The God Child by Nana Oforiatta Ayim review – an ambitious debut

A restless young woman growing up in Germany with Ghanaian parents feels caught between two worlds.

While The God Child is a debut novel, its author is already well known in the art world. Like John Berger, to whom the book is dedicated, Nana Oforiatta Ayim is an art historian and critic unafraid of challenging the establishment. Her pioneering works range from an open-source, pan-African cultural encyclopedia project to a mobile museum and, most recently, the curation of the first ever Ghanaian pavilion at the Venice biennale. Ayim’s desire to question assumptions about African art (and the continent in general) is shared by Maya, the protagonist of her coming-of-age story set between Germany, Britain and Ghana.

When the novel begins, Maya is living in Germany, the only child of Ghanaian parents. Her father is a reserved and bookish doctor, while her shopaholic mother, Yaa Agyata, is outgoing and gregarious. Yaa is Ayim’s most vividly painted character: loud and flamboyant, she is described as having “gold trapped beneath her skin” and a voice “peppery with chicken stew”. Comfortable with herself, she doesn’t care what others think of her – including her daughter, who finds her embarrassingly disorderly next to her German friends with their “tall, blonde, neat parents”.

Maya knows that her mother is of royal lineage, and that her father is perpetually planning to return to Ghana, but does not fully understand either of her parents’ family histories. When her cousin Kojo comes from Ghana to live with the family, Maya finally finds someone who shares in her increasing restlessness and sense of dislocation.

Maya feels like an outsider in Germany and in Ghana.
Maya feels like an outsider in Germany and in Ghana.

Ayim is adept at capturing the anxiety of a pre-teen whose desire to fit in is exacerbated by being black in a world where blackness and Africa are not valued. When Maya tells a friend that her mother is from a royal family, the friend doesn’t believe her. Shaken and upset, Maya shuts herself away and wraps a towel around her head, “imagining shiny, straight hair swinging down my back […] wondering when I would ever know what stories it would be all right to tell and when”. Later, Maya gets hair extensions in the hope of better resembling her white friends and those she idolises, from Brigitte Bardot to that “perfect German girl” Romy Schneider. Like Pecola from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Maya hopes that by changing the way she looks, she might be more loved. “My hair was long now and it shook behind me,” she says, adding: “I knew that I was now safe.” Except of course she isn’t.

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