Author Nana Brew Hammond on transformation.
Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond has proven herself to be a force to be reckoned with in the unforgivably competitive literary world. A cum laude graduate of Vassar College, she has become a trailblazer in African literature and has risen to the challenge with her new book, “Powder Necklace.” What began as a potential memoir ended up morphing into a striking portrayal of a multi-faceted character whose eclectic cultural background and layered life experience created a story that is hard to forget. Currently the Style Editor for Bluefly.com, this modern day fashionista and author had quite a bit to share with ESSENCE on her career, fashion philosophy and what it takes to stand out in a crowd.
ESSENCE.com: Congratulations on your new book, "Powder Necklace"! You did a really great job of using the main character, Lila, to illustrate the complexities that come with being abruptly thrust into different cultures. Is this something that was inspired by your own personal experience?
NANA BREW-HAMMOND: Yes, definitely. Going to Ghana was a complete culture shock for me because I was born in the States and raised here until I was 12 years old, so even though my parents were really sort of focused on raising us as Ghanians, we were still in the States. Plus, you also get used to the comforts of living in the “First World,” water is running and the electricity is constant.
A blackout would be a considered a big deal here. So to go to Ghana and all of a sudden experience that, it was a shock to my system. And then on top of that I ended up living with my grandmother, who was a strict Christian, so with that came morning devotions and going to church every Sunday and even going to mid-week services, so it was very different. And then the intense heat and the dust, the dichotomy of the class system, having a maid and a driver, and then mansions next to shacks or on a dirt roads. The whole things felt like make believe.
ESSENCE.com: As a writer, how do you nourish your palate in order to keep up the momentum daily especially when comes to bigger projects like writing a novel?
NANA: Well, what I do is basically force myself to write every single day. I also make sure my laptop is always accessible to me. I find that I write better in certain situations. For example, I write better when I have pockets of time rather than when I have a big stretch of time in front of me, which can be frustrating and annoying but that’s just my process right now. I am also sensitive to the fact that my writing process often changes, for instance sometimes I can write for hours and hours at a time and I wont sleep or eat. I am just writing.
And I actually love those moments. But when I don’t have those moments, I just take the little time that I have when I feel inspired and write without any restrictions. I can write using my Blackberry or go to the park during my lunch break. I just try to write as often as I can every single day. There are definitely days that I am not inspired and I try to use those days to still stay connected to the creative process and do something towards the book. I can use that time to do research or write up a character study of my main characters.
ESSENCE.com: Does having a multi-cultural background help or affect you greatly as a writer?
NANA: It definitely plays a big part. I think while growing up in the States, even before I went to Ghana, just being in the States and loving books and reading books, I always felt different because of my background. Having Ghanian parents meant we lived differently.
We ate different food, etc, and then you watch things on TV and read books and nothing really was reflecting me and who I was. And as a writer, and as a reader I was drawn to topics that went beyond the “Sweet Valley High” school experience. I mean I loved the Sweet Valley High series but I wanted books that had a main Black character. A book that featured an African, a Caribbean, a Latino, etc, something other than the blonde blue-eyed white chick in a middle class family. I wanted more complication. I feel like back in the day, young adult literature was a little too safe and nobody dared to address real issues. Urban stories were not common.
ESSENCE.com: You currently also have a thriving career in fashion as the Style Editor at Bluefly.com, what prompted your foray into this genre? And how does this gig enhance your fashion sensibilities?
NANA: Well, I love fashion. And when I was young, I didn’t really see myself reflected in pop culture, but it was different when it came to fashion. When I was growing up, Naomi Campbell was coming up and then when I got older, Kiara Kabukuru and a good number of Black models were becoming more visible. So I went from being considered “beautiful for a dark-skinned girl” to being recognized as unique and fabulous, and it was all because of these gorgeous Black models that were in magazines and being considered beautiful.
So all of a sudden people were like “OMG you are beautiful!” So when I got older, and started being more social, I gravitated towards fashion events and parties where people generally appreciated and had a love for fashion. I just really loved what fashion did for me because it helped with my self-esteem because it validated my self-worth and natural beauty. So I found my comfort zone. And I felt that I didn’t have to look like a “Sweet Valley High” twin to be considered interesting.
ESSENCE.com: Does your gig at Bluefly enhance your fashion sensibilities?
NANA: I think so. Absolutely. The world today is so much more technologically advanced, so Bluefly.com being an online fashion company is cool because of the challenge of getting the word out and marketing the brand message digitally. So it’s interesting in that regard for sure.
ESSENCE.com: Did your love and appreciation for fashion help you with the thematic scheme of the book?
