Ada’s Room

Sharon Dodua Otoo (trans. Jon Cho-Polizzi)

March 29, 2023 
The following is from Sharon Dodua Otoo's Ada's Room. Otoo is a writer and political activist. She writes prose and essays and is the editor of the English-language book series Witnessed. Ada's Room has been translated into several languages. Otoo won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2016.


Article continues below

During the longest night of the year, blood clung to my forehead and my baby died. Finally. He had whimpered in his final moments, and Naa Lamiley had caressed his cheek. How lovely, I had thought, that this would be his final memory. She lay beside him, the child between us, and her head rested next to mine. Naa Lamiley’s eyes shimmered as she assured me it would not be much longer now, “God willing.” She whispered because all of our mothers were sleeping on the other side of the room, but Naa Lamiley’s voice would have given out at any moment anyway. Together, we had cried and prayed at my baby’s side for the last three nights. I could barely hear her, and I understood her even less. While she caressed him, she had stared at me, as if surprised by my confusion—though the words How would you know? never left my lips. In an already unbearable situation, this moment was particularly absurd. Naa Lamiley always knew. But in that moment—it was quite literally a matter of my own flesh and blood—I did not want to seem clueless to her. To distract myself, I scratched my forehead. I scratched and forgot I had blood under my nails.

The few candles Naa Lamiley had gathered and placed before the doorway flickered.

“It was this way with Kofi, too.” She breathed softly, as if she did not wish to disturb my son while he was dying. Shame on me. This was not so long ago. The ensuing silence resulting from my shame and her sympathy accompanied us through the final tortured breaths. The candles wept.

Outside, Naa Lamiley had prepared a tiny pad of palm leaves to lay him out in the moonlit courtyard. She spread a white cloth over it. There would be no grave. The boy did not even have a name; he was only five days old. And yet he had tarried longer than my first child. Also a boy. He had opened his eyes immediately after birth, looked around, and evidently not liked what he had seen. That little one had left us before I could even take him in my arms.

Article continues below

Naa Lamiley squeezed my hand once, briefly, then shifted to her knees and stood. I wanted to as well, but with great effort, I managed to make it only halfway—a squat. It was about time to carry out his body—I remained on the floor. She bent over one of the flames—I remained on the floor. She blew one candle out, then the next, then another. Finally, she lifted the baby’s body and carried him from our room. I remained on the floor. The darkness comforted me.

Through the open doorway, I watched how Naa Lamiley weighed my baby in her arms, how she lay his body gently down onto the palm leaves, how she adjusted his head lovingly, pressing his lips together. How she blinked her tears away. I leaned back against the wall, closed my own eyes, and dozed off.

By sunrise—his body was still warm—the older women, toothless and spitting, had assured one another that I had best forget about it all as quickly as possible. They sat together on the bench directly in front of our hut, watching the morning unfold. The one whose eyesight was poorest nodded emphatically in Naa Lamiley’s direction as she pronounced that I was still young and could, God willing, bear at least three more healthy children one after another. “Or”—Mami Ashitey cackled, shaking her broom—“perhaps all three at once!” And as if this were the best joke of all time, they began to laugh in unison. Their rib cages shook, and their eyes wept tears of laughter. I bit my lip. Did they not know the prophesy had foretold that I—the woman they all called Ada— would accompany only one child into adulthood?

Naa Odarkor, who was frying up the masses of shrimp that would later be brought to market, threw her fan to the ground and leapt over the coal stove. She had to prop up the toothless one whose hearing was poorest, as she began to laugh so mightily, she almost fell from her bench.

Forget it all as soon as possible? I fought to hold on to every memory I had of him! I clung with all my strength to the sour scent of my son. His murmuring still resounded in my ears, as though he had only just stopped nursing. And I longed for this again, o! My swollen breasts all but robbed me of my breath. As chapped and tender as my nipples were, I wished for nothing more than to exchange the agony in my engorged breasts for the torture of nursing. Naa Lamiley shook her head and chewed at her cracked thumbnail while the toothless ones began to laugh at me once more. But it was really true that I could still feel how he had gazed at me as I had held him in my arms. Like a promise, he would stay with me forever. Or perhaps a promise that I had never really lived without him.

Article continues below


“He’s not your HUSBAND, o!”

I turned away. So, I should only mourn someone I once had lain with? Pfft!

I did not want a grave. There should not be another forgotten, overgrown place that no one would care for after we had departed—and that would be soon after all: We were only waiting for a sign. No grave. But there should be a ritual; Naa Lamiley knew which one.

Not until early evening, after the hearth fire had been fanned, the soup cooked, and the yams mashed—not until all of us had eaten—only then would one of my mothers “take care of the baby.” Unless I could steal away with him while the toothless ones—surrounded by plucked feathers and slaughtered hens— continued to chatter on excitedly. I would walk to the great water, approach its edge, and permit the tiny peaceful body to glide out upon the waves. This was my wish.

