Q&A: Yaw Agawu-Kakraba

Yaw Agawu-Kakraba’s debut novel pits a Brazilian slave trader against a West African abolitionist.

cover of The Restless Crucible by Yaw Agawu-Kakraba

Q: What is The Restless Crucible about?
It’s a narrative on Pedro de Barbosa, a former Brazilian slave, who decides to become a slave merchant so that he can amass wealth and go back to Brazil. In Brazil at that time, even if you were Black, some of the discriminatory elements within society didn’t matter if you were rich, so irrespective of how he attains that wealth, it’s what Pedro wants. He travels to Dahomey in West Africa, and there he meets a queen who is stridently against the slave trade. The tension between the two of them underpins the narrative.

Q: What inspired you to write this?
I co-organize a biennial conference in Ghana, where I’m from, exploring the literatures and cultures of African peoples and their descendants in the Caribbean, South and Central America. One year, someone presented a proposal where she talked about a real ex-slave who left Brazil to go to Dahomey—which became Benin after independence—to become a slave trader. That got me thinking about why and how someone who has suffered the atrocities of slavery would want to be a slave trader. I was also interested in African women abolitionists, which the history books don’t really tell us about.

Q: Like the queen in your book?
Yes, it was important for me to give a voice to those women, not all of whom were powerful or queens. Many were regular women—mothers, sisters, who lost their sons and brothers, and who were at risk themselves. They devised several means to prevent slavery from taking place, including intentionally mutilating their faces to make themselves unattractive to slave traders.

Q: Didn’t some African tribal leaders and monarchs play a part in the slave trade?
Yes, and in my novel, I do point that out and why it happened. But we don’t hear about the Africans who worked to stop the slave trade. It’s important that history doesn’t forget them, especially the women who resisted, who did whatever they could to prevent slave traders from taking their sons, husbands, and children to another country.

Q: Do you plan to write more fiction?
Yes, I’m working on a story about illegal mining in Ghana, which is an exploitative, almost slaverylike practice. I want to highlight the environmental consequences of illegal mining and the atrocities faced by those it affects, particularly the hardships women face.


Yaw Agawu-Kakraba is a professor of Spanish and African Studies at Penn State Altoona.