Photo: Suki Dhanda
Jessica George Tackles Familial Duty, Racism and Adulting in her Debut Novel “Maame”
In a Q&A about the book, inspired by her life as the daughter of Ghanian immigrants in London, the author talks about inner monologues and the value of therapy / BY Sherlyn Assam / February 10th, 2023
Jessica George had written five rejected books when she started working on Maame, a deeply personal novel inspired by her Ghanaian-British family, as well as her struggle to straddle two cultures and help care for her father, who died of complications from Parkinson’s disease in 2020.
She couldn’t have dreamed that her coming-of-age story about 25-year-old Maddie would be snapped up in an eight-way bidding war among publishers and optioned for a TV.
But eight years after she started writing fiction, Maame – already a hit in Britain and now climbing the bestseller lists in North America since its Jan. 31 release – has been praised by Our Missing Hearts author Celeste Ng, chosen for the Today Show book club and reviewed by the New York Times.
“It feels incredible,” says George, 28, in a telephone interview from London. “I’ve been hearing a lot from readers and they often say how relatable they found it, because I think there’s a few themes that you can relate to. And so it’s really wonderful. I think that’s what every author kind of wants to hear – that your words have resonated with someone.”
For Maddie, the nickname Maame (MAH-may) – which has several meanings in the Ghanaian language, Twi – means “woman.” From a young age, she has been the main caregiver for her ailing father, and shouldered the family’s financial burden as she aged. Despite having to mature quickly, Maddie is a late bloomer when it comes to sex, love and relationships, and struggles to navigate racial discrimination at her theatre administration job. With a domineering mother who is often away in Ghana, an unreliable brother and a dependent father, Maddie jumps at a chance to create a life of her own after her mother returns to London. When tragedy strikes at home, work and in her romantic life, Maddie is thrust into therapy and must decide who she wants to be to survive.
Zoomer spoke to George, who has worked at a literary agency, a theatre and a publishing house, about inner monologues, racism on the job and the value of therapy.
Sherlyn Assam: In Maame, Maddie talks to herself often, but it’s also as if she’s talking to a friend. What was it like to share deeply intimate moments of yourself and your family to the world?
Jessica George: I have conversations with myself every day. It’s just an easy way to get out of my brain. It’s a great tool for Maddie because it’s meant to highlight how alone Maddie feels. She doesn’t feel like she has people to talk to, so that’s where the conversationalist tone comes from. I think we see a little less of that by the end, because she has come to this place where she’s more open to being dependent on her friends and family. I think the tone and style of voice is great for readers because it feels like they know Maddie, which is one of the best compliments I’ve been receiving from readers.
SA: How did it feel writing about the shortcomings and racism in the publishing industry? What changes do you hope to see for writers who come after you?
JG: There hasn’t really been any kind of talk about the publishing industry scenes in the book, because it’s not a surprise to anyone who’s in the industry. I think everyone is aware that there is an issue within the publishing industry, it’s just what you do afterwards. It’s just a lack of acknowledgement and a lack of action. I can’t speak to what’s going to happen when people read the book.
I did have an editor who was interested in Maame before I chose Hachette [UK] to publish with, who said during the auction process, she, as a white woman, had a Black female assistant, and after reading Maddie’s interactions with her boss, was a lot more aware of her actions towards her assistant. [She] and her assistant had a great talk about Maame. As for big changes in industry, I have no idea. We’ll see.
SA: Maddie gets a chance to create this new life for herself, but it doesn’t come easily. What advice do you have about building a new version of yourself when you can’t separate it from who you’ve been raised to be?
JG: Patience. Maddie jumps headfirst into her list. She’s got a long list of things wants to do and she tries to do them all in a very short space of time, but it’s not realistic. You have to think about the fact that it took 25 years to make Maddie who she is now, and so to assume that you could become someone else in a year or two, I think is just ridiculous, because you’re trying to unpack 25 years. My advice is patience and small steps. That’s what I did.
I think therapy is very useful because therapy is helpful in highlighting things that just aren’t clear to you as a person so close to the situation. There’s a slower pace [with Maddie’s life decisions] at the end of the novel, which I like because I think that’s very indicative of true life. It just takes some time and very small baby steps.
SA: Speaking of therapy, did the insight from the scenes you wrote with Maddie and her therapist, Angelina, come from you or is it straight from a therapist’s mouth?
JG: I didn’t start therapy until after I finished writing Maame. Maddie is a younger version of me. Not in entirety, but in the way she feels and thinks about certain things. The older I’ve got, the more forgiving I’ve been to myself, so the therapist is me speaking to younger me when she’s speaking to Maddie. The therapist just says things that I wish someone had said to me, or that I’d learned a bit earlier on. It’s wonderful because the therapist I have now is very similar to the therapist I created for Maame.
I hope it’s a reminder to seek therapy if you need it. I think a lot of people have had bad experiences with therapists and it’s not something people jump to do, especially with time, money, and your mindset of all things. But if people are in need of therapy, I hope they read those scenes and they think, “I’d love to find an Angelina.”
SA: A tragedy pushes Maddie into therapy. This often allows people to see the error of their ways, but Maddie doesn’t use her mistakes as an excuse. How do you straddle the line of forgiveness and accountability?
JG: I think that will come from accepting the person you’re trying to forgive or hold accountable for who they are. If you try to make someone perfect, it’s just going to be a downhill battle. You’ll never win that one. With Maddie, the reason I didn’t want her mother to do a complete 180 in character is because I just don’t see that being realistic. Maddie’s mother has been who she is for 50 years – you can’t undo that within a couple of months.
I think it’s easier to forgive someone when you accept who they are and who they’re going to be. Whilst you can’t change people, you can change your reaction to them and your relationship to them. I think that’s just the best way to move forward. To work on yourself rather than try to work on others, especially those who don’t have any intention of changing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.