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Nii Ayikwei Parkes



Nii Ayikwei Parkes

Parkes is a novelist, poet and publisher. His latest novel, Tail of the Bluebird, was published in 2009. His story in the debut issue of AW was specially commended in the 2009 edition of the Caine Prize competition. He was interviewed for AW in Guernsey.


 Writing for the Boy I was


kwasida - nkyi kwasi

The birds have never stopped singing. If you look you will see that whatever happens the birds will sing their song. In my grandfather’s time the forest was thick thick and higher; we didn’t have to go far to kill a hog. Ah, their spoor began at the edge of the village and the taste of boar meat was like water to us, we ate so much. I remember well. Now they have gone deep deep, the boar. But all things are in Onyame’s wide hands. Only Onyame, the shining one, knows why a goat’s shit is so beautiful. We are not complaining. When I go to forest I can see that the world is wonderful. The birds are all colours colours. Red, sea blues, yellow, some like leaves, some white like fresh calico. What creatures can you not find there? The smallest catch I have ever brought home is adanko. (Ndanko are not hard to catch. Even when they hide, their ears stick up so you can see them. If I created them I would have put their eyes on their pointed ears to keep them safe, but then I wouldn’t be able to catch them. Maybe hunger would consume me. Ah, ndanko. They are fast, but I have many traps. That is a hunter’s life.)

p.1 Tail of the Blue Bird, Nii Ayikwei Parkes


: Why do you write?

Because I feel like, and I can. I have always felt that I have something so say and once I had the facility to write, I just wrote.

: If you had a choice of a different career what would it be?

I already have one. I was a food technologist before I became a writer, and I love food! If I had to go back to anything, I‘d go back to food. For me, food and work are the be-all and end-all of life.

: What was your career before you came to writing. What was that life like?

I was a food development manager with a multinational, creating new products for the market. This was both in Ghana and UK. When I left I was working in Ghana. I was born in England went to Ghana at 5. I grew up on the Streets of Accra, your typical Ghanaian boy, playing football after school till I was called in by my mother to clean up and eat. There were a lot of books in the house. I had a brother a year older than me. He was always there and we are still very close. I have a sister about six years younger than me, and a younger brother. That’s the kind of family I grew up in. My father was an industrial consultant so he helped people solve problems in factories, but he loved farming. We had vegetables growing in the house and a lot of mischief outside the house. I started out growing food in the house. I never wore my shirt…

: So would you say that your story, Socks Balls – which was published in African Writing No. 1 and specially commended at the last Caine Prize – grew out of this background?

Certainly. ‘Case 5’ was like a holy grail – for people who don’t know what Ghanaians call the case 5, it was the football that professionals played. It was expensive and if someone had one and you played with it you talked about it for weeks. But you usually never had the chance. What we had were the plastic balls from China. They were hard and carried by the wind. There was no artistry. In order to curve the ball you needed some kind of weight. Which was where the ‘socks ball’ comes in. I won’t say we went as far as stalking people for their socks – which was what happened in the story, but making a good socks ball was certainly part of growing up.

: You have another role in the literary world. Tell me about your publishing.

I went to a boarding school and got involved in a drama club and the school magazine. We used to do a lot of Ola Rotimi-type plays and put them on once a year. Due to funding problems, the school magazine did not come out while I was on the editorial board, so when I left school, I started a magazine with other members from my last club. It was called Filla (which is a Ghanaian word for gossip or news). It was the first nationwide students’ magazine. It was a big deal, launched by big-wigs and all, and we ran two issues of the magazine before we all dispersed to different universities. So in a sense it all flew away and we ended up in different careers.

When I returned to Ghana, two of the guys on the old magazine and I decided to start a publishing company. So we did. We were just waiting for the right time and project to do something with it and it didn’t seem to be coming along. Yet, one of the things that happened when I went back to Ghana was that I was writing even while I was working. In the end I had quite a few poems. So we decided to do a chapbook of my work. We did that, launched it, and it was doing quite well. I then decided that I was young, had no debt, no responsibilities… in fact I had quite a little money in the bank so I decided, why not try to be a writer. So I decided to try and do writing full-time. I went to speak to my mentor, Atukwei Okhai. I told him I wanted to go to England to try and make things happen. By that time I had sent the first chapter of a novel to a couple of agents in England and they were interested. So I went over and that is how the publishing started from Ghana.

