Alumni profile - Ama Badu
I love to ask people when they first saw themselves in books. For many of us, it isn’t until university that we really see ourselves in literature in the curriculum... This is why I’m in children’s publishing, because even if only one child picks up a book I have championed, and sees themselves, their family and their community reflected in those pages, that is everything.
What influenced your decision to study English at Queen Mary? What modules did you enjoy learning about and was there anything that surprised you in your studies? At the time, I wanted to be an English teacher in a secondary school and when it came to my degree, it was between English and Art. The only course I could find that did both together at the time was in Reading. I didn’t love the vibe of the campus because there weren’t a lot of people that looked like me and I knew that would affect my experience. I had heard great things about Queen Mary, for example, it’s part of the Russell Group, and so that’s where I wanted to go.
In terms of modules, I remember reading Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys in my Postcolonial and Global Literature module in second year and I was fuming! I had been made to believe that Mr. Rochester was this great, brooding guy and I loved Jane Eyre, but nobody had thought to tell me that there was an alternative reading of this book. I couldn’t understand it; how have we done Jane Eyre again and again and we’ve never considered any other narrative? That module was one of my favourites – we looked at Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, which I then started using in my dissertation, and my seminar leader was a woman called Carli Coetzee, and she was amazing, we’re still in touch to this day. She brought so much energy and vibrance and discussion to the room and it was really important for me.
Along with that, I did Black Writing in Britain, which again was very eye-opening. I remember in second year, being conflicted with the reality that there’s a lot we should know about literature, about history, about heritage, that is just not taught until you get to university. How many people from my community went to university? A lot of my friends from school didn’t and my heart broke for them because our English classes would have meant so much more to them if these stories were included in the curriculum.
How important was it to you to see Black history represented in the curriculum, such as in the James Baldwin and American Civil Rights module you studied? So much. So much! I wish there were more, but that alone was so invigorating because there is a gap, and you notice that gap. We considered Baldwin in other modules but it was really quick and in passing, but to be able to dedicate two semesters focusing on all of Baldwin’s work and also having American students in the room with us - so the conversations around race, racism and blackness were multidimensional – it was so, so key, and it really shaped my experience. I then came out of university, not necessarily wanting to go into teaching, but knowing I wanted to do something around books and around literature that focused on storytelling in different ways.
I went into publishing this year and these modules shaped my understanding of what I want to do in this industry as well. We struggled to get a lot of the books for Writing South Africa and Postcolonial Studies because they are very slowly coming out of print. It made me more conscious about the life of a book. I want to help keep books alive and in print, especially African books. So much of our history has been destroyed and wiped out. So many exceptional books are written in languages that, unfortunately, many cannot access. What happens in thirty, forty, fifty years' time when books like Ishtiyaq Shukri’s, The Silent Minaret, or Ayi Kwei Armah’s, The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born, are even harder to find than they were three years ago when I was studying them? Something interesting is starting to happen though. These books are slowly starting to circulate again, they are being digitised too. I hope this continues and one day, I hope I can contribute to that.
What was special about your time at Queen Mary? Can you give one or two examples of your most memorable moments? I made some really great friends – there are two in particular that come to mind. We really support each other in our careers, in our lives. Although we may not see each other as much as we’d like to, when we do talk, that connection is still there and it’s really strong. Meeting them at the time I did taught me that there are people out in the world that think like me – and that don’t think like me – but we can still commune together. I was always referred to as the “coconut” at school and you brush away comments like that, but to meet people who looked like me, that sounded like me, who read as much or even more than I did, was so, so empowering.
A moment that comes to mind is handing in my dissertation; it was me and two of my friends and we wanted to hand it in together. We were going to Thailand the next week and we wanted to make sure we had it in early and we have a cute little picture of us standing there, so proud to hand in the final piece of work. One of the friends who’s in that picture with me, I met her in our Reading Theory and Interpretation module, and we bonded over Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s work - we were just gushing about how amazing she was. We were the only two Black students in the class, so we sat together but we weren’t close and then we started a certain book – I can’t remember if it was The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – and there was just something about that session that made us think “girl, we need to get into it!” And we really did. To this day, we’re still in each other's lives; we’re still rooting for each other.
