(New York: Other Press, 2019)
When asked about the inspirations for her characters, author of The Hundred Wells of Salaga, Ayesha Harruna Attah, shares that her “goal was to write fully rounded people…because even the kindest people are capable of cruelty, and people tagged as evil can do the kindest acts.” This seems to be the heart of her novel; in her goal to bring an authentic voice to her great-great-grandmother — a slave in Salaga — Attah creates a complex, nuanced, and unrelentingly honest depiction of the slave trade in precolonial Ghana. The novel explores the experiences of royalty and the impoverished, of women abused by men and slaves abused by owners and traders. Attah humanizes characters that history paints as villains, not only depicting the complexities of human nature, but inviting readers to engage with the ways in which society normalizes and justifies systemic oppression. Just as Attah herself notes, her characters and readers are “capable of cruelty and…kindness,” emphasizing not only the duality of human nature, but the role choice plays in it as well.
Wurche, one of the novel’s protagonists, is a slave owner, and Moro (love interest to both Wurche and the novel’s other protagonist, Aminah), works in the slave trade. In one of the most significant moments of the novel, Wurche buys Aminah after Moro fails to return after purchasing her. The moment is initially framed, through Aminah’s point-of-view, as a rescue. She refers to Wurche as the “woman who’d saved her,” mirroring her relief during Moro’s initial purchase, in which she notes that he “seemed so kind” in comparison to her previous owner. But Attah does not create slave-owning protagonists in order to normalize the slave trade. The complex nature of a character owning both spaces — that of a protagonist and that of a villain — develops readers’ empathy with these characters in order to force readers to take ownership of the ways in which their peers, or even they themselves, continue to perpetuate systems of oppression in contemporary society. When reflecting on her work, Attah argues that “we have to acknowledge the role we’ve played in slavery,” referring to slavery both in America and Ghana, “to heal and achieve true progress.” Had Attah written all slave-owning characters in The Hundred Wells of Salaga as antagonists, her work would have allowed readers to distance themselves from these crimes without acknowledging the continued impacts of the slave trade. Instead, Attah encourages readers to confront the ways in which contemporary society continues to normalize and excuse abuses of power.
The novel alternates between the viewpoints of Aminah and Wurche, two women of dramatically differing social classes. While the two women’s stories technically collide in the latter half of the book, their narratives never truly intertwine. No relationship ever develops between the women, and they ultimately part ways. Attah subverts readers’ expectations in this way; while a conventional narrative might join the women together to overcome their shared oppressor — the patriarchal royal society — Attah reminds readers this is impossible, as Wurche is, to Aminah, an active participant of the oppressive society in which she lives. Despite the novel’s alternating first-person perspectives there is no comparison drawn between the two women’s narratives. Overlap is impossible by the nature of their relationship as owner and slave. Wurche considers herself a prisoner within her father’s patriarchal kingdom, while Aminah is both a prisoner to the patriarchy but also to Wurche herself. As Wurche escapes her father’s power after his death, Aminah escapes Wurche at the end of the novel. That said, the shared female experience does allow Aminah to move toward forgiving Wurche after she is freed.
The novel ultimately ends on a note of hope. Though both Wurche’s and Aminah’s perceptions of happiness evolve through the course of the novel, their stories end with renewed promise of what’s to come. Just as Attah argues that humans are “capable of cruelty…and kindness,” she shows they are capable of choice and change, too. Despite the frank exploration of a painful history, Attah’s narrative is not exposing or shaming; it is humanizing, both in the good and bad, the painful and the healing. A balanced blend of fact and fiction, The Hundred Walls of Salaga offers two energized voices to the historical fiction genre, breathing life into an important story of politics, womanhood, and, ultimately, humanity in precolonial Ghana.
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Briana McDonald’s fiction has appeared in The Stonecoast Review, Glassworks Magazine, The Cardiff Review, Rozyln: Short Fiction by Women Writers, and Marathon Literary Review. She is an Associate Editor and a prose reader at The Literary Review.