We recently had the pleasure of chatting with author and illustrator Elizabeth Agyemang about her debut middle-grade graphic novel, Fibbed. She told us how she found inspiration in her childhood and the Ghanaian folklore tales of Ananse. Read our interview below!
This interview is condensed for length and clarity. It contains spoilers for Fibbed.
Melis Amber: I really loved your book. It was so gorgeous to read — the story and illustrations both.
Elizabeth Agyemang: Thank you so much!
MA: Of course! I’d like to give you a chance to introduce yourself and Fibbed to our readers.
EA: My name is Elizabeth Agyemang. I am a writer and illustrator, and Fibbed is my debut graphic novel. It’s about 12-year-old Nana, who after telling too many unbelievable stories, spends the summer in Ghana with her grandparents.
There, she discovers magic in the village forest, and she has to involve Ananse, who is this mythical character in Ghanaian folklore, to uncover the truth behind the magic and this group of contractors trying to steal the magic for profit.
Throughout her journey, Nana connects with her grandparents — her grandma specifically. She discovers her voice as she’s learning these stories of Ghanaian folklore and trying to tell the story of what’s happening in the village.
MA: It’s great! Everyone needs to read it. I really liked the decision to make Nana’s story middle grade. What inspired you to make that choice?
EA: It’s interesting because Nana’s story is inspired by the first time I went back to Ghana after I immigrated, and I was in high school when I visited. It was like, “Oh, I wish I could’ve met my grandparents and my family at a younger age…”
I remember being in school and we would show family photos, and our baby photos were at home in Ghana. My parents would make us use my little brother’s photo, who was born in America, and be like, “That was me!”
It was a way of saying, “Oh, I wish I was able to come back earlier and get to know my extended family this way.”
MA: That’s the best part of fiction and writing.
EA: We get to create the world as — another way of seeing it — “Imagine if only.”
MA: Yes, yes. I love that. Another reason this read was fun for me is that fortunately where I grew up in California, we were introduced to Ananse stories in elementary school —
EA: That’s awesome!
MA: I’m also an English teacher and I try to use Ananse stories in my teaching when I can. My question here is, did the Ananse stories inspire the plot of Fibbed, or did you have the plot first and then figure out which Ananse stories to weave into your story?
EA: That was interesting; I think I started knowing I wanted to talk about Ananse and All the Stories in the World but when I was picking the other Ananse stories, I was like, “OK, which story feels like it fits more into the story I’m telling?”
It was a bit of both. The first story I wanted to retell was the story of Ananse and how stories came into the world. Then with stories like “The Elephant and its Tail,” I was reading this story by L. Gyesi-Appiah (author of Ananse Stories Retold: Some Common Traditional Tales).
The book shows these different Ananse stories. I like, “OK, this one feels like a message based on this situation Nana is going through.” That’s how it came to be.
But it’s cool you taught Ananse stories for your students … Another thing I wish I could have experienced!
MA: I grew up near San Francisco, so luckily even 20 years ago (author’s note: it was way more than 20 years ago. What even is time?), they were a bit more cognizant of being culturally aware.
That’s something I try to include in my teaching, but it’s funny because I teach students who aren’t in America. Sometimes, they’re like, “I wanna learn about America, teacher.” But I’m like, “NO. You have to learn about other places!”
EA: Even some of the stories I bring up in Fibbed I hadn’t heard before, so I went to my parents to get a better sense of how they fit culturally. Some of the stories, I think, I like Ananse Stories Retold: Some Common Traditional Tales as a reference point, came from a Ghanaian speaker and educator who was familiar with it.
It’s harder when you come from outside of that context and you’re trying to talk about the story from a bit of an outside perspective, so I definitely understand trying to have those conversations.
MA: Absolutely. I’m US American, but my father is from Turkey and now I’ve “come back” to Turkey. I’ve lived here on and off for the better part of the last decade. Nana’s relationship with her culture resonated with me, especially with regard to her Ghanaian family’s reaction to her.
Even though there was this awkwardness, I loved that no one was a “villain.” How did you go about creating that balance?
EA: I think coming back to your culture, coming from a “Western” version of your culture, and then coming back, is such an interesting experience. The nice thing is, I was focusing on the love; that even when family doesn’t understand what your deal is, there’s still a lot of love in how they get to know you and how you get to understand each other.
There’s definitely a culture clash, but it’s more like a fabric, where it’s like, “We’re woven a little bit this way, but it’s the same pattern, the same fabric.” You know different patterns make up the fuller pattern, which is like a reference to kente and patterns are such a big part of Ghanaian culture.
