Monday, 3 May 2010

Author Interview: Nii Ayikwei Parkes

Nii Ayikwei Parkes is a poet and novelist. His first novel, Tail of the Blue Bird, was published by Jonathan Cape in June 2009

Sam Ruddock: Hi Nii. First up, can you tell us a bit about Tail of the Blue Bird?

Nii Ayikwei Parkes: Tail of the Blue Bird is an exploration of power on many levels – the power of explanation, the power of love, the power of language, the power of judgement and punishment – but at the fundamental level of narrative, it’s an investigation of the origins of some remains that are discovered right at the beginning of the novel.

SR: What was your inspiration for writing it? What were your original intentions and how did they evolve during the writing process?

NAP: I have a longstanding obsession with the nature of love, family, and what I call micro-conflicts – how people assumed to be the same differ because of minute variances in their experience – which are reflected in the work. However, the main inspiration was an odd image of animal remains that had lived in my head for ages. Because I don’t plot very rigidly in advance, the book really evolved as I wrote it, but I did seek to explore the notions of justice and truth. As the novel progressed the themes expanded and I ended up framing the story as a detective novel which wasn’t part of the plan initially at all!

SR: What is the significance of the blue bird of the novels title?

NAP: The blue bird is the beautiful thing that leads to the ugly reality; the embodiment of irony, the symbol of conflict – without it the story would not exist. It is also a nod to the natural world (a huge inspiration for me), to draw attention to Ghana’s incredible wildlife.

SR: Tail of a Blue Bird is a novel in which rural traditions meet an influx of technology and modernity. Can the experience in Sonokrom be extrapolated to stand for the whole of Ghana? If so, what has been the impact on such changes?

NAP: I think the experience can be extrapolated to stand for the whole world. Although it’s often fashionable to project such experiences onto the so-called ‘post-colonial’ societies, the truth is, if I say the new co-exists with the old in Ghana, it is no different from London & Rome, where Church rituals are old and co-exist with fashion culture, which is new, and formal language co-exists with slang and text-language. The impact, sometimes, is confusion; in Manchester (where I’ve spent a lot of time) I’ve heard old ladies complaining about supermarkets suddenly not accepting cheques, when they’ve only gotten used to using them; in Ghana, as I’ve outlined in Tail of the Blue Bird, there can be problems with the apparatus of the state operating effectively in the rural areas.

SR: Having been born in the UK you grew up in Accra. How is the land of your childhood reflected in Tail of the Blue Bird?

NAP: The very nature of the book is a reflection of my dual heritage; I’m an insider/outsider in both worlds and it gives me a unique perspective. Tail of the Blue Bird manifests this perspective in Kayo, the hunter’s wife, and Kayo’s mother. Beyond that, one of the early gifts the UK gave me was access to books and reading, which is the very platform on which my career is based.

SR: The fascinating fact is that although the clash is between traditional and modern, that doesn’t translate to a clash between poverty and wealth but rather, between story-telling and scientific rationalism. Do you think there is a limit to rationalism? Can myth and story-telling convey a more important ‘truth’ than scientific rationalism alone?

NAP: I think poverty and wealth are constructs; you are poor if you are not content with what you have, you are wealthy if you are. As a scientist myself, I know that there is a limit to rationalism – if there wasn’t there would be no religion, no Father Christmas. So, yes, myth and story-telling CAN convey a more important truth than scientific rationalism ALONE. We can’t continue to elevate a science that has black holes called ‘constants’ littered in most of its theorems as the only answer to the mysteries of the world – humanity is far too complex for that.

SR: This seems to be a theme of a number of writers from the African continent, and specifically conjures memories of Ben Okri’s Booker Prize winning novel, The Famished Road. Do you see any similarities between the two? Are such comparisons helpful?

NAP: Yes, there are similarities in the sense that both books speak of a different way of looking at the world, but those similarities extend beyond West Africa to novels by Latin American authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

SR: Kayo Odamtten, the detective here, is a charming hero. Yet he often cuts a slightly comic appearance, trying to deliver a ‘CSI-style report’ in a town where the only means of communication with the outside world is through transistor radios. How did you conceive of Kayo as a character and to what extent is he supposed to reflect the future for Ghana?

NAP: Kayo reflects an entire generation that has been educated under a Western system – specifically outside the country – and become used to certain facilities that they can’t get locally. In a way they are all in a state of constant adaptation to find a healthy – or liveable – compromise. I suppose this, from a certain perspective, makes them all slightly comic characters.

