Six Bridges Book Festival: Afia Atakora
Conjure Women is a Spellbinding Novel of Midwives in Slavery and Reconstruction
Afia Atakora’s debut novel Conjure Women is a rich quilt-work of stories based on a large cast of characters who live through the end of slavery and into the Reconstruction period. An African American mother and daughter, both midwives and healers, face the pains and cruelties of enslavement followed by new but limited choices available to Black women in the post-Civil War South. A third woman, white and an heir to the plantation, becomes a complex figure of suffering and cruelty in turn as her neglected childhood and mental illness determine her fate in a patriarchal white society.
Throughout, Atakora’s storytelling moves through the alluring shadows of folklore. Readers see what happens to the characters, but must sift through oblique narrative and multiple perspectives to piece together the mystery of why these events occur. The cipher is enhanced by a non-linear narrative that flashes backward and forward through time to reveal different elements of the story. Like Charles Chesnutt’s 1899 masterpiece The Conjure Woman, Atakora’s novel frequently focuses on dialogue and the act of storytelling, but the narrative takes a distinct contemporary direction of its own with its focus on mother-daughter relationships and generational trauma.
Atakora was inspired in the theme of her novel by personal experience as well as her study of history.
“There’s influence from my own mother and my relationship with her,” Atakora said. “My mother is from Ghana, so she had a very different upbringing from mine. Also, my mother worked as a home health care aide, so by observing her experience I worked through who I wanted to be and who I didn’t want to be. The novel explores the question, what do you teach your child and pass on, particularly to your daughters? Similarly, the novel shows how women work through generational history and generational trauma.”
Atakora also felt that a woman-centered story could offer a different approach to time and action than many previous works.
“The canon of slavery literature is usually focused on men and runaways, with very propulsive stories,” she said. “I felt this female narrative would do something different and would instead show endurance.”
The author worked to create complex, multifaceted characters. “I think in crafting the novel what I wanted was nuance—not clear villains or clear victims. There is ugliness on many sides to be accessed. By telling more stories, I tried to get to the humanity of the conjure women.”
That nuance emerges in the tension surrounding religion and spirituality, seen in the novel as a clash between the older folk traditions of hoodoo/voodoo and the rising power of Black Christianity. As in many such cultural clashes, knowledge of healing in women inspires fear and accusations of witchcraft.
“The witch is that universal thing we keep coming back to when a male-dominated institution takes power away from women, over and over,” Atakora said. “For anyone in the African diaspora, religion is a complicated thing—a source of hope, but Christianity was also used to villainize our traditions. Voodoo rises out of protest. Especially among the women, there’s the idea that Christianity is correct and voodoo/hoodoo is wrong, but certain traditional practices are still relied on.”
The end of slavery brought more choice in belief, but not an end to the cultural tension.
“Still, the religious institution had the power and was marginalizing women,” Atakora said. “Midwives were deemed dangerous and unclean. It was a resonance that spoke to me. You can’t really talk about the Black experience without telling the story of religion and both the joy and hate that it brought with it.”
The novel took three years to write, including extensive research.
“The book started as my MFA thesis, so the first draft took about nine months, which was perfect for a book about giving birth. The first draft was dreamlike because I was creating all these stories about different people. Then for another two years, writing was a process of moving different stories around and figuring out how they related. I had an amazing editor from Random House who helped me work through it.”
The first scenes in the novel came from Atakora’s imagination. “The birth scene was one of the first things I wrote. I was interested in exploring a midwife during the Reconstruction era, which was ten years of hope and flux and change. “
Atakora based many of the stories in the novel on real people’s experiences drawn from the slave narratives gathered during the 1930s by an initiative of the WPA.
“As an undergrad, I had studied a lot of African American history, taking classes just out of interest because I felt I needed to know more. Once I had my midwife character, I went back to the slave narratives, especially those by Zora Neale Hurston, who did some amazing interviews.”
Since the novel’s publication, Atakora has enjoyed hearing differing reader responses depending on their perspectives. “Various people find different threads that are more personal. Some of them I expect, and some I don’t!”
For herself, the relationship of the present to history remains paramount. “The thread that most interested me was the examination of history, whether it’s the country’s history or personal history—what parts of history are we reflecting on? That’s the thread that’s the resonant part for me, and it stands out, especially nowadays.”
Atakora finds at this cultural moment that a universal need to engage with the past applies to her characters in Conjure Women and to today’s Americans confronting continuing racial inequality and injustice.
“Characters have to face ghosts—as we all have to do if we’re going to move forward in any formative way.”
Afia Atakora will appear at the Six Bridges Book Festival to discuss her debut novel Conjure Women, as she moves on with her next book project set in the Harlem Renaissance.
Afia Atakora was born in the United Kingdom and raised in New Jersey, where she now lives. She graduated from New York University and has an MFA from Columbia University, where she was the recipient of the De Alba Fellowship. Her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and she was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers.
feature by Rosslyn Elliott