Nii Ayikwei Parkes is an established writer, editor and author of three poetry chapbooks. His accomplishments include designing a pair of ’Chuck Jones’ for Converse All Stars and receiving a commendation from the Unisong International Songwriting Competition for a song titled, ’The Sweetest Minute’. Tail of the Blue Bird is his first novel.
EM: What was the inspiration for Tail of the Blue Bird?
NAP: I was carrying an image of some remains in my head. I then began to think of all the things – the powers – that intervene in the journey from birth to becoming ‘remains’.
ED: Tell me about the process of turning this image into a complete novel.
NAP: I’m a binge writer, I don’t really have a routine or specific method. I carry images in my head for ages, then characters emerge and I start to write when a scene comes to me. Once I start, I let the characters and my curiosity about them guide the plot. Tail of the Blue Bird took about 16 months from the first word, but I had to take breaks to earn a living.
EP: How did having to break affect you as a writer and the work itself?
NAP: Taking a break created difficulties for me, because I had to re-read what I wrote to rediscover the soul of my characters, but I don’t think it affected the work itself, except to delay its completion.
EP: At what point did you know that you were writing a detective novel?
NAP: It’s not something that happened by chance. I made a conscious choice to place my story and my exploration of power in a detective frame in the interests of suspense – to maintain the tension. But I don’t consider the book a detective novel. Other people call it that.
EM: I’d call Tail of the Blue Bird a whodunit that pits post-colonial modern culture against traditional culture.
NAP: I’m not sure I’d call the novel a ‘whodunit’ myself. As I say, I did find elements of the detective genre very useful in managing tension and pace in what is, essentially, literary fiction. Regarding pitting cultures against each other, the funny thing is, although the publisher’s marketing of my book talks of a ’clash’, I don’t think there’s a clash at all. I believe cultures have always lived side by side, separated by distance (or even bodies) rather than time, and often overlapping.
EM: I can imagine that, after sixteen months, you were living and breathing the story of Tail of the Blue Bird, so how does it feel to hear it described as a whodunit when that was not your intention? Have you been surprised by any other reactions from your readers?
NAP: Because of my background as a poet and the range of interpretations one encounters when people read one’s poetry, I have become used to relinquishing to my readers the meaning of what I write. I had concerns about the publisher’s description of my work, of course, because I thought it would ‘lead’ the reader; but I have been relieved to find that reviews have not followed any particular perspective.
EM: And you don’t think that there is a clash of cultures in Ghana today?
NAP: It is not my place to say what prevails in Ghana. I know what guides my characters’ actions and I know what guides mine; beyond that, anything I say is speculation – for who knows the hearts of men?
EM: I can understand that as a writer you wish to show us a situation and not comment on it, but if I ask you to put on your social commentator’s hat for a moment, can you say something about modern Ghanaian culture and how it inspires this work?
NAP: One of my other motivations in writing is the exploration of micro-cultures – the idea that each day a person differs from the ‘identity’ they had yesterday, because they learn something new every day. For that reason, I feel that the idea of ‘modern Ghanaian culture’ or modern ‘any’ culture, is a falsehood that gives comfort to us in the exploration of ‘the other’. For example, on a macro level, if I say the new co-exists with the old in Ghana, it is no different from London or 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. On a micro-level, however, my ‘modern Ghana’ could be different from my younger brother’s ‘modern Ghana’ because I speak one less local language than he does, which means his range of perception is different, and by extension, his experience is too.
EM: Early on in Tail of the Blue Bird, Kayo and his friends complain of feeling powerless. In a post-colonial country such as Ghana, where in your opinion, does the power lie?
NAP: I don’t think Ghana (or any country for that matter) can be branded post-colonial, wholesale. Reality is much more complex than that. Nevertheless, in a capitalist economy – which Ghana, largely, is – the power always lies where the money lies and the quest for that power is the engine of corruption.
EM: How did you handle this power/money nexus in the novel?
NAP: It is one of the things I explore – you see people in power seeking to amass wealth, e.g. the police inspector; and people with wealth believing that they have power, e.g. Mr Acquah. But there is nuance – their beliefs are not strictly accurate (as Mr Acquah finds when he crosses the police); neither are money and power their only motivations.
EM: The women in Tail of the Blue Bird are truly diverse, from the bar owner and Kayo’s caring mother to the misguided but dutiful and abused daughter. Did you deliberately set out to show this aspect of Ghanaian society?
NAP: I think those are aspects of humanity, not Ghanaian society. Ghanaian society is simply a canvas. All good literature is an exploration of the human condition. I can find you a bar owner and a dutiful and abused daughter in any country in the world.
