Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Karen Palmer

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On Writing, with Karen Palmer

Karen Palmer talks to Open Book about how the writer's isolation is much the same whether she is living and working at a witch camp in Gambaga, Ghana, or in an apartment in London, Ontario. Karen's first book, Spellbound: Inside West Africa's Witch Camps, was published this fall by Simon & Schuster. It launches today, November 16, in Toronto at Dora Keogh Traditional Irish Pub. See our Events page for more details.

Open Book:

Spellbound: Inside West Africa's Witch Camps is your account of the lives of some 3,000 women who are confined to a witch camp in northern Ghana. What are these camps like, and who lives there?

Karen Palmer:

The camps are essentially small, isolated villages of mud huts that are either attached to an existing village ‐ so, something like a “suburb” or neighbourhood within that village — or they’re simply isolated places populated only by women (and men) who’ve been labelled as witches.

In terms of who lives there, in most of the Ghanaian witch camps, it’s only women. They live together, sometimes with children, in small compounds. In one camp, Nyani, there are men who’ve brought their wives and families along with them. Typically, however, there are no men living amongst the so-called witches.

The women (and men) end up here when they’re accused and convicted of practicing witchcraft, a trial that often features a traditional ceremony involving the slaughter of a chicken. If the chicken dies with its beak in the sky, the woman is innocent. If it dies with its beak in the ground, the woman is guilty.

These women lead incredibly difficult lives. The rural regions of Ghana are not set up for solo living — it really takes a family to survive. Northern Ghana is fairly underdeveloped — there is a lack of clean water, a lack of food and a lack of qualified teachers, nurses and doctors. Most of the housing is traditional — a mud hut domed with grass — and most people survive by farming. Existence in northern Ghana seems quite labour-intensive: farming is done without mechanized equipment like ploughs or tractors and gathering water and firewood is done mostly by women and girls.


The book is also about your personal experience in the camps and the relationships that you develop with the people who live there. How did you find yourself in this situation?


I willingly put myself there! I was so interested in the witch camps and the women who live there that I moved to Gambaga to live amongst the women. I felt I needed to live there to really get an understanding of how these women survived, how an accusation of witchcraft affected them and how people treated them.


When did you decide that you needed to write about the witch camps and the people who lived there?


I first moved to Ghana in 2004 to work with a non-governmental organization trying to improve the quantity and quality of human rights journalism. One of the stories we investigated was about these witch camps. I went there thinking we would write about the abuses the women faced, their vulnerabilities and the ways in which their rights were violated (i.e., lack of fair trial, lack of freedom of movement). As we were travelling north to the camp, I had no idea what to expect, but I pictured somewhere dark and hidden, somehow mysterious and perhaps covered with symbols or something. What we found was actually a fairly normal-looking collection of mud huts that were home to a bunch of emaciated and fairly sickly-looking old women.

I finished working with this NGO but continued living in Africa and working as a freelance journalist. When I visited Canada, I would often tell the story of one woman at the camp whose circumstances haunted me. She’d been living at the witch camp for decades; her brother had accused her of being a witch after her nephew claimed she saw him trying to strangle him in a dream. It was a bizarre story, and I was troubled by how it was enough to uproot this woman. I was also quite touched by Hawa. She seemed gentle, curious and familiar. It seemed quite unfair to me that we seemed so similar, yet because of an accident of geography, I was in a position to travel to see her and she was locked away in a witch camp. Understanding what had prompted that accusation, and understanding why witchcraft retained such a hold on these small villages, became the driving force for researching and writing this book.


What was the biggest challenge you faced in the writing of this book?


In terms of research, probably the language barrier. I was really in over my head. This was a completely different culture: a rural African village where the belief in witchcraft was pervasive. I grew up in a small town and knew that the lack of privacy could sometimes turn malevolent, yet I was somewhat unprepared for exactly how complicated these villages were. I was completely at the mercy of my translators and often our conversations took many detours, usually to give me the background I needed to make sense of what I was being told.

