Ghanaian novelist and author of What Napoleon Could Not Do, DK Nnuro, says his debut novel was inspired by his experiences: ‘Since relocating to the US from Ghana, I have had one foot firmly placed among Black immigrants—Ghanaian immigrants, specifically—and another among Black Americans. It was natural that I would explore the tensions between the two in a novel.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
Everything in Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin series. I was obsessed!
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
If only my boring life could be the stuff of fiction or nonfiction. But I realized a major dream this year. So, I would say that any character who realizes a major dream in the course of a literary work should suffice as an analog.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life made me less suspicious of melodrama; or perhaps the appropriate term might be James Wood’s ‘hysterical realism’. In any case, I have been freed of such concerns in my own work.
It is important for me to give some of my forebearers their flowers: Ama Ata Aidoo, Ayi Kwei Armah, Kojo Laing, Francis Selormey, P. A. K. Aboagye, and Kwame Anthony Appiah.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
A combination of both. I edit sentences as I write. I edit big picture matters intermittently. And, of course, I edit draft after draft until someone says, ‘enough’.
What was your process for writing your debut novel, What Napoleon Could Not Do?
I had to treat my debut novel like a job. Monday to Friday: wake up at 5 a.m., at my desk at 5:30 a.m., I take two fifteen-minute breaks, then call it a day at around 9:30/10 a.m. This was my process for three years, more or less.
Your debut novel, What Napoleon Could Not Do, explores the contrasting perspectives of African Americans and Black immigrants regarding the United States. What inspired this story?
The novel opens in Ghana, specifically Kumasi, which is south-central Ghana and where I was born. But I was raised in Accra, Ghana’s capital, until I moved to LA before my eleventh birthday. Since relocating to the US from Ghana, I have had one foot firmly placed among Black immigrants—Ghanaian immigrants, specifically—and another among Black Americans. It was natural that I would explore the tensions between the two in a novel.
And what’s one thing about the reactions to the novel that surprised you?
I appreciate how several readers have made it a point to note the novel’s humor. I didn’t think this would be the case, as I thought readers would want to mine the tragic moments and not the moments of levity. I have been pleasantly surprised.
What books would you say are in conversation with your novel?
Before answering this question, it is important for me to give some of my forebearers their flowers. People like Ama Ata Aidoo, Ayi Kwei Armah, Kojo Laing, Francis Selormey, P. A. K. Aboagye, Kwame Anthony Appiah, I could go on and on. These are the people who paved the way for me; especially Ama Ata Aidoo. Her novel, Changes, is one that I would say I am most intentionally in conversation with. The novel is about a career-centred Ghanaian woman, Esi, who divorces her first husband and marries into a polygamous union. How subversive is that?! How unexpected?! An ostensible feminist and modern woman divorcing her husband for a polygamous union because she believes the arrangement will offer her the freedom she desires! In my novel, Belinda, also an ostensible feminist and modern woman makes choices that might seem to contradict feminism. But just like Esi, Belinda also believes that these choices are the path to the freedom she desires.
In my novel, Belinda, also an ostensible feminist and modern woman makes choices that might seem to contradict feminism.
You currently work as a curator of special projects at the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art. What is the most fascinating artwork you have encountered recently?
That’s an easy one. The artwork on the cover of my book: Amoako Boafo’s masterful Courtesy. Boafo is arguably Ghana’s foremost contemporary portraitist. Just look at the cover of my book. Wow!
What’s something simple but surprising about writing and publishing a book?
The fact that the book is very much out of your hands after a publisher buys it is a simple idea because, duh, what else should you expect? But the extent to which it is out of your hands can be, well, jarring.
What books by Ghanaian authors would you recommend to readers?
Of course, Changes by Ama Ata Aidoo. In fact, her entire oeuvre. And those of the authors I have already mentioned. Also, check out Ayesha Harruna Attah, Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, Mamle Wolo, Peace Adzo Medie, Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah, and Martin Egblewogbe.
Which books would you recommend to people who don’t usually read books about immigration?
I’m a writer and reader of fiction so my recommendations tend to be fiction. But I am also opposed to fiction being read for the purpose of educating oneself on socio-political matters like immigration. So I will mention a memoir I have found quite informative: Jose Antonio Vargas’ Dear America, Notes of an Undocumented Citizen.
Which Ghanaian writers working today do you admire most?
Ayesha Harruna Attah, Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, Mamle Wolo, Peace Adzo Medie, Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah, and Martin Egblewogbe. They are excellent and deserve a wider readership.
What books did you read while you were working on What Napoleon Could Not Do?
Reading novels can be very disruptive to my thinking when I am fully immersed in a writing project. I turn to poetry instead, especially narrative poems. They nourish my sentences. Walcott, for example, never fails me.
What’s a book on your bookshelf that might catch people by surprise?
Guide To Getting It On! by Paul Joannides. It was a gag gift from a friend. But it is prominently positioned on my bookshelf because it is a wonderful conversation starter—after the surprise wears off.
Do you have preferred genres and any genres you tend to steer clear of?
I make it a point to not limit myself. I am not afraid to put a book down if it is not working for me, so I am happy to explore. Thank God for libraries!
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
To stop thinking of the process as more precious than it really is.
What’s one word, line or quote that captures how this year has gone for you?
Unsettling. In both good and bad ways.
Novels can be very disruptive to my thinking when I am fully immersed in a writing project. I turn to poetry, instead. .
What are you currently working on?
I’m working my way through a somewhat murky novel.
Question from Yejide Kilanko: Who is your favourite antagonist, and why?
Townspeople who encounter Olive Kitteridge find her an antagonizing character. She’s an everyday antagonist, you could say. She disturbs your peace here and there but is not out to destroy your life. But her actions could impact your life significantly (perhaps to the point of destruction)—that is, if you let them. Such antagonists are constants in our lives; I appreciate it when fiction writers expertly capture them on the page.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
What is the one thing you regret not doing before your book came out?⎈
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