When I got to England, I got a couple of gigs at the Poetry Society. There was a bookshop at the corner and I spoke to them about taking my books. They said they couldn’t stock books not published in England. So I called my guys in Ghana and bought the company off them.

: What was the name of the company?

Flipped Eye Publishing. –It’s still incorporated in Ghana, but it is incorporated in England now as well. So I went back to the bookshop and told them: well, it’s a British company now! So they took the book.

: How is the company doing now?

We’re doing well. For the first six-and-a-half years we were doing only poetry. We are now in our eighth year. Our first fiction, a collection of short stories, was published in 2007. Our first novel was published late last year. So we are growing slowly. We have taken on two more editors to handle some of the poetry, because it was limited in the sense that I was the only editor. And I couldn’t edit more than four books a year and stay sane – and be a writer – and make money – and feed my family… So they will be able to do three books of poetry each, with the idea that I concentrate on fiction for a couple of years. Also, I think it is part of a long-term plan because I wanted to be able to operate wherever I am. Because I want to be moving around for much of my life, I want to set up a company to work on that kind of basis. These two editors are really great guys – and can multitask, which is the most important thing. Hopefully they will be with me for a while...

: Do you publish only African writers?

No we publish everyone. What I say to people is, if you look at the publishing world, it is everyone trying to get published by Western presses, whose gatekeepers have a certain perspective. With Flipped Eye, we look at everybody’s work. We have a progressive value system because we have seen the world from a different place. So if you are an English writer you are bringing the work to an African editor, so if you put in something that is derogatory, I might ask you why it’s there, whereas, someone else may not ask you. So, one of the things about Flipped Eye is that the editors have different perspectives. One of my editors is from Grenada while the other is Irish, so we are not traditional editors within the publishing industry in the UK – I don’t know about the US.

: Do you think then that there is a classic ‘editor type’ in the UK

I think if you generalise, yes. There are always exceptions in everything; I have met some English people who know more about West Africa than most West Africans I have met, in terms of having lived there… some of them have lived there longer than many West Africans I have met. But there are always certain trends that people follow. And then the fact of the matter is that it is a capitalist economy, so there are market forces and people tend to go with trends, so when J.K. Rowling came, editors were out looking for her clones. When Dan Brown came, they went out looking for his clones. This in a way affects the kind of writing that gets past the gates. It is not just that our editors aren’t subject to those kind of pressures, but that our kind of goal is to bring out good work that is different. We are not trying to duplicate what others have done. But we are talking big publishers here, when you look at small presses, small presses do interesting work across the board, regardless of who the editors are, because sometimes they don’t have the same pressures. It is just that when they get to a certain size and they have shareholders, then they change.

: Have you published any work currently that is unlikely to have gone through the traditional presses?

I think that the work I have published may have taken a long time to get through the traditional presses. There would be too much chance involved, I think. Because you would have to rely on a certain kind of editor finding it, and liking the work enough to publish it. In the short story collection we did by the Ecuadorian writer, Niki Aguirre, she is inspired by apocalyptic ideas so that there is an element of SciFi. She had an agent who was trying to sell her book elsewhere, and one of the first things she asked us was if there was any magic realism in it – because she was South American. So immediately this is how the industry thinks: well you have to bring a magic realism angle… and even the term ‘magic-realism’ I reject, because for those that write it, it is not ‘magic’, it is realism. So for her, if she had gone into a traditional establishment, the stories that were published might have been different. She might have been pushed towards a certain direction, whereas we have allowed her to simply do the good stories.

: How would you describe yourself: as a poet, a short story writer, or a novelist… do you have a pigeonhole?

Not at all. I am a writer. I communicate by the best means possible – by the means that serves the ideas I have the best.

: Currently what means do you use most of the time? What is your favourite ‘language’ in writing?

It is hard to say. Poetry is my first love so I am always writing poetry, regardless of what else I am writing. What I do is: when I am writing fiction, I take breaks by writing poetry. I think the one I do the least is probably the easiest to talk about: Drama. I have only had a short play put on before.

I love dialogue. I grew up with conversation around me. I was the kind of kid who would go and sit among the women at weekends when they came to cook, especially if there was a party. I loved the food, the conversation, the gossip, the laughter... and when I start writing drama, I am so keen for the dialogue to be right that I invest so much time for very little actual product, and because this is the early stage of my writing career it is more important that I produce more so I write more fiction and poetry but not drama.

: You have a new book out, Tale of the Bluebird, where did this idea come from?

