In this interview we talk to J. A Mensah about her debut novel and inaugural winner of the NorthBound Book Award, Castles from Cobwebs.
As a child, Imani is full of grown-up questions: what’s the difference between faith and reality, do all black people really have rhythm, and why do people keep asking how she arrived at St Teresa’s Convent. Racially marginalised, Imani grows up with an ever-increasing feeling of displacement, which she remedies with the companionship of her shadow, Amarie, and her childhood sweetheart, Harold. At 19, Imani is called to Accra in Ghana after the sudden death of her biological mother; at the same time, Amarie disappears. Past, present, faith and reality are spun together in this magical realist tale.
Castles from Cobwebs is your debut novel – how long have you been working on this project? What was the initial spark of the story that inspired you?
The idea for the novel has been with me for a long time. It’s taken different forms and I’ve stopped and started many times. In some ways, I think it has been different books – so it’s hard to say exactly when it began. There have been many sparks, but one of the first came when I was working in Northumberland over ten years ago. I was observing an animation workshop run in a reception class in a primary school in Bedlington. The lead artist was setting up to show the class the result of their work, and I was standing back and watching. A little boy came to stand with me and held my hand. He looked up at me and asked, ‘Why are you black?’ The question felt innocent, but it completely threw me. I realised I was probably the first black person he’d ever met. On the drive home I was thinking about the encounter, and I thought it was interesting that he used the word black and not brown. He knew that I was black, so at some stage he had been introduced to the language of race. I wondered where and how, and in what context. I asked myself, what would it be like for a young black girl growing up in Northumberland with no immediate black community around her? How would she understand who she was in relation to others? What vocabulary would she develop around race and identity, and how would she encounter the terms that already exist?
The structure of the novel is often non-linear or slightly fragmented. Was this a conscious decision to reflect Imani’s coming of age and self-discovery or did it develop more organically as you told her story?
The start of the novel was always fragmented. The fragments have been different, but a sense of fracture was necessary. I wanted the structure of the novel to communicate displacement and disconnect on multiple levels. I was at an event recently where the poet, Bhanu Kapil quoted a Latinx queer Zen monk, Ryumon Sensei, who asked ‘How will you metabolise the transgression that you know has already occurred?’ when speaking about intergenerational trauma. The question resonated with me because it speaks to the essence of what I was trying to explore in the novel. Imani is trying to understand herself, her place in the world and metabolise a history of displacement and trauma that she is told does not exist. How do you process these things when you’re told ‘you’re lucky’, ‘you should be grateful’, ‘stop asking awkward questions’?
The novel is set mainly between rural Northumberland and Ghana – two quite different settings but both evoked beautifully. What is the importance of these two places to you, or to the story you wanted to tell? How did you find the process of writing the two?
My father was born in Ghana, and my grandfather comes from a village that is quite similar to the one in the book. I worked in Northumberland in my 20s, and every morning I would drive up from Newcastle. I haven’t lived in either location, but both places are sites that are ‘almost home’ to me. And in both I don’t completely belong. I’m very conscious of myself in both locations, they don’t entirely accept me, but when I’m away from them I have this fierce sense of connection to them. In writing about them, I made them my own. I took poetic licence with their landscapes and histories and in some ways mythologised them – it felt exciting and transgressive and deeply personal. I was writing to make them my own.
There is so much folklore, some might even say magic, in this book. Do you think of the book as magical or more about mythology and faith?
I wanted the book to be about knowledge and belief – different, cultural ways of knowing and the value that is placed on them. I wanted to set West African mysticism and mythology beside Catholic mysticism and leave space for people to come to their own conclusions.
I loved so much about this book but I found the image of Imani as a child in this convent full of nuns so compelling and unnerving! Did you do a lot of research into real similar institutions or did you just let your imagination run wild?
There are quite a few monasteries in Northumberland, and in my 20s, for one reason or another, I spent time in a couple of them. One is a Christian monastery near Riding Mill where they have a retreat house that is open to people of any faith or none. I was working with an NGO that supports asylum seekers and refugees who have been victims of torture, and they used to hold retreats there. I ended up visiting it several times with different groups and on my own. The other place is a Zen monastery near Hexham where I went for meditation retreats. The religious communities in both places are very different to the nuns in the novel, but the landscape and a few of the rituals around daily life informed my depictions of the convent in the book.
Castles from Cobwebs will be published by Saraband Books on 18 February 2021. Pre-order now.