Canberra author Kabu Okai-Davies had a particular ambition with his first, self-published book, Curfew's Children.
He wanted to write the story of coming of age in Ghana for the next generation of Africans in Australia – his own children and others – "so that when I'm not here any more we can have a connection through text. In going through the story they can tell the next generation – how we came to be part of the long river of the Australian story."
The Ghana-born writer says it's an inherent contradiction, coming from a culture with a strong oral tradition when his children are now growing up in Australia "where everything is literate and electronic".
Okai-Davies, who will turn 55 in March, was born into a privileged class in Ghana. His father was a diplomat and his mother a teacher. The family lived in Britain for a few years in his childhood before moving back home. He studied literature at the University of Ghana before emigrating to England and working at different jobs for a couple of years. He moved to the United States in the mid-1980s and undertook further studies in theatre and film production.
In the early 1990s he founded the African Globe Theatre in Newark, New Jersey, presenting plays and musicals with African-American casts including the musical Dreamgirls, Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire and Neil Simon's Last of the Red Hot Lovers.
In 2002 he reunited with the woman who would become his wife, Pauline Adobor. They had met at university in Ghana but their lives had gone in different directions – "she came to Australia, I went to America" – until they met at a party in Vietnam when she was on a posting for the Australian government. He commuted between the US and Australia for a few years. In 2003 he brought a group from the African Globe Theatre to perform the play When A Man Loves A Woman at the Street Theatre. He moved permanently to Canberra in 2006. They have two children – a 19-year-old from Pauline's previous relationship and an 11-year-old.
In Canberra Kabu-Davies has worked as a Playwright-In-Residence at the Street Theatre as well as acting and directing there, and been an assistant to the director of the National Multicultural Festival, becoming its manager in 2007 for a few years. He was manager of the Theo Notaras Multicultural Centre and the Aboriginal Centre while pursuing studies at the University of Canberra and at the Australian National University, graduating with two Masters degrees and a doctorate in communications.
Okai-Davies spent the summer of 2009 and 2010 in England at Oxford University's Continuing Education Creative Writing Program at Exeter College.
"I'm a workaholic," Okai-Davies says. He gets up at 5am and writes for two hours each day – short stories, articles, poetry and, of course, novels.
Curfew's Children, his first, self-published book of "creative non-fiction", began as part of his PhD thesis at the University of Canberra, and draws on his memories of growing up in Ghana and those of his family and friends. The curfew of the title is both literal – the country was seized in coups more than once – and metaphorical, symbolising what he thinks is the African experience.
"We've imposed a curfew on our own promise and potential."
So he went into a long, self-imposed "creative exile", living in different countries.
His next self-published book, The Evidence of Nostalgia and Other Short Stories is scheduled for release in March. He's also written Long Road to Africa: Autobiography in Verse and Symphony of Words: Collected Poetry and he is hoping to land a deal with an established publisher for his third, In Another Man's Name, about his first five years living as an African in the US.
Okai-Davies says in England he was "accepted as an African" but the lack of social mobility caused by the class system was frustrating. In the US, he says, "I had to make a choice, whether to be black or African."
The issues of slavery and racism long embedded in US history were still potent. The cultural history and ideology were "so complicated, fraught with too many signals" and there always seemed to be a crisis.
Australia, he says, has been the best of his three adopted countries – for its sense of space and for its people who have, he says, been willing to accept him for who and what he is.
"This is my second home," he says.
He acknowledges he came here from a privileged position and he is not saying everything is perfect, with difficulties for some Africans, especially those who came in as refugees to a country that's "still trying to figure out a lot of things".
But he has hopes it will work out for them – "This is their first home, they can't go further."
He believes Australians are by and large willing to embrace people from other countries and cultures and says that what prejudice he has encountered personally has been nothing compared to the US.
"I don't take it seriously," he says.
"I don't think Australia is racist."
Curfew's Children is available at Dymocks in the Canberra Centre, Book Passion at Belconnen and Paperchain at Manuka.