SR: And what about his boss, the corrupt and politically ambitious Inspector Donkor?

NAP: Donkor, for me reflects some very charming, morally-corrupt men I have met both in Ghana and the UK. In his case there is a very particular Ghanaian pragmatism that he uses to rationalise his corruption which is the foundation of the comic element of his character.

SR: Tail of the Blue Bird is full of Ghanaian dialect. Did you make a conscious decision not to translate these into English?

NAP: I did; I read a lot of pulp fiction while growing up – of the Mickey Spillane variety – and I remember casual uses of Spanish and French words and phrases that weren’t translated, but could be made sense of in context. Additionally, the names of plants in English often made no sense to me, but I knew they were plants and – later in life – got much pleasure from discovering some of those plants. I wanted to give Western readers a taste of that experience. I also was energised by the conventions of sci-fi, in which created words are readily processed by readers.

SR: Is the book available in Ghana and if so, how have people in Ghana responded?

NAP: The book is available on a limited scale I Ghana and the response has been fantastic. One of the best responses I had was from a reader in Ghana who said that until she read Tail of the Blue Bird, she hadn’t consciously noticed that most books by African writers were edited for the benefit of Western readers.

SR: Have you always wanted to be a writer?

NAP: Not really, not a career writer. I always loved and told stories, but we are/were raised in Ghana to see writing as a hobby.

SR: Until now you have been primarily a poet. Do you feel compelled to write both poetry and prose – do they offer you different things? Do you think writing one naturally compliments the other?

NAP: I see myself primarily as a storyteller and I use whichever form best fits the story I have to tell so, yes, poetry and prose offer me different things, but I do believe that poetry is the building block of all good writing. My process employs both forms: when I’m writing prose, I take a break by writing poetry and vice versa.

SR: Do you have a specific place in which you write?

NAP: Not really, but I often write lying down; a habit that I think is a vestige of my childhood habit of reading in bed.

SR: How do you structure your day as a writer?

NAP: I tend to read a lot more than I write so I don’t have a specific structure, however, when I have a deadline, I tend to write early in the morning, daydream by day and edit by night.

SR: What do you write on/with?

NAP: I’m old fashioned; I write long hand – in notebooks, on paper – and then type after that.

SR: Earlier this year you were Writer in Residence with Booktrust. What was that like?

NAP: I was online Writer-in-Residence; the online bit made it really interesting – unlike most other residencies I’ve held a blog was the main component of the residency and public appearances were secondary to that. Having said that, I really enjoyed the range of public events, from rhyme time with infants and toddlers to speaking at a teacher’s conference in Manchester.

SR: You are a well known advocate of African writing in general, and Ghanaian writing in particular. Are there any books about Ghana that you would specifically urge us to read?

NAP: I always recommend This Earth, My Brother by Kofi Awoonor and Changes by Ama Ata Aidoo, but The Gab Boys by Cameron Duodu and The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah are highly recommended too. In all honesty, I think the published plays such as those by Ama Ata Aidoo, Kobina Sekyi and J. W. De Graft are perhaps more accurate portrayals of their time because they rely on dialogue.

SR: Which writers do you admire?

NAP: The list is endless, but always on it are Mariama Ba, Saul Bellow, Walter Mosley,and  Ngugi Wa Thiongo. On a longer list I’d add Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Ernest Hemingway, Ayi Kwei Armah, James Baldwin, W.B. Yeats, Chinua Achebe and Gabriel Garcia Marquez

SR: Are there any up and coming writers you are particularly excited about?

NAP: I love work by Helon Habila, Niki Aguirre, Miguel Syjuco, Hisham Matar, Kamila Shamsie, Jose Eduardo Agualusa and Sefi Atta. There is also an unpublished Indian novelist called Aruni Kashyap whose debut I’m really looking forward to.

SR: What are your five favourite books?

NAP: Again, there is one that’s always on the list – Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter – and the rest is a lottery based on my mood. So, today, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, RL’s Blues by Walter Mosley, Short Shorts: An Anthology of the Shortest Short Stories, edited by Irving Howe and Ilana Wiener Howe.

SR: Nii Ayikwei Parkes, , thank you for this fascinating insight into Tail of the Blue Bird and your life as a writer.

This interview was conducted by Sam on behalf of Writers’ Centre Norwich as part of the Summer Reads programme launching in June. For more information, please see

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