About this writer
Born in Muizenberg, South Africa in 1936, Manu Herbstein has lived in Ghana for over 40 years. His novel Ama, a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Best First Book in 2002. A sequel, Brave Music of a Distant Drum, was published in Canada and the U.S. in 2011. Akosua and Osman won third prize in the 2011 Burt Award for Ghana. All three novels are published in Ghana by Techmate.
AiA: With South African and West African origins, you cut across a significant geography of the continent. Are the cultures in both regions conflicting, especially for a creative individual such as yourself?
MANU HERBSTEIN: I’ve been richly rewarded (not materially, but in a spiritual sense) by my experience of living in Ghana, a country with a fascinating culture, but one open to those who choose to explore its complex nature. Growing up in segregated South Africa was a disability which I had to attempt to transcend. Ghana gave me the opportunity to do that. I value my multiple heritages. Differences there are, but I see no conflict.
AiA: There aren’t many civil engineers who are also literary figures in Africa. How did you come to be an author, so far from your field of science?
MANU HERBSTEIN: You are right. The Nigerian, T. M. Aluko (1918-2010), whose satirical novels included One Man, One Wife and Chief the Honourable Minister , is perhaps the best-known African writer who was also a civil engineer. Your question implies the existence of some sort of chasm dividing the sciences and the humanities. I don’t accept that. I’ve always been a voracious reader and I started writing, though not for publication, when I was quite young.
AiA: The middle of the last century was a very trying period of time for African countries, including Ghana and South Africa. Where were you living at the time, and what was it like then?
MANU HERBSTEIN: I left South Africa in 1959, soon after graduating at the University of Cape Town. In the 1960s I lived, studied and worked in England, Nigeria, Ghana, India, Ghana again, Zambia and Scotland. I’ve lived in Ghana since 1970. Since 2006, I’ve had dual South African/Ghanaian citizenship.
Trying periods? In Ghana the years leading up to the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah in February 1966 were particularly difficult; and the years of military rule and austerity which followed, even more so. Again, before and after J.J. Rawlings’ coups.
To say that the years of apartheid were trying would be a great understatement. I stayed clear of South Africa until change seemed irreversible, going back for a first visit in 1992.
AiA: Ama, a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Best First Book in 2002; its sequel Brave Music of a Distant Drum garnered an honorable mention in the 2010 Burt Award for African Literature – Ghana. How did/do you feel about these recognitions?
MANU HERBSTEIN: When Ama was published I knew practically nothing about the publishing industry and my head was full of naïve daydreams. In spite of the CWP, generally good reviews and being taught at world class universities, the novel has had limited commercial success. A British literary agent made a firm, unambiguous promise to represent me and then, in a two-page letter which said nothing, withdrew her offer. A British publisher kept me on a hook for nearly a year, sending regular encouraging messages and then declined to publish the book. In both cases, I can only speculate about the reasons. Ama won its CWP in 2002. At that time, to the best of my knowledge, there was not a single novel in print in the UK that attempted to tell the story of the European slave trade from an African point of view. Britain was the world’s leading slave trading nation in the eighteenth century, the period in which the novel is set. Ama has never been published in Britain. One reason, however implausible it might seem, might be that the Brits don’t like to be reminded of the great harm their forebears did throughout the world, both in the time of the slave trade and in the colonial period which followed.
I admit to feeling sour about the fact that Brave Music received only an honorary mention for the 2010 Burt Award. In their written report the judges described it as unique, moving, gripping and highly creative. I have been told, however, that a majority of members of the panel felt that it should be disqualified because it shares characters, and to some extent plot, with my previous novel. Brave Music is the only Burt entry to date which has been published abroad. Now that it has also been published in Ghana, I am thinking of pressing for a consolation prize: purchase of 3000 copies for distribution to schools.
AiA: Did you witness or experience anything in particular that inspired you to write about the Slave Trade in Africa?
MANU HERBSTEIN: Growing up in apartheid South Africa it was difficult to be unaware of injustice. As early as primary school I sensed that the South African history I was taught was largely propaganda. I guess that planted in my mind the seeds of the idea that there are at least two histories, the dominant one told by the winners and another, often untold, of those at the receiving end.
From 1961 to 1963 I worked in Cape Coast. In Cape Coast and nearby Elmina, the old slave castles dominate the towns. Yet, strangely, I can’t remember anyone ever talking about their history and significance. Cape Coast Castle was then used as a prison and as government offices, Elmina Castle as a police training college. It was almost as if the circumstances of their establishment had been forgotten.
More than thirty years passed before the so-called Guinea Fowl War of 1995 set me thinking about the historical connections between northern Ghana and the castles and forts on the coast and wondering about the human dimensions of the events of two centuries earlier.
