Newbery Medalist Kwame Alexander’s new novel The Door of No Return, the first in a planned trilogy, takes readers on an emotional journey best engaged with little to no prior knowledge. As Alexander states, “There are twists in this book. You think one thing is happening then another thing happens. As I was writing it and discovering these things, and enjoying that process, part of my hope became that readers get to take a similar journey. I don’t want them to find out in a review or article!” At its core is the story of Kofi Offin, an 11-year-old who lives with his family in Upper Kwanta. Through succinct and emotionally rich passages, Alexander opens a world that encompasses the joy of childhood, richness of African culture, a contentious relationship with yams, and heartbreaking sadness. We spoke with Alexander about the importance of preserving culture, broadening the scope of Black history and representation, and the influence Ghana had on this novel.
What was your inspiration for The Door of No Return?
I wanted to write a story about Black history but I wanted to tell a more accurate or more human story than we’ve often heard. I think that we as Americans in general, or Black Americans in particular, tend to view Black history through the lens of 1619 and that being sort of the beginning. I posit that that’s the middle and let’s find out who we were before we were kidnapped and forced to come to this country. Let’s look at who we were as just regular folks. So I wanted to write that story. Certainly, all of it is important, but I wanted to write about the true beginning as I saw it.
What drew you to Ghana for this story?
I’ve gone to Ghana 11 times since 2012. I had so many eye-opening and revelatory experiences there. One was standing on the shore of the ocean where our people were taken from. I remember looking at the water and the blue sky and thinking there has to be some connection between this and what we call the Blues. It had to have started on that Middle Passage journey. We had no idea who these people were that were taking us, where we were going, and what was going to await us when we got there. The only thing we knew for certain was the sky and the ocean. The blues just seems like it comes out of that. I first had that realization in Ghana. Inspiration also came from interacting with children in Ghana, reading books to them, and seeing the hope and ambition in their eyes even in the midst of what I viewed through my Western eyes as impoverished conditions. More importantly, getting to know the people there. My first experience in Africa was going to Ghana and meeting people I fell in love with. That became my frame of reference for Africa because it was the first place and the place I visited the most. I’ve since been back to other countries but this is where I felt the most comfortable. I didn’t set out to do research but after 11 times visiting a place, you end up de facto doing research, so I had a lot to draw from.
Did you base the lead character Kofi on any particular person or was he a composite of various figures?
He wasn’t based on any one person. More based on many different kids I met in Ghana. Based on my life as a kid, as a boy growing up. Based on just kids, because kids don’t change. From time immemorial, kids want to play, kids have chores, they have responsibilities. Kids have friends. There are people they don’t like who don’t like them. There are just some things that are natural and normal for being a kid. I really wanted to showcase that because I know that so often when we think of a kid in Africa, we have these stereotypical perspectives and views that are fueled by television and oftentimes very badly researched books. I wanted to paint a picture to show that this kid is just like anybody else.
Could you speak about the importance of language and how in the story it signifies a conflict between tradition and the resistance to an English teacher in the book?
Language is the part of culture that functions as the map. It’s our guide. It’s how we speak, listen, read, write, and learn. Language is the thing that helps you know who you are. If your map is no longer yours, you are using someone else’s map and being guided to a place that is alien to you. That is what has happened to many people around this world as they’ve been colonized. I talk about this in this book to show that problem on a very micro level as it relates to Kofi, his teacher, and his family, and how this language dichotomy is viewed in his household and in his mind. The message is we lost a huge part of who we were. We lost a huge part of our identity. And that’s a hard place to live. How do we get that back? I think for the most part Black people in America have been trying to get back to who they are since we got here.
What is something that you want readers to take away from this work?
I never have that specific goal in mind. My goal remains the same with each book. I want young readers to finish my book. That’s important. I want to write it in a way that they get through it. I’m teaching a lot. I wanted to be a teacher but that’s hard work. I envy teachers. In every book I write, there are lessons. I’m hopeful that young readers get some of that from the reading, so that they want to go and read another book, whether it’s one of mine or someone else’s. I’m just hoping that they love reading.
With older readers, I’m really trying to change the world, man. I’m really trying to impact, inspire, and empower them, in a way I think that I can do. In my own way. In many instances, that involves reminding people that we are all the same. It sounds clichéd, but you should view everyone like you want everyone to view you. That’s ultimately my goal, to try to create this space where we value and understand each other’s worth and we acknowledge and appreciate it.
In the book, Kofi has a contentious relationship with yams. Have you made peace with yams?
I love yams! For me it was lima beans and green beans. I was sick of those as a kid [laughs.]
The Door of No Return by Kwame Alexander. Little, Brown, $17.99 Sept. 27 ISBN 978-0-316-44186-5