Feature image credit: @ohemareads who also interviewed the author for this piece.
Reese Witherspoon said it best when she said about Peace’s book, His Only Wife: “Reading takes us all over the world, and this month we are traveling to modern-day Ghana with our October book pick … This book centers around young marriage, social pressure, and breaking all the rules.” We wanted to go deeper with this author and understand more about her inspiration and experiences.
I recognize many of the characters you’ve developed in His Only Wife as someone who has spent time in East Legon, Airport and Cantonments etc. I’ve met many Afi’s in Ghana, but not many who were afforded this opportunity of social mobility. In Ghana, it seems that a driving factor which limits opportunity for people traces back to classism. Afi is locked in her class until Aunty proposes this arrangement. And through marriage, Afi’s status changes and many doors are opened for her.
Question: How do you perceive a woman’s ability to move outside of her class in Ghana, with or without marriage. And what is Afi’s story supposed to make your readers understand about social mobility as it pertains to women?
Moving up is difficult in Ghana, especially for women. While education has enabled many Ghanaian women to become upwardly mobile, there remain significant barriers to this happening. Access to quality education at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels is very much determined by a family’s economic status. Furthermore, the unemployment rate in Ghana is high, such that there are many unemployed and underemployed university graduates. Most women work in the informal sector. In fact, the majority of Ghanaians work in the informal sector and women are disproportionately represented in low-paying and unpaid positions in this sector. Gender norms play a huge role in this. Overall, while these factors have not prevented women from improving their social and economic statuses, many women are not able to do so, and upward mobility is difficult.
Marriage does offer an avenue for upward mobility, as was the case for Afi in His Only Wife. But I think that for most women, it is work that changes their circumstances. Ghanaian women are very entrepreneurial.
In His Only Wife I explore how women’s choices are constrained by social and economic forces, and a big part of this story is about the changes that come with moving up in the world. But as a fiction writer, I’m not very focused on making readers understand social issues; I leave that to my academic writing.
You intertwined many aspects of Ghanaian culture throughout the novel. From how traditional marriages are organized, the concept of funerals, the elder culture to the importance of family. I want to hone in on family. The absence of an indeterminate family changes the direction of Afi and her mother’s life when the father dies. We also see, with the appearance of the Ganyo family, Eli and Afi’s lives are influenced by the decisions and wishes of the head of the house.
Question: Regardless of cultural background, family is a big aspect of various cultures. What is your experience with your immediate Ghanaian family and how did it shape His Only Wife?
Family is important in my life and across Ghana, family, both nuclear and extended, plays a huge role in people’s lives. Like Afi, I spent a part of my childhood in a family house surrounded by an extended family. This experience has definitely shaped my life and the kinds of stories I tell. I tend to write about people who are embedded within their family and are impacted in a variety of ways by those who are closest to them. Therefore, in His Only Wife, the expectations of Afi’s family, and the responsibility she feels, drive the story.
I noticed throughout the story, Afi used food as a means to keep her marriage. It’s funny that regardless of cultural background, women all over the world seem to be taught similar principles which stress the need for a woman to be the perfect housewife.
Question: While telling Afi’s story, you also stressed the importance and strategic use of food. Currently, it feels like many women have moved away from the notion of becoming the perfect housewife, yet it was Afi’s goal to excel in this role. Why was it important for you to utilize food in the story?
Afi sought to excel at being a wife, but not as a wife who worked primarily in the home. She also wanted to be a fashion designer and own a business. I used food to demonstrate her desire to succeed as a wife because being able to cook remains an important indicator of being a good wife in Ghana. This expectation is more salient in some marriages than others and might be completely absent in a minority of marriages, but for the most part, it is expected that a wife should be able to cook. Cooking, cleaning, and childcare remain primarily the responsibility of women in most relationships and women are judged according to how they perform in all of these areas in ways that men are not.
In the book, Afi has bought into the idea that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, that being a good cook will prove that she is a good wife and will help her become the only wife. But does it work?
Mawsui, Afi’s cousin, see’s Afi as lucky. She was able to achieve wealth and influence through marriage. She notes to Afi that it’s difficult to obtain a job in Ghana. And if one does obtain a job, the pay isn’t good. Mawsui’s fiance is only able to obtain a job off the reference of Eli but not everyone is so lucky to have affluent friends or family.
Question: As a researcher who addresses gender, politics, and conflict in Africa, how do you perceive this issue and which gender do you believe is more adversely affected by such a job market and lack of government intervention?
The job market is tough for both women and men, but women are more adversely affected. There are fewer women employed in the formal sector, in comparison to men. Many women are involved in low-skilled and therefore, low-paying work in the informal sector. Gendered notions about acceptable (non-masculine) work for women contribute to keeping women in areas that pay less. There is a major deficit in governments’ implementation of policies that would stimulate job creation. The obstacles to establishing and maintaining a business in Ghana are numerous, and many of these obstacles have been created through government action and inaction. These conditions make it difficult for find women to find work, especially work that pays well.
Overall a person’s background and experiences influences the way they perceive the world.
Question: As a native Ghanaian, how would you describe your socioeconomic background growing up in Ghana? And how did it influence your perception of the world and how you chose to write His Only Wife?
I partly grew up in in a family house in Ho and was surrounded by small-scale farmers, petty traders, and craftspeople; very few people had office jobs. My experience in my home and neighbourhood was very different from when I would visit people in other parts of the town or in Accra, people who had very different careers. Even as a child, this made me acutely aware of social and economic differences, of how people get treated differently based on what they possess, of how being smart and hardworking is often not enough for a person to move up in life. These realizations have influenced my writing (fiction and non-fiction) and shaped His Only Wife. These are all themes that are present in the book.
What books have you read recently or are you looking forward to reading in 2021?
I’ve enjoyed Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other and Wayétu Moore’s The Dragons, the Giant, the Women: A Memoir. I’m looking forward to reading Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge.