When her father died from complications related to Parkinson’s disease in 2020, writer Jessica George experienced an emotion she didn’t expect: loneliness. She felt alone and at a loss, even with family and friends around.
“I wasn’t the only one grieving my dad,” she says now. “I have two siblings. But we had different relationships with my dad, so it was still a very lonely experience. You don’t feel that there are many people you can talk to or who will understand. It’s such a personal process.”
Yet the painful emotional turmoil inspired George, who had been struggling to get her work published, and the result is her first novel, Maame (St. Martin’s, Jan. 31), which received a starred review from Kirkus and has been selected by Jenna Bush Hager as the February pick of the Today book club. Set in contemporary London, the coming-of-age story follows Maddie, a young woman from a Ghanaian family who is the sole caregiver for her ailing father. Her older brother keeps his distance while her mother travels between London and the family hotel in Ghana. She does find time, however, to direct Maddie from afar (in her estimation, Maddie needs to find a husband and to pray more and, also, can she send her mother some money?).
Maddie—known to her family as Maame, which means woman and indicates her responsible nature—is also juggling other demands: career questions, callous bosses, casual racism, dating, sexual inexperience. She’s depressed, but a lifetime of keeping her problems private, a cultural artifact from her mother, prevents her from confiding in friends. Instead, she seeks answers on Google, not always the best solution. (Maame deals with serious subjects, but George has a solid sense of humor, too.)
An avid reader who discovered the local library early and reads widely—she counts Toni Morrison and Agatha Christie among her favorites—George always knew she loved to write. But even supportive parents blanch a little at such a mercurial career choice, one not guaranteed to deliver a steady income, so she set out for university with the intention of becoming a lawyer.
“There was parental pressure to be something that allows you to be comfortable in life,” George says in a conversation conducted over Zoom. “I didn’t see a lot of Black female writers my age, and when you don’t see it, it’s hard to imagine yourself doing it.”
She left school and dedicated herself to writing at 19. Now 28, George says the biggest challenge in writing Maame was trying to do justice to the grieving process.
“I didn’t want to give the idea that the process does end,” she says. “I don’t even like to say it gets better; it’s just easier to handle. I felt like my main responsibility was to people who would read this while grieving, and I didn’t want to paint it in a pretty light. I wanted a hopeful light at the end rather than a definitive ‘the worst had happened and nothing bad will ever happen again’ feeling.”
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Both you and Maddie come from Ghanaian families and lost your fathers. How are you different from Maddie?
I think the truest part of this novel is the dad. But I was more of a secondary carer while Maddie is a primary carer.
When I began writing it, I put my real mum and brother in there, and my agent came back and said, ‘They’re very boring because they’re supportive.’ That was the case with my family! They were much more helpful than Maddie’s family, so in terms of moving the plotline along, they had to do bad things. The three men Maddie comes across, they’re all men we’ve had interactions with or heard stories about. We’ve all had trouble at a job. We’ve all had a tricky boss. And most of us have gone through grief. So there are a lot of things I would have experienced, but I can’t say I’ve done them the exact same way Maddie has done them.
Why are families such fertile ground for you and so many other writers?
I love writing about families. When do you realize your family is not like others? I grew up kind of assuming my family was a bit different than others. In school we don’t talk about families or cultures or traditions or things we did that were different. Growing up and realizing families have similarities but that no two families are identical, that’s incredible. But I do feel the reason writers write so much about family is there is never-ending material.
The story juggles so many different topics in addition to grief: relationships, friendships, work, racism, sexuality, depression. Why did you include so many different aspects of young adult life?
Anything that happened to Maddie while she was grieving—like with relationships and work—kind of happened to me while I was grieving. It was impossible to leave things out because they were all simultaneously happening. I describe Maame as a story about stories. There are so many threads! My editors were like, ‘OK, can we focus on what we have?’ But what I found is the strangest thing: When you grieve, the world doesn’t stop. All these things continue to happen. It made sense to include it all to feel more realistic. You’ve got these relationships that are still happening in the background. You’re still fighting microaggressions at work. You’re fighting depression. That’s reality.
You’re also frank about Maddie’s physical discomfort during sex.
Again, it’s a reality thing. A friend of mine read Maame recently and told me, ‘You just reminded me how painful it was to lose my virginity!’ This is the thing about books: You have to believe in your audience. Maybe with a rom-com, readers don’t want to hear about painful times. They just want perfectly orchestrated moments. And that’s fine. That’s what you should get when you pick up that sort of book. However, as I was writing this, I just knew that wasn’t going to be the case.
One of my favorite lines in Maame comes from a friend of Maddie’s who’s trying to explain why a guy Maddie likes wouldn’t tell her he had a White girlfriend. She likens racism to lasagna, saying it has many layers. How important was it for you to examine racism in this book?
This is interesting because, as I was writing it, it felt almost impossible not to include some kind of microaggression or active racism because it’s a reality. Not writing about it at all would have felt like something was missing. I was at a talk last year, and someone asked, ‘Do you think non-White authors can write about anything without any mention of racism or microaggressions?’ It’s such an interesting question to me. If the question had been directed to me at the time, I probably would have said no.
Do you think a wider range of stories from diverse cultures are getting published more now?
I do. I think while publishing remains a very White industry, there’s definitely change. I see writers who weren’t born here or had parents who weren’t born here. It’s great to see how many new ones are coming out. I get sent a lot of proofs now that my book is going to be published, and I’m loving the stories I’m reading. They’re the histories we just weren’t taught in school.
Connie Ogle is a writer in Florida.