You mentioned your dissertation – what did you write it on? I wrote about the representation of the father figure in West African literature. I looked at Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi, and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I am from a single-parent household, it’s just me and my Dad, and I remember (I’ve got sort of adopted family) my Mum had read Ghana Must Go and was like, “Oh my gosh, this guy is your Dad! He’s literally your Dad. You need to read it, Ama!” and I read it and I remember, that was the first time I saw my Dad and our dynamic documented onto paper, and I wanted to look at that more.
I was really curious about how much of the colonial past impacted the household. There’s a beautiful line in Ghana Must Go where I think one of the children observes a “postcolonial angst” and I really thought that phrase was interesting because she then led into how Ghanaian and Nigerian parents discipline their children and all these other connections that she tied together with this one phrase, and I just thought, there’s something to this. So, writing my dissertation was really a way of understanding and unpicking a lot of the familial relationships that were going on around me.
I love to ask people when they first saw themselves in books. For many of us, it isn’t until university that we really see ourselves in literature in the curriculum. It’s brilliant that we see ourselves at all but why doesn’t it happen earlier, in childhood? And then you look at the statistics. In 2018, a study by CLPE looked into diversity in children’s literature and reported that only 4% of children’s books had a main character who was BAME. In 2017, it was 1%. Can you imagine? This is why I’m in children’s publishing, because even if only one child picks up one book I have championed, and sees themselves, their family and their community reflected in those pages, that is everything. It just isn’t good enough that we have to wait until our late teens or early twenties to find ourselves.
Can you describe your career path up to date and touch on your current role?
I worked all through uni and my A-levels as a Maths and English tutor with a company called Explore Learning. When I graduated, I became Assistant Director and launched a centre in Ealing, West London. It was a really great experience and I wanted to teach at the time, so it made sense.
At the same time, I was working with a magazine called Glam Africa, which was really exciting. I had always wanted to be a journalist; me and my Dad used to watch Ugly Betty when I was younger and I was always like, “that’s what I want to do!” Glam Africa is a lifestyle magazine that showcases stories from across the diaspora. I was the Online Editor at first and then became the Features Editor. Sitting down and talking to musicians, artists, and politicians about their work and their craft meant so much to me.
Last summer, just before I left both roles, I started a role with The Diigitals as the voice of Shudu, the world’s first virtual model. There's been so much conversation and controversy around her, which I get, but I also think this project’s really interesting because I can create a narrative around her and I can weave between reality and tech and I’m really enjoying doing that.
After I left Explore Learning and Glam Africa, I took a bit of a break. I’d been working since 16 and wanted to take my time to figure out what industry I wanted to spend the next few years in. I was sending out applications but without any rush or time pressure. It took a lot longer to find a new job than I anticipated. Every interview I’d go to, I was told “you’re overqualified”. There is so much to those words, especially when said to Black candidates. I started applying to jobs through Creative Access and I got through to a group interview for an Editorial Assistant Traineeship at Faber. There were three interview stages, each time I waited for someone to tell me I was overqualified. But I got it! So, I started there in January and I was so amazed when they decided to keep me on beyond the three months. It’s my first experience in publishing, and I went in thinking the industry would be so diverse because there are so many diverse books being published. Naive I know; this year has been so eye opening.
One thing that I’m really excited about in my work is The FAB Prize. It’s in its fourth year now and it’s the first prize of its kind. Its purpose is to help discover new writers and illustrators from underrepresented backgrounds. It’s a really great opportuny and winners have gone on to do some great things. At the end of my internship, I was asked to consider what more we could do with the website. I drew from my experience at Glam Africa and relaunched the website and its purpose. And it’s amazing – I basically read books, have great conversations with people in the industry that look like me and document their experiences – it's just brilliant!
What does Black History Month mean to you and how will you be acknowledging it this year? It means heritage, it means history, it means legacy, it means community. It means empowerment. If we don’t have this information, we won’t know where we’ve come from. I feel like I acknowledge it in some way every day and so this month to me is almost like the world acknowledging the things I absorb myself in every day. Today I have sort of taken the time to rest and recuperate and to read – I've been reading so many great things and I think that’s the most powerful thing you can do this month: read and inform yourself.
