Manu Herbstein is the author of The Boy Who Spat in Sargrenti's Eye, a historical novel for kids, a winner of the 2017 Children's Africana Book Award. His other books include Ama and Brave Music of a Distant Drum. Born in South Africa, he has lived in Ghana for many years.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Boy Who Spat in Sargrenti's Eye?
A: I guess that it must have been after seeing some pictures from the Illustrated London News.
At the time when the British invaded Asante in 1873-74, a photographer still operated with a wooden tripod and a black cloth over his head. The technology wasn’t good enough to capture the live action of a war.
The ILN sent the artist, Melton Prior, to the Gold Coast to cover the invasion. The prevailing world view of the British at that time was deeply racist. However, while Prior shared the racist views of his colleagues, he drew what he saw, at least when that didn’t serve to discredit his fellow Brits.
The dispatches of the other war correspondents, and the books they wrote after the war, make painful reading today; but Prior’s images suggest a picture of the times which is difficult to convey in words alone.
I wove the story around the images, creating the fictional narrator, 15-year Kofi Gyan, to give an African account of the conflict, absent in the contemporary narratives.
Q: What did you see as the right blend between fiction and history as you wrote the novel, and what kind of research did you conduct?
A: My research for my first novel, Ama, a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, was largely textual, conducted in the Africana Library of the University of Ghana.
By the time I came to write the Sargrenti book, I had access to the Internet and Google. I downloaded the texts of most of the contemporary accounts, all of them written by British participants, both journalists and soldiers; and all of them insensitive to African feelings and thought.
I supplemented this with reading a wide range of relevant 19th century and later writing on subjects including Asante and Fante people, history and culture; imperialist fiction for boys (such as that by G. A. Henty); Victorian culture, military history and the looting of cultural artefacts. My bibliography extends to several pages.
Then I set all that aside and did my best to create a believable and sympathetic narrator and to tell a good story.
Q: The book includes many illustrations. Why did you decide to include them, and how did you select them?
A: A writer of fiction aims to spark images in the reader’s mind. If the reader lacks appropriate visual references, that might not work well. Including the illustrations saved me writing many lines of potentially boring description.
Then again, in much past fiction, text was complemented by illustrations. Think, to give just one example, of John Tenniel’s contribution to Alice in Wonderland.
I included most of the available images, perhaps too many; but I was tempted to make this novel something approaching a complete record.
Q: Who do you see as the ideal reader for this book, and what do you hope readers take away from Kofi's story?
A: History is no longer a core subject in the Ghanaian school curriculum, so many Ghanaians remain ignorant of much of their ancestors’ stories. I’ve been gratified by the positive response of Ghanaian readers of this novel, including adults.
Its story of the impact of colonialism is repeated in many African countries, so I would hope that it might be read elsewhere on the continent and by members of the global African diaspora.
Many countries in today’s world are guilty of willful amnesia regarding aspects of their history and, in particular, the hypocrisy and cruelty of their past rulers. This story is part of British history, as well as Ghanaian history. I wish that British schoolkids might be encouraged to read this novel, but, realistically, there’s faint hope of that.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve recently self-published six works in the U.S., available as paperbacks. Self-publishing places a burden of marketing on the author; that occupies much of my time.
I’m 81. I’ve lived an interesting life and have kept many documents. My next task will be to write a memoir, perhaps publishing it initially as a series of short blog pieces.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: The Boy who Spat in Sargrenti’s Eye won a Burt Award for African Literature in Ghana and the 2016 Creative Book of the Year Award of the U.S.-based African Literature Association.
It is one of seven books due to receive a Children’s Africana Book Award at CABA’s 25th anniversary dinner on Nov. 3, 2017, from 6:00 – 9:00 pm, at St Francis Hall, 1340 Quincy Street NE, Washington, DC. Tickets and more information about the CABA Awards may be obtained here.
On Saturday, Nov. 4, a free CABA family festival will be held at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave S.W., Washington, D.C. From 11 a.m. – 2 p.m., children can learn to spin a yarn and weave a story, based on tales from Ghana, Morocco, and Ivory Coast.
I’ll join a panel of CABA authors/illustrators, talking about our work, from 11:30 – 12:30. Current and past CABA winners will be signing their books after the panel discussion. The event is free and open to the public.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb