We caught up with the globe-trotting Nii Ayikwei Parkes on a recent getaway to Ghana visiting family (“To the Batcave, Robin!”). The performance poet, