Self-published author Michelle Yaa Asantewa, was born in Guyana, South America. She migrated to the UK in 1980 and graduated with First Class Honours in English from the University of North London (now London Metropolitan), where she eventually began working as a lecturer teaching English Literature, Editing and Creative Writing. Encouraged by a University Professor, Asantewa completed a PhD focused on the Guyanese Komfa tradition, inspired by her African traditional spiritual practices and cultural identity.
After a while Asantewa decided to pursue her own writing talents, the decision came after being rejected by several publishers, instead of allowing the rejections to restrict her potential, Asantewa used the knock-backs to spur her on to complete and publish her own works. Eventually she left her lecturing role to set up her own publishing company, Way Wive Wordz.
Currently facilitating writing workshops as an independent scholar, with Way Wive Wordz Asantewa aims to provide culturally relevant books which have global appeal. She also offers editing, proof-reading and academic tuition services. We caught up with her to find out more…
Hi Michelle, welcome to TBB. You have a long history of working in Literature, has writing always been a passion for you?
It has but I didn’t think of it seriously until I’d accepted that I could be good at it. I used to write, then read serialised stories to my friends at school. I think this was the beginning – about 14 or 15. I still have some of my attempts at writing at that age – obviously dreadful, but I can see I was trying to look at things in a particular way, even then.
Setting up your own publishing company is commendable what was your stimulus for doing so?
I used to enter my short stories to competitions; send them to magazines to be published. I never got any response. Later I sent manuscripts to a few publishers, again there was no interest – except one that said the work was not marketable though it had the right sort of nuances etc. This became my second novel, Something Buried in the Yard. I had to learn that publishing is a business like any other. It doesn’t easily take on risky ‘products.’ What I wanted to write would have to be seriously considered as a viable ‘risk’. I imagined if I was interested in the themes I wanted to write about, others would be too even if they weren’t, I would have written the work I wanted to read – as Toni Morrison advises. If no one was prepared to publish my book, because it was too risky, then why not try to do it myself. It’s a really difficult road and I don’t yet know where it will lead. I have high standards of quality, which I’m struggling to live up to in terms of editing, the finish; the books looking as though they can compete with others and so on. Then of course there’s the reality that I just want to write and not have to think about these taxing ‘businessy’ things.
Telling black narratives and preserving culture seems to be a continuous theme in your books, is this an important factor in your work?
I didn’t have access to many books. My mum doused me with the Bible and a book I read repeatedly called My Favourite book of Bible Stories. The people in the stories were mostly white or straight haired and pale, pretending to be from some obscure biblical territory. That was my companion book for years. Then I found the Peter and Janes’; the Enid Blytons’, middle-class kids roaming around freely and sweetly was just not real to me. During my teenage years, I found Sweet Valley High; read some of my sister’s Mills and Boons’, which I found curious and unreal. School didn’t give me any books about anyone black. To Kill a Mocking Bird came at some point but it was tragic; the champion white, the victim black, reinforcing the civiliser. It took my university years to finally find books I could relate to. I didn’t consciously set out to ‘preserve’ culture but certainly to explore and to celebrate where I felt this was lacking in my experience of reading literature. I wanted us to realise what we have as Africans and how we tend to take simple things for granted. Things from which there is so much to learn, that would inspire us and give us a sense of identity; that we belong to and come from some place which isn’t a vacuum of history. Also to recognise that culture is a lived experience and is transferable and transformative. It’s not static. So for these reasons exploring culture is an important theme in my work.
Late last year Michelle released 3 new books and recently returned from a promotional tour in Guyana to promote the launch. I asked her to explain her motivation for writing each of the books.
Guyanese Komfa: The ritual art of trance – After discovering great literary works by African and Caribbean writers at University I was inspired to locate more that dealt with traditional spirituality. Wilson Harris, a Guyanese writer was influential in getting me to write from our cultural perspective, in a way not restricted to Euro-centric models. Toni Morrison taught me the importance of the ‘novel’ – meaning something ‘new’ . There is very little writing on Guyanese spiritual practices. I wanted Guyanese to recognise that Komfa (a spiritual practice that involves trance) is as valid as other African-derived spiritual practices which are more widely celebrated.
Something Buried in the Yard – Is an extracted literary work from my PhD thesis which formed Guyanese Komfa. Komfa is the theme and with Wilson Harris in mind, I tried to infuse a cultural and literary aesthetic of my own. Being experimental, I didn’t assign a central protagonist and the voice of ancestors coming in and out of the narrative is the way the story unfolds. It’s not linear, because it’s trying to get the reader to read outside their comfort zone and into the collective subconscious; to allow the form to mimic the sensation of going into trance.
