A Love Letter to Ghana: An interview with children's storyteller Dr Tamara Pizzoli

To all Ghanaians and Ghanaphiles across the globe - Happy 58th Independence!!!! 

In tribute to our Motherland Ghana - the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence from colonial rule - I would like to share some thoughts from children's storyteller Tamara, whose first book was inspired by the beautiful country. 

Tamara may be born and bred in the US, she may have put down some roots in Italy, but it seems that Ghana has captured her heart.

In this second of three instalments, I ask Tamara how a woman from Killeen, Texas, who lives in Rome ends up basing her first book on a boy from Accra, Ghana.

Mama Abena, Sista Adjowa and Kofi.
The English Schoolhouse. image credit: Howell Edwards Creative
MB: Ghana has a strong oral tradition with stories such as Kwaku Anansie. Do you think that this modern twist to the classic Goldilocks story helps to further that tradition?
TP: I do. Stories are the most effective way of communicating anything. It’s how, I believe, we learn best. Each life is just one beautiful story.

In Rome I hang out with a few griots [West African historians that use music and poetry to tell stories]
A couple are from Senegal. I regularly invite Madya, who plays the kora [a West African stringed instrument], to my home and ask him to play for me. His singing and playing transports me to a place that’s very pure and child-like.

I ask him to tell me stories first in Mandingo, and then to explain in Italian. Even though I don’t understand the words, the spirit and weight of his voice is something that reduces me to tears very often. My soul responds to his voice. These moments are gifts and very precious to me.
MB: And how has 'The Ghanaian Goldilocks' been received by Ghanaians living in Italy and elsewhere?
TP: Unfortunately, I don’t think I know any Ghanaians here. I have lots of friends from Senegal and other countries in West Africa, but the Ghanaians I’ve met here haven’t lived here. Overall, 'The Ghanaian Goldilocks' has been warmly received by Ghanaians who’ve come in contact with it.

How about in the US?
It was so cool to see Ghanaians’ reactions who saw me selling it at the Harlem Book Fair this past July. They’d get so excited by every cultural reference. Their faces would light up and they’d have these one-word exclamations: “Jollof!” “Kofi!” “Fufu!” “Sankofa!” “Stew!” I hadn’t published F is for Fufu at that point, but that’s been well received by Ghanaians as well. I’ve gotten very sweet and moving messages on Facebook and other social media thanking me for writing it.
MB: For you to incorporate Twi words into the book, and cite locations in Ghana, you must have had some working knowledge of Ghana. Tell me more.

TP: Yes, the knowledge I have came from the five-year relationship with my Ghanaian ex-boyfriend. I spent so many years with him as well as his family and extended family, who were very kind to me. I travelled to Ghana several times and would stay weeks at a time. I was able to have an authentic cultural experience in such a gorgeous country, and those experiences never left me. In fact, many of the names of characters from the book are actually people I knew in Ghana.

 MB: On the issue of pronouncing some of the Twi words, you mentioned that you and the voice actors are not Ghanaian but as you are planning on making The Ghanaian Goldilocks into a film, you will make sure you get the words right.
TP: Yes, when you contacted me you mentioned that a couple of the names were mispronounced…I believe Kofi and Abena. I’m actually from Texas, as are all of the voice over ‘actors.’ But the thing is, they aren’t actors at all. They’re supportive, wonderful friends who agreed to my last minute request to record the book as an audiobook. When I say last minute I mean I had the idea like on a Tuesday and we recorded it that Saturday.

They are also the matching characters, many of them, from the actual story. That’s to say that Mama Abena was drawn to look like Mully Makor, the sister of a very good friend of mine. At the last minute I flew Mully from California to Dallas where we recorded the audiobook and she put her med-school work on hold to make this project happen.

Sista Adjowa was drawn in the likeness of Shiattin Makor, Mully’s sister in real life. Shiattin recorded her voice for the part she represents in the book.

(L-R) Shiattin Makor and Tamara : image (c) Michael Jackson
Papa Akuffo is Kevin Walker, owner of a website celebrating all things beautiful in Black culture and the Diaspora - Afro Bohemian Snob. Even though he really didn’t want to do it, he supported me and agreed. It was a beautiful, beautiful experience. There was such good energy in that space.

Kofi and Kwaku’s voices came from my good friend Tonya’s gorgeous sons, who tried something new so bravely.

MB: I see.
TP: So, to be honest, while I realise that accent accuracy is important, the project was and is a love letter to the country of Ghana. I think focusing on imperfectly pronounced words in the audiobook is like checking a love poem for minor spelling and grammar errors and highlighting those in red pen. Good to know, yes, but not really the point. 

The names aren’t butchered beyond the point of recognition. 99.9% of the responses to all of my books, particularly 'The Ghanaian Goldilocks', have just been overwhelmingly supportive and positive. It’s just been love. I’m grateful for that.
Lastly, just a thing about accents, they are things I find to be particularly delightful. The audiobook is a read aloud experience, and those types of experiences vary based on the voice of the reader. Though all speaking the same language, a Scottish, British, Irish and Texan narrator would all sound very, very different reading any text. 

My dream and goal is to have all sorts of voices recorded reading The Ghanaian Goldilocks aloud their way: Whoopi Goldberg who is just everything, Erykah Badu with her cool southern twang, Oprah with her sultry, smooth calm she offers every time she speaks, Rosie Perez with her fabulous Boriqua accent…accents ACCENT! Get it?!

In the third and final instalment here, Tamara explains how she's working with rising American-Ghanaian YouTube sensation Clifford Owusu in her latest film project. Her first interview can be accessed here.

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