Dike Okoro in
conversation with Novelist,
Benjamin Kwakye was born in Accra, Ghana. He has published
The Clothes of Nakedness and
The Sun by Night, both of which won regional
Commonwealth Writers Prizes for literary excellence. The
Clothes of Nakedness has also been adapted for radio by the
BBC as a Play of the Week. He has worked as Resident
Novelist for Window to Africa Radio. He holds degrees from
Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School and currently works
as legal counsel in the Chicago area.
What inspired you to take up writing?
think it was a process that built up over the years until it
got to a point where I felt I had to write. It goes back to
my primary school days when I was surrounded by books at
home and strongly encouraged by my parents to read and
write. Under their encouragement, I devoured a lot of story
books and developed a hunger for reading. In those days,
most of what I read came from abroad, mostly the UK. Then
the introduction to leading African writers in my secondary
school days added another dimension. Here were people who
looked like me writing material with which I could easily
identify. In hindsight, I think that was an indirect
invitation and encouragement to write. If they could do it,
perhaps so could I. With time, I felt that I could add my
voice to the growing corpus of literature from the African
People frequently associate contemporary Ghanaian fiction
writing with the likes Ama Ata Aidoo and Ayi Kwei Armah.
Were these writers influential to you while you were in the
early stages of your craft?
Without question. Even before I started writing, I was
reading Armah, Aidoo, Okai, Awoonor, and other Ghanaian
writers. They paved the way for me in the sense that they
showed that it could be done. Many of these writers
continue to inspire me, and those that I have met personally
have been very encouraging and supportive.
Could you tell us a bit about the process involved in the
writing of your first two novels?
urge to actually write a novel had been with me for a while,
but for one reason or another I just couldn’t get myself to
do it, although I had started and abandoned a novel when I
was much younger. I was probably about thirteen at the time
and perhaps this failure haunted me. After law school, I
felt I needed to exorcise this failure and procrastination.
I wrote The Clothes of Nakedness in my first year as
a lawyer, when I was working for a law firm in Columbus,
Ohio. I started with an outline no longer than two pages
although, because I had been thinking about it for a while,
I had a lot more detail in my mind. Once I started writing,
I realized that some of the characters did not necessarily
fit the designs I had for them. I had to let them tell the
story, so to speak. I would spend mornings, evenings, and
weekends writing. It was challenging, but I was determined
to complete the work. It took me about a year to complete
the first draft. I then spent about another year or so
revising it. The Sun by Night was written under very
similar circumstances although, having finished the first
novel, I had more confidence that I could complete this
Most contemporary African novelists seem to be concerned
with exploring themes that center on conflicts arising from
social realism, exile, male-female relationships, post
colonialism, etc. Could you share with us some of the themes
you generally explore in your novels? And why are these
themes important to you as a writer?
daresay that many writers all over the world write about
experiences or issues that impact them or their loved ones.
They explore issues that are important to them. I don’t
think African writers are any different. At the risk of
simplification, my novels so far have been concerned with
the issues you mention within the context of the
underprivileged and the disenfranchised. They have sought
to explore some of the injustices and challenges prevalent
in many African countries. These are issues that I
confronted as a boy growing up in Ghana. Because I lived
them, they are of special importance to me.
Where do your stories come from?
think my experiences and observations inform my writing.
Beyond that, I don’t have a clue. I want to avoid the
cliché that the stories find the writer, but it may actually
Where was The Sun by Night written? What kind of
personal exploration did you undertake to produce such a
memorable and provocative tale?
started writing The Sun by Night in Columbus, Ohio.
It must have been around 1997. I finished writing it a
couple of years later when I had moved to the Chicago area.
I delved into some of my experiences and observations of a
traumatic period in Ghana’s history, a period marked by
violence and bloodshed. I tried also to set this within the
framework of the challenges of an African country engaged in
the arduous task of nation-building at a time when its
traditions, good or bad, are under the onslaught of
so-called modernism. These are issues that confront the
African at a micro and macro level. Since I was living in
the US at the time the novel was written, and I hadn’t been
to Ghana in a while, I had to mine my memory very deeply.
Perhaps that also allowed for a dose of healthy detachment.
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