When Ayesha Harruna Attah learned of her enslaved great-great grandmother, only known as “slave,” she wanted to give her a voice that had previously been denied. The origin story of her book, The Hundred Wells of Salaga (Other Press), comes from this personal family history, as well as years of research and writing to get it right.
A reflection of pre-colonial Ghana in a time of war and slavery, the novel tells the stories of two women whose lives become deeply intertwined. Through chapters that alternate between the two women’s stories, readers come to know Aminah, torn from her life and forced into slavery, and Wurche, a princess struggling to make her voice heard.
The book went through a number of iterations before final publication. Attah began research and writing in 2012. “I tried to do research into the time in which she might have lived. It was just before most of West Africa was colonized.” She found this time period, at the end of the nineteenth century, to contribute interesting dramatic elements to her storytelling. During this time, the slave trade was at its height, war and the influence of encroaching European presences threatened the stability of the region, and there was great diversity among people in language, religion, and experience.
Amidst these circumstances, Attah sought to “look at history with the rose-tinted glasses off.” Conducting research, Attah was able to find much more information about the lives of female royalty than slaves. For this reason, she included Wurche, a princess. She also added an interesting foil for the character of Aminah, a slave.
“I think that women [readers] look at women like queens with a certain nostalgia and glorification, without paying attention to who they actually may be.” One queen she researched, for instance, did not want the slave trade to end. To flesh out the idea of that character and perspective was one point of interest for her. “What could that look like?”
When writing the character of Aminah, who is based on Attah’s great-great grandmother, the process was quite different. “I was a bit precious with her. I didn’t want bad things to happen to her. I was protective, and I wanted to do right by her. I really needed to give her the dignity that she didn’t have a chance to be remembered with,” Attah explained.
She originally wrote the book as a young adult novel before scrapping it to start again in 2014. This time, the novel was written from many points of view, including the lives and experiences of many in addition to Aminah and Wurche. During the editing process with her publisher later, the book was condensed to the two points of view, but the main story line did not change. “From the very beginning, it was a novel about strong women in Ghana,” said Attah.
Furthermore, Attah found that switching from YA to historical fiction allowed her to immerse herself in research without getting bogged down by the details. With anything tangible, such as place or clothing, she wanted to get the facts right, but “when it comes to human emotion, I want to focus on what I feel like.”
“I go on the idea that human beings haven’t really changed. I think human emotions are the same,” she said. So when it comes to writing from a perspective that exists within a different historical or cultural moment, Attah’s writing is uninhibited. “As I’m writing, I don’t say to myself, this person wouldn’t feel this way.”
“I’m very comfortable in historical fiction. I love research and I love reconstructing a world that has already happened.”
The Hundred Wells of Salaga was published February 5, 2019. Find Ayesha Harruna Attah at ayeshaattah.com and on Instagram @ayeshahattah.
Megan DeMint is a writer and editor with a love for nonfiction: memoirs, collections of essays, books by journalists, and whatever else she can get her hands on. She writes articles about authors and their writing processes at Spine Magazine and works as a Communication Specialist at Cornell University. Even more of her work can be found at www.megandemint.com.