There are many different pieces of you and how you connect with your culture. Being in a position to reconnect with your family, you do feel a bit like that. Everyone experiences wanting to feel like they belong.
Then feeling nervous about belonging in your community can be more heartbreaking than being a stranger or an immigrant. I wanted to show the love that our families and communities have for us even if they don’t fully understand where we’re coming from.
MA: It comes across.
EA: Thank you.
MA: The other thing that hit me was it seemed that rather than Nana’s family being completely disbelieving of her stories, it was more like they didn’t want to believe her. They didn’t want her to talk about the things she was experiencing and seeing. Did I read that correctly?
EA: That is correct. I wonder if it’s like your experience because, in Ghanaian culture, there’s a lot of mysticism in our culture. We know these very strange things — whether it’s ghosts or different paranormal things — it’s like, “Oh yeah, we know these things are real but don’t talk about it.”
Her family’s reaction is more, “OK, weird things happen. We understand that. But you need to understand where you exist now…” They’re internalizing having to silence that feeling of understanding the world differently.
Her parents are like, “You’re in this school, you’re getting in trouble, and you have to understand there are a lot of people who won’t understand how you’re trying to communicate, so the only thing you have the power to do is…” For them, it’s silencing what you’re seeing and keeping it underground.
I think being believed but being told to be silent is such a weird thing to go through, so I was touching on that a bit. Sometimes, people understand what you’re going through but it’s like, “You can’t rock the boat.” It’s touching on that element, of what society tells a lot of people, women, and different genders: Be silent to yourself.
MA: For that reason, Fibbed was hard to read at times. I did not expect this book to attack me this way! Going back to the origin of all the stories … that’s a recurring theme you see in many cultures. I particularly loved seeing it here, from an Ananse story, particularly a Ghanaian myth. You alluded to it earlier, but was that the seed of Fibbed?
EA: The seed was two pieces. It was my experience going back to Ghana, and also the first time I remember telling the truth and not being believed.
When I went back to Ghana for the first time, we sat around the fireplace and we had a family member tell us Ananse stories, which is something I didn’t grow up with.
It’s such a community-building thing. Something I loved about it is that when you’re telling the story, everyone gets to add pieces. Even if you don’t know the story, you can make up something and it’s canon. Like the best form of fanfiction!
EA: I definitely wanted to retell some of the stories I was told when I visited. I wanted to write a middle-grade story about a girl who visited her family, got to know her culture and understand her culture through the stories of her culture.
Creating that Ananse character was interesting because we see many different versions of Ananse. Oftentimes, I feel like people know the Neil Gaiman version of Ananse, but that’s not a Ghanaian perspective. There are also different Black diaspora perspectives of Ananse, too.
I felt empowered to talk about Ananse in my way and the way I connect with it and know there are many versions of Ananse that exist. I’m bringing it back to this origin story from Ghana, and how I came to this origin story.
MA: That’s really … very meta and cool. I like to ask everyone, as we are Geek Girl Authority … do you have a favorite fandom?
EA: I had so many favorite fandoms and then like — You know when you’re part of a fandom, you’re like, “I absorb it, but I need to step aside!”
One of my fandoms when I was growing up was anime. I loved Sailor Moon, I loved Naruto. In middle school or high school, every week, I was like, “I’m gonna draw another Naruto character!” I had them in my locker, so everyone was like, “Oh, who’s the character today?”
I think getting introduced to anime at a young age was how I got into art, and how I got into storytelling in general.
MA: Nice. These days, what are you reading, watching and listening to?
EA: I’m watching a lot more and playing games. I love Final Fantasy. That’s such a big storytelling thing for me.
I’m reading The Inheritance of Orquidea Divina by Zoraida Córdova, and that’s super good. It has such strong family themes and beautiful writing. Some of my recent favorite reads are From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks and Never Open It by Ken Niimura.
MA: Yeah, we’re all obsessed with it.
EA: Rightfully so. Did you read the comics?
EA: So good!
MA: That’s all I have for you!
EA: It’s been so nice talking to you.
MA: Yes, yes, likewise. It was a real pleasure.
EA: Thank you so much for reaching out and wanting to do this interview. And thank you for enjoying Fibbed!
MA: Thank you for talking with us. Take care and good luck with everything!
Follow Liz on social media. Fibbed is out on June 7. Pick up a copy at your local indie book store or library. 🕸 📚
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