Everyone loves a good story, and Bisi Adjapon tells a fabulous one in her American debut novel, The Teller of Secrets (HarperVia, Nov.). But the story of how her writing life unfolded is almost as fabulous.
The book: a Nigerian-Ghanaian girl comes of age in 1960s postcolonial Ghana to experience the plight of women, the ties of family, political upheaval, and the ultimate realization of her own intellect and power. Young Esi Agyekum lives with her stepmother and four elder half sisters (some kind, some not so much, as their nicknames indicate: Sister Sweet Voice, Sister Crocodile Jaws). She’s the apple of her father’s eye—and the keeper of his secret adultery.
Esi is destined for a university education if she can avoid having her “belly filled,” though marriage seems to be Ghanaian society’s ultimate goal for women. Her father repeatedly advises her that “a woman’s glory is her husband.” She learns early on about patriarchy and subjugation; her response is to stand up and find her way in a moving, uplifting and exciting journey.
Esi tells herself, “For so long I’ve lived inward, far from the spirited little girl I used to be. Now I’ve rejoined her, except I’m twenty-one and stronger.... I’ll light up my womanhood. I’ll help my sisters. I’ll help other women ignite their fires, blaze their paths through life, and leave behind embers to warm those who will come after them.”
The career trajectory: Adjapon tells me that she’s been writing forever, but finding time was always difficult. She was working in Senegal when she fell in love. She and her partner came together to the U.S. in the late 1990s with plans to save the world. “Big dreams without a whole lot of money,” she says. “I was 21 years old and didn’t intend to stay, but I stayed 20 years!”
Adjapon worked as an international affairs specialist living mostly around Washington, D.C., but moved back and forth between Ghana and the U.S. for various reasons. “I was always writing plays and short stories, had an idea that I wanted to start a magazine or a newspaper.” But, she notes, “one has to work, and children [she has two] take up time.”
In 2010, when Adjapon did finish her first novel, Daughter in Exile, about a young Ghanaian woman who comes to the U.S., she discovered that “at that time, no one was interested in immigration stories and I shoved the book somewhere.”
A friend suggested a mentor, which led her to email Nigerian writer (and Jesuit priest) Uwem Akpan, whose collection Say You’re One of Them she found “powerful and devastating.” They talked on the phone, but Adjapon did not tell him that she wrote. “I’m shy,” she says, “and didn’t want to ask for anything.”
Akpan, however, invited her to the New Yorker Festival in New York City. On the panel with was “a gentleman wearing torn jeans,” Adjapon recalls, and when the program was over she found herself standing next to him and telling him about her book. He said he would help her and gave her a piece of paper with his email. “When I got back to the hotel room,” she says, “I threw the paper in the trash, but when I was leaving I retrieved it.”
Adjapon went back to Virginia, and “three days later I started thinking about this gentleman,” she says. “And I started thinking about superstitions, remembering one from my childhood: if a frog jumped on you, you would turn into a man. I started thinking about sex and girls and how they are raised in Ghana. I remembered a friend who when I asked why she was walking funny, told me they had put ginger in her vagina” (which became a scene in The Teller of Secrets).
Adjapon says she was fortunate that these things never happened to her, because “I was a bit spoiled by my father and I had a wonderful stepmother, sweet and warm. But I do remember even as a child being angry about my brothers’ privilege. Girls are expected to be virgins, but boys are allowed to...” Sow their wild oats, I think.
Adjapon decided she wanted to “write something fresh” and “knocked out” three chapters. She sent the first three pages to the man who had given her his email. He told her it was really good and that he wanted to publish it. Only then did she Google him: “Omigod” was her reaction. Until then she had no idea who Dave Eggers was. He published her “Of Women and Frogs” as a short story in McSweeney’s, and it was nominated for the Caine Prize for African writing.
But that did not ensure a clear path to a book deal. After this early success, an agent approached Adjapon and there was an interested editor, who was subsequently fired, and, she says, “That was that.”
Discouraged, back in Ghana, Adjapon decided to publish in Nigeria. She expanded her short story into a novel. “I thought of superstitions, of how they are lies,” she recalls. “So when a girl realizes this, how does she grow up from here?”
Of Women and Frogs (now retitled The Teller of Secrets for the U.S. market) was published in March 2019 by Farafina Books, an imprint of independent Nigerian publishing house Kachifo Limite. To Adjapon’s “utter surprise,” it was a huge hit across Africa, and a resourceful bookseller, Booknook Bookstore, made a deal with DHL to ship copies from Ghana all over the world.
“Through word of mouth, it kept going and going,” she says. But she wanted a wider audience, and when Sharon Bowers at Folio Literary Management in New York offered her representation, Adjapon was ready to tackle the U.S. again.
Bowers, who represents many West African novelists, was introduced to Adjapon by South African writer Zukiswa Wanner. Bowers sent out Daughter in Exile in summer 2020. “It’s an incredible story of a young woman who comes to America,” she says. “Bisi’s writing makes you feel as though you are talking directly to a friend.”
HarperOne executive editor Rakesh Satyal “grasped it immediately,” Bowers notes. “It was perfect for HarperOne and one of Rakesh’s first acquisitions at the [HarperVia] imprint.”
Bowers was focusing on Daughter in Exile because the story has a U.S. setting, but 48 hours after Satyal read Of Women and Frogs, he preempted both in a world rights deal for six figures. The Teller of Secrets will be published first, with Daughter in Exile to follow in 2022.
“Bisi’s work is special,” Satyal says. “I was captivated. She conveys transgressive elements with a wry sense of humor. In coming-of-age novels you don’t often see the character’s intellectual development. With Bisi you see it in tandem with the other ways of growing up. She writes powerfully and beautifully; she unpacks an irreverent sense of misogyny.”
Satyal adds that Adjapon voices what women feel globally and expects The Teller of Secrets will connect with readers. “As much as you learn, there’s nothing pedantic—the mark of a great novelist.”
The book will appear simultaneously in Canada and the U.K., and Adjapon hopes she will be able to come to the U.S. from Ghana in November for the launch. We already have a date to meet in New York City, but I’ve also got designs on a visit to Ghana. She’s promised there’ll be dancing.
Correction: This story initially stated that the publisher of Of Women and Frogs sent copies to readers around the world; those copies were sent by Booknook Bookstore.