Michael Donkor’s celebrated debut novel, Hold, follows 17-year-old domestic servant, Belinda, from Ghana to South London as she is asked to be a “good, wise, supportive friend” to troubled teenager, Amma.
Donkor spoke to Bristol 24/7 about the 2019 Desmond Elliot Prize shortlisted novel, the early noughties, and writing as investigation ahead of his appearance at Spike Island.
How much has your teaching work influenced your writing?
Lots! Every day when I am at school, I get to interact with, observe, learn from and be entertained by young people. I have conversations with them which – I think – inform the way I present teenagers’ dialogue and internal dilemmas. I love the directness with which my students address me and each other. I love how challenging and iconoclastic they can be. On slow and grey days, I’m often really energised by their innovative responses to the texts we’re discussing. I am so interested in the opportunities that young characters offer to narratives because of the openness and inquisitiveness adolescent protagonists can bring.
Equally, a primary responsibility of any teacher worth their salt is taking nuanced concepts and making them comprehensible without losing any of their intricacy – something that I am required to do as writer all the time!
Is there a special significance to the year 2002 for you, when Hold is set?
Yes, I look back on 2002 with huge fondness. At the time, I was applying to study English at university; adulthood, and all of its tantalising, terrifying promises of independence, was imminent. Hopefully Amma’s characterization conveys the restless excitement I felt then.
In 2002 I was coming to the realization that being a writer was what I wanted to do and so, as evidenced by my stacks of old notebooks, I wrote endlessly and clunkily in all sorts of forms. It was a year of partying too. I had done well in my GCSE and AS exams, the parental leash was loosened and my friends and I took full advantage of the helpfully casual attitude to underage drinking in various South London pubs. And there were so many houseparties. I loved and still love the soundtrack to these gatherings; the empowered, intensely felt pop and R&B of the early noughties – TLC, Destiny’s Child, Misteeq, Usher, Ashanti – which is why references to Missy Elliott and Christina Aguilera pepper the novel.
More broadly, writing about attitudes towards sexuality, race and gender in 2002 gave me an important opportunity to reflect on how much – or indeed how little – our conversations about identity politics have progressed since then.
The novel is dominated by several strong female characters, which is rare from a male writer. What impact have strong women had on your life and your writing?
An enormous but very pertinent question! I grew up in a household that was dominated by fantastically interesting and colourful women – my Mum and two older sisters. I don’t think it’s over exaggeration to say that these three women fundamentally shaped how I look at the world. They quietly gave me an understanding of some of the specific challenges that women of colour face – access to opportunities, regressive attitudes and expectations. Particularly after reading Morrison and Adichie’s fiction, and after thinking deeply about the patriarchal underpinnings of Ghanaian culture, I knew I wanted my first novel to think through some of these limitations that some Ghanaian woman are repeatedly forced to negotiate, to counter.
I do feel a little bit squeamish about the term ‘strong women’. I’ll happily admit that my Mum and sisters possess a distinct force and fortitude, just like Belinda, Amma, Mary, Nana and Belinda’s mother. But these characters and members of my family are more than just their strength. They have vulnerabilities, awkwardnesses, anxieties. They have questions about themselves and the world that stop them from being unequivocally strident and forthright.
It goes without saying that I am very much an advocate of creating female characters who can endure and battle hardship, and who perhaps earn the reader’s respect because of these qualities. But I also tried to imbue my female protagonists with frailty too; making them nuanced, complex, human.
At one point in the novel Amma describes life as “All of it. Ridiculous. Too difficult to catch and understand any of it; herself; anyone.” Do you share Amma’s view and is this a clue to why you write, “to catch and understand”?
A gorgeous question! I do think much of life is sort of farcical, incomprehensible. Briefly casting an eye over the headlines of the last few months shows just how chaotic and absurd our world can be. I suppose, to a certain extent, I use writing as a means – for myself – of controlling – or avoiding? – some of this swirling madness. Writing can enable me to impose patterns onto the more bizarre behaviours and attitudes I see and experience.
I also, however, like to think of writing as investigative. So rather than the creation of fiction operating only as a means of ‘fixing weirdness’, I hope when I write I am questioning what’s around me. I’d like to think that my narratives demonstrate the mind of someone who is pondering and musing on what they’re seeing – and not necessarily hoping to come to some fixed conclusion about those things.
I don’t think that my stories are, or will ever be, loud assertions of ‘truths’ or demonstrations of an ‘answer’ or ‘solution’ that I have come to. My stories are explorations and attempts to present ideas, experiences and people to readers in a way that encourages readers to keep thinking, rather than declamations of authoritative, sealed off ideas.
It feels like there is much more to come from Amma and Belinda, they are so rich and fully-formed. Have you any plans to continue their stories?
Loads of readers have asked me about the markedly ‘open’ ending of the novel, and wondered whether the inconclusive conclusion (!) hinted at a sequel or revisiting of the girls’ stories in the future. Alas, much as I loved crafting Amma and Belinda, given that I spent the best part of decade working on Hold and hanging out with its protagonists, I’m very excited to be currently exploring pastures new. I’m now beavering away on my second book and am getting to know a whole host of new characters who readers will – fingers crossed! – find compelling.
Michael Donkor will be discussing his debut novel, Hold, at Spike Island on September 26. For more information, visit https://www.spikeisland.org.uk/programme/events/novel-writers-michael-donkor/