EM: Opanyin Poku’s voice in the novel is a direct transliteration of Twi. I think this provides a wonderful insight into his character and the culture that formed it. I can think of only one other African author, Amos Tutuola, who has used this technique in this way. What made you decide to write Opanyin like that?
NAP: As a writer, I’m very faithful to character and there was no way that stiff Anglicised prose would capture him. It wasn’t so much a decision as a retelling of what he said.
EM: Can you give non-Ghanaian readers an idea of how the use of Twi, albeit transliterated, helped you portray his character? What was it about the language that is so different from English?
NAP: Twi is full of imagery and references to proverbs and historical precedents. Considering Opanyin Poku’s age and the environment he lived in, having had no direct contact with the colonials, it felt truest. Provincial English still has those qualities, but I am no expert on provincial English.
EM: How did agents and publishers respond to the transliterated voice?
NAP: I have a fantastic agent in David Godwin; he works across several cultures and has an instinct for what works, regardless of its style. It was a little trickier with my publisher, but once I explained what I was doing to my editor it was fairly straightforward.
EM: The transliterated voice is authentic and poetic and only possible if its author has a deep knowledge of Twi language and culture. Do you think that this type of immediacy is possible when non-Africans write about Africa?
NAP: If they know the language well and really experience the culture, rather than observe it from a kind of anthropological viewpoint, then, yes, it’s possible. I don’t think it’s been done, but it’s possible. By the same token, many Africans can write very authoritatively in non-African voices – the likes of Lesley Lokko and Dorothy Koomson are doing so very successfully.
EM: You quote from Kofi Awoonor, a Ghanaian poet, at the beginning of Tail of the Blue Bird. Why him?
NAP: The simple answer is that I like that quote, but beyond that I’m a big fan of Awoonor’s This Earth My Brother. I think he took risks with language and structure in that book that foresaw the hybrid writing that I do in Tail of the Blue Bird: the fusing of genres, the re-imagination of language. It’s great that I’m able to quote Awoonor because it maps a Ghanaian literary heritage that many people are ignorant of.
EM: In the past you have raised funds to promote Ghanaian writers via the sales of your self-published book Shorter (2005). Are Ghanaian writers less successful than other African writers?
NAP: Are Ghanaian writers less successful than other African writers? I don’t think so, but – with the exception, perhaps, of South Africa – an African writer on home soil needs a bit of help. The libraries are poor, we have almost no literary agents and the publishers that operate locally don’t pay writers.
EM: Have you worked on any interesting projects with Ghanaian writers and can you give us some names of writers to look out for?
NAP: I have done some mentoring via e-mail and we’ve sent a few books to the offices of the Ghana Association of Writers to improve access for aspiring writers. Mamle Kabu is a name to look out for.
EM: What was your first writing success?
NAP: I’ve played with words for such a long time that it’s hard to say. I’m prouder of the things I do to help others – the literary events I organise, the people I connect with each.
EM: So what advice would you give to a Ghanaian writer starting out?
NAP: The simplest. Write because you love to and keep writing…
EM: In general, how well do you think African writing is received these days?
NAP: Well, in Africa it’s always been good, but outside Africa it’s hard to say. There have been some high-profile successes, such as Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, but most people still think if they’ve read one African writer then they’ve read them all.
EM: Adichie lived and worked in the US. Do you think this has made her work more accessible to Western audiences?
NAP: I don’t think that living and working in the US makes a writer more accessible in their work, necessarily. For interviews, yes, but otherwise, accessibility is always about the choices the writer makes on the page.
EM: Do you have a sequel planned and if you do please can you have Kayo get it on with Esi?? (I was willing him on).
NAP: I didn’t write Tail of the Blue Bird with a sequel in mind. Kayo and Esi didn’t happen during the investigation because it was out of character for Kayo. I don’t know if a sequel will come, but if it does I’m sure I’ll enjoy writing it – I love all my characters, even the ’bad’ ones.
EM: In the spirit of your first novel let me finish by saying a huge ‘ayekoo’ to you for a delivering a dynamic and multilayered tale set in Ghana. What’s next for you?
NAP: I’m writing a new novel that starts out in 1960s Congo. I have a new poetry chapbook out called ballast: a remix, and a full poetry collection called The Makings of You due out in 2010. Then maybe I’ll write some songs.
Tail of The Blue Bird is published by Jonathan Cape. Find out more about Nii Ayikwei Parkes at www.niiparkes.com.