Which books or by Black authors do you think everyone needs to read? A couple of months ago I did a sensitivity reading for a book that came out at the beginning of October – Black and British by David Olusoga, the youth edition. I was getting my hair braided while I was reading this book, and me and my friend, who was braiding my hair, were having a conversation about it. We were learning things we didn’t know. I’m surprised it’s not on the curriculum. It’s essential reading; it really embeds us into British history – so why isn’t it taught?
There’s a book coming out next year by Faber, so I do have to plug it – it's called Musical Truth: A Musical History of Modern Black Britain in 25 Songs by Jeffery Boakye; he is amazing. It’s a retelling of Black British history using music and it actually made me think about my Black Writing in Britain module, because a lot of the music that I had heard, either through seminars or in the movies we were watching as part of that module, come up in the book. It’s a brilliant, masterful retelling in a really fun way! And then something that stays with me indefinitely – in fact, I’m reading Transcendental Kingdom at the moment, but Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, I think is so powerful. I could go on and on about books – read all of them; all of the books!
Based on your own time at university, is there anything you feel that Queen Mary can do to improve the university experience for Black students? I think having more modules that include our stories would be great. When you’re in third year, you can go to other universities to study particular modules, and I really wanted to go to SOAS to do a module on African Literature, but I don’t think the course was running that year. It’s quite sad that I had to go elsewhere to find that. It doesn’t necessarily have to be whole new modules or courses, but actually looking at the gaps in the reading lists and finding ways of inserting Black stories and non-white or non-traditional stories, into those modules, because it’s something that needs to be done continuously.
I don’t feel like I did the most when I was at uni in terms of finding others, I had my head down and I was working two jobs, one of which I travelled quite a bit for; but it was encouraging to see that I wouldn’t have had to look very far or wide if I wanted to join a group that was tailored to me. I think also, conversations like this are important – not just during Black History Month – but continuously throughout the year.
I’ve been thinking a lot about academia recently. I would like to do a PhD at some point in the next couple of years. Academia needs to be more accessible. I never had a Black lecturer – ever. Not even a Black seminar leader. Why is that? There are about thirty five Black female lecturers in the UK – why is that? How do we change that?
Do you have any role models that you look up to, both inside and outside of your field? I am definitely still finding role models in my fields. I recently spoke to Jasmine Richards for the FAB Website. She is a writer, a writing coach and the founder of Storymix, an inclusive fiction development studio. We had such an inspiring conversation and I came out of it with a little more clarity on the contributions I would like to make in publishing. She’s one of my role models now whether she knows it or not!
When I was with Glam Africa, I interviewed Margaret Busby and she was amazing, just amazing! It was part of The Southbank Centre’s 2018 Africa Utopia Festival. When I think of legacy in publishing, I think of her. She has accomplished so much!
For role models outside of my field, I think of the women I come from. I never met my mother and I am yet to meet my grandmother. But I see elements of both women in the relatives around me. My father is a greater role model to me than he realises. In his own way, he is somewhat of a renaissance man and I learn from his compassion and endurance every single day.
Are there any Black historical figures you wish more people knew about? I’m from Ghana so Yaa Asantewaa comes to mind a lot. I think there is a lot more awareness of who she is now than when I was younger. She was the first to make me question gender roles and power in different societies. I thought about her a lot in my Feminism module.
Is there any advice you would give to current students or recent graduates interested in studying English or working in digital content or publishing? Do the most, whether it is in publishing, digital content, or whatever it is that you want to do. Get that experience – do internships, shadowing, reach out to people who are doing the things you want to do. Be smart about how you use your social media, there is such a power in that. Also just know that things will be fine, things have a way of working out; there’s a quote from The Alchemist where it talks about following the omens, and I really do believe that – if something feels like it is for you, it probably is. But give yourself time; I feel like we’re forced to believe we have to have things figured out by a certain age. That simply isn’t true. I’m 24 and this is my third career change. I’m still figuring things out. You do not have to be stuck in one place or industry forever. Try different things. It’s ok to fail and acknowledge that some things are no longer for you.
This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Coordinator, Nathalie Grey. If you would like to get in touch with Ama or engage her in your work, please contact Nathalie at firstname.lastname@example.org.