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Author Meshack Asare On Identity And Inspiration In Children's Literature

Shevaun Williams
Shevaun Williams & Associates/World Literature Today
Meshack Asare

For 45 years, Meshack Asare has vividly written and illustrated stories for children that relate to their experiences growing up in Africa.

The Ghanaian author and artist grew up in the 1940s and 50s, the son of an accountant and a trader. His father loved to read – history books and magazines filled with vibrant color photographs. But Asare says there was nothing for a child to read other than textbooks designed to teach English reading and writing.

“It began with not reading children’s books, or the kinds that I would have loved as a child,” Asare said.

He studied art at the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, and became a teacher. He was then asked to illustrate a children’s book written by a friend.

“Now that I’m able to draw, now how about also writing?” Asare said. “Combining this with an aim to produce a really beautiful book.”

He grew up with a rich tradition of oral storytelling, especially from his grandparents. They lived in a rural Ghanaian village, but visited often. But even with this tradition, more inspiration came from books imported from abroad – like the story of Jack and Jill fetching a pail of water from a hilltop well. These were activities familiar to him, and most children of his generation.

“I was more interested in show children, in the form of a book that also was about them, in environments that they actually could recognize,” Asare said. “Yes, that is a beach, and that is a canoe. And something that was very close to them, and they could realize that they could also see themselves playing [these] roles.”

The international publication World Literature Today honored Asare’s nearly five-decade career late last year with the biennial NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature. He’s the focus of the magazine’s January issue, and wrote in an essay his art training taught him to closely observe the world around him:

I couldn’t help admiring the sculptural power of the “gold weights” and wondering at the mystique surrounding them. I watched craftsmen producing them when I visited my grandmother, though disappointingly, only for the tourist market. My inspiration came initially from owning a set that I could look closely at and touch as frequently as I wished and contemplating as I did so. They grew and grew until I really had to know more about them—then imagination did the rest. The outcome of this fascination is Kwajo and the Brassman’s Secret. The wise meanings of the various figures in the book are traditional, as is the historical context. Kwajo’s magical experience is, however, fiction.

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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Meshack Asare, welcome to World Views.


GRILLOT: Well, first of all, Meshack, I want to congratulate you on winning the 2015 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children's Literature. And so I wanted to start just by asking you, since this is an award for children's literature, and you've obviously written a number of children's books, what drew you to writing children's books? Because you're not only a writer, you're an illustrator as well. So what drew you to that area of literature?

ASARE: Well, it started when I was a child, myself, actually. I quite often saw my own father reading. He loved to read. I think I was lucky in that sense. He had magazines and books - history books usually - but there weren't books for children. And I also realized the magazines that he had had pictures in them, colored pictures especially. There wasn't anything like that except school textbooks when I started school. And those books were actually textbooks meant for you to learn to read English and write, and were not as interesting. What actually drew me into writing for children, finally, I studied art. So now I'm studying art, how about writing? Trying also to write so that I can make books for children. So that is actually how it initially came together, and drew my attention. It began with not reading children's books, or the kinds that I would have loved as a child, and then being asked to illustrate a book for children, and then I had studied art, and now I'm able to draw, now how about also writing, you know? Combining this with an aim to produce a really beautiful book, and that's how it started.

GRILLOT: So, you mentioned, you're from Ghana. That's where you were born and raised. So do you have a bit of a tradition there, in terms of - if you didn't have children's books, you told stories. So you didn't have anything to read, necessarily, but I presume that, I mean you sound like your father was a reader, so you had those around who perhaps told you stories. Was your ambition, perhaps, to take some of these stories that you, these kind of lessons, if you will, and I'm going to get to your book that you won for, because I think there's some lessons in that book, but lessons that were perhaps told orally, and then put them down on paper, and to provide them for children with pictures, with illustrations?

ASARE: That only came later. But it is true, it's a fact that I had and enjoyed a lot of stories, folk tales actually. Not from reading, mainly, but from actually hearing these told by my grandparents. I was lucky, again, because they knew a lot of these stories, and they visited from the villages. And I think most of the storytelling was actually done in the villages, not in the towns and the cities. But they visited us quite often, and it was storytelling time whenever they were there. But despite that, when I actually decided to try and write for children, I was more interested in showing children, in the form of a book, that also was about them. In environments that they actually could recognize that, yes, that is this, and that is a beach, and that is a canoe. And something that was very close to them, and they could realize that they could also see themselves playing roles and engage in activities they were familiar with. And I think I was actually comparing that possibility to the books that we got from the UK, for example, about Jack and Jill, about doing things that were quite familiar. That is actually where I started. Of course, my first [unintelligible] was that part of the identity - where I am, and what I am, and what I do. It was the beginning, and I think it came out in that first book called Tawia Goes To Sea, which was published in 1970. It went on after that. It was much later I think, third or fourth book, that I switched to the folk tales.

