Efua Traoré: My Nigerian Roots Make My Stories Magical
Efua Traoré has every reason to be excited. The Nigerian-German writer has a hot new book coming from Masobe, ‘Children of The Quicksands’. Married to a Malian-German, the mother-of-three writes in a most fantastical way, drawing readers into wondrous new worlds which are at the same time strange, and familiar. In the following interview with Uzezi Theresa Ominiabohs, the writer opened up about her beginnings, her methods, and other personal details.
Masobe Quarterly: You write books, short stories and songs in English and German. How do you move from that headspace to write in English?
Efua Traoré: My brain usually switches sub-consciously, I would say. The first stage of writing usually comes with an idea. At this early stage my thoughts are visual and not clearly linked to a particular language. The idea grows and when it is ready I will sit down to write. This is when the words come in.
I have noticed that the setting or place of the story is what always triggers which language I will write in. If the setting of my story idea is Nigeria, or maybe even Africa, then I automatically find myself writing in English because this is the language I associate with Nigeria. If the setting is however Germany or Europe, then I tend to write in German, which is the language I speak since I moved to Europe.
So, I do not actually consciously sit down and say ‘today I will write a story in German or in English’. It all depends on the idea that is about to pop.
MQ: You began to notice an affinity for stories as a child. How was your childhood like, and how did it contribute you fostering your writing talent?
Efua Traoré: I grew up in Ekpoma, in the south of Nigeria, which was still a small town then, before later moving to Lagos and then to Europe to study. I definitely had a fun childhood with lots of adventures climbing trees, scaling fences and roaming the bushes with friends and siblings to search for mango or cashew trees. The place where we lived was at the edge of town and we discovered a lot of mysterious and eerie spots like an extensive stretch of dry land we named ‘desert’, where we had to watch out for snakes and scorpions. We also discovered an otherworldly red valley which became a mega-slide in rainy season and a mysterious lake with red water and banks like quicksand.
I was a very imaginative kid so you can already guess what a mesmerizing landscape like this did to my mind.
I was also a very enthusiastic reader. We were very lucky to have an amazing public library in Ekpoma where I spent a lot of time. I was always particularly fascinated by any traditional tales and mythologies although it was difficult to find Nigerian folktales in books. I enjoyed watching Tales by Moonlight, a weekly TV show where Nigerian folk tales and fables were told.
I have always loved how the supernatural is a normal part of everyday life in Nigeria. How juju and superstitions will drift around modern structures and beliefs like whispery spirits that refuse to move on. Everyday life sometimes still has a mythical feel to it. Growing up in such an environment gives so much food for imagination. My head was practically bubbling with stories.
MQ: After you moved to Europe, after a career as a market research consultant, and as your young family grew, your writing career began. How was the journey like?
Efua Traoré: I discovered my passion for writing at a time when I had a brief break from work life to set up a family. My head cleared itself of data sheets and numbers and for the first time in my adult life I had time to actually think and just let my mind wander. Suddenly my head was filling back with stories, just like in my childhood. This time I felt an urge to write down these stories.
My writing journey began as a kind of bridge connecting me back to my childhood. I think a lot of that was caused by missing home and my family back in Nigeria.
I spent the first years writing for myself. I never showed my stories to anyone, definitely feeling too shy. Until I began writing for my daughters. I remember reading the first few pages of a story to them one evening at bedtime. They absolutely loved it and immediately wanted more. So I had to write faster than ever to finish the book for them. It was such a wonderful process and their positive and excited feedback motivated me and gave me the confidence to send out my work.
MQ: You’ve written two brilliant, magical books for young readers. What makes you so comfortable working in that category?
Efua Traoré: I guess this was the category that inspired me most in terms of giving me the feeling that there was still important work needed to be done there. Nigerian authors have been very creative in the past years, writing great literature which has been highly acclaimed within Nigeria and world-wide. However, most of these fine pieces of literature addressed adults.
Nigerian children whether in Nigeria or in the diaspora have still not been given a very large choice of books that represent them, their environment, their food, culture etc. And I mean adventure books, epic fantasies and magical worlds. Stories that captivate young readers.
When I was looking for children’s books for my daughters, I was disappointed to find out that things had not changed so much since my childhood. I wanted my daughters to go on a fantastic, magical, Nigerian adventure. That was what inspired me to write ‘Children of the Quicksands’ for them.
MQ: Do you have any plans to write adult fiction?
Efua Traoré: Everything is possible. I have so many ideas. My problem has never been finding ideas; it has always been finding the time to write them all down.
My current project is a Young Adult idea which has been trying to edge its way out of me for quite a while now. I have finally agreed to let it out. But I love writing for children and will definitely continue doing that with all my heart.
MQ: You’ve described writing as the late-discovered second love of your life. What’s the first?
Efua Traoré: Definitely my family! That would actually include not only my husband and my three wonderful daughters who inspire and motivate me, but also my siblings and parents. I am quite a family-person.
MQ: Which was the first prize you ever won?
Efua Traoré: The first prize I won (in writing) was the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. This was my first validation as a shy writer who never studied anything literature-related and who had only felt bold enough to send out a short story after writing in private for years. The commonwealth short story prize is one of the biggest possible prizes to be won for a short story, so you can imagine my disbelief at winning.
I have to admit that my reaction was not very elegant. I was in my back garden, reading in my hammock when I received the phone call and I actually fell out of the hammock! I still smile anytime I think of that day. I remember running into the house and screaming for my husband and kids to come and listen. We all started dancing and I broke down in tears.
MQ: When was the last time you visited Nigeria?
Efua Traoré: My last visit was in 2019, just before Covid broke out. I can’t wait for things to normalise so I can see my family and my country again. And also so I can have my favourite food, which is pounded yam and banga soup.