Beyond the Struggle Narrative: An Interview with Maame Blue
By Shaniah Shields, Jane Link, Leanne Francis and Jia Wen Ho
On a busy Monday afternoon, we sat down with Maame Blue over Zoom to talk about her underrated debut, Bad Love, which was published in Jacaranda’s Twentyin2020 series. In this exclusive interview, Maame tells us about working with the incredible Jacaranda Books, her unique writing journey and the importance of good stories in the fight for representation.
What was your journey to becoming a writer?
“I guess it was unconventional, a bit non-traditional. I studied as a psychotherapist and did my master’s in Psychotherapy and my undergrad in Psychology. It was a completely different route, but I have always written stories, poetry and bits and pieces here and there. I worked as a psychotherapist for about five years, then I took a break from it and started writing more and taking it a bit more seriously. I was submitting stories to free competitions, just to get my work out there and after a couple of years I won the first thing I ever won in my entire life. I hadn’t even won a raffle ticket or anything, but my story got chosen for the Africa Writes Festival in 2018. It was inspired by a poem by Warsan Shire and the idea was to write 500 words about a line from one of her poems. I ended up writing a story called “Black Sky” which won. And it blew me away. That was the first bit of confidence I got, that people like your writing, or what you’re writing is interesting and touching people in some way. I thought I could pursue writing a bit more on the side while I was working in project management. I’m just a big bookworm and have always loved telling stories. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve started to actually do something about it.”
This is a very character, rather than plot, driven narrative. Do you think your background in psychotherapy has informed your gift for characterisation?
“Oh, massively. I’ve always been interested in people, which is why I took the psychology route. Working as a psychotherapist, the work I was doing was one on one trauma work which is quite heavy but really rewarding. I felt it was a privilege to sit in a room with someone and share that level of intimacy with them and to be able to provide some kind of guidance or motivation towards where they want to go. A big part of that taught me about people, their inner workings and it propelled my constant interest in relationships. More specifically, complicated relationships and as you read in the book, no relationship is black and white. It’s figuring out how one interaction with one person can have such an impact on who you are, the decisions you make or who you become. I gravitate to books that are like that, those are my favourite types of books, where it doesn’t always necessarily ‘work out’ and there’s a bit of a journey to get to a new place of self-discovery. I think a big feature in Bad Love is about that journey and how Ekuah is impacted by the different people she comes into contact with. And also, how it sets her off in one direction and another and how she figures out how to find her own way in the midst of all of that. For me, everything starts with the emotion of a character and their unconscious motivations. And then it feels like the characters almost craft themselves out of that. I don’t think I’d be the writer I am today if I hadn’t been a psychotherapist.”
How did you become part of Jacaranda’s Twentyin2020 initiative and what was it like to be a part of it?
“Jacaranda is honestly incredible, they’re ground-breaking. From writing Bad Love to its publication, it probably took four years which is a long time. But no one was waiting for it when I was writing it. I didn’t have an agent, I was just writing the story because I wanted to write the story. After two years and a few re-drafts, I did my research and submitted it to agents. I got some feedback saying they liked it, but it wasn’t for them and I got to the point where I thought I’m going to do some more submissions and probably publish it myself. I felt there was no point in the story if no one was going to read it. I just wanted it out there in the world.
“Jacaranda is incredible, they’re ground breaking”
In 2018, I saw that Jacaranda had this competition where they wanted to publish Black British writers in 2020 and I submitted to them. In January 2019, they told me they chose Bad Love to publish and it was a game changer. I wasn’t expecting it, it totally shook me. The fact that they’ve got the 20 books out despite the pandemic and being a small press is ground-breaking. The editor understood the story I was trying to tell and was amazing in helping it to become what it is today. The book cover was also created by my friend Dapo Adeola, who is an award-winning illustrator.
Being part of Jacaranda Twentyin2020 was incredible, it was a really involved process and it’s still going. I think it’s been a massive boost for me as a debut to be a part of a collective like that, to meet 19 amazing writers, has made a massive difference in getting books out there and getting more people to read the book as well, so I’m forever grateful to Jacaranda for that.”
I really love how you so seamlessly integrated all the different locations in Bad Love. Are there any reasons why you decided to take Ekuah to all these places?
“I am a big lover of travel and pre-pandemic; I lived the last few years between London and Melbourne. Bad Love has these predominant romantic relationships in it, but a big part of it is also about love of place. I wanted to take Ekuah to these different places because in my experience, going to new places and having new experiences has such an impact on shaping who you are. Especially when you are in your twenties and still learning about yourself. I like to write from emotion, how a place feels and the essence of a place and I wanted to fully depict them in a realistic way. My family is Ghanaian, so I drew from my experiences in taking her there. It’s about Ekuah discovering her heritage and that paired with Black British identity. There’s a lot about what that means and who she is in there. Venice has a special place in my heart and is very romantic. I also wanted that essence of London to run throughout. It’s just places that mean a lot to me and I wanted to use them as a way to push Ekuah in different directions.”
I love how you represented Black women in a more vulnerable light, depicting Ekuah as she fell in love, travelled, and embraced her femininity. How important was it to you that you changed the narrative of Black women in romance?
“I’ll be honest, I didn’t sit down and think I’m going to write a romance novel or something akin to romance about a Black woman and it has to be xyz. There was definitely a deliberate decision for her to be a Black British woman, which stemmed from not having seen or read a lot of that when I was growing up. In terms of Ekuah’s relationships, I was just writing about conversations I was having with girlfriends of different races about our experience of being in our twenties and dating in London. It was a culmination of those conversations and how small and big interactions we were having with different people in the dating space had changed how we viewed relationships, our parents’ relationships and how our parents’ relationships impact what we think about ourselves.
For me, a big thing was that I wasn’t doing it to make a statement, rather, I wanted to look back on it and like that I was able to portray her as a carefree young Black woman. She’s an only child in this middle-class family, there’s not much of a struggle narrative: she’s just allowed to be. As any young woman should be entitled to explore and have the freedom to figure out who they are without all the rest of the oppression that comes down. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist, but that wasn’t necessarily the story I was trying to tell here. I just wanted to explore relationships and what it’s like to be in them. And it was nice to have most of the characters be Black and Brown but I wish there was a book like this when I was in my twenties, I probably would have figured out so much earlier on. I’m really glad that it feels there is a lot of representation and stuff, but I think a lot of that stems from that I just wanted to write a character who was experiencing relationships. My intention was to write about relationships, not romance.”
“There’s not much of a struggle narrative: she’s just allowed to be”
Do you have any advice for BIPOC writers?
“My only advice would be please keep writing. The world needs your stories, so keep writing.”
What is your hope for the future of publishing?
“I am a reader, I am a writer and I would say my hope for publishing is that good stories keep being told, regardless of who they are written by. I think there is a lot at the moment, but there is the danger of hype where sometimes there are stories where there is more hype than there is story, and I suppose my hope is that regardless of who is writing it, a good story is just a good story. I would hope that you guys who are going into publishing and a more diverse, multitude of faces at the table are able to have a wider scope of picking the really good stories that you think need to be told. I 100% think more Black and Brown stories need to be told, coming from Black and Brown people, but a good story is a good story so I would hope that continues to be the driving force.”
“I 100% think more Black and Brown stories need to be told, coming from Black and Brown people”
Maame Blue has another potential novel in the works, but if you want to read some of her work sooner, she has some short stories that will be released in an anthology called Not Quite Right For Us on 26 May. The anthology is a collection of forty writers who are all writing about not fitting into the publishing mainstream.
You can purchase a copy of Bad Love here!