Amina Thula is the author of two Ankara Press novels: The Elevator Kiss, published in December 2014, and the forthcoming Love Next Door, which will be released on 14 February 2016. She talks here about her writing, where she gets her inspiration and who she would choose to play her characters in the blockbuster movies of her novels.
Juwairiyya Asmal-Lee: What first inspired you to become a writer?
Amina Thula: I think some kind of divine intervention happened because to be honest I never thought I was creative enough to be a writer so writing was never even a career consideration. When I was growing up I wanted to be an archaeologist or historian. Midway through 2012 while watching a movie, I suddenly felt an urge to write. I tried to ignore it (I knew nothing about building a story let alone what genre to write) but the urge kept gnawing at me. That was also around the time I learnt about the existence of African romance and began reading it. Then one day I received inspiration for The Elevator Kiss. I sat down with the intention of only writing the opening scene but I ended up writing the first three chapters. I emailed them to a friend and she urged me to finish it and that was how I started. In retrospect, I guess storytelling was always inside me and it was just a matter of time and accepting my gift. I’ve always lived inside my head making up stories, I would laugh at the characters or sometimes say their dialogue out loud. My family used to tease me that I have oohili (jinns/spirits). I’m also a vivid dreamer with some very dramatic dreams and I’ve always been fascinated by human nature and people’s motives more than their actions.
JA: What books did you read growing up?
AT: Almost everything I could get my hands on! The library we had at home was limited and our school library had a two or three book limit, which wasn’t enough to satisfy my needs. My grandmother got me library cards from two of my city’s municipal libraries. On Saturdays I would be dropped off at the main city library and picked up at closing time. But comic books were always my number one. I used to save my school bus fare and walk home from school and I’d also save a portion of my tuck shop money. On Fridays after school I would go to the mall and spend my money on a whole bunch of comics. After that, I would go to the library behind the mall to pick up books before heading home. On my way home there was a second hand bookshop that I also used to go to buy books from. And because books were quite cheap in those days, I would sometimes buy brand new ones.
I’m from the coastal city of East London, Eastern Cape – homeland of former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela as well as many other apartheid heroes, and famous for producing German cars (lol). We have about fourteen libraries, which is not bad considering it’s a small city.
JA: Who is your ideal reader?
AT: Although the romance genre is aimed at women it has come to my knowledge that there are men who also read romance. So my ideal reader is a modern woman or man with an open mind. He or she is independent, confident and as comfortable with themselves and their gender as they are with their strengths and weaknesses. They love romance and read for leisure as well as to draw new ideas. They also have an active and fulfilling life.
JA: What was the most difficult thing about producing your first novel, The Elevator Kiss?
AT: Editing! Finding time to write and the strength to put ego aside while editing was challenging. The story itself was pretty seamless. The characters knew what they wanted to do and say and I just narrated.
JA: And was it easier writing your second novel, Love Next Door?
AT: No, and I hope it never becomes easier because then that would mean I’m no longer putting my heart in. Things I don’t put my heart in to or are too easy for me tend to bore me. Once I get bored, I lose interest and never regain it.
JA: Do you have a writing routine? If so, what’s a typical writing day for you?
AT: Not really, I don’t write every day and I write mostly at night – I’m an insomniac so writing helps me to fall asleep. But sometimes, inspiration hits me when I’m out and about or while running my errands. If I’m waiting in a queue or if I’m alone at a restaurant and waiting for my order or for someone to arrive, I just whip out my phone or tablet and start writing. There are even times when I write while watching TV if the inspiration hits me.
I don’t have a dedicated space to write, storyboards, or a set routine. If I had to sit at a desk I probably wouldn’t be able to write (just thinking about it makes me uncomfortable). Everyday life and interacting with people is where I grow my ideas. Funnily enough men have inspired both The Elevator Kiss and Love Next Door.
JA: Can you elaborate on that?
I got the idea for The Elevator Kiss through a chance encounter with a male neighbour in an elevator. However, the rest of the story such as the cross-cultural romance was inspired a Ghanaian gentleman I know which prompted me to create the character of Edward.
