Ellen Banda-Aaku is a Zambian born in the UK who has lived, studied and worked in Ghana, South Africa, the UK and Zambia. She has published three books for children and her short stories have appeared in anthologies published in Australia, South Africa and the US.
In 2004, she won the Macmillan Writers’ Prize for Africa for Wandi’s Little Voice, a book for children. In 2007, her short story, Sozi’s Box was the overall winner of the 2007 Commonwealth Short Story Competition.
Her first novel, Patchwork won the Penguin Prize for African Writing and was short-listed for 2012 Commonwealth Book prize. Learn more about her and her work here.
NAW- Tell us about your literary journey. How and at what age did you start writing?
I started writing fairly late in life. I was in my 30s and I attribute this to the fact that although I loved stories I didn’t think to write because growing up in Zambia, I didn’t read Zambian women writers so I didn’t think about becoming a writer. I believe as children we usually aspire to become what we see and I didn’t come across any noteworthy writings by Zambian women. There were a couple of male writers. Growing up, I read African writers (mainly male) from other countries such as Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa etc.
I actually sat down and put pen to paper about 5 years after I had started thinking about it. I saw a call for submissions for writers for children so I put something together and submitted. It was my first writing and it got published by Macmillan publishers as a winner of the Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa. And that was the start of my writing journey!
NAW-Tell us about your forthcoming book, ‘Nthano Zathu’. How did you get the idea for it? Tell s about the research you carried out. Why did you decide to write about cancer?
Last year an old friend from my university years contacted me on FB. I had not heard from her in years. She told me she had had cancer soon after we graduated and that she had started up a Foundation – Zambia Cancer Society. She asked if I could write a book telling the stories of people who had been touched by cancer and I agreed. I had to admit, I did not really realise what effect it would have on me at the time as I thought it was just about writing – it wasn’t. I went to Zambia and interviewed cancer victims, survivors, health professions and carers of victims. It was an emotional journey that filled me with grief (most of the stories were harrowing), guilt (I realised how fortunate I am to have good health), awe and inspiration (because of the courage the people I interviewed showed) – all rolled up in one. But despite the emotional toll, if asked, I would do it all over again. It was a rewarding and humbling experience.
NAW- Tell us about Patchwork and your other works.
I wrote Patchwork as the dissertation for my MA in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town. It started out as a book for children but somehow it changed in tone and ended up being a novel. It is about a girl called Pumpkin born from a single young woman and a married man. Pumpkin spends her life wishing her parents could live together as is the case with her friends. Or that at the very least, that her father could be around more often. One day her father comes to visit and gets upset so he picks Pumpkin up and takes her to live with his wife and sons. It’s a hostile environment and the effects of longing for her father’s attention, surviving the hostility in her new home, having an alcoholic mother and the experiences of the adults around her have an effect on Pumpkin and she suffers the consequences in adult life.
NAW- How different is the process of writing for adults than for children? And which do you prefer more?
I am more comfortable writing in the voice of a child so for that reason I enjoy and write more for children because then I get to use the voice of a child. I also like the innocence of the voice of a child in terms of how they view the world. The writing process for me is the same, what I focus on is using the appropriate voice.
NAW- When you are reading, do you prefer ebooks or printed paper books?
I am just; slowly; very slowing starting to enjoy reading ebooks. It has been a very slow start for me and I am surprised that I have taken to ebooks. I was very resistant initially. However, I am also very mindful that whilst ebooks is the way the world is heading, in the developing world like Zambia they will take a while to get there. The lack of resources and economic hardship means many people can’t afford tablets. So unless there is a way that ebooks can be cheaply downloaded to mobile phones, the reading culture in certain parts of the world will be at a disadvantage even as more and more reading materials take the electronic form.
NAW- How much of African culture has influenced your writing? Who are your favourite African writers?
So far I have based/set all my writing in Africa and my characters have been African so I would say my writing is influenced by African culture and experiences. I love the work of so many African writers but to mention a few; Chuma Nwokolo, Chimamanda Adiche Ngozi, JM Coetzee, Zukiswa Wanner, Leila Aboulela, and these are just a few of the many…
NAW- How do you write, in fits and starts or in one go? Take us through your writing process?
I don’t start to write until the story and character have developed in my head. Not the full plot but at least 50% of the story has to be in my head for me to be motivated to sit and write. Once I start, I sit at the computer I just let it all out just so I can have something to work with. I then print off what I have written usually about roughly 5 pages then I start to shape it by hand writing on my hard copy. I then sit back at the computed and revise the changes back onto the soft copy. I am more creative when hand writing that is why I revise manually.
NAW- What are your hobbies? What do you do when you are not writing?
Reading and I love sewing. I have thread of all colours and whenever I buy clothes and adjust them to a good fit by hand. I am always hemming or changing buttons or adjusting waist lines. If I hadn’t been a writer I would have tried my hand at fashion. But I think it’s too late for that now.