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This reading group guide forPowder Necklaceincludes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Powder Necklace is the extraordinary story of Lila, a British teenager from a Ghanaian family whose mother abruptly sends her away to Ghana to attend school and learn about her native country. Over the course of a year, she embarks on a wild journey that takes her from London to Ghana to America and eventually back to Ghana. Along the way Lila discovers her own unique identity, learning what it means to be Ghanaian and forming deeper roots in her family’s homeland and deeper friendships with her fellow Ghanaians than she ever dreamed possible. After half a year of living at Dadaba, a Ghanaian boarding school, Lila returns to London as suddenly as she left, and she must adjust to life in England after living in such a different country. Eventually her journeys lead her to New York, where she moves in with her estranged father and stepmother and forms a friendship with a fellow student that unexpectedly leads her back to Ghana, this time to write about her experience. Along the way, Lila blossoms from an obedient daughter to a willful adolescent to a self-assured young woman in a metamorphosis that spans three continents and invaluable adventures.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. In Powder Necklace Lila undergoes both physical and mental transformations. Her haircut when she first arrived at Dadaba Girl’s Secondary School is one such transformation. Although she initially mourns the loss of her hair, saying “I started to cry for more than the hair I was losing. . . . I would look like them,” Lila chooses to continue wearing her hair short after she returns from Ghana. How is her physical change indicative of an emotional one? When did this change begin to occur?
2. Like Lila’s hair and the powder necklaces, there are multiple instances throughout the novel of symbolic outward appearances. What are some other examples? How are they symbolic?
3. The plaque at the entrance of Dadaba Girls’ Secondary School reads: Obra woto bobo—“Life takes time to live” (p. 46). When Lila first arrives at Dadaba, she wonders about the meaning of the saying. What do you think the phrase means? Do you think Lila discovers its meaning by the end of the novel?
4. Discuss the symbolism of the book’s title. Why do you think the author chose it?
5. When Lila first arrives at Dadaba, S’ter Penny incorrectly assumes Lila and her fellow broni Brempomaa are from the same country, saying, “London. America. They’re all Abrokye” (p. 51). Brempomaa takes offense at the generalization, because America and England are in many ways vastly different countries with their own unique identities. By the end of the novel, how Americanized has Lila become? Do you still consider her primarily English, or has she become more of an American-English hybrid?
6. Similarly, how do you think Lila would identify herself by the end of the novel? Do you think she considers herself more English or Ghanaian?
7. Lila’s journeys take her from London to Ghana, to America, and eventually back to Ghana over a very short period of time. Along the way, her family insisted these moves were important for her to discover her roots and establish relationships. Do you think it was necessary for Lila to travel to such extremes in order to make those connections and discoveries? How did her experiences shape her?
8. In addition to struggling with issues of identity and a sense of home, Lila grapples with understanding why her life path is taking such drastic and sudden turns. For all the time she spends asking such questions, by the end of the novel Lila ultimately concludes that “Maybe the answers weren’t even the point” (p. 216). Why do you think finding the answers is no longer important for Lila? Were there any unresolved questions you would have liked answers to by the end of the story?
9. One of the stark differences between Ghana and England that Lila notices when she first arrives in Africa is their treatment of religion, and she is taken aback by all the religious-themed store names. “This wasn’t even religion,” Lila says. “It was faith” (p. 37). What do you think she means when she says “only faith could see God” in Ghana (p. 37)? Do you agree with her?
10. None of Lila’s adventures would have occurred if it hadn’t been for her mother’s reaction to her lying on the floor with Ev. Her mother’s sudden decision to ship her daughter to Ghana sets the precedent for Lila’s behavior throughout the novel, for which she gives Lila a variety of explanations from making decisions for Lila’s “own good” to needing a break from mothering Lila. What are your theories as to why Lila’s mother repeatedly sent her away? Do you think she acted primarily for Lila’s good or for her own?
11. After Lila arrives in New York and discovers that the secondary school she wants to attend recently took a trip to Dadaba, she starts to believe in fate and the connectivity of events. Now that you’ve finished the book, do you believe it was fate or coincidence that Lila wound up returning to Ghana and writing a book about her experiences? Why?
12. As Lila packs to leave Dadaba, Hari tells her to “go and tell them the truth about Africa,” to which Lila responds, “Of course. . . . What am I going to say? That we drank homemade alcohol and menstrual water?” (p. 121). What do you think Hari meant by the “truth about Africa,” and what is that truth if it’s not the sum of daily events?
13. Lila experiences a series of intense experiences during her naturally emotional and chaotic adolescent years. How differently do you think her reactions would have been had she been forced to move later in her teenage years? Do you think she would have been as affected by her journeys?
14. Lila’s father and stepmother celebrate Thanksgiving, an American holiday, by eating traditional Ghanaian dishes. Why do you think they’ve adopted part of an American custom—eating a special feast for Thanksgiving—but not by preparing traditional American dishes? Are there any other moments throughout the novel where cultures are combined in such a way?