GRILLOT: I like that you raised the term identity and that your purpose was to create something that would allow children to identify with their environment, and that even though it's fiction, it's a made up story, perhaps it's still relevant to them and that they can identify with it. Well, the book that is being honored now, Kwajo and the Brassman's Secret, this is a very interesting book where you're kind of teaching a lesson about choosing wisdom over a temptation to become rich. So not only something that children can identify with, but perhaps an important lesson for them to learn. Can you tell us a little bit about that story and that book? And where did that come from? Why write about wisdom over riches?

ASARE: Well, it has its roots in all the feelings, strong feelings again, that if we already knew about something, it also helped us to articulate that. We could learn more based on what we already knew. But I was growing up, and I had a chance to visit my grandmother living far away somewhere, so men, you know, making and producing these gold weights. And was quite interested in how they made them initially. The technicalities of it. They took clay and made it into this, and then took wax and actually molded the wax into figure. And finally turning it into metal. That was quite fascinating in itself. But it was not enough, because they only produced them to sell. They weren't interested. But I knew that these figures were not just made for no reason. They meant something. Each of them had a meaning. Some of them actually told entire stories. So then, why were these men making them only to sell? When people didn't even know what they actually mean anymore? That was a question initially. And then it went further to asking myself, 'Why don't I know what all these wonderful figures mean?' And from then on it became an obsession. I actually got myself a collection that I could hold in my hands. And then I learned more, and realized what they meant. That they were made for a specific purpose. Measuring, weighing gold, which was the currency of the time. But it just accumulated over the years into several thousand, actually. And then I imagined, so it means if you have all of these different bits and pieces together, you have entire stories, and entire histories, and entire proverbs, and plenty of them. And then it became useful, the importance of the value of it got heavier in my mind, and also clearer that yes, this is something to actually know about. There's something to learn about. The part of it, telling about knowledge over money, let's say, that was just part of it. Because some of the figures actually were telling proverbs about things that were not sensible to do. Like carrying gunpowder, and smoking, for example. And also like trying to do everything all by yourself. Imagine scraping the bark off trees to make nets, for example. He couldn't expect to be able to gather it all. Some would drop on the face like that. And from this, it just came that, OK, how about creating a story in which this boy, the main character, the protagonist, would have to solve puzzles, something at the end of which you could be rewarded. It was just the necessity of creating a plot, and then it resulted in that wonderful moral.

GRILLOT: Yeah, the lesson. The moral of the story. Every story has a point. There's some sort of moral you're learning from that story. But digging a little deeper behind something that was purely meant for commerce, and looking at the lessons or the understanding that can come from that. The wisdom that can come from that, yeah. Well, so, Meshack, just very quickly, I have to ask you, obviously being from Africa, and you mentioned that there wasn't, at least during your childhood, much in the way of children's literature. What are the struggles that African authors face today? Do you see a real growth in literature and the field of literature in countries around Africa? Very big and diverse continent, obviously. Are there any places where authors still struggle to get their work out? Or is the internet and the way in which we can connect today really providing a lot of outlet for African authors today?

ASARE: Well, I think in one sense things have improved. In the sense that through the media and new technology. But African people now hear about African writers. I think most recognition that African writers receive today - from abroad. People are still not readers. The reading culture is not as developed or robust as the west. Very few people actually buy books. They rather would sit and watch television and hear the news and things like that. And again, I think people are still poor. They would buy, or if they have the money to spend, a book which would enable their children to pass the common entrance examination and maybe get a scholarship, things like that. They still face that difficulty, and then all the boundaries. The French on one side, and the Portuguese on one side. I don't think publishers are able to produce and sell across Africa as it should be possible to do in Europe an in America, for example. So the boundaries are still there. The constraints still exist, and it impacts on writing and on authors, still. It doesn't change that much. Except initially the digital possibilities enable African writers to be heard about much more around the world than before.

GRILLOT: Well, very interesting, Meshack, thank you so much for being here. We all look forward to being here. And congratulations on your award.

Copyright © 2016 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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