Author Nyani Nkrumah delves into racism and classism in debut novel ‘Wade In the Water’

In the Wading in the Water: A Novel, author Nyani Nkrumah explores racism and classism, something she didn’t encounter as a child growing up in Ghana. “I went to an international school where the motto was that we come from different races and creeds and we really need to understand each other,” she tells EBONY. It was only when Nkrumah moved to Zimbabwe that she felt the sting of prejudice. “I was the only black girl in a very white class and what I experienced in that school was total drama, especially because of where I come from.”

WadeintheWater_Nyani Nkrumah

Wading in the Water: A Novel

Nyani Nkrumah (Amistad, January 17)

Price: $28

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Recounting an unusual friendship between Ella, a young black girl, and Katherine St. James, a white woman, in the 1980s, in her debut novel, Nkrumah describes how many of our life decisions are steeped in our childhood experiences, reinforcing how fragile that time is. Here, the writer tells us about her creative motivation, her discovery of African-American history, and why Ghana was the place to be this past holiday season.

EBONY: What prompted you to write this book?

Nyani Nkrumah: I really wanted to write about a young black child coming of age and the nuances between her and the other main character, Miss St. James, who is a white researcher from Boston. She explores the relationship, the complexities and limits of that friendship through various themes of race and class and the different aspects of love and friendship.

Why did you decide to set it in the 80s?

I wanted my main character, 11-year-old Ella, to be quite far from the 60s in that she knows what happened in the civil rights movement – she learned it in school – but she didn’t really experience it. This is in direct contrast to the city’s people who are much older and lived in the 1950s and 60s. When Miss St. James comes to town, different reactions are seen, some people are suspicious: why is she there and what are her motivations? The children of the community have a different perspective. That tension is what I wanted to create.

How do you personally connect with your two very different protagonists?

For Ella, of course, it’s relatively easy. The hardest part was developing the character of Miss St. James. I realized that to really understand her I had to go back to her childhood. When you’re a kid, you’re at your simplest, and then there are all these influences around you. Once I started developing her as a child, I really started to see who she was as an adult. We start with Miss St. James at age five, and you can draw lines between what’s happening with Ella and what happened with Miss St. James as a child.

What was your experience growing up in Africa?

I grew up in Ghana, and it was really a colorblind society. Most people are black. My parents studied abroad in the US and UK and had a huge amount of international friends, there were a lot of Europeans around who I called my aunt and uncle. When I was 15, my parents moved to Zimbabwe, which was becoming independent in the early 1980s. They had lived through 100 years of white minority rule and were just beginning to dismantle the architecture of racism in the country. They were busing kids from top black townships to white schools and I happened to go to a school where this was happening. There were four streams and they put all the Africans in the lower two streams, but my parents insisted I go to the upper stream. I really couldn’t believe people wouldn’t sit next to you or talk to you. They were physically hurt if they touched you. I realized very early on that I had to make sense of the two worlds I came from, one where I thought black and white people were equally wonderful. It took a lot of introspection and reflection on the roots of racism. The distance between what I experienced and Mississippi in the 1960s is mere steps from each other.

Is that what inspired you to create characters steeped in African American history and culture?

I was going to college in the US – I was here to do biology – but when I saw the black studies curriculum, I knew I had to do both. I wanted a civil rights story and chose Mississippi deliberately. And I felt like I could connect with the characters and tell a pretty emotional story.

What do you like to see when you come home to Ghana?

I was there around Christmas during the Afrochella music festival. We’ve had great artists come down for it like Burna Boy and Asake. And Aqua Safari is a place where you can go and do all these amazing water sports.

What do you hope people take away from your book?

People can unite around this book and discuss what are the roots of racism and colorism and build bridges between communities. I hope readers will be drawn to black and white characters, to understand how they think and how this motivates their behavior which influences the actions they take in the story. I would really like this to be discussed and debated.

Wading in the Water: A Novel has been available on Amazon since January 17, 2023.

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