Kwei Interviews Quartey – Part 1
On August 28, 2010 | 0 Comments

A few days ago on a mild summer afternoon, I paid a visit to Dr. Quartey (full name Jones-Quartey) to converse about books and writing. We sat on the front porch of his modest two-bedroom Pasadena bungalow overlooking the front yard, which has an avocado tree and drought-resistant plants.

Quartey's yard

KWEI: Thank you for seeing me at such short notice, by the way.
QUARTEY: No worries. My pleasure.
K: So do you find this neighborhood compatible with creative writing?
Q: Very much. It’s a quiet street and the house itself has just the right vibe.
K: Can you work in a location with background noise, like a cafe?
Q: Sometimes, but it has to be a place I’ve already become acquainted with and have come to like with people I enjoy. I have some friends who used to own a cafe in Pasadena called “Allure,” and I loved going there to write.
K: Why do you write?
Q: That’s one of those existential questions, like why does the earth spin counterclockwise. I just love writing.
K: Is it a kind of therapy for you?
Q: Interviewers ask that a lot of authors, who often answer that yes, writing is a form of therapy. I don’t think it’s even that deep or complicated for me. For whatever reason, I like to write and I’m driven to share my stories with readers. I’ve had that drive since I was eight or nine years old. When I eagerly wake up at five in the morning to work on a novel, I’m not thinking, “I’m about to have a great therapy session.”
K: You were writing at the age of eight or nine?
Q: Yes, I still have a couple of the novelettes and short stories that I wrote at that age.
K: Is that when you had decided you wanted to be a writer?
Q: It was one of my many ambitions, which ranged from being a teacher to becoming a ventriloquist.
K: You grew up in Ghana. Is there a market for ventriloquists in Ghana?
Q: Not that I know of. (Laughs.) Is there one in the States?
K: Where exactly did you grow up in Ghana?
Q: For the most part outside of the capital, Accra, on the campus of the University of Ghana. My father, a Ghanaian, and my American mother were both university lecturers.
K: What was life like in that university environment?
Q: Wonderful in many ways, surrounded as we were by literacy and books. It was also comfortable and a hell of a lot easier than the lives of many. I’m saying that more with humility than with pride.
K: You’re not comfortable with that aspect of your life growing up?
Q: Privilege and deprivation are in stark contrast in most places, but in a developing country like Ghana, it’s even more so. It can be disquieting.
K: I think that comes out a lot in your mystery novel, WIFE OF THE GODS, doesn’t it? The contrast between privilege and deprivation, I mean.
Q: To some extent, yes, but even more so in the second novel in the Inspector Darko series, CHILDREN OF THE STREET, due out in July, 2011. There are characters in the story with almost nothing to live on, and then there are those with unbelievable amounts of money.
K: Aside from that, what is CHILDREN OF THE STREET about?
Q: At the heart of it, it’s about murder in the underbelly of Accra where street kids struggle not just to make a living, but to survive.
K: That’s a real situation in Accra, I’m assuming?
Q: Oh, yes. Not fictional at all. It’s a social crisis that no one seems to quite know how to handle. Like trying to swing an elephant around by tugging on its tail. Thousands of homeless children from other cities, rural areas, and from Accra itself, some of them second generation, in other words the offspring of street children.
K: What got you interested in the phenomenon of street kids?
Q: For me, it was hard not to. They are so much in evidence in Accra and elsewhere in Ghana, you’d have to close your eyes and plug your ears to ignore them. Which some people do, I suppose. In 2008 when I went to Ghana to research WIFE OF THE GODS, I saw teenagers everywhere pushing 4-wheeled carts around Accra picking up scraps of metal and other junk. They call them “truck-pushers.” That sparked my interest. For some reason, I have an endless fascination with this activity.

Accra-truck-pushers

In fact, when I visited Ghana again in March 2011, I wanted to have a truck-pusher’s experience for a few hours, but I didn’t have enough time to organize it.
K: Did you meet other street kids who were not truck-pushers?
Q: Yes, with the help of some of the NGO’s like Catholic Action for Street Children and Street Academy, I was able to meet other kids who were in a younger age group than the pushers, who tend to be older teenagers or young men.
K: What were the kids like?
Q: They have a lot on their plates – you know, like making a living and surviving. But the ones I met were just – well, kids. Boisterous, funny, playful, serious – the whole range of personality types. I got the feeling some were depressed or listless too. Can you blame them?
K: And you went to where they all hang out?
Q: Some of the areas, yes. Including very late at night when Accra becomes eerily quiet and very dark in some locations.
K: Scary?
Q: I would say caution-raising – how’s that for a euphemism? Look, if you’re obviously from abroad and unfamiliar with where you’re going, you’re making yourself a target for the malicious elements roaming the streets. That’s just inviting the kind of trouble you don’t need. So when I explored nocturnal Accra, I went with a police detective whom I had met and befriended. It was good to have him at my side. At one point he headed off a guy who was approaching us with some aggressive questioning, like, “What are you doing here?” The sight of rows and rows of homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks and storefronts was really quite extraordinary. At the same time, I realized that a murderer stalking these people would have a field day – or would that be a field night – in these incredibly dark areas. Many people sleep in groups, but I noticed for example a solitary kid fast asleep in an isolated corner near one of the lorry parks. Now, that’s dangerous. In reality, murder is not the predominant crime in Accra, thank goodness, but in CHILDREN IN THE STREET, murder is what Darko Dawson must face and deal with, and this one is a tough case.
K: How much of Darko Dawson is you? Or how much of you is in Darko Dawson?
Q: Ah, good question. Before I answer that, let’s take a break. Would you like a glass of Malta Guinness, the drink favored by Inspector Darko Dawson?
K: You’re kidding. You really have some?
Q: Naturally. And chilled just right.
K: I’d love to try it.

NEXT: PART 2