The association of foreign spouses, by Marilyn Heward Mills: Some reflections

For Ghanaian Literature week, at Kinnareads

The association of foreign spouses is Marilyn Heward Mills’ second novel, published in early 2011,  four years after her Costa prize nominated Cloth girl. I had enjoyed Cloth Girl, and was intrigued to hear that I actually knew the author’s mother, though I had never met Marilyn herself. I was even more intrigued when I heard that Heward Mills’ second novel was to be The association of foreign spouses, as the title very much echoed the name of a real organization to which I belong here in Ghana: the International Spouses Association of Ghana (ISAG).

I wondered whether this new novel was going to be a kind of “roman a clef” – with characters who were actually people I knew. But somehow it took longer for the book to be written, and published, and it rather left my horizon, until I got a email mentioning its publication.

How could I resist? Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a copy here in Ghana, so had to resort to buying one outside.

I read The association of foreign spouses in October of this year. It was interesting, but I think more because of its descriptions being familiar, rather than necessarily because of its being a memorable novel. While reading I was constantly wondering whether certain characters were based on real people – and even though the author’s website denies this  – there is a great deal in the descriptions of people, place and events which rings true, even though it is fiction.

Some of the characters are more clearly drawn than others, with women definitely coming off better than men:

  • Eva: British, married to architect Alfred, not working, spending a lot of time on her house and garden. Definitely the main focus of the book.
  • Dahlia: West Indian British, married to high-powered lawyer Vincent, who is the “baddy” of the book
  • Margrit: German, married to doctor Kojo, devoted to her dogs and garden, but without children
  • Yelena: Russian, with twins fathered by doctor Wisdom who has a wife , runs a beauty salon in her house to earn enough to support herself and her children.
  • Auntie Gee: Alfred’s mother, and Eva’s mother-in-law – always seemingly “meddling” – at least from Eva’s point of view – yet in her own way trying to get Eva and her children to adapt to Ghana.

To some extent people in this book could be considered stereotypes, but many of the incidents described – and the atmosphere surrounding the coups and successive military governments – are actually what happened or pretty close to it. Personally I feel that the families and individuals portrayed actually lived lives at the higher end of the economic scale even one did hear that life was not as good as it had been at the time of independence.  I was also a little surprised that so few of the key women characters were working.

Ghana in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a difficult place to live – whether you were a national or a foreigner married to a Ghanaian. There were real shortages of what we called “essential commodities” – such as sugar, milk, soap, toilet paper and bread – not to speak of the not so essentials of beer and soft drinks. At times food in sufficient quantities was difficult to obtain and required considerable effort.  These were times of real hunger for many; many had the prominent neck bones, locally described as “Rawlings collar”.

I am not saying that the lifestyle my family lived during those times was completely Ghanaian – it wasn’t, but it certainly wasn’t the full-blown expatriate lifestyle either. We didn’t have the money, or access to specially imported goods that made that possible.

So I guess my reaction to Heward Mills’ The association of foreign spouses is very much an emotional one – of remembering, and reliving times which were not the best, but out of which I, along with the characters in her book, developed into stronger and more capable human beings.    I will not deny that I appreciated their struggles, and empathized with them.

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Photos, or the lack thereof…

I really, really must remember to not only take my camera with me wherever I go, but also to use it, especially when there is anything that relates to books and information!   I always, always, always seem to forget, and then remember when I thinking about what I should write about.

This past weekend was a perfect example of at least two or three instances where I could have taken some photos to supplement talking about books related matters.

Two occurred at the BIGS (British in Ghana Society) annual pre-Christmas bazaar which took place on 7 November.  Among the many stalls was a second hand book stall, which I glanced at, but didn’t seriously consider, as I had planned spending elsewhere.  But still, the mere fact that a bazaar has such a stall is indicative that there is a market for books which have already been read.   What did attract me though was a stall hosted by the Osu Children’s Library which had several of the colourful books on Ghana and West Africa available.   I remembered that KAC had asked for some copies of the books which I gave to B for her boys.   I must remember to buy a few more so that she has enough to give to friends who have kids who are Ghanaian by ancestry, but American by birth and where they live.  I think Kathy Knowles is giving a talk to NAWA this coming week so I really, really must try to attend.

Most of the rest of the day – apart from an hour putting in a brief appearance at the office’s fun and sports day – was spent at ISAG (International Spouses Association of Ghana)’s annual Festival of Nations, which this year had a musical theme and was held at the Alliance Francaise.  And what did I do – apart from eating yummy Russian meat filled pancakes and drinking bessap – I sold books!  Actually when one of ISAG’s members died her personal library was passed on to the organisation.  I was actually surprised at how many were bought – many on the older side, and some I would imagine totally out of print.  Did I take any photos?  Nope… as I thought I had forgotten my camera at home, only to discover later that I hadn’t!   Grrrr…