NANA: In the "Powder Necklace" Lila’s auntie introduces her to sophisticated designers and opens up this whole new world of fashion that Lila wasn’t aware of or used to, and that’s sort of my homage to fashion and how it kind of helped and guided me through my coming of age process. I feel like the book represents me in a complete sense. When I was growing up everything felt very random but I was exposed to a lot. I would go to Ghana for a time and then go to London and stay for weeks at a time. And so everything kind of came together and I developed my personal fashion sense during that period.
ESSENCE.com: You have impeccable style, how does your natural instinct as a fashionista enhance your ability to recognize the timeless, the trendy and the cooler stuff still to come.
NANA: I think that I can’t stand wearing what everyone is wearing and so I try to pick pieces that are unique. I approach fashion very much like a collector. For example, I was on a jumpsuit kick before they became really popular. I would go and do most of my shopping at thrift stores because again, I like collecting fashion. So I would scour different thrift stores and see all these jumpsuits and think how cool they were because they were like dresses but jumpsuits. I am a lazy dresser in the sense that I like to throw one thing on and go, so when I discovered jumpsuits I was in love.
I have probably 13 jumpsuits, maybe more that come in different shapes, sizes, colors and patterns. But the minute they became popular, I decided to retire the jumpsuit because again for me I like to be unique. I also get things custom made. When I visit Ghana, I buy fabric because it’s relatively cheap there, and then I go to the tailor and have them design an outfit of my choice. I also pick pieces from my dad, he had a really cool dashiki and I thought it would make a fabulous mini-dress. I shop at my parent’s closets! Anything vintage is my friend. I Just pick up things that are very unique and make them my own. I always trust that if it looks weird it’s fine as long as I own it. Fashion is a place where you can freely be one-of-a kind.
ESSENCE.com: Are you ever going to embark on a fashion handbook that will sort of serve as an extension of what you are already doing at Bluefly.com by summarizing your experience in the business as well as educating the less knowledgeable?
NANA: Yes, I love fashion so I would never rule that out. I mean I would definitely write from a place that I think that the point of fashion is to be yourself even though it sounds cliché, but the point is to find what expresses you best and go all out with it, and declare “This is me and I don’t care”.
ESSENCE.com: What other projects do you have in the horizon?
NANA: I am in the process of writing a book that explores the relationship between a maid and the madam of the house. It basically examines the class issue in Ghana starting from 1962 to the present day. It takes you through how a girl becomes a maid in Ghana, under the Presidential regime of Kwame Nkurumah, who brought independence to the nation. With financial aid from the United States, he worked to build the Akosombo Dam. The dam was not only to bring electricity to Ghana, but also to the neighboring Togo and Benin, which was a great feat, but in the process they had to displace 2% of the population.
In the process of re-settling these people, some of them ended up in places that were not conducive to their trade. So the fisherman ended up in places where fishing wasn’t feasible. And so in this girl’s story, she ends up in a village that is plagued by flies, and these flies ultimately cause the victim to go blind. So her sister ends up going blind, and her fisherman father can’t work because the flies breed in the river where he normally fishes. So to help make ends meet she is forced to find work as a maid. She ends up working for a family in another town that surprisingly aren’t well off as is often the norm. So it brings to focus the whole dynamic of class.
ESSENCE.com: What advice would you give aspiring young writers?
NANA: I would say follow your passion and do what it takes to do it. You have to think practically and start small. Luckily, the technology is there so you can start a blog. You can just keep it to yourself and not make it public so you don’t have the pressure of having to update it everyday. Try and find your voice through your blog and you will slowly start building an audience in the process. And once you build an audience, and have a following of people that are interested in what you have to say, you are in a good place.
Because then you are able to go to publishers or they most likely will come to you and say, “Wow, here is a blog that gets 100,000 page views a month!’ And that will get you noticed and they will start flocking to you. Or if you want to write a book and you already have a following on your blog, or you have a twitter following, you can go to a publisher and document the huge number of followers, and page reviews a month, and they are going to be more apt to listen to you as opposed to someone who is a really great writer but has no following. Nowadays, publishing companies are looking for people that have built-in followings that they can market to. So as a writer you just have to maintain a level of consistency. Read a lot, study your favorite writers, and get a sense of what makes them so effective. Join writing workshops, take a class, and ask friends who are writers to help you and give advise in regards to your work. Pitching is essential. It was the feedback I got pitching editors and agents that helped me perfect my work. You just have to develop a thick skin and look for the nugget of good advice, which is almost always there.
Powder Necklace is available through Amazon.com.