Write By Feeling – An Interview with Debut Novelist Nyani Nkrumah

By Amy Freeman

Nyani Nkrumah was born in Boston and raised in Ghana and Zimbabwe. She developed her love of reading and writing from her mother, who taught English Literature and Language and encouraged her children to recite poems and Shakespeare soliloquies. After graduating from Amherst College with a dual major in Biology and Black Studies, Nkrumah received her master’s at the University of Michigan, and a PhD from Cornell University. She has lived in the Washington DC region for the past twenty years. Wade in the Water is her first novel.

Amy Freeman: This incredible novel follows a Black girl and a white woman in rural Mississippi. I don’t want to give away any plot points, so I’ll just ask where this story came from? Was it an idea that grew and changed, or did you know where you wanted to go from the outset?

Nyani Nkrumah: I always wanted to write an intimate novel about the intersection of race and society and within this context, how our personal stories shape our innate behaviors and character. The ultimate question being, are we truly tied to our individual histories, and can we break free? I examine this wider question through a number of lenses—the race lens in this novel adds a layer of intrigue, but within that, an opportunity for introspection. There are other lenses I use to describe the relationship between Ella and Ms. St. James—lenses based on culture, and familial ties that are created, very early on, during childhood, and of course the lens of friendship and love which can also be very powerful.

My storyline has definitely changed over time. I write mostly by feeling, letting the characters lead me on their own journey. Not using a plot outline means that the direction of the story may alter frequently, but that brings a certain freedom, and therein lies the joy of writing. When I finish a chapter, I do stop, reflect, and spend countless hours editing and refining each word and action to arrive at the feeling or thought I want to convey to the reader.

It is indeed difficult to pinpoint where the story came from. I liken it to a kaleidoscope of imagination, experiences and perspectives, with each part bringing meaning to the whole. I have a different background from the characters, but that too brings in its own perspective. Growing up partly in Ghana, racial distinctions did not exist and therefore had no meaning or context, but my geographical moves later, to Zimbabwe, a post-apartheid society, and then back to the US, meant that I was forced to try to understand racial dimensions and origins. Ella’s unique placement in her family was drawn from a true story I was told. So like most writers, I draw on the things around me.

The book is set in the 1980s. While that’s not exactly ancient history (at least to this interviewer!), obviously you had to do some research to get the details right. What was your process?

The story is set mainly in the 1980s, with some flashbacks to the 1960s. I am very familiar with the music and entertainment scene of the 80s having been a teen during that decade. In terms of research however, I used a variety of sources—relevant books, academic journals and other articles, movies, visits to the Lorraine Hotel museum in Memphis, Tennessee and our own National Museum of American History and Culture, as well as a trip to rural parts of Mississippi and small towns, including Philadelphia, Mississippi. I had to do some final edits during the height of the pandemic, and the internet, particularly Google Maps street views, came in very useful. You can practically visit anywhere in the world sitting at your desk. There are some aspects of my research that I deliberately did not incorporate. For example, the use of the word Mama is very southern but I ultimately decided not to use it to refer to Ella’s Ma because the word is a powerful one, denoting love and warmth, whereas Ella’s Ma is the antithesis of this. Also, the houses on Ricksville road are two storied, not one storied as in many rural Mississippi towns. I rely on a lot of movement in the novel to ensure the characters are not static, and I felt it was important to have distinct spaces for Ella to move around in.

What was it like writing not only as a child and an adult, but also alternating between Black and white voices? Can you share any particular challenges in getting into the characters’ minds?

What a great question!

I think writing from the two different character’s points of view allows the reader to get into the character’s head space and feel what they are feeling,and understand those feelings. It is a very intimate and revealing process that is an important aspect of the novel—For example, how else would a white reader understand a black child’s thought processes, and vice versa for a black reader reading about a white woman. However, getting into the characters’
headspace as a writer was not always easy. It came a lot more naturally with Ella, perhaps because she is a character that I have worked with longer, and I have children, so conjuring up her raw emotions and the terrible circumstances of her life was much easier, including seeing the world through her eyes. Writing from the POV of Ms. St. James was a little more difficult, partly because she is a more complex and nuanced character. There were certainly aspects of her life that came easily to me, for example when she was on her university campus, because that life is very familiar to me, but my inability to access her head space came across in my early drafts. My review readers were quick to tell me that they needed more.

I went back to the drawing board, remembering that as children we are at our simplest, and our most accessible, and started re-writing. I took Ms. St. James all the way back to the age of 5. Once I did this and began to understand Ms. St. James, the writing took on a life of its own. After that, the pages just wrote themselves and these very pages are woven into the novel.

Did you use sensitivity readers? At what point?

A sensitivity reader will read your book with the view of ensuring that it doesn’t have stereotypes or biases, etc. To get feedback, I had a variety of people read the story and incorporated key feedback. There was one description I ultimately removed because it might have been sensitive for people who had faced a similar circumstance. In addition, my agent and publisher had their own set of readers, and they also reviewed the document. Some language which may be considered offensive today was kept in because the story takes place in a particular context—the 1980s and a bit of the 1960s—and so it was important to ensure that the story was realistic within those two contexts, and that it accurately represented the thoughts and feelings of the characters at those two moments in time.

For me, this was one of those books that I both wanted to know the ending and didn’t want the story to end! What do you want the reader to take from the story?

Thank you! I am so glad you enjoyed it.

I was part of a DC ladies book club for about 8 years and enjoyed discussing many books. I was always struck by our sometimes opposing interpretations of the same novel. Because of this, I do not have an exit sound bite in mind. I wanted to write a novel that was worthy of discussion and thought. My aim is to set up a story where readers are so engrossed in the lives of the characters and the tensions within the story, that when they come up for air they are
changed by what they have read.

If readers want to go deeper, a set of book club questions can be requested at nyaninkrumah.com.

What was your path to publication?

I have to thank The Writers’ Center because I pretty much followed what I had learned in my classes—I took a lot of classes to improve my writing, to get feedback from teachers and fellow writers, and to understand the publishing process. I also went to the Algernon Pitch Conference in New York, which taught us, over the course of 2 days, how to write a pitch for our novel. The big draw was that we received one-on-one feedback from two big publishing house editors. This became the basis for my query letter and the entire experience was very positive and encouraging. I used Query Tracker to track queries and find agents, and Publishers Marketplace to find which agents had recently sold a novel. However, how I got my agent was pretty much a miracle. I never sent her a query because she was closed to queries, and yet out of the blue, I got a call from her saying that she wanted to represent me. Perhaps another agent I had queried sent her my manuscript. My agent has been exceptional. She worked with me to fine tune the novel and within a few weeks after it was accepted as final, I had a deal with HarperCollins, Amistad.

I should clarify however that this entire process I have described did not happen in months, but years.

What’s next for you?

That’s a big question—I have a full-time work life outside of my writing which quite often requires me to travel internationally. But even sitting in a hotel room somewhere offers a window to write. With my youngest child almost out of the house, I anticipate that being an empty nester will provide more opportunity for writing.

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