The God Child by Nana Oforiatta Ayim

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A captivating and rich novel, The God Child paints a strong image of the changing perception of African culture. Set between Germany, England and Ghana, narrator Maya is thrust into a whirlwind of family stories, unfulfilled prophecies and alien cultures, while she struggles to place herself in her surroundings as a young girl. Fast-forward to the future, and Maya is more aware of the importance of her background and history, but is still somewhat an outsider when it comes to understanding the significance it could have on an individual’s life.

The God Child beautifully showcases the art of West-African storytelling, placing importance on stories passed down through the generations and the influence of drumming and music. Ayim weaves these elements into her own story of Maya and Kojo, and their quest to achieve what they believe has been bestowed upon them. Maya learns about her Mother’s regal and elaborate past, but there remains an air of scepticism from Maya, even when she is eventually immersed into her lifestyle later on in the novel. It feels as though for Maya, this is a story that she never really got to fully understand or be a part of, so she feels desperately out of place – expressed in part through the clothing she wears around these royal relatives – even when she is welcomed into their world. Kojo is her link, her bridge to the unknown, yet his unstable, wavering behaviour means he is often elusive about his ‘plans’ with Maya. She and the reader are left speculating on what it means for her and what is to come. However, Kojo’s character does address another cultural storytelling aspect – the fact that such stories were rarely written down, and those that were, were usually told from a colonial viewpoint. Maya uncovers Kojo’s prized book, messy with annotations yet clearly well-loved. His early focus on this book is significant and shows how he is desperately seeking to understand his history.

With his arrival, Kojo fills Maya’s head with the rich stories of their heritage, gradually hoping to change her perception of what she understood about Ghanaian culture. Maya’s story and feelings of isolation are not unique. The story moves between Germany and England, and Ayim paints each landscape perfectly. The promise of England, over exaggerated with images from the classic literature that Maya loses herself in, is quickly overshadowed by the dull, cold and unwelcoming environment that Maya finds herself in when she arrives with her Mother and Kojo. England is described as always being a ‘dream’ for the family, yet – as explored in a lot of diaspora and immigration literature – it rarely meets expectations, and the family have to deal with surviving on a lot less than they are used to. However, it is the moments in the novel where the Mother goes against any attempt to ‘fit in’, which paint the strongest image and most enjoyable reading experiences. Her Mother is a fabulous, strongminded character, who dominates each scene that she is included in. The scene of her Mother and her getting her done is particularly poignant – the two opposite personalities are on full show in this instance. Maya, desperate to blend in and remain out of the limelight, suffers in silence as her scalp burns and her hair straightens. While her Mother, loud and unapologetic, controls the room and rejoices in her faith. In this scene, it is her mother who eventually saves her from the pain, as will be the case for Maya in her later life, when she begins to fully understand her Mother’s lineage and the importance of her traditions.

In The God Child, Maya’s Mother is a wonderful vessel for exploring the matter of which culture is ‘better’. While she clearly comes from a regal and wealthy family – albeit rather confusing and complicated – she still places an importance on imported goods, bringing home various foods and clothing when she returns to Ghana from trips overseas. There is a fantastic section in the novel where Maya is tasked with bringing home a giant Christmas tree on her trip, no matter how inconvenient and unnecessary it may be. She is always described as being well-dressed and beautiful, and likes to spend money on the latest things. However, she also shares the goods from her own country, when she visits friends and family in Europe and beyond. While she may seem like one of the most established and ‘comfortable-in-their-own-skin’ characters in the novel, her insecurities do seep out in certain parts of the novel. Like Maya, she is still discovering which environment she really ‘fits into’ and perhaps in her case, which culture she deems the most importance and influential.

In many ways, the novel is a love letter to the taken and lost pieces of Maya’s history. It makes us question who decides what is superior, which artefact is more important, what stories deserve to be retold. Yet it also explores the burden of living with this knowledge, the fact that very little is known or understood, even by the people who live in these environments and are immersed in this way of life. Kojo is arguably driven to his death through his immersion and his drive to achieve his goal of documenting the importance aspects of his history, fulfilling a prophecy of some kind. Indeed, later in her life, Maya suffers her own struggles and conflicts, and runs into the same problems – white men taking over the narrative – as her ancestors undoubtedly faced. The novel ends with a god-like vision of ‘a bare table covered with layered faded scrawl’, and an ‘empty chair’, seemingly waiting for Maya to fill it and continue the work of writing her people’s history. She is back home in Ghana by now, and though she may not initially feel like this is the place for her, for the reader, it finally feels as though she has discovered her calling, her prophecy and where her ‘home’ really is.

The God Child is published by Bloomsbury Books and is available here.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim

Nana Oforiatta Ayim is a Ghanaian writer, art historian and filmmaker. She is founder of the ANO Institute of Arts & Knowledge, through which she has pioneered a pan-African Cultural Encyclopaedia. Recently appointed a TORCH Global South Visiting Fellow to Oxford University, she is also the recipient of the 2015 Art & Technology Award from LACMA; of the 2016 AIR Award; and of the inaugural 2018 Soros Arts Fellowship. She is a contributor to the 2019 New Daughters of Africa anthology and in February 2019 delivered a TED Talk. Ayim will curate the Ghana’s first pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2019. The God Child is her first novel. She lives in Ghana.

Reviewed by Mariah Feria

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