Conversation with Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Author of Tail of the Blue Bird
Nii Ayikwei Parkes writes poetry, prose and articles. He is a former Poet-in-Residence at the Poetry Cafe and author of three poetry chapbooks: eyes of a boy, lips of a man (1999); M is for Madrigal (2004), and Shorter (2005). His poems have appeared in several anthologies. His latest novel Tail of the Blue Bird (2009) was nominated for the Commonwealth Writers Prize for First Best Book for the Europe and Asia Region Category (perhaps because he lives in Britain. Don't worry he's a Ghanaian). Parkes main areas of exploration as a writer are reinterpretation of language, micro-cultural conflicts and power. He's been influenced by several African writers including Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Kwesi Brew, Christopher Okigbo, Ama Ata Aidoo, Mariam Ba, Meshack Asare, Atukwei Okai, Ola Rotimi and others. He sees a future in writers and performers such as Mamle Kabu, Mutombo Da Poet, Elizabeth-Irene Baetie, Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, Ayesha Haruna Atta, Lesley Loko, and others.
Parkes took some time off to talk to ImageNations on issues ranging from poetry, prose to his views on the literary scene. Below is the interview.
How would you describe yourself to those who do not know you (education, career and anything in between)?
I'm a North Kaneshie boy, I honed my early writing at Ann's Preparatory School, then wrote love poems for love-struck boys in Achimota School, taught Physics and Biology in Tolon Kumbungu for National Service, left to study in the UK, returned to work in Ghana, then left again to 'become a writer'. I've had many accolades, but none have made me prouder than the ACRAG award I got in Ghana in 2007.
You won an Art Council Award for the novel The Cost of Red Eyes in October 2003. How was publicity like, because I never heard of this story? Was it your first novel? How many novels do you have as of now?
It's a novel that has not yet been released because when I met my agent, he felt that Tail of the Blue Bird was a stronger novel so we went with that first. I suspect I may release it much later, like Walter Mosley did with his first novel, Gone Fishin'.
Your recent novel Tail of the Blue Bird was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, Best First Book Category, for South Asia and Europe Region, to represent Britain. We would have loved to have seen it on our shortlist, what happened?
Well, the thing that you are never told in publishing is that your publisher enters you for these awards and decided which category to include you in; I qualified for both Africa and Europe because I was born in the UK and I guess my publisher thought I stood a better chance in the South Asia and Europe Region. I hold my hands up; I can't explain it, nothing to do with me.
Whodunit is a genre with fewer authors in Ghana. Some Ghanaian book bloggers and I have talked about it. I can only mention Kwei Quartey with his inspector Dawson series. What led to the writing of this novel and why this genre?
I didn't exactly set out to write a whodunit and, technically, the book isn't a whodunit; the question in my book is more of a how? than a who? but the benefit of writing in the structure of a crime novel is that it creates tension, a book like Umberto Eco's In the Name of the Rose, uses almost the same device.
What’s theme of Tail of the Blue Bird?
It's an exploration of power – power and violence and retribution and consequence and self-regulation; the power of state justice versus local justice, the community versus the individual, of the scientific versus the superstitious, of writing versus oral storytelling, the power of ignorance and innocence. It's a theme that gets deeper as you try to escape it.
Both Hisham Matar and Helon Habila described this novel as ‘poetic’ and as borne out of a ‘poet’s sensibility’ respectively. How attached to poetry are you? Will you say that poetry ticks you the most, relative to all the other genres you write in?
Poetry is my first love. I heard it in conversations as I was growing up; I think coming to Ghana as a child when, even though I spoke Ga, English was the language I heard most of the time, really had an impact. I developed a fascination with the Ga language and its rich imagery. I would eavesdrop mercilessly (and sometimes be beaten mercilessly for my merciless acts) and hear in all those conversations little threads of poetic clarity. Poetry is the music of speech, the illogical logic of nature, the name for the unnameable, so, yes, poetry is, relative to all other genres, my preferred dancing partner. It doesn't step on my toes.
You have won several awards. However, one that I followed or tried to and even blogged about it was the nomination of your poem ballast: a remix for the Michael Marks Award. What happened, because I never heard anything again, not even from their site?