Mama Lou Tales – Some books push up themselves I think. This was one of those. I had wanted to write a book about all these fantastic tales my mum repeats to me about Guyanese folk life. Some are funny, many are tragic, a lot end in death. They seem to be part of her subconscious. I felt a pressure from them too. Like they were spirits or energies wanting to manifest. I was compiling the tales when it struck me that mum’s life story is also a tale. Her life’s journey and decisions have always fascinated and even frustrated me. I decided it might work to insert the tales she tells into a biography about her life. and the ordinariness of her life was important because writing about her was in some ways an empowering way to celebrate ordinary people and the wisdom we can get from trying to understand what makes us survive, what guides us.
How long did it take to write all 3 and what was your strategy for completing them?
Answering this question is always difficult because I’m never thinking how long the writing is taking. I might have a broad plan of when I hope to complete but it can change. After the writing comes the revision (of the thesis) to work as a book that would serve academics, spiritual practitioners and ordinary readers. Something Buried was being written alongside the theoretical work of the PhD [Guyanese Komfa] so about the same timings – writing, then revising. Mama Lou, was probably done over a year.
The strategy question is also provoking. I work in spurts – give myself a timeline – since there is no agent, no publisher (external) pushing me to complete. I set a reasonable schedule when I expect to complete the work and try to stick to it. I set aside days I can work at the library (British Library) where I can focus then, get on with it, even if progress is slight, it gets me through the writing. This is no formula – and certainly not a good one because I think best case scenario would be some driver giving me a timeframe. A year, six months and that would mean different pressures, different discipline but I could do it. On my own speed, like most people I meander. Still, if I’m determined it’s worthwhile I’ll complete it.
Intrigued by the thought of completing such a mammoth task I asked Michelle for her reason behind launching 3 books simultaneously, she responded:
Guyanese Komfa and Something Buried made sense to publish together. Hardly any thought went into that. Well – except that I knew the novel (or novella as it was as part of my PhD thesis) could stand alone for those readers who aren’t fazed by literature that might appear challenging. I wanted also to show that the theme of Komfa could be used for a work of fiction just as other such practices have been used in fiction by Africans and Caribbean writers. I think Mama Lou Tales was presumptuous and forced itself to be published with the others. It might not have been possible on its own. In any case, a challenge was set to put out the books the same year as Guyana’s 50th year of independence and to focus on folk narratives which I imagined would largely be missing in all the celebrations. Things happen in Divine Order as my mum would say, and timing.
Spirituality also seems to play a big role in your inspiration, explain how this influences your writing?
I didn’t set out to write about spirituality. It became a natural process. I think some stories or themes are mediated through spirit, or a muse of some kind. Perhaps it’s the subconscious (mine?) trying to communicate something and doing so by provocation (to thought) rather than by being didactic – telling someone what or how to be or think. It may be my own queries manifesting through the medium of words. It’s a challenge to explain, but I know that when I try to write in a way that doesn’t present any obvious issues related to spirituality it will find its way in the work. The metaphoric tiger was this in my first novel. It appeared without my conscious influence then became central. So the spiritual, influences the writing as a way of exploring in a deep, meaningful way human experiences and our capacity to develop a wider understanding of each other and the world, even the universe but again, all of it is ambitious but is at the heart of what I end up trying to produce in the writing.
Do you have any other creative talents if so what are they?
It took a long time for me to decide and accept that I can write. You can be told it over and over but when no one other than your dearest will take up your work and publish it, it just feels like your people are flattering you. You don’t really believe. So to imagine I have ‘other creative talents’ feels a bit fraudulent. I do all sorts of random things, make things, sing folk songs, drum, and so on – but I wouldn’t call them ‘talent.’ Saying that I consider my spirituality an act of creative expression.
What advice would you give for those wishing to pursue their own writing careers?
Do the work. Write. Get better at it. Begin now. Avoid perfectionist ideas. One of the workshops I set up is called Identifying your Voice. Many people don’t write like they are, but like they think others might want to hear them being. They write in a false, pretentious way. In that workshop, I get students to consider why they want to write. If you’re at a certain point and keep saying ‘I want to write’ I’d say forget it. It needs to move from a headspace, it needs to stop being aspirational. Want to write a book? Well, write the book. Some students think by saying it over and over it will magically appear. It won’t. It’s a grinding, hard thing to get out. But think more organically to make it easier, you’re not writing a book, you’re writing or telling stories, or a story. A book is a product that gets published. The stories, the narrative that’s what you’re trying to get out. If you imagine a book in its finished state for some people it appears like a mountain – and really 80-100,000 words can appear daunting. The only way to climb a mountain is by taking the first step, assured that you have the right equipment to accommodate sudden slips on the journey up.
To find more about Michelle Yaa Asantewa go to the following: