Akorfa and Selasi’s lives are shaped and determined by their families, a universal subject, and one among many societal issues that Medie, a social scientist, dives into.
Speaking to The Africa Report from the UK, where she is a senior lecturer in gender and international politics at the University of Bristol, Medie says “my fiction is informed by what I do in my academic life”.
Born in Liberia where her parents were working, Medie and her family moved to Ho in Southern Ghana before she was 10. Medie says her inspiration for Nightbloom came, in part, from wanting to explore “how much influence the family can have on individuals and, especially, women, and what it means in a society when individuals have to put their own desires aside to please the family”.
Akorfa’s mother is extremely ambitious for her daughter, living vicariously through her academic successes; Akorfa, in turn, looks for constant validation from her mother.
Selasi, on the other hand, whose mother dies when she is still a child, and whose father abandons her, doesn’t have the same opportunities and family support as Akorfa, and her path to adulthood is an uphill battle. Both characters, however, struggle with the pressure exerted on them by their families.
Medie used academic research she conducted on gender in African countries to “try to understand the decisions that women make in relationships; how much women pay attention to what people in their families say”.
There’s also the idea of responsibility, and “the sense that you have a duty towards other people, and they have a duty towards you”.
Family members’ response to violence
Her work has also focused on violence against women in Africa – in 2020 she published an academic book on local campaigns to end violence towards women – which includes rape.
I wanted to write about how one goes through life and the minutiae of having this experience and not getting support
Rape, another global reality, is a subject explored in Nightbloom. Inspired by research she conducted in Côte d’Ivoire, it too, “goes back to the importance of family. What stood out with most of the women I spoke to was what people in their family said to them when they were seeking help and justice”.
What Medie wanted to examine was “less about the physical act of violence and more about the response to violence…The shaming of survivors only protects the rapist. People might not be aware that this is the result of blaming and shaming. I wanted to write about how one goes through life and the minutiae of having this experience and not getting support. This is a story that is familiar to many people”.
The results of her research were not only negative, says Medie – while some family members did try to prevent survivors from seeking help; others encouraged them to seek assistance.
Impact of socio-economic class
When she was a child, Medie says she was a keen observer, as she moved across social classes. “When I lived in Liberia, I would say we were comfortable, then there was the war and we moved and lost everything. You’re very aware of not having things you used to have. In Ghana I’d visit family and friends and was struck by the differences in each household and how the rules differed according to the social class. It’s almost a performance.”
This informal study of class as a child still fascinates Medie. Social class is less of an issue in Ghana than in the UK, she says, and in her home country, social mobility is possible, even within the same family. Some branches will become upwardly mobile while others will be left behind, which is the case in Nightbloom.
“Everyone has to adjust. How do we interact with a person who used to be like us?” she says.
Akorfa, part of a privileged class of children in Ghana, goes to a school with an Anglo-Saxon curriculum, on track to then attend a school abroad. When she reaches the US for college as her mother expects her to, Medie examines Akorfa going through culture shock.
Was this based on her own experience as a graduate student in the US? Medie says it was more about what she had observed and heard.
“I’ve always wondered how people who come from very wealthy families in Ghana and other places in Africa adjust to life in the US where people think those who are from Africa are coming from places of great suffering where not much is good,” she tells The Africa Report.
These wealthy Africans are used to a place where race only matters in a very distant way, and it’s not shaping their daily experiences. In the US, however, “every relationship is bound by issues of race. We see Akorfa struggling because she has always been brilliant and all of a sudden, she’s getting messages that because of the colour of her skin she’s not good enough”.
Fiction and scholarship, blended
Medie has just returned from the US where Nightbloom launched, and she says that there’s an interest in reading about Ghana globally, in addition to “a hunger among African readers for stories set in Africa”. She hopes that her novels will be translated into Ewe one day as well as into other Ghanaian languages.
In her first novel, His only wife, published in 2020, she examined the influence of culture on a woman’s life, recounting the journey of a young woman, from a small town, who is married off to a wealthy man she doesn’t know.
She moves to the capital city of Accra where she becomes independent in a way that she had never imagined. His only wife was a Reese Witherspoon book club pick and a New York Times Notable Book among many other accolades. It has also been optioned for a television series.
There’s so much that can be done with fiction in scholarship. In addition to interviewing people, asking them to construct narratives of their own
Her next novel is about two interconnected love stories set in Liberia. “One of my frustrations is that for a lot of people Liberia didn’t exist before the war,” she says.
According to her, it is “a place with a vibrant culture and society, where [there] was a great deal of joy…It’s a love letter and tribute to pre-civil war Liberia”.
In the meantime, Medie is increasingly attempting to integrate fiction into her academic life, trying to “marry the two. There’s so much that can be done with fiction in scholarship. In addition to interviewing people, asking them to construct narratives of their own”.
“Fiction gives students a perspective that they don’t usually get from scholarly articles and books and so it serves as a resource on its own. It enriches the material and does a good job of making abstract ideas concrete,” Medie says, recalling a conversation with another academic in 2015.
Medie sure-footedly leads us through compelling and universal social issues with narrative arcs that bring us to Ghana, and in the near future, to Liberia.
Nightbloom is to be launched this month in the UK (Oneworld Publications).
Understand Africa’s tomorrow… today
We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.