'A searing, rhapsodic novel. Filled with beauty, devastation and the power of ancestral connections that ripple through the ages' - Irenosen Okojie, author of Nudibranch
The Book of Echoes is a powerful debut novel, intricately woven and brutally moving, that is sure to touch readers, with its dual narrative structure, and strong lead characters. Rosanna Amaka has written a novel that will speak to many, and here you can read a Q&A with her, followed by a short extract from the early stages of the novel, as Ngozi is born
Could you tell us a little about your debut novel ‘The Book of Echoes’ please?
‘The Book Of Echoes’ is narrated by the spirit of an enslaved African woman, who over two hundred years ago, in Africa, tosses her young son to safety as she is hauled off by slavers. After sometime and a brutal sea passage, her second child is snatched away from her as she lands in the West Indies Docks over in the Docklands. She dies, and her spirit roams the earth searching for her lost children.
While she roams, she makes her way to 1980s Brixton, where she watches teenager Michael attempt to stay out of trouble; and to a poor village in Nigeria, where Ngozi struggles to better her life. She follows both of their stories.
Ngozi and Michael both have such a strong determination for a better life, despite the challenges their situations throw at them; was it important to you to get this message across?
Yes, it was important because this was the determination and resilience that I saw in the community around me and which I admired, but I didn’t see this reflected in many of the novels I was reading, which featured them, when I started writing over twenty years ago.
You write about family connections and community so beautifully , yet without over inflating any of the horror or emotion of the situations; was it your intention to follow this path or is that your natural voice and style?
I think it is my natural writing style, however, the horror or emotion doesn’t need to be over inflated as the story speaks for its self.
Was it difficult to balance the two stories, whilst keeping the momentum and navigating the parallels between them?
Yes, but because I had real life knowledge and observations from both places, it made it easier, and it helped make both stories real to me.
Did the stories evolve over the twenty years it has taken to reach publication? Is it a much different piece now than when you started?
At the heart of it the story is basically the same one I started over twenty years ago, however, over the last twenty years of re-writes and re-drafts I have added more meat to it.
With this being your debut novel, and being a writer at the start of your career I was wondering if you could tell us about a book or author that inspired you to become an writer?
There are many. I think the first book I remember reading as a child I thought wow I wish I could write was ‘Silas Marner,’ by George Elliot, then later books by James Baldwin, Chinua Achebe, J. California Cooper, Roddy Doyle and many others.
Having tried for so long to get your work published, how does it feel to have been so championed by ‘The Good Literary Agency’ ? How necessary do you think organisations like this are to furthering the wider and continued promotion of black and ethnic minority voices in publishing?
I think ‘The Good Literary Agency,’ and other organisations like them, are crucial. They are very knowledgeable about the industry and know what the industry is looking for. Their guidance, help and advice has been invaluable to me. They invested time that many other agencies wouldn’t have put in. They are getting voices like mine heard and their work noticed.
It is six in the morning and the village of Obowi awakens. It stretches the sleep from its body and gives out little morning coughs and slipper shuffles. At first glance, not much has changed in Obowi, not since – well, not since I left my baby boy Uzo in the shrine, way back then when my yesterdays began, as far back as one of the village folk songs remembers. You see, roosters still flap their wings on top of yam hills to crow in the day. Women still rise to clank their pots on top of open fires. Children still scurry to fetch firewood from the bush and water from the stream. But underneath, hidden, that is where the changes are, dispersed around the village in objects that have been there so long they have become part of the landscape: in the cast-iron cannon and shackles that live in the grounds of the newly rebuilt Catholic church on the path to the village; in the World War II wireless, which sleeps quietly in the bush; in the old military tank sitting under the ekpili tree, swallowed among the cassava fields; in the satellite dish attached to the yellow hut over there. These things hint at the villagers’ past and present, at the sweat and tears, and at the ghosts and souls buried beneath the dust.
It’s in this village, eleven years ago now, that I met Ngozi. It was her eyes that held me the night she came yelling into this world. Those big bright eyes shaped like teardrops, which reminded me of my baby girl. They shimmered like silver, reflecting her might, and I could not help but marvel at the ferocity in her cry as this tiny girl opened her mouth wide and screamed for life. I’m telling you, she fought, fought through the fever that killed five the day before, to be born into this dirt.
Rosanna Amaka was born to African and Caribbean parents. She began writing The Book of Echoes twenty years ago to give voice to the Brixton community in which she grew up. Her community was fast disappearing - as a result of gentrification, emigration back to the Caribbean and Africa, or simply with the passing away of the older generation. Its depiction of unimaginable pain redeemed by love and hope was also inspired by a wish to understand the impact of history on present-day lives. Rosanna Amaka lives in South London. This is her first novel.