The month of October is dubbed, Breast Cancer Awareness month and since breast cancer can also affect young adults, Muna Kalati sought for an interview with Dr. Ruby Yayra Goka.
Ruby Yayra Goka is a bestselling author of children’s and young adult literature. She also wrote Disfigured, a novel which provides clear and concise illumination about breast cancer. Her books have been among the top-three positions for The Burt Award for African Literature competition for seven consecutive years.
Muna Kalati: Please tell us about yourself.
Ruby Yayra Goka: Hi, my name is Ruby Yayra Goka. I am a dentist and a writer. I have a day job (dentistry) and I call writing my night job. My working hours are from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. so when I’m done with dentistry, the rest of the day/ evening is mine. I don’t have a fixed writing schedule, I just fit writing in when I can.
Muna Kalati: What books did you like reading as a child? Were they African? Do you think they are also interesting and understandable for modern children?
Ruby Yayra Goka: I read everything when I was growing up. My favourites were anything Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Sweet Valley, The Babysitters Club, Paula Danziger, Judy Blume, Tom Sawyerr and Huckleberry Finn, Hans Christian Andersen, Goosebumps, Flowers in the Attic, African Writers Series, The Pacesetters etc. I was the type who would have a storybook on my lap while lessons were going on. I did get in trouble for that.
My first ever book with a black female character was the Jasmine Candle by Christine Botchwey and I totally loved the story. The descriptions of the food, Zenobia’s hair and skin, the weather, the environment, and even the way the characters spoke, were all things I could relate to. The story just seemed to come alive because I knew the setting and it was almost as if I knew people too.
A universal story will appeal to children of any era because their themes friendship, family, love, belonging etc are timeless.
Muna Kalati: What is the last book you read? What books are currently on your bedside table?
Ruby Yayra Goka: I just finished The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave which I thoroughly enjoyed. I haven’t begun anything new yet.
Muna Kalati: In your opinion, what is the main task of children’s literature? Is it to entertain, teach, educate, enlighten, liberate, create role models…?
Ruby Yayra Goka: I think all literature, not just children’s, can do all the above. It depends on what story the writer wants to tell. Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop has an iconic quote about books being mirrors and windows. I hope that my books are a mirror to children of African descent and a window to our culture and experiences to children and/or adults of other races.
Muna Kalati: You write for children, young adults and adults. How different is writing for children from writing for adults? How are you able to switch between writing for children and for adults?
Ruby Yayra Goka: The main difference for me is that with writing for children, you have a limited word count and should go straight to the main themes of the story. Anything that doesn’t add to the story is redundant. This applies to writing for adults too, but I think with adults you have a bit more leeway.
Muna Kalati: Has there ever been a time when you have had to simultaneously write for both children and adults? What were the challenges you encountered?
Ruby Yayra Goka: Yes, I have written for both adults and children at the same time. I didn’t have much of a challenge. I just focus on what is before me and tune everything else out. Depending on the deadlines, I might devote more time to one manuscript than the other.
Muna Kalati: What is your source of motivation when it comes to writing for children?
Ruby Yayra Goka: Ideas come from everywhere—snatches of overheard conversations, reading another book, news stories, dreams etc. Inspiration is all around us, you just have to open your eyes (and ears) and pay attention.
Some of my books have been inspired by new places I’ve visited e.g. The Lost Royal Treasure (Tarkwa), Perfectly Imperfect (Sogakofe), others by snatches of conversations I’ve overheard, The Haunted House, and two by news items, Plain Yellow and The Step-monster. With The Gift of Fafa, I wanted to tell a story about disability and about a child who didn’t fit in with her peers.
Muna Kalati: How and when did you decide to venture into the writing field?
Ruby Yayra Goka: I think it was a natural progression from reading books to writing books. I loved stories and books so much that I thought I’d give writing a try. I began writing before I even started dentistry. When I was at medical school, I worked on the student newsletter and then I became the Editor-in-Chief. I published a number of articles and stories through that platform. So, I’ve always done writing in some form.
