London is celebrated as one of the most diverse cities in the world and south London, and Clapham and Brixton, in particular, has an important place in the history of that diversity. The desire to understand the impact of this history, and what went before it, on present day lives, was motivation for Rosanna Amaka to write The Book of Echoes (Doubleday, 2020). Growing up in Brixton in the late twentieth century she saw her community fast disappearing and set out to give it a voice. Her debut novel, twenty years in the writing, has already garnered high praise from many sources.
Julie Anderson (JA): Memory, including individual memories of childhood and of healing of various kinds, plays an enormously important role in your book, giving elasticity to its chronology and, sometimes, an elegiac tone. Were you conscious of this when writing it?
Rosanna Amaka (RA): Yes. The Book of Echoes examines the effect of subconscious memory, not only those of our own childhood, which we pack away in order to survive, but also the impact of the memory of others, those we love, who have the greatest impact on us, and those of society, and therefore the impact on the next generation, and next generation, echoing down the line.
JA: The book shows how damage is perpetuated and renewed down the ages and yet redemption is still possible and achievable. How does this chime with your own early experiences and observations of the world you grew up in?
RA: It was important for me to tell this story, first, as a way of recording the presence of the older generation within my community that where disappearing due to gentrification, or simply due to the passing of time, but also to tell of the love, support and hope that that they instilled and passed on.
JA: But the novel doesn’t avoid hard issues, like slavery and death in custody, particularly relevant today.
RA: Despite knowing this happens, I still feel traumatised by accidentally witnessing the death of a man on video and the subsequent attempt, yet again, by the authorities to cover this up. The death of George Floyd has been a catalyst for change so I hope that it will not have been in vain, that we can all play our part in creating a better world. May he rest in peace.
JA: In The Book of Echoes you have written a series of love stories. It is romantic lovers who frame the story, but you include other types of love as well. Is this important to you?
RA: Yes. Love is always important, whether it be between parents and their children, between siblings, friends, or neighbours. I calibrate it by trying to do what is the most loving thing to do in the long run, whether it be by telling the truth in the most loving way I can, or doing the best in the various challenges I face day to day. I often fall short by sundown, but each morning I rise hoping I might make it that day. That’s why I love writing it gives space for me to try to forgive and correct myself.
JA: The story includes a myriad of different voices. One way in which you represent their difference is through the language they use, the varieties of English as spoken in Nigeria, in the Caribbean and, by several generations, of different cultural heritage, in London. How difficult was it to ensure that you caught these accurately?
RA: This was particularly challenging for me because I don’t speak in most of those voices/ accents, although I had a good base to work from as I grew up hearing those different voices all around me. I worked very hard at listening to the way people around me spoke, and tried to capture a sense of this on the page. I kept working on it because this is the story I felt was important to tell, these were the voices I heard the characters speak in when writing the story, and I thought it was important to capture a sense of who they were through their voice on the page.
JA: Although The Book of Echoes ranges across continents and oceans it is very firmly anchored in specific places, most obviously, Brixton. The important of place, of ‘home’ and displacement echoes through the book. Is it important to you as a writer?
RA: Home is extremely important, because usually it is where you find warmth, protection and shelter, not always for some but fortunately the latter was the case for me, supported by my community in Brixton and Clapham.
The Book of Echoes is available online and at bookshops on request at £12.99.
This conversation was commissioned by the Clapham Society Newsletter. It can be found on the Society web-site and a shortened version of it is in its July edition.