Even for someone who writes stories, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where they come from. Yet to celebrate Black History month, I’m going to do my best to explain what inspired me to write Lionheart Girl.
Lionheart Girl is the story of Sheba, the youngest member of a family of ingenious, talented women, who live in the Ashanti Region of Ghana in a village with no name. Sheba’s village can’t be found on a map because it’s hidden. Protected by magic, it was initially a sanctuary for captives who escaped from slavers during the Atlantic slave trade. Now, the village is a refuge for women fleeing for their lives, women accused of witchcraft.
In my experience, stories come from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. They can surface in dreams. Sometimes characters emerge fully formed. On occasion, snippets of conversation stored in my imagination kindle with issues I care about, and in the ensuing wildfire, I’m compelled to craft a story.
Lionheart Girl began with a conversation. Over dinner, an old friend revealed that her deceased mother had been a tyrant. The revelation surprised me. So much so, that I began to wonder what it must be like to experience ‘mothering’ as an act of flagrant tyranny. People are complicated, I know. But when I then remembered a tale a relative had told me years ago of a mother, so desperate for her child to return to Ghana that she’d kept her umbilical cord and buried it beneath a tree in the family compound, my imagination sparked. Sheba and her domineering mother, Sika, flared into being.
I wrote most of the novel during lockdown, and as usual when I’m writing, I was in conversation with the characters I was creating as well as the child within me. I like to imagine that within every adult there’s a child – the child they once were, hidden behind an adult veneer. The child within me fluctuates in age from seven to fourteen. Yet it’s thanks to her that I still remember how ravenous for stories I was growing up.
My grandmother had a huge store of Ananse – Akan folk tales – which she told me as soon as I was able to listen, enthralled. Then, when I was sent to school in Britain, it was a love of fairy stories from the Brothers Grimm to Hans Christian Anderson, which helped me survive the strictures of boarding school in the dank Devon countryside. I read everything I laid my hands on: fairy stories, Enid Blyton and volumes of Greek myths. However, it wasn’t until I was thirteen years old that I encountered my first ‘African’ character: Sakeeta, the Winged Pharoah of Joan Grant’s 1937 historical novel of that name.
Thankfully, if I were growing up in Britain today, I’d see myself in many more stories than I did as a child. Yet it’s that hunger to be part of the myths and tales I read all those years ago; that hunger to be present in the great narratives and landscape of life which propel me as a writer.
The child within whoops with joy at the sheer magnificence of the Kingdom of Wakanda in Marvel’s Black Panther movie. She applauds when I write the sort of stories she would have relished and reached for in the school library: stories with black heroines and multiracial characters in life and death struggles with predatory Skin Walkers, evil people traffickers, and of course, that tyrannical mother. Courageous heroines, who against the odds, succeed, and once they’ve finished one adventure, are eager for the next. Unlike the adult who shields her, the child within each of us is forever hungry for more!