Enhance Your Bookclub
1. Visit the author’s website: www.nanaekua.com
2. Have book club members prepare some Ghanaian dishes to enjoy during the discussion of Powder Necklace.
3. Check out the author’s other published works; she’s written a variety of pieces, from poetry to plays.
A Conversation with Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond
Q. You’ve written a range of material. How does the novel-writing process differ from writing a play or short story? How is it similar?
A. For me, writing a novel is much harder than writing a play, poem, or short story mainly because the format is longer and requires undistracted extended periods of time, attention, and good friends to read your work and make sure you aren’t writing a love letter to your ego.
My interest in and foray into other genres helped with the actual craft of writing the novel. I’m a big believer that all genres of writing inform each other. At the risk of oversimplication, poetry is about expressing emotion lyrically, plays are about dialogue and character development, and short stories are about plot. I called on these as I worked to develop the characters and pacing of the story.
Q. Powder Necklace is loosely based on your own personal experience attending school in Ghana. How much of your story is part of Lila’s?
A. Lila’s experience in Ghana is very similar to my own. When I was twelve my parents sent my siblings and I to Ghana. Because of the way the school system works over there, we couldn’t all go to the same school, and I had to cut my hair – my long, thick hair that I LOVED flipping like a white girl. J As if that weren’t enough for my twelve-year-old mind to process, when I got to the school, I learned I was required to wake up at five a.m., bathe in an open bathhouse, make my bed with perfect hospital corners, perform daily chores like scrubbing a sidewalk-length patch of concrete or sweeping a large plot, hand wash my own clothes, etc. Oh, and to make things interesting there was a wicked water crisis going on.
But unlike Lila, my grandmother and aunt visited me pretty much every weekend, loaded down with home-cooked food and water, and my parents sent me goodies and dollars when they could. I also clung to my newfound faith. I became a born-again Christian at the beginning of my visit in Ghana, before I started school there—in that respect I was a lot like Brempomaa and Ivy—and it helped A LOT just to cry out to God in the many moments of loneliness, desperation, misery, and fear I experienced. I released Lila from her school experience after six short months as a fantasy gift to my twelve-year-old self J; I had to stay in Ghana for three long years!
Outside of the Ghana portion of the novel, the similarities between Lila’s story and mine are more subtle. I made her British because Ghana was colonized by the British, and so a lot more of the bronis in Ghana were from London; I also have tons of family in London and spent a lot of time with them on summer breaks en route to New York. Lila’s parents’ divorce was my way of dealing with the feeling of separation from my parents. Even though I saw them each summer, I felt so disconnected from them at that time. On one summer vacation in the States we went to Disney World. Looking back on it, it was such an American moment in my life/American place to be when I was starting to feel more Ghanaian than anything else.
Finally, the feeling of being at the mercy of the adults in her life was something I felt during that time and definitely wanted to explore through Lila. Ghanaian culture is heavily into seniority. As noted in the book, any adult in your life is reverentially referred to as “Auntie” or “Uncle” whether they’re a blood relation or not; seniors at school are respectfully called “Sister”; and, as a rule, “children are to be seen and not heard” (that was the constant refrain I heard growing up in the States). It was important to me to stress that though the events in your life may feel random and out of your control, if you believe that God is in control of all the factors in your life—even the adults—you’ll see that a lot of those random moments actually had more meaning than you first realized. That very turbulent moment in my life gave me a story that helped me realize my dream of writing a published novel.
Q. Was it difficult at all to detach yourself from Lila and her journey while writing her fictional story, since you were drawing in part on your own life?
A. Yes, it was extremely difficult and at times painful to write this story because it was inspired by many real events. I started writing Powder Necklace as a memoir, but decided against it after workshopping it. One of the members of my writing group suggested I try writing it as a novel instead of a true story and I’m glad I took her advice.
As a memoir, I was too obsessed with the exact details and events of the story, and after a while I realized that even my best attempts would still be filtered through my own biases and perspective. Writing it as fiction freed me to explore my own beliefs in God and Ghanaian culture; the decisions the adults in my life made for me; the way I handled myself before, during and after my experience in Ghana; and how my time in Ghana impacted my identity as an American citizen.
Q. Despite how extraordinary Lila’s journey is, do you think her struggles and questions about identity and fate are universal? Do you think other teenage girls can identify with her even if they haven’t experienced similar situations?
A. I do think the themes explored in the book are universal—not just for girls or even teenagers. So much of our time as children and young adults is spent being talked at and over; decisions are made without our consent, etc.—meanwhile we’re going through all these physical and hormonal changes, and struggling to figure out who we are independent of the people in charge of us—all while trying to please them. It’s a soupy time in the life of a young person, and I think young people and older people can relate—though older people can be glad they’ve passed that stage. (I know I am!)
Which brings me to the question of fate; I like to think of fate as a “divinely ordered steps.” I think it’s important for young people to know that what they’re feeling isn’t crazy or unusual—it’s natural—but they will get through it okay; as an added bonus, all the drama they are dealing with and suffering through is fashioning them into a unique and special entity who has real value and purpose.