My living conditions were relatively plush — I stayed in a small guesthouse on the edge of the village, where there was running water and electricity. And yet I often felt like I needed to escape the village, usually after a stretch of only 10 or 14 days. I had a hard time coping with the lack of privacy, with the loneliness of having no one to talk to, with feeling so different, with the lack of a common experience between me and my neighbours. As time wore on and food became more and more scarce, sometimes my trips to the city were about getting food. Sometimes they were about getting to an Internet cafe.


What skills have you developed as a journalist that helped you to write Spellbound?


A couple things: journalists should be very good listeners and they should be able to keep an open mind. I thought I knew a thing or two about asking questions! I needed to be able to listen without judgment and recognize that it wasn’t my job to convince someone about whether witchcraft existed or not.

Being a journalist also trained me to take good notes, be observant, look for the details that matter and dump the contents of my notebook into something more readable each night. It also prepared me, in some ways, for the rigours of writing.


You travel widely and currently live in Ottawa. How does all the travel affect your writing process? Do you have certain routines that help you get your writing done, or do you take things as they come?


I wish I was more disciplined about writing. Writing a diary was the smartest thing I did while researching. And really, I pretty much only keep a diary when I’m travelling! Without thinking about the book, I was writing the details that really made the difference. When you think about how long this process takes — I started the research in 2007 and turned in the manuscript in 2009 — there’s no way you can remember all the minute details of every interview. And I was amazed at how much I’d forgotten! My journals weren’t about who said what or what was revealed in the interview, they were about the ride there, the landscape, the smells, the sounds, the funny incidentals. They were about how I was feeling and reacting. Re-reading my journals took me back to the time and place (and routinely reminded me how naive/annoying I was when I first arrived in Ghana and in Gambaga). Sometimes reading the journal I’d be struck by a detail that probably seemed completely inconsequential at the time of writing, but really resonated with me later.

When I was writing, I lived alone in a city where I knew no one and worked only on the book. The only contact I had with the outside world was grocery shopping and going to the gym. I spent a lot of time at the London Public Library as well, often reading and researching. It was unbearably lonely. But for some reason I felt I needed lots of mental space. I’m not sure I would do it this way again, but who knows? Not knowing anyone meant I had lots and lots and lots of time for writing!

Because I wasn’t working, and because I felt so guilty about the privilege of not working, I tried to sit at the desk every day for at least four hours every day. Some days felt like that scene of a child staring down a plate of broccoli. Skipping a day wasn’t going to kill me, yet I sat there and sat there and sat there as though someone had told me I could only be excused once I’d written 500 words. And sometimes it was torturous!


What books or authors did you turn to as models or inspirations for Spellbound? Perhaps you could name a couple that made you think, "now that is the kind of book I want to write."


J.B. MacKinnon. I read and re-read and re-read his book Dead Man in Paradise. The man is a poet. I loved, loved, loved his book. If I could write like that, oh, I would never stop writing. I also read Daniel Bergner’s In the Land of Magic Soldiers and tried to parse its structure. He managed to find a magnificent cast of characters that gave him the most incredible quotes. In both cases, you could feel, smell and taste the places they were writing about.

When I needed some lyricism to my writing, I took Anne Michaels off the shelf. She is an incredibly sexy writer and I love her stuff.

I read a lot of non-fiction while I was trying to write non-fiction. I read a lot of witchcraft, quite a bit on the history of Africa and lots of African writers. I also read virtually everything written by Australian writer Tim Winton.


What do you think your next writing project will be?


Hmmm... I would love to try my hand at writing fiction. I’ve got a little idea brewing in the back of my mind that would be loosely based on my time in Timor and explore the notion of the cost of independence. But to be honest, I find it hard to find the time to write. And I am increasingly intimidated by the blank page...

Karen Palmer applied for her first passport at age 21; in the 12 years since, she has travelled to more than 25 countries, 17 of them in Africa. While living in West Africa, Palmer wrote for the Washington Times, South China Morning Post, Toronto Star, Sydney Morning Herald, Newsday, and Newsweek. She lives in Ottawa, where she works as the media officer with Oxfam Canada. Spellbound is her first book.

For more information about Spellbound: Inside West Africa's Witch Camps please visit the Simon & Schuster website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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