Rosanna Amaka on The Book of.
Echoes and Brixton in the 1980s
Rosanna Amaka, born to African and Caribbean parents, began writing her debut novel twenty years ago to give voice to the Brixton community in which she grew up, a community fast disappearing as a result of gentrification and emigration. The Book of Echoes unearths the pain of the past through the narration of an enslaved African before moving between worlds as the scars of history present themselves in the future lives of Michael and Ngozi.
Amaka’s searing debut hums with heartache and love, horror and beauty. Racial tensions rise, dreams are shattered, and lives transformed: The Book of Echoes is a necessary exploration into the identities of the black community growing up in 1980s Brixton. It asks readers to overcome the traumas of the past woven so inextricably into our present day, and highlights the importance of helping one another heal from these traumas.
In the interview below, Amaka delves deeper into the inspirations behind her debut and her decades-long writing process.
I was surprised to discover that you began writing The Book of Echoes over 20 years ago. What motivated you to start writing your debut all those years ago? And how did you remain focused and dedicated to the narrative over such a long period of time?
Although I started the book over twenty years ago, I finished my first draft within six months while I was working away from home. It then took me over twenty years of re-writes and rejections to get a publisher. Therefore, the basic skeleton of the book was there from the beginning; I spent the rest of the time trying to improve my writing, and figuring out what needed to be changed or improved with each spate of rejections. It seems I was published by Penguin Transworld at the right time as there are many more doors open to its contents with our current social and political climate.
Has your twenty years of experience as a writer changed your perception as a reader?
Yes, it has, because I read not only for pleasure now, but I have a keener eye for technique, structure and the general mechanics of storytelling. I get enjoyment out of this reading process as well because there are so many talented writers out there.
As an exploration into racial tensions, set predominantly around the time of the Brixton riots in 1981, your novel is raw and emotive. The opening itself is filled with so much devastation and pain, which was, at times, difficult to read. It must have been emotionally draining for you as the author. Is there a scene you found particularly difficult to write? How did you overcome this?
Yes, it was emotionally draining, but also liberating as writing for me is therapeutic. I found the ancestral storyline particularly difficult to write, following the anonymised narrator on her journey into slavery, but nevertheless I felt it was important to tell her story, to humanise her, as there are so many of my ancestors that remain nameless and faceless.
The constant shifts in narrative voice reminded me of Andrea Levy’s Small Island. Which writers do you take inspiration from? And do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring writers who, like you, experiment with style?
Writers such as J. California Cooper, Chinua Achebe and Roddy Doyle inspire me. The only words of wisdom that I have for aspiring writers is to write from the heart and invest time in reading as widely as you can.
The Book of Echoes addresses the vulnerability of young black men, specifically looking at how they handle the injustices that surround them. What challenges did you face in conveying the experiences of young black males growing up in Brixton in the 80s?
I had black men and youths in my life whom I loved very much, witnessing some of their experiences, being able to talk to them and try to see the world through their eyes helped in the construction of the narrative. At the same time, being a young black woman myself when I started writing the novel meant that there were some experiences which crossed over.
Your novel is saturated with intergenerational echoes – the echoes of experience, of suffering and of a ‘fever for freedom’. I wonder, if you could tell your younger self anything, what would it be?
One thing would definitely be to have more confidence. The second would be to know who you are, so that nobody can tell you who you are, or who you should be.
Are there any particular references or secrets embedded in your novel that perhaps only a few readers will pick up on?
There are no secrets, but what’s taken from the narrative depends on how in depth the reader wants to go. Some readers read for entertainment, so will simply enjoy the story on a micro level. I suppose what I really hope for is that this novel communicates with people on a human level; that readers will want to examine issues further, see the real global connections between us all even though – at first glance – the people over there appear to have nothing to do with us over here.
I hope that readers will look into the wider issues that the book raises, such as the social, financial and political structures that affect Michael’s and Ngozi’s lives, especially if the book is being read as part of a book club, and that the novel helps challenge some of our assumptions and throwaway comments. But it is, and will be, interesting to see what effect COVID-19 has on this discussion as well. I hope we all, us in the UK and the rest of the world, remain safe, and can come out of this stronger and with a better understanding of our connections.
In light of your journey to becoming published, is there anything you would like to change about the publishing industry?
Apart from more diverse voices, I would also like to see better feedback given from agents on rejected manuscripts so that writers have a clearer idea of why they are being rejected, and be aware of the areas they need to work on. I am sure there are not more than ten reasons why most people are rejected; there should at least be an industry template developed where agents can tick the principal reasons for rejection and sends this back to the author to learn from.
Interview by Briony Willis
The Books of Echoes, Rosanna Amaka, Transworld, 2020, 371pp, £12.99 (Hardback)
For more information and to purchase The Books of Echoes, visit Penguin.
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