Alumna Afia Atakora '16 Conjures The South Through the Healing Arts

BY Rochelle Goldstein, December 2, 2019

For alumna Afia Atakora ’16, the 9-month “fever dream” that birthed her novel Conjure Women, written for her master thesis, is now going to be published in the US by Penguin Books. Set to be released in March 2020, the book was initially published last year in the UK, where Atakora was born, under an imprint by HarperCollins.


Atakora’s latest work, which she characterizes “in some ways as an allegorical Southern Gothic tale” follows the life and legacy of Miss May Belle, midwife and conjurer, and her daughter Rue, who also learns to master the healing arts, through the Civil War and Reconstruction-era in the South. Inspired by the rich and complex oral histories throughout the African Diaspora, Atakora drew heavily on first person accounts, diaries, autobiographies, as well as research into medical history and botanical plants and remedies. She was also inspired by the time she spent as a child with her mother, a home health care worker, as she tended the sick and elderly.


While doing the deep historical research needed to produce this vivid portrait of an age, Atakora could not help but see parallels with modern day US. As she told The Library Journal, “…I tried to live in the past, to keep myself buried in books about the Civil War …[but] the tinny televised voice of a different kind of War snuck into my ear demanding that Black Lives Matter, questioning the purpose of a monument or a flag, or the right to kneel during a song. The voice said we have never been more divided in this country.”


While at Columbia Atakora was the recipient of the 2015 De Alba Fellowship, and her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.