Kwei Quartey, the son of an African-American mother and African father, is a doctor in the U.S. but he grew up in Ghana where he’s set his first novel, Wife of the Gods (Reviews, Apr. 13).
How did the idea come to you of setting a whodunit in contemporary Ghana?
I was visiting Paris for a few days—at the time I’d been trying to write a mystery set in L.A. that wasn’t going well at all—and while flipping the channels in my hotel, I happened upon a television show about a detective in the Ivory Coast. I was fascinated by the detective’s techniques, which included using threats of witchcraft to intimidate suspects. That’s when it hit me that I should set my story where I’d grown up. Originally, I had set it in a country mostly like Ghana, but over the years I decided that it worked better set in the real world.
In what ways did the setting dictate the plot?
It made it logical to incorporate the supernatural. Though Ghana is a modern country, magical powers, curses and witchcraft are still very real to people, including some you might not expect, people high up in government and in academia. Something like 70% of Ghanaians mix the traditional concepts of medicine with modern medicine. Many will go to healers or local priests to cure illnesses they believe are the results of curses.
Can you give an example?
A man whose legs had swollen up believed that he’d been cursed with that affliction because someone had taken his trousers and thrown them into the river, making the river god angry. Medical doctors treated it as edema, possibly from heart or liver disease.
Were you familiar with the practice of trokosi, a central element in your book, from your time in Ghana?
No. While watching 60 Minutes, I stumbled across it. It’s a tradition in an isolated area of Ghana where a young girl is sent to serve in a shrine with the fetish priest to somehow atone for some kind of crime or wrongdoing done by others long in the past. I thought that would work well with my plot line. I’d be surprised if most people in Ghana had heard of it. It’s a very isolated tradition in maybe a dozen small, hidden communities.