Again, going back to the poetry, much of my ideas come from images. I get these images that stick in my head and sometimes they amalgamate. This was an idea that I knew wouldn’t fit in a poem immediately. And then it wouldn’t fit in a short story either. I thought the images* were too much. The initial image was of these remains. There was no name on it. It was just these remains on the floor in the middle of the space. And it was there the whole time. And then I got a flashback of something that used to happen when I was in the university: I would string together some money to go and see my mother at home. Now we had all left home, but every time I went home there was some new kid that my mother was raising in the house. My father died many years ago, in 1994. For me it was odd that the children had left but there were always children there. Between those images of these remains and the children who could not leave her alone, these two things came together and formed the nucleus of an idea that the remains had to do with retribution.

These women’s children had been taken from her but they came back. This was the nucleus of the idea. And then I started to explore, I started scribbling.

: At the end of the day, you have a story with some magic in it. You also have a ‘detective’ in the story. Were you worried about categories, about the fact that your novel could fall into a pigeon hole?

The bottom line is that we are communicators, and I am aware that the largest part of the English reading audience is used to a level of tension in a story, so I made a conscious decision to stay within a detective story structure in order that the ideas I wanted to deal with (notions of power and truth) could be shared. – Because people would get into the story quite easily. So I was less concerned about how my work would be perceived and more concerned with whether or not that message would get through. When the book was about to come out, I started to worry about that because the marketing department started to ask if there was going to be a sequel.

– And the moment you start on a sequel, you are falling into that genre where a detective is constantly solving crimes, so I said, well, no. I didn’t plan for a sequel, if one comes, it comes. And that’s when I started to think about that.

But the relief has been that the reviewers have actually picked up on the fact that it’s not actually a detective story. It’s like a detective story, but it’s slightly more than that. But for a moment there I was worried, because once the marketing department starts treating you in a certain way, that’s how you know where they are trying to push you.

: How has it been received in Ghana?

I haven’t had that many Ghanaian readers unfortunately, because the book is still at its ‘recuperation phase’ which is when the publishers have to get as much money from it as possible. It is still £12.99 at the moment, and if you convert that into an average Ghanaian’s portion of disposable income, then it’s ridiculous. So I haven’t had that many readers there.

Yet, the book obviously means much more to Ghanaians than to other readers. Even the names have messages in them; the woman who is beaten by her father is Mensisi, which means ‘do not cheat,’ or ‘do not trifle with’. So the Ghanaian reader would think: mensisi na iro p? se wo bo no. Even the name of the place is Sonokrom. Usono is elephant, so Sonokrom – even though it is not direct – suggests a place that is trampled over. So on several levels, it means more to Ghanaians. And one of the best comments on the book is from one of the people I went to school with, whose father is actually a writer – Kofi Anyidoho . She said that until she read my book she hadn’t realised that most of the African writers that she had read recently were writing for a western audience… that from page one she felt I was talking to her directly. To me, that was the best feedback, because I always say that I write for the boy that I was, and the boy that I was is out on those streets.

: Do these birds have a special significance in the story?

There is a code in the story, yes, but the bird is just a symbol. It was a symbol of what beauty hides or what beauty can conceal, because the woman goes in following the bird and the bird takes her to the remains. And when they clear the hut, and there were all these feathers, there’s one blue feather and the hunter says it from the bee eater, ‘and we respect it because it eats that which stings’. So that particular bird is a symbol of retribution in the book. But why I chose birds, I don’t know… we used to keep chickens, guinea fowls…

: So it was a common motif from your childhood?

Yes they were there. I remember my father always said that guinea fowls were hard to catch so because of that, we were always chasing the guinea fowls!

: The beginning of your book had a peculiarly different texture from the rest of the novel. Did you write that afterwards? Did you write it first?

The story that the hunter tells of the woman being beaten and children coming back (the story within the story) is the one I started out with. I had started the story in the middle but I imagined it being told, just as I had been told stories by an older person, in trickles. It didn’t feel right to use Standard English because it was too stiff for what I was trying to convey. So what I did was to take the lines… and situate them. And that was the beginning of the book. And I chose to start the book with that but my notion was that if anyone could read past this, the rest of the book will be easy. My publishers wanted me to put the other voice first. But I argued that we should do the hard work first. I agree with Toni Morrison when she said that the reader should work as well. You can’t disrespect your reader by treating them like children. You have to assume that they have the capacity to understand and process complex information.

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