I didn't win the award, but the ballast poems became an entire section in my new book of poems, The Makings of You, so for me it's a win.
Your poetry anthology Shorter published in 2005 is geared towards raising funds for a writer’s fund in Ghana. Could you please tell us something about this fund and how other individuals could help? What are the objective, vision and goal of this writer’s fund?
I just answered this question for One Ghana, One Voice, so I'll give you pretty much the same answer. Although The Writers Fund is on a small hiatus while I build a bespoke website for it, my passion for it remains the same. My goals for the project relate to the huge gap in the production of writing from Ghana since the 60s and 70s and my belief that that dearth relates to the lack of resources to support writing and reading. Our goals are: To serve and encourage excellence in creative writing in all the languages used in Ghana; To raise public awareness of the pivotal role of literature in shaping, preserving and developing a society’s identity and cultural life; To lobby educational institutions at home and abroad to secure residencies, scholarships and research opportunities for Ghanaian writers; To work to ensure that Ghanaian writing is well represented in the curriculum in schools and universities both at home and abroad; Support the initiatives of the Ghana Association of Writers. Anyone who has ideas is very welcome to contact me and initiate the exploration of those ideas. One of the things that drives me is the notion that our literary reading - both academic and personal - is in general so many years behind that we haven't tuned in to what we can do with language, how (learning from the Latin American writers, for example) we can bring our unique approach to how the English language is used etc. As a result, I am really keen to set up libraries all over the place and anyone who knows how we can get our hands on free shipping containers to use as the framework for building these libraries would be a very welcome contact at the moment. I have had some preliminary discussions with architects about how to customise containers using locally sourced material to create library spaces that are fascinating and conducive to reading/learning.
You have stated that you read mainly works from Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Gambia while growing up. Who are your favourite authors then and now and which of them have influenced your art form?
Mariama Bâ, Meshack Asare, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Kwesi Brew, Christopher Okigbo, Ama Ata Aidoo, Ola Rotimi, Atukwei Okai. I'm sure there are influences within my work, but I haven't consciously sought influences. What I will say is that Atukwei Okai, by acting as a mentor to me when I had doubts about whether to become a writer, has been the most influential in actual terms.
You have stated that your main areas of exploration as a writer are reinterpretation of language, micro-cultural conflicts and power. What do you mean by this and how do you face these broad subject matters in your writings?
Well, if you look at what Ngugi says in Decolonising the Mind, you realise that our use of English is in a way a form of masochism, but as we already have the language, we have to think of ways to strip it of its weapons, its means of expression that devalue who we are, who we were – that is one of the frontiers of the reinterpretation of language. With micro-cultural conflicts, I simply mean that I am very interested in the tiniest shifts in psyche, for example how a walk through Agbogloshie market will differ for me and my younger brother simply because, even though we grew up in the same house, he may understand Hausa and I don't – or I may know 50 words of Dagarti and he doesn't, making us react very differently to what the random collection of people that make the market buzz with its mysterious energy might be screaming. I think I have spoken about power in the context of Tail of the Blue Bird (which actually contains all the elements listed in your question – the italicisation of non-Akan origin words in the hunter's voice, the differences in attitudes between Kayo and his friends/parents, and the plight of the police in Sonokrom, for example.)
Though you have lived in Britain for many years, you describe yourself as a Ghanaian. Not lost yet, I think. So how do you see the literary landscape in Ghana? Is there hope or it is in total descent?
Where there is life, there is hope. Don't forget we have stars developing right under your noses – the Mamle Kabus, Mutombo Da Poets, Elizabeth-Irene Baities – as well as a very good crop of Ghanaian writers abroad who are keeping their connections with home very tight. Writers like Lesley Lokko, Mohammed Naseehu Ali, Ayesha Haruna Atta, Nana Ekua Brew Hammond, Dzifa Benson – it's a long, long, list.
Thanks for your time, but before we go any last words to writers? And please tell us where we can get your books to buy in Ghana. People do ask me of this.
For writers, write crooked. For buyers, check SyTris books – they really support me and they try to always have my books in stock.
ImageNations would be bringing you a review of his novel Tail of the Blue Bird during the Ghana Literature Week.