Akotowaa is confident. And I do not mean by the standards of the average 18 year old Ghanaian High School graduate. By those standards she would be truly outstanding. So even in keeping things on a level playing field, her confidence really comes across in the strongest of ways. It is in the way she holds eye contact. It is in the way she does not fidget or play with her hair when the wheels in her head are turning. It is in her firm and thoughtful answers. It is in the way she is quick on her feet, obviously having reflected enough on her sojourn in this earth space to address unanticipated questions regarding purpose. It is in the absence of self deprecation and false humility in an era that celebrates unhealthy insecurity and calls it a shield. It is in her childlike enthusiasm, eagerness and very adult sense of direction. Did I mention Akotowaa is confident?
I sat with this budding, yet already much accomplished, Ghanaian writer to explore the lights that illuminate her words, the fuel behind her passion, and just to celebrate her as a contemporary African storyteller in line with our quarter theme here at Ezibota.
As a lover of words, Akotowaa makes no secret of the energy that language inspires in her. She calls herself a “Lexivist,” a word she herself coined. It is a mashup of two words: ‘lexi’ (as in lexicon, lexis, lexophile etc.) and ‘activist’. Thus the movement of #lexivism started, illustrating Akotowaa’s commitment to not just words, but to the beauty in constructing worlds using them. And the movement begins with her.
As I observed in our interaction, words are not important to her just as a facet of some vague future ambition to be a writer; they very much form a part of what she considers as her life’s purpose presently. In response to this observation she said quite simply, “I love words a lot.” She then went on to comment on her fascination with the use of words, particularly made up words with which the writer forms their own meanings and crafts their own realities.
This brings us to her passion for storytelling. If this seems like a natural inclination for a writer, do not be so sure. You would be surprised how many “writers” overlook the basic building blocks of a narrative that captures the imagination. She expressed her frustration when she described the typical sort of story we all grew up hearing as children in Ghana. “Kofi and Ama went to school. Ama got pregnant. The moral of the story is, do not have premarital sex. Okay so where is the story?” she laments. “The goal has to be storytelling”. Akotowaa goes on to describe how tired she grew of these sorts of African stories despite her familiarity with the cultural context in which they were situated. And so she decided to merge her love and ability for great storytelling with her African locality and heritage.
In order to have a sense of what makes a story good, one must have a healthy sense of awareness about the complexity of their own lives. We addressed this complexity when we discussed the pushback she has had in response to walking in her identified purpose as a storyteller. She alludes to the internet meme which describes African children having four career options: Doctor, Lawyer, Engineer or Disgrace to family. “Obviously I am number four,” she joked.
She goes on to make a profound point about how our society views the arts as something one cannot make a living out of and yet “looking down on the arts should not be inherently African.” I paused and wrote this down because it was such an “aha” moment. We discussed in quite a bit of detail, how for a people who treasure so-called culture so religiously, we seem to have developed a deep-seated disregard for people who seek to make a career out of those things that are essentially the building blocks and mediums of cultural expression; the art of storytelling being one of them. But Akotowaa is not obstinate in her response to this. In fact, she expressed a rather respectable amount of empathy for that world view that seemingly diminishes her craft to fanciful ambition. But do not be fooled, she is still unmoved in her resolve.
When I asked her if she felt the need to reach some middle ground or compromise in her selection of a course of study at University, she gave an emphatic “no”. In fact, she made it very clear to her parents that if they wanted her to go to University; she was going to study exactly what she wanted otherwise she simply would not go. She was determined to not endure the pains of University in the same was as she did High School where she had to fit into an educational system that did not cater to her aspirations.
As a storyteller, Akotowaa has hardly scratched the surface of her eclecticism. She writes prose fiction, poetry and she is a brilliant performance poet. She describes her style as “not classically beautiful” but as “raw and expressive”. Perhaps the most telling description of her storytelling style is captured in a statement she makes; “If you want to say something, say it.” If she was born in a bygone age, Akotowaa would have been the one we would have all sat around the village fire to listen to. The one whose stories we would all see ourselves in because this is what she seeks to achieve. “I write not for people but for persons.” “Art should represent individuals – specific characters.” She made these statements that really shed a deep light into her desire to craft narratives that reflect humanity without pandering to it.
I asked her, what, in her view, the role of art is in sustaining safe intellectual and physical spaces for the marginalised (LGBTQ… people living with physical disabilities, mental health issues etc.) in society, and if she felt an obligation in this regard. Akotowaa acknowledged the burden artists carry in representing society, and yet she says that artists should be free to choose these burdens. Obligation and imposition have no place in her world of choice, and yet she understands the power and necessity of representation. Powerful.
Akotowaa has some ways to go in her journey towards reaching her goal to become a published author. In her own words; “My dominant dream is to become an author. A great fiction writer. Without exaggerating, I want to, like, completely shatter the boundaries of what people think Ghanaian, and more, African literature is.” And with the start she has made, I have no doubts she will achieve this. You all need to watch out for her, she is every bit as fascinating as she sounds. Perhaps soon I’ll do a review of one her stories but for now, you can check out some of her work here, here and here.