No place like home
Writing a memoir – When Ekow Eshun visited Ghana in search of his roots, he was troubled by what he dug up
The BBC’s recent television series Who Do You Think You Are?, in which famous people explore their family history, has delved into some dark places. David Baddiel traced his grand-parents’ flight from Nazi Germany. Bill Oddie discovered that his mother had been wrongly locked up in a mental institution and his grandfather had contracted throat cancer from working in a cotton mill. Both learned that when you go digging for roots, you often come up with something tangled.
I could have told them as much. For the past two years, I’ve been writing a memoir about searching for belonging in England and Africa. As research, I spent part of 2002 travelling around Ghana, where my family originates. I was born in London and, by returning to my roots, I hoped to find the sense of home that had eluded me while growing up in a white country.
Like some of the BBC’s stars, however, I ended up with more questions than answers. To my disgust, I discovered that my ancestor of seven generations past had been a slave trader. He was a white man from Holland who settled in Ghana in the 1750s and married an African woman. Their mixed-race son, born and raised in Ghana, also traded slaves. He continued to do so even after his father’s death, eventually amassing a fortune in land that, although largely dissipated, is still the matter of a legal battle concerning my family in the Ghanaian courts.
I was appalled by what I had found. My ancestors may have been long dead, but I still felt morally culpable for their actions. I started writing while I was in Ghana to unravel my knotted emotions. And I didn’t stop. When I returned to London, I put aside the journalism and broadcasting work I would normally engage in and devoted myself to writing my first book, Black Gold of the Sun.
This should have been the realisation of a dream. My earliest ambition as a child, after astronaut and superhero, was to be an author. And it’s true that when I signed a contract with Penguin two years ago, I felt a kindling of pride that remains undimmed to this day. But with the finished manuscript finally delivered a few weeks ago, I can look back over those 24 months and see that they have also been a nightmare of anxiety, based on an abiding fear about whether anyone would be interested in a book charting my private preoccupations. When Jonathan Franzen was writing The Corrections, he took to working with the blinds down and the lights off. And he wore earplugs, earmuffs and a blindfold. I sympathise. Franzen’s efforts weren’t simply about damping down the outside world. He was trying to mute the voice of self-doubt that whispers at the writer with the insidiousness of poison trickled into the ear.
In my case, matters were heightened by choice of subject. It is one thing to construct a novel using your personal life as raw material. It is another to cut out the middleman and lay the undisguised facts of that life on the page. The latter is not inherently superior to the former. But it does demand a willingness to strip naked and then rip the clothes off your parents, siblings, lovers and any random strangers that spring to mind and have them all parade with you in public. For the sake of the book, I have returned to places I thought I had left for ever: to growing up in the racist 1970s Britain of Love Thy Neighbour and The Black and White Minstrel Show; to my father’s two-year incarceration as a political prisoner in Ghana; to falling out with my brother and breaking up with my girlfriend; to depression, paranoia and incipient mental breakdown.
You do not come back from such places exactly the same person. It is, to an extent, a therapeutic journey. But there can be no “closure” – simply the knowledge that history is a set of cruel intertwinings. I went to Ghana to find an alternative to the racism I’d known in Britain, only to discover that, as slave traders, my ancestors helped establish the ideology of racial superiority that led white kids to bully me at school.
It is rare to have the chance to examine your past in such detail. At times, it was more than I could bear. One winter I fled to the French Alps and spent the mornings writing and the afternoons on a snowboard. Later, I wrote for some time at a friend’s house. It happened that he, too, was working on a memoir – about growing up in the English countryside – also due to be published by Penguin. We worked on separate floors of his house, meeting at lunchtime to compare notes. I like to imagine our set-up was similar to the Brill Building – the legendary song factory of Sixties pop that housed the likes of Phil Spector, Burt Bacharach and Carole King. Only they were in New York, not Finsbury Park.
For the most part, though, I have been on my own. The Romantics led us to believe that writers loll around all day waiting for inspiration to strike. The truth is more mundane. You sit alone. You write, then edit, then edit some more. Eventually you arrive at an acceptable formulation of words.
When you gaze at it, all you see is a faded version of the light you set out to capture. Yet even if it is a daily reminder of your own fallibility, writing a book is not a futile task. Quite the contrary. The ultimate test of any piece of art is its emotional honesty. By appearing as a critic on TV shows such as Newsnight, I have profited from the hard labour of others. Unless you are prepared to be as truthful in your own work as the authors, film-makers or playwrights you admire, then how can you, in good conscience, sit in judgement on them?
Besides, writing a book is not a choice. If it was, who would ever put up with the stress and the isolation? It’s more like a compulsion. Once you begin to look inside yourself, you can’t stop. Fiction or non-fiction, you do it to find out what you’re made of.
Ekow Eshun is a broadcaster and writer. His first book, Black Gold of the Sun: searching for home in England and Africa, is published by Penguin in June