Muna Kalati: What inspires you most about children’s literature?
Ruby Yayra Goka: I love how imaginative you can be with children’s books. I love that the main characters can be animals, trees or inanimate objects and how story settings can be anything from a shoe to an asteroid in outer space.
Muna Kalati: And what has been some of the most inspiring moments in your writing career?
Ruby Yayra Goka: The best moments were when two readers reached out to me to say one had become a medical doctor and the other a Physician Assistant after they had been inspired by one of my main characters Dr. Farouk Ben-Mahmood from my book In the Middle of Nowhere.
Muna Kalati: The medical field is said to be a highly demanding and time consuming one. As a practicing dentist; how are you able to streamline writing and your medical career?
Ruby Yayra Goka: Lots of people work multiple jobs now. Dentistry is my day job. It doesn’t suffer because I write during my free time. There are bankers/ pharmacists/ nurses etc. who are also parents/ caterers/ make-up artists/ event planners etc. So many people now have more than one job. I think the oddity would be finding a person with a single job. I’d love to ask what they do with all their free time.
I think it also helps that I don’t have a fixed writing schedule (this is what works for me. Different styles work for different authors). I spend more time mulling over the storyline, characters etc. as I go about my daily activities. I write when a section of the story falls into place or when it becomes clear to me what’s supposed to be happening.
When I’m really into the story I hear characters having conversations in my mind. That makes it even easier. All I have to do is write down what’s going on. I used to always have a book and a pen with me to jot down ideas. Now it’s even easier. I make notes on my phone when something catches my attention.
Muna Kalati: Your books have been nominated for, and won various literary prizes over the years, how has those achievements impacted your literary journey? Did winning the first award increase the popularity and visibility of your work?
Ruby Yayra Goka: My first published book, The Mystery of the Haunted House, placed third in the Burt Awards. It was definitely easier getting a publisher for my next books afterwards. The awards serve as a validation that I am doing something right. That gives me the motivation to continue writing.
Muna Kalati: Have you had any moment(s) or encounters with your readers which strengthened your resolve to keep writing for children and young adults?
Ruby Yayra Goka: I meet a new reader on social media almost every week. Most reach out to say how much they enjoyed the books, how a particular story helped them deal with something they were going through, and how the books have inspired them to become writers too.
Muna Kalati: Can you recount the steps you took in getting your first book published? Was it difficult getting a publisher to accept your work? Did you face any rejections prior to publishing your first children’s or young adult book?
Ruby Yayra Goka: In 2010, there was a call for manuscripts for The Burt Award for African Literature competition. The Mystery of the Haunted House placed third in the competition and became my first published book. This opened doors for me in the Ghanaian publishing world. The competition ran for seven years, and I was fortunate enough to have a book place in the top three, each year that the competition ran.
Muna Kalati: How many children’s books have you published to date? Could you name them? Would you like Muna Kalati to review some of your children’s books for publication on our website and on our social media platforms?
Ruby Yayra Goka: Books for children and young adults
- The Mystery of the Haunted House (2010)
- The Lost Royal Treasure (2011)
- When the Shackles Fall (2012)
- Those Who Wait (2012)
- Perfectly Imperfect (2013)
- A Gift for Fafa (2013)
- Plain Yellow (2014)
- The Step-Monster (2015)
- Tani’s Wish (2016)
- To Kiss a Girl (2018)
- Mama’s Amazing Cover Cloth (2018)
- Whatever it Takes (2019)
- Trotro Trio: Blast to the Past (2020)
- Girl on Fire (2020)
- My ABC Book of Special Words (2021)
- Even When Your Voice Shakes (2022)
Muna Kalati: What advice would you give to young people interested in becoming published writers?
Ruby Yayra Goka: Read, read, read.
It’s important to know what books children enjoy and read those. That gives you a fair idea of what gets a child interested in the book.