Q&A with Ghanaian author and literacy activist Portia Dery

25 February 2020 - 10:28 By Carla Lever
Portia Dery reading to a captive audience. 'Gogo's List' is her first children's book.
Portia Dery reading to a captive audience. 'Gogo's List' is her first children's book.
Image: Supplied

Nal'ibali column No 6 Term 1 2020

Congratulations on the SA edition of Gogo's List. This is your first children's book. What inspired you to write it?

My love for reading and awe for books. They  inspired me to imagine a world on my own terms as early as age eight. This soon transcended beyond just writing for myself into telling African stories that children everywhere could find themselves in and use to fly away into their own world. I am very grateful to be able to help increase the diversity of African children’s literature a book at a time.

The story is set in Ghana, but you've added some South African flair to our local edition by including the word 'Gogo' in the title. Are there other ways you considered adapting the content to fit a South African audience, or does the story speak to children everywhere?

Brainstorming for other ways would definitely be lovely. Generally speaking, the story is a powerful tale that everyone regardless of where they live would be able to relate to instantly. Fatima, the main character, is someone that most children would say "aha, that's me!"

You've been passionate about children's literacy for some time. What initially got you involved in this work in Ghana?

It started with me questioning why African books aren't bestselling in the global market. Why don’t we compete with books from Europe instead of just being "African literature", fit only for study in the universities? I soon realised that to tackle such a big phenomenon I needed to go to the basics. Are African children reading story books? Are libraries stocked with 90% African books? So I started the African Youth Writers Organisation (africanywo.wordpress.com) in 2013, which designs innovative literacy programs like the funky ReadWrite clinics in northern Ghana, currently in their seventh year. We soon saw large numbers of children attending our clinics and exploring creative writing or flipping through a story book for the first time. What started out as a hobby for me became a really important cause  as I soon discovered the majority of school children could not read a complete sentence from a book. I had to go back to the drawing board to strengthen and design content for my reading clinics.

What are the greatest obstacles to children's literacy development on our continent?

In my opinion, it’s the lack of commitment and willpower on the part of our governments. It’s also the emphasis on quantity instead of quality that has contributed to the inadequate literacy skills children get after spending many years in schools. Even when children are encouraged to read, the end goal is always to pass the exams or test. But we all have a role to play. Parents should spend (more) time reading with children.

When writing for children, what should adults keep in mind?

Write about what you would have loved to read as a child. While some find it the hardest, writing for children can be a wonderful opportunity to go back to your childhood memories. I find this very therapeutic - a free ticket to escape from the adult world for a moment. The writing process for Gogo’s List was such a pleasure because I shared it with some children in my literacy clinic. I would read a chapter and ask what they thought. Sometimes I would just observe the body language. This greatly helped me to see the world of Fatima through their eyes.

What is your hope for the way the book will be used and encountered by children?

I try not to have fixed expectations, I really want children to enjoy the book the way they would want to. And for everyone to see the story, the characters in their own way. I try to say, 'well the book is yours now', and it’s always special to hear the lovely feedback, especially from children who interpret the book in ways I would never have thought of.

What kind of feedback have you had from parents, and from children themselves?

Wonderful, wonderful feedback. I wish I could frame it all and hang it above my bed. I have had teachers, parents tell me how relatable they found the story and how it was so easy to read the book together as a family. But I’m biased. I think the best feedback I could get is from children. The look in their eyes when they see Fatima messing up with grandma's list is priceless.

The book is available in four South African languages. Is it hard to let go of the content and trust a translator to understand what you're trying to convey?

There has to be some trust. As a writer, I try to think more of how the book can be made better for the reader. With this in mind, it helps ease the pain a little. I guess it’s the same with editing content before publication: you would normally have to let go of some cute phrases you thought sounded nice but the editor didn't agree. It helps if you think of it as a working team: the publisher, illustrator, editor, and translator together.

Why is it important for children to be able to read and discover the book in the language they are most familiar with?

Very important. Children are born and live surrounded by their mother tongue. They are familiar with the sounds and they probably would learn the names of important things in their mother tongue before anything else. It’s therefore essential that books are created with this in mind. For me, it’s also about culture and pride in our beautiful languages.

How can people make family storytelling a part of daily life?

Storytelling is food for the soul. Gone are the days when children will sit by the fireside to hear lovely stories, retold with such passion, vigour, and hope by people who themselves sat by the fireside. But even with our busy lives, we still can make time to tell our stories, especially to children, and encourage children to write their reflections on these stories. Whatever family unit you have, you could create 30 minutes of 'family-time’ - perhaps weekly or even monthly - to share old stories and hear new, modern stories. Oral storytelling is powerful too.

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success! For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign or to access kids' stories in a range of SA languages, visit www.nalibali.org.