Nana Boateng was trying desperately to get to the University of Virginia.
It was 2020, and she’d been accepted as a graduate student into the University’s Creative Writing Program, but she was stuck more than 5,000 miles away in her home country of Ghana, held at bay by a pandemic and a shuttered U.S. embassy there.
She took her first semester online, with a fickle Zoom hook-up and a host of mounting obstacles.
“I did my best to get stable internet connection,” Boateng said. “I was five hours ahead of Charlottesville and I was still working. Combining school and work was a bit stressful on some days, but it all worked out. Thank God for my classmates and my professors; everybody was so supportive.”
“Worked out” is an understatement. Boateng eventually made it to Charlottesville and just won the prestigious Henfield Prize in fiction for her writing that, according to a literary judge, “left its fingerprints all over my heart.” The honor came with a $15,000 award.
UVA is one of five universities nationwide to offer the annual fiction award for an unpublished story or novel excerpt, open to its graduate writing students. The Joseph F. McCrindle Foundation, named for the editor and publisher of The Transatlantic Review, endowed the Henfield Prizes in 2011. Submissions must be unpublished and written or significantly revised while the writers are enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program.
It’s a heady honor for an author who stumbled into fiction writing.
Describing herself as “a moody teenager,” Boateng first fell in love with poetry after her father gave her an anthology of African poets, edited by Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986.
After graduating from the University of Ghana, Legon, she worked for a publisher and received training through a U.N. AID program for international youth in journalism. At that point, seeing how hard it was to make a living as a writer, she was worried there was no future in it.
Nevertheless, she attended a few workshops, including the Pan African Literary Conference in 2008. And she led some workshops, too. She founded a writing center, the Gird Center – as in, “to encircle writers with knowledge and support,” she said – that is still operating today, seven years later.
Boateng didn’t delve into fiction until she was working in Ghana as a broadcast journalist for a radio station that expanded to print a newspaper, The Globe. When she suggested including a literary page, the editor challenged her to write a short story herself.
“I had no idea my boss was going to ask me to write stories to fill those pages,” said Boateng, 24 at the time. “I told him I didn’t write short stories, but I could find writers; and he said I should at least try to write a story – and I did.”
The next step, furthering her education at UVA, required a bit more planning.
Boateng had to remain in Ghana during the first fall semester and attended UVA’s program remotely. She had given up the small house she was renting and was living at her parents’ home, juggling writing and classes with working and helping care for her toddler nephew while her sister tended to a new baby.
UVA’s Jane Alison, who serves as her adviser, helped her find the books she needed and spent a lot of time online with Boateng.
Alison, professor of creative writing, wrote in email, “All of us who read Nana’s work in 2020 wanted her here at once. Her growing novel … is full of imagination and tenderness and above all the quintessence of narrative: a truly original sensibility that is wise, dry, and full of wonder.”
Boateng said it was her adviser’s commitment that made her grasp the possibilities.
“Her strong presence during that time,” Boateng said of Alison, “definitely made me take my work a lot more seriously than I had before I got into the program.”
The other students in the cohort starting in fall 2020 – when many UVA classes were still remote – set up a weekly Zoom gathering that Boateng said helped them bond, so she felt like she knew them when she finally arrived in January 2021.
The day after she finally arrived on Grounds, she had another surprise: her first experience of snow, the first substantial snowfall of the year.
“I was welcomed by snow, and I sure didn’t have the right clothes when I got here,” she said.
Despite those early challenges, she has settled into the graduate program, has continued working on her novel-in-progress and taught introductory fiction workshops. Going through the program has reaffirmed her love for writing and teaching, she said.
“At some point, you need to take charge of your life and shape it.”
“I am still trying, but I think I seriously started to imagine that I could be a writer in 2013 after I attended the FEMRITE writer’s residency in Uganda.” [FEMRITE is an organization that supports and publishes African women writers.]
About creative writing, she said, “I am curious about the human mind, our psychological makeup – patterns of thoughts, feelings, desires, and behaviors that make a person. I think about how life begins, when the time comes you are either pushed or pulled out, after which so much more happens beyond your control, yet at some point, you need to take charge of your life and shape it. How do you do that? Where do you learn to do that in a way that doesn’t destroy you? So, I watch my characters create themselves through the decisions they make in response to their peculiar circumstances.
“I am also interested in what exists beyond this physical realm – the inexplicable things of life.”
When it comes to writing, Boateng said she usually sees “a character or an image first, and then I follow it as it grows into a story. For this novel, I saw Brema as a little girl playing football with a group of boys and she has stayed with me, revealing different aspects of her life up to her adulthood.”
Boateng submitted the first chapter of this unpublished novel, “Honey-Headed,” about Brema, to the Henfield Prize competition. Judging is anonymous and the judge is not revealed until the award is announced in May.
This year’s judge, Alexandra Kleeman, who teaches at The New School and published her latest novel, “Something New Under the Sun,” last year, was impressed with Boateng’s writing prowess: “Sinewy in its phrasing and vitally attentive to the living, electric quality of Brema’s inner longings and aversions, this chapter brims with urgent feeling, unfurled with patience and grounded in startling particularities such as the flavor of clay and the presence of sunlight cast on a wall.
“I found myself marveling at Boateng’s ability to capture the compulsive, melancholy solitude of the body, and the twisting, roiling, shape of her characters’ wants. It’s a thrill to see a writer taking risks while maintaining that life-giving link to character, emotion, viscerality: this text left its fingerprints all over my heart.”
Here is an excerpt from that first chapter where the main character Brema, who is pregnant and questioning what she really wants in her current life, has fainted, and her boyfriend Abdul has taken her to the hospital.
… Abdul draws closer to Brema to hold her hand.
“Is everything okay?” he asks.
“Well, your babies are fine. We have two strong heartbeats here.”
Brema’s egg has split, making a girl and a boy.
Abdul squeezes Brema’s hand. He cannot believe the brook of joy that rushes through his chest.
“Thank you, Jesus!” he cries.
“Look,” the doctor points to the screen, “that’s the girl and that’s the boy. Congratulations!”
Brema’s eyes well up, she doesn’t want any of this, she is terrified, she needs help for her constipation problem.
“Your wife’s Hb level is dangerously low; she needs blood immediately.”
“I can donate, I’ll donate,” Abdul says, clutching his chest for the joy to remain still.
“Okay, good. Are you the same blood type?”
Abdul pulls on his camera strap, his mouth empty of words. He’s frightened by how little he knows of someone he’s sure he loves. Brema turns her body to face the wall, drunk on silence, a house being eaten by termites. She could have been discharged, after her four-hour-long blood transfusion, but given that she has no prenatal records, is experiencing shortness of breath and has an unstable chest pain, the doctor doesn’t trust that sending her home right away is the best decision. He doesn’t think Brema will follow his recommended 24 to 48 hours of rest. Brema still hasn’t told the doctor about her constipation problem; her appetite loss; her restless sleep. The antiseptic blend wafting through the hospital air is unbearable, but the doctor has decided to keep her detained, to observe her for two more days and Brema complies.