Love Next Door was triggered by a surprise friendly email I had received from the gentleman who inspired Kopano’s character and who it had been a couple of years since I had last spoken to. How we became friends inspired Abby and Kopano’s meeting: a stranger helping another out with no strings attached. My mind works strangely because even a simple email saying hello can lead to a new idea for a book!
Although Edward and Kopano were inspired by real people I would like to emphasise that both The Elevator Kiss and Love Next Door are complete works of fiction. The only true things about “Edward” are that he is Ghanaian, extremely tall and is a wealthy businessman – everything else is completely fictional. The only thing “Kopano” shares with his fictitious counterpart is his kind and caring nature. And in case people are wondering…my relationships with “Edward” and “Kopano” have always been platonic! But these gentlemen inspired the two novels because I think they are the type of men romantic heroes should be portraying. They are Ankara Press men. They both do well in their respective careers, they are smart, ambitious, principled and honourable – and they always treated me with respect and listened when I spoke. They’re generally thoughtful men. That’s what I like best about them: how they treat other people. I believe that’s where you see the true measure of a person.
JA: What is your favourite scene from each novel?
AT: Near the end of The Elevator Kiss when Sindi and Grace meet for drinks – Grace imparts some words of wisdom. Firstly, I love how Grace steps in to help Sindi and Edward in a non-invasive manner and leaves room for Sindi to make up her own mind. Secondly, I find truth in her words. To love is to be able to open yourself up to giving and receiving love and this is dangerous because you become vulnerable. As Grace tells Sindi, love takes courage because you have to trust your partner enough to not break your heart. It also requires one to be brave enough to take a leap of faith and believe in the relationship.
The last scene in Love Next Door when Abby and Kopano are waiting for take-off and Kopano tells Abby how much she had hurt him when she took away his power of choice. What he says is important in any relationship because communication is vital and this is where misunderstanding can happen if one person isn’t being heard. It also reminds me of the delicate relationship between action and reception. Sometimes we do things with good intention or carelessly, without malice, but the reception and end results are disastrous.
JA: At Ankara Press, we are clear that we want our books to reflect the realities of African women’s lives in ways that challenge boundaries and go beyond conventional expectations. Do you think that your books challenge stereotypes of romance? If so, how?
AT: I think so; I slightly deviate from the norms. For example, I wanted to challenge romance novel tropes such as boy meets girl and the stars align and the heavens open up or they have this love-hate courtship going on. In reality, the beginning of a relationship tends to be awkward and there’s a lot of uncertainty, which is reflected in Love Next Door. You also have those stereotypical brooding heroes with a dark past who have intimacy issues (not that that’s not valid) but I choose to write about heroes with a different background, such as Kopano: he decides to use his issues with his father to make himself the best man he can be.
People I know or have met have inspired my characters. In The Elevator Kiss, Sindi and Edward are both comfortable with who they are. When Sindi stands her ground, Edward never feels his manhood is under threat. He is more than happy to give Sindi the space she needs to make her own decisions even if there’s a possibility the outcome will be against his desires.
JA: Do you believe that romance novels can be empowering? And if so, how?
AT: Yes. Books in general can be empowering. They have the ability to plant a thought in one’s mind, as well as the ability to encourage one to challenge one’s held beliefs. They also not only offer a possible alternate world, they allow the reader to experience that alternate world.
JA: What does it mean to you to be part of the Ankara Press imprint?
AT: It’s exciting to be part of a new era in romance literature. It also feels empowering that now, we Africans are dictating the way the world should see us. I feel Africa is finally part of the global sphere and not some external third world continent.
JA: What did you think when you first saw the cover of your books?
AT: For The Elevator Kiss, it was a huge relief. I was dreading the cheesy half-naked model cover and I had hoped the model would at least be dressed! So I was really happy with [Ankara Press designer] Onyinye Iwu’s style. It also made me feel nostalgic as it reminded me of the vernacular books my grandmother used to buy for us. And I love the cover for Love Next Door because Onyinye used my favourite colours!
JA: If you could cast your characters in a Hollywood (or even Nollywood) adaptation of your book, who would you choose to play your characters?
AT: This is a great question! I think it’s time Alex Ekubo stopped being a Johnny, so I would choose him as Kopano in Love Next Door and Chris Attoh would be perfect as Edward in The Elevator Kiss. I, of course, would be lead co-star to both!