AiA: In your novel, Ama’s story of capture and enslavement is set in 1775. Why did you choose to write about the 18th century in Ghana, and how were you able to so adequately relay events that would’ve taken place more than two centuries ago?
MANU HERBSTEIN: Who can tell how adequately I captured those events? Ama is a product of creative imagination. I believe that it is consistent with surviving historical documents (collected at www.ama.africatoday.com) but those documents were written by the winners, not the losers.
Asante invaded and defeated Dagbon for the second time in the early 1770s, imposing an indemnity which included the annual supply of hundreds of slaves to Kumase. Setting the story in that period allowed me to include elements of Konkomba, Dagomba, Asante, Fante, Dutch and British history and culture. My original manuscript was over 300,000 words long. My agent said I’d written an eighteenth century novel, much too discursive. He pressed me to cut everything that didn’t have an immediate connection with the action, with a target of 150,000 words. The novel as published has about 187,000 words.
AiA: Being a man yourself, why did you choose to narrate the story through the eyes of a female slave? Do you believe that people relate better with women in such instances?
MANU HERBSTEIN: It wasn’t a conscious decision. The first chapter I wrote, now chapter 13, required no research. It was based on the story which the tourist guides tell at Elmina Castle: the governor selects a female slave for his pleasure. Having written that, I started doing the research necessary to create a plausible back story for Ama.
Using a woman as a central character gave me the opportunity to investigate the psyche of the males she meets up with and in particular the white males who lived off the slave trade. With a male protagonist that might have been more difficult.
It is difficult to read one’s own subconscious mind but there might be another factor. During the time of apartheid black women in South Africa exhibited enormous courage faced with a triple oppression based on skin colour, class and gender. Though I don’t recall this as my conscious intention, with hindsight I wonder whether I wasn’t somehow attempting to pay tribute to those South African women, expressing the solidarity I felt with their struggle.
AiA: Do you see the African female today as free from any and all forms of enslavement, or do you still perceive lingering effects of this condition in our society?
MANU HERBSTEIN: The latter, without question. And not only Africans. Is there any country in today’s world in which women don’t still labour under some sort of discrimination and disability?
It is true that some women have at least partly overcome the barriers and have risen to positions of wealth, power and influence, but that doesn’t make this any less true.
In Akosua and Osman, Akosua’s charismatic teacher, Miss Mensah, gives her class a list of forty-six remarkable women of many nations. Telling them that, “An educated Ghanaian woman should able to recognize practically every one of those names,” she tasks them with studying the challenges each woman faced in her life and how she dealt with those challenges. I guess she thinks that that task will give her students a weapon in the struggle for their own full emancipation.
AiA: We understand that with your third book Akosua and Osman, which is also set in Ghana, the Ghana Book Trust has distributed 3000 free copies to Ghanaian high school children. What is this book exploring as its main theme, and why did you think it could help the Ghanaian youth?
MANU HERBSTEIN: Since I first arrived in Ghana in 1961 I have witnessed an enormous growth in class differentiation. At the time of Independence in 1957 there was only a tiny Ghanaian middle class. Now, as a result, at least in part, of the expansion of education initiated by Kwame Nkrumah, a new, relatively prosperous middle class runs the country. However, many, perhaps most, Ghanaians remain trapped in a cycle of poverty.
Akosua’s parents are both university professors. When Osman’s parents, a police sergeant and an illiterate market trader, die, it is only through the charity of a widowed retired teacher in Accra that he is rescued from certain poverty in the rural north. Hajia Zainab gives him the chance to realize his full potential. His sister Afia, sent to an uncle she has never met, succumbs to tuberculosis. A wasted life.
Akosua’s and Osman’s lives intersect by chance. In a late chapter they are matched in the final of a national schools competition and debate the question of whether the problem of poverty in Ghana is soluble. The story raises issues of gender consciousness, ethnic divisions, the mother tongue, teenage pregnancy and backstreet abortions, STDs, death, the importance of understanding our history, the influence of teachers on the young (for both good and ill), religious prejudice, friendship, the dignity of labour and others, all, I hope, in a non-didactic manner, but designed to encourage discussion and debate.
AiA: You have not written much about South Africa, even though it is your other country of citizenship. Any particular reason for this?
MANU HERBSTEIN: I’ve been away a long time and even though I follow the news and spend two months in Cape Town every summer, I can’t claim to be fully in touch with South African society. I have written one South African short story which I expect to be published in an anthology in 2013. Apart from a piece of flash fiction in the magazine Baobab, that’s about it.
AiA: Are you planning to still write more books? If so, what about?
MANU HERBSTEIN: I’ve entered an unpublished novel entitled Ramseyer’s Ghost for the African novel competition which Kwani? is currently running. It’s a dystopian/utopian political thriller set in Ghana in 2050. They’ve had 282 entries so my chances can’t be good. I’ve had an offer to publish Ramseyer’s Ghost from a small independent publisher in the U.S. but the terms were so poor that I declined the offer.