Article continues below

Because I did not yet want to show myself at market—it was still too soon—I sent Naa Lamiley instead to collect the two or three yams we needed for the ritual. She nodded, first in exhaustion, then in determination—disappearing with a basket of smoked fish. I also threatened to disappear. Before my eyes an all-encompassing blackness spread. A hole. Were I to fall into it, there would be no escape.

The toothless ones calmed themselves, and the hens, too, ceased their clucking and flapping. Mami Ashitey cackled on, hobbling about and fluttering her arms in the air.

“Naa?” she cried, her right eye tearing.

Naa Odarkor shook her head. Seconds before, she had watched as Mami Ashitey had rubbed her face with her dusty hand. I should have removed whatever it was that ended up in her eye— it would have been better, for Naa Odarkor’s fingers shook—but it was still too soon. I could not tolerate Naa Odarkor’s loving gaze upon her wife, the tenderness of her touch, the pettiness of Mami Ashitey’s pain. By the time I had turned away, it was already over.

Gradually, they all resumed their activities—the sweeping of the yard, the fanning of the flames, or the chewing of kotsa. That the toothless ones still used kotsa at all! Even I used the chewing sponge only after meals or occasionally to remove a particularly foul taste from my mouth. But these elders? If they had had one single tooth to share among them, it would have been a lot! And yet they chewed day in and day out, as if they were trying in vain to grind down a piece of gristle.

Article continues below

My baby was covered with a white cloth and was safe from both the swirling dust and the other mothers’ flying spit. But I should have waited for Naa Lamiley. Even centuries later, I still will not know what I was thinking. In any case, the bracelet was already untied. I held it in my right hand and counted the golden beads with my thumb.

Thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two . . . thirty-three moon phases ago when I had noticed that the line below my belly button was beginning to darken again, I had left no stone unturned. At first, I had prayed to Jehovah, the god of the whites, for I had been told that he was a jealous god, and thought he might appreciate that I had turned to him first in my hour of need. And so, I had closed my eyes, folded my hands together, and moved my lips zealously. While I was still kneeling, the thought came to me that it would be prudent to next venerate the coastal deity, Ataa Naa Nyɔŋmɔ, because the combination of the masculine Ataa and the feminine Naa were surely more powerful than Jehovah’s one-sided masculinity. In the end, I could merely offer Ataa Naa Nyɔŋmɔ one song in Ga. My voice could not quite reach the high notes, but at least I had known the words. Then I had put on the bracelet, hoping this time that the golden beads might convince the dead to protect my unborn child. That, at least, was the subject of another hasty prayer in Arabic, which my first mother had taught to me a long, long time ago. In the quiet after the duʿāʾ, I poked my distended belly button, and I was confident that my efforts would also please Allah. But all these efforts were in vain. My baby died anyway.

What was so wrong with me that my children did not come to stay? I saw nothing, for my lashes were too heavy with tears and pain, but at least I could still pray softly with my fingers and lips. And then, as I began to count the beads of the bracelet once more, it dawned on me: My son did not have to return naked to Asamando like his brother before him. The golden beads, which by no means belonged to me alone, should adorn his waist. And the thought that in this way the bracelet would finally return to my foremothers comforted me a little. I sat beside him. The bracelet was not quite long enough, so I carefully removed three threads from the seam of my cloth. With the tips of my fingernails, I bound them to the wire. The white cloth rustled in the light breeze. It had only a slight bulge beneath it and looked almost innocent. I touched this tiny mound. How hard it was. Like a stone it was.

“Oh!” I moaned as I retracted my hand. My left hand again. The toothless ones were furious. In two strides, Mami Ashitey was at my side. She struck at me mightily, instantly disappointed that the fibers of her broom were too weak for this application. Then she cursed, turning the broom in the palm of her right hand and striking at me again with the wooden handle. Her movements were quick and precise, as though she had been practicing for this all her life.

“O Mami!” My hands encircled my head. “Please stop, o! Please STOP!”

Of course she heard me, but she acted as though the cries of the other toothless ones drowned out my own. Naa Odarkor nodded at each blow and made no effort to restrain her wife from punishing me.

Then Mami Ashitey struck me on the knee on a particularly tender spot and my leg gave out. It simply happened: Strike. Kick. Suddenly, the white cloth that—until that moment—my son had rested peacefully under lay beside a stiff baby corpse. Astaghfirullah.

A few excited hens.

Four toothless elders, one with a broom.

A young woman with a bleeding forehead.

A recently deceased child.

This is how he likely first came upon us, the white man from the sea—


Excerpted from Ada’s Room by Sharon Dodua Otoo and translated by Jon Cho-Polizzi. Copyright © 2023 by Sharon Dodua Otoo. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

More Story
Chris Chalk will play James Baldwin in Capote's Women. First, there was Helen Mirren as Regal Patricia Highsmith. Then came Oscar Isaac as Sexy Kurt Vonnegut. Now, get ready for Chris...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.