Q. At the novel’s beginning, Lila is a child who “lived to please Mum” (p. 3) and acted according to what would make her mother happy. By the end of the book, she has become a fiercely independent thinker, making decisions for herself. Did you always plan for this emotional independence from her mother to be an essential aspect of Lila’s development?
A. I didn’t plan this, but I’m glad Lila evolved as she did. Part of growing up is coming to understand that loving and respecting your parents and family members does not always mean pleasing them. You have to live your life. Period. Full stop.
Q. At the end of Powder Necklace Lila ultimately decides the answers to questions she was grappling with throughout the novel are unimportant. Instead, you write that “Maybe the point was to keep your head up—wear your powder necklace—no matter what” (p. 276). Did you know when you started writing Lila’s story that she would ultimately reach this conclusion? What, if any, alternate endings did you draft for Lila?
A. I didn’t plan this as the ending. I toyed with ending it at Lila’s mother having the baby and Lila holding the newborn in her arms and just shaking her head at all the craziness the baby didn’t even know was ahead of her. In the end, I’m glad I ended the book where I did because there are some things Lila will have to grapple with for much longer before she arrives at an acceptable resolution for herself—like her parents’ divorce, how her time in Ghana has shaped her, how her relationships with Enyo, Gamal, Auntie Flora, and the rest will shape her worldview, etc. I wanted the reader to walk away with being comfortable with the fact that the answers may still elude, that they aren’t necessarily what’s most important—what’s crucial is coming out of whatever situation you’re in intact.
Q. Lila has several moments of overwhelming culture shock when she first arrives in Ghana. Did you have any similar experiences when you traveled to Ghana for secondary school? If so, how long did it take you to adapt to the differences?
A. I did have several instances of culture shock in Ghana. There were the big things like poor infrastructure—dirt roads, electricity and power outages, goats and cows roaming the streets (and leaving turd presents in their wake)—and there were the subtle things like the way you address elders, or the way people treat bronis versus Ghanaians; and the acute class system that basically leaves poor young girls and boys no choice but to seek work as maids and houseboys in wealthier relatives’ homes.
I don’t know that I ever fully adapted when I was there. It helped that I learned the language while I was there; that I made some really good friends; that my family visited often; and that I knew that no matter how long I was there I would ultimately be returning to the States.
Q. Hari tells Lila to “go and tell them the truth about Africa” (p. 121) as Lila prepares to leave for London. What do you consider to be the truth about Africa? If there was one impression about Ghana you could choose for your readers to take away from Powder Neckace, what would it be?
A. I can’t speak for all of Africa, or even all of Ghana, but I think the truth is that Africa is an incredibly complex place. There is a lot of poverty and as a result there is a lot of unnecessary mortality and suffering, acute classism, and corruption, but there is a lot of beauty too.
When people get old they are not ignored or edged out of society—they rather gain more respect and value in the culture. The people are incredibly industrious. The people selling wares on the roadside or under kiosk shacks are entrepreneurs who—with the proper funding—could form a powerful merchant class. The family structure is pretty airtight, one of the reasons the homelessness rate there is low. There are homeless people in Ghana but not near at the percentages you find in more developed nations. In spite of all the negativity that surrounds them, people, inspiringly, hold hard and fast to their faith. Also the food can’t be beat!
Q. In Powder Necklace Lila fell into writing her book through a series of happy coincidences (or perhaps fate). What has been your own literary path? Have you always wanted to have a career in writing?
A. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but being immigrants, my parents wanted me to pursue a more stable (and clichéd) path to success: doctor, lawyer, or investment banker. Even though I graduated college with a poli sci degree, I sought writing internships (and interned at the Village Voice newspaper), and after college skipped I law school and decided to try my hand at writing. I took office jobs, but during my lunch breaks, after work, and on weekends, I wrote up query letters to different magazines, which I would hand deliver.
I got a few paid writing gigs and eventually landed a dream job as an assistant editor at an international fashion magazine, where I got to write and edit professionally—and meet celebs! J When funds ran too low, I started over as an intern in the acquisitions department at Sony Pictures Classics, where I got to read and review screenplays. During that time I wrote a script that was a Sundance Screenwriter’s Finalist. My editorial experience and fashion background helped me land a gig as a copywriter at an interactive agency where I got to write for the NikeWomen, L’Oreal Paris, and Avaya accounts. I continued to freelance for newspapers and magazines on the side.
In the midst of all of this, I was working on Powder Necklace.
Q. Do you have any upcoming projects you’re currently working on?
A. Yes, I’m working on a novel that examines the themes of faith and class in a Ghanaian-American family.
Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond has written for AOL, Parenting Magazine, the Village Voice, Metro and Trace Magazine. Her short story “Bush Girl” was published in the May 2008 issues of African Writing and her poem, “The Whinings of a Seven Sister Cum Laude Graduate Working Board as an Assistant,” was published in 2006’s Growing up Girl Anthology. A cum laude graduate of Vassar College, she attended secondary school in Ghana . Powder Necklace is loosely based on the experience.