If all else fails, I might self-publish it.
I’m working on a young adult historical novel provisionally entitled The Boy who Spat in Sagrenti’s Eye. Ghanaians will recognize Sagrenti as Major-General Sir Garnet Wolseley, KBE, etc. etc. who led the British invasion of Asante in 1873-74. I am wading through imperialist tracts about this war. Sadly, little has been written from a Ghanaian point of view.
That finished, I plan to start working on a memoir.
AiA: What are some of your current activities in Ghana as related to African Literature?
MANU HERBSTEIN: The best way I can answer that question is to point you to a recent piece of mine, written for the upcoming newsletter of the U.S. based Ghana Studies Association, which you have published on your website here. I am working, slowly, on a project to establish a library of works by Ghanaian and other African writers at the office of the Ghana Association of Writers.
AiA: Which African authors do you admire and respect? And what are the literary works you find most outstanding on the African bookshelf?
MANU HERBSTEIN: Authors: Ghanaians – Ayi Kwei Armah and Kojo Laing. South Africans – Yvette Christiansë, Marlene van Niekerk, Elsa Joubert, Zakes Mda, Es’kia Mphahlele and Andre Brink. Nigerian – Toyin Falola. Francophone – Ferdinand Oyono and Camara Laye.
Books: Armah: The Beautyful Ones are not yet Born; Laing: Search Sweet Country; Christiansë: Unconfessed; van Niekerk: Triomf; Joubert: Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongena (which I read in the original Afrikaans); Mda: The Heart of Redness; Mphahlele: Down Second Avenue; Brink: almost anything; Falola: A Mouth Sweeter than Salt. Add two African works by Americans: Harold Courlander’s The African and Judith Gleason’s Agotime, Her Legend; and one by a Brazilian: Antonio Olinto’s The Water House.
AiA: It is said that it’s easier to publish a second and third book than it is to publish a first; first-time authors have a hard time getting the attention of publishers. Was this the case with you?
MANU HERBSTEIN: Yes and no. Agents and commissioning editors will certainly pay more serious attention to a writer with a publishing track record. However there’s still a strong element of luck in discovering the decision maker who really loves your manuscript. I was lucky in that my agent in New York, Richard Curtis, failing to find a trade publisher for Ama, adopted it as the first e-book original at his pioneering e-publishing firm, E-Reads. I’m also fortunate to have an excellent relationship with my Ghanaian publisher, Heena Karamchandani of Techmate. That said, finding a publisher abroad remains difficult.
It’s tempting and not difficult these days to self-publish. Sadly, many, perhaps most, self-published works lack the input of a first class editor. Mainstream publishers offer that. Even the best authors can benefit from working with a good, committed editor.
AiA: What is your take on the new alternative methods of publishing (e-publishing, etc.) as opposed to traditional book publishing? Do you think the former was created out of necessity stemming from inadequacy of the latter?
MANU HERBSTEIN: I’ll be 77 in 2013. I have enough unread books on my shelves to last me for the rest of my life, and more. Sadly, you can’t take your books with you when you go, not even e-books on a Kindle. So I stick with what I have.
I’d put the turmoil in the publishing industry down to two factors – firstly the rapid advance of technology and secondly, the nature of capitalism, always greedy for expansion and increased profits, whatever the cost to others.
AiA: There aren’t many writers of your generation that are still so active in the business. What is the secret of your longevity on the African literary scene?
MANU HERBSTEIN: I started late, when I was nearly sixty. I still have some stories to tell. It’s not yet time to give up.
AiA: Common scenario: I have a beautiful manuscript, but I cannot find a book agent to represent me or a publishing house that will respond to my queries and proposals. What is your advice for me?
MANU HERBSTEIN: Put your manuscript aside for some time. Then read it in a critical frame of mind as if it had been written by someone else. Revise, revise, revise. Then approach publishers in your own country. If you’re intent on publishing abroad, check this website: www.IPRlicense.com. For an initial fee of £99, they let you register up to five of your works for a year. Agents and publishers visit the site. If your work is any good, you might be lucky and one of them might give you a call.
AiA: Considering your extensive experiences and mature years, what last word would you leave for young writers who have the gift and talent, but not the means to become established authors?
MANU HERBSTEIN: 1. Your chances of making a fortune, or even a living, from your writing are close to nil. If that statement doesn’t deter you, keep at it.
2. If you’re fortunate to have a day job, don’t give it up.
3. The best way to learn to write is to write. If you have no success in getting your first novel published, put it aside and start work on a second. And a third. And a fourth. Continue to dream of success but don’t expect it to come quickly.