MLA Platinum Award Press Release

Kwei Quartey Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Kwei Quartey
Photo: Steve Monez

Kwei Quartey

How to pronounce Kwei Quartey: kway quart-ay

An interview with Kwei Quartey

Kwei Quartey talks about his childhood in Ghana and his first novel, Wife of the Gods, set in a small Ghanaian community where long-buried secrets are about to rise to the surface.

First of all, how do you pronounce your name?
It's pronounced, "Kway Quart-ay." It is a Ghanaian name. The full version is Jones-Quartey.

Your father was Ghanaian. And your mother?
She's African-American. She met my father while he was studying Political Science at Columbia University, New York. They got married and my mother went with my father back to Ghana.

So, you were born in Ghana?
Yes, all three of my brothers and I were born in Accra, the capital.

Did you live in the city?
Both my parents were university lecturers, and we lived on the campus of the University of Ghana on the outskirts of the city.

Did you have the opportunity to visit the States when you were growing up?
The extra perk the university granted my mother in her official status as an "expatriate" was a fully paid trip to the States for her and her children every two years. So we spent many happy summers in New York. Travel was easy because, born to an American mother, my brothers and I were U.S. citizens by the regulations at the time.

Do you think the university environment as you grew up had a lot to do with your interest in writing?
Undoubtedly. Our house was a treasure trove of books. There were hundreds of books, both fiction and non-fiction, in all our bedrooms, the sitting room and the study - even the dining room. On Saturday mornings I liked to go down to the university bookshop, which was very well stocked, and spend hours browsing. Yes, I was your classic nerdy kid reading on a Saturday instead of out playing soccer. Reading as voraciously as I did inspired me to write my own "novels" when I was around eight to ten years old. I typed or hand-wrote them, and then stapled them together and bound them with illustrated cardboard covers.

What influence did your parents have on your writing?
They had a huge influence. My mother nurtured my creative instincts, and my father showed me the craft of writing. He was a writer of non-fiction, and I remember the tap-tap-tap of the typewriter keys as he worked late into the night. His demonstration of tenacious dedication to writing inspired me tremendously.

Why did you leave Ghana?
It was a combination of things. First, my father died of pancreatic cancer. My widowed mother was without relatives of her own in Ghana, and she began to feel like returning to New York City, where her own mother lived. Secondly, the then military government of Ghana had put the country in an abysmal state of financial ruin. There was university student unrest, and our schooling kept getting interrupted. To top it all off, I got into serious trouble with the military government when I was caught red-handed putting up anti-government posters around Accra in the dead of night. You may not believe this, but it really, truly was a dark stormy night when I went on this escapade. I was immediately imprisoned for "sedition." It took me two weeks to the day to get out, after much political haggling behind the scenes by my mother and influential people in Accra. At any rate, several friends advised us to get out of the country because we might be hounded and shadowed by the military government. My mother wasn't willing to risk more trouble for us in general and for me in particular, so we left for the States.

After a long absence, you went back to Ghana in February 2008. What was that like?
Almost surreal. I didn't recognize a lot of places because of the amount of development that had taken place in my absence. There were skyscrapers going up, brand new American-style malls and supermarkets, restaurants of all types, pizza parlors - I was dumbfounded. Ghana's economy at the time was said to be growing at 8%, although I'm sure it's less now, given the worldwide economic catastrophe. No matter how impressive the growth rate figures in Ghana, though, for the majority of citizens, it's not all sweetness and light. Like most developing countries, the financial sector can surge while poverty remains rampant on the city streets and in the rural areas.

Your book is called Wife of the Gods. What does that title mean?
One of the reasons why Wife of the Gods is intriguing as a title is that, just like the book itself, it melds the physical world with another realm in which magical and supernatural powers are believed to exist. I'll explain what I mean by that. All of us wonder why bad things happen. Why do we have disease? Why do we have suffering? Why did your aunt Mary, a perfectly lovely person, get breast cancer, why did Dad die of liver disease? As a doctor, I could offer you a list of causes, but in many ways, it still leaves you cold, doesn't it? Why do we need suffering in the first place? What is it there for, and what purpose does it serve?

In Ghana, where Wife of the Gods is set, many people believe that spells, curses, witchcraft and the power of various gods can bring about misfortune - disease, suffering, and as in this story, murder. All these aspects come together in the book, and when you read it, you'll understand why the title is so central to the story itself.

I have to add that as a doctor, I don't scorn people's attempts to explain suffering through the supernatural or the paranormal, because I don't have all the answers either. There are still many, many diseases that are a mystery to the medical community, and in fact, even with advanced technology we still find ourselves at a loss as to what a particular patient has, and sometimes we never arrive at a diagnosis.

What aspects of your life in Ghana are seen in Wife of the Gods?
One aspect was the side-by-side existence of beliefs in the supernatural with modern science. Many people in Ghana go to conventional medical clinics for care, but they also go to traditional healers and priests. I remember a short period in Accra during which it was rumored that a curse was being passed around that was striking men impotent. Ludicrous to me, but not to many. Another aspect of my experiences growing up that you'll see reflected in the book is the sharp dichotomy between the haves and haves-not - the town that's booming with development while just on the other side of the forest there's a village that is crushingly poor; or the skyscrapers going up in full view of ramshackle houses. As a boy in Ghana, I was very conscious, and often embarrassed, that I was living a life a hundred times more privileged than the large majority of my schoolmates, for example. All that social consciousness runs through the book and is reflected in the observations of the protagonist.

Would you like to give up practicing medicine in order to write full time?
I can see myself happily writing all day long without spending another minute in medical practice, but the fact is that practicing medicine keeps my soul open to those sensibilities important to creativity. And the reverse is true too - writing as I do very early in the morning gets me mentally prepared for the day of practice in clinic. So the two careers, medicine and writing, are symbiotic.

Much of the practice of medicine is like writing a mystery. The whodunit and howdunit in the story is exactly like trying to detect what ails a person. In fact the doctor is the detective, whether he immediately announces, "Aha, I know what's wrong," like Sherlock Holmes saying, "Elementary, my dear Watson," or he has to assemble a bunch of clues before he feels confident to make the diagnosis. And of course, the diagnosis is the triumphant denouement.

Are you willing to speak to book clubs and reading groups?
Yes, of course, I would love to. I will say in the Los Angeles area, but I would willingly consider events out of town as well, depending on time and distance. I'm particularly interested in talking to young African American kids about reading and writing.

What would you like to say to your readers?
I just hope you love my book and can't stop reading it till the last word on the last page. I hope you'll be as fascinated as I am by the intersection of the modern as against the ancient, the scientific as against the belief in the magical powers of the gods and the spells they weave.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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