, from Sydney to Paris, from London to Accra. Several of the stories have been shortlisted in competitions, with one Pushcart nomination. Hilary Mantel wrote 'stongly atmospheric from the first sentence' of my story 'The Wild Beasts of the Earth Will Adore Him'.
I have also completed a flash fiction collection which is ready for submission, and had two stories in this year's Wigleaf Top 50. I am currently working on a novella.
I am collaborating with a film producer to adapt my short story "Three Days in Hong Kong" as a short film.
Short stories remain my passion and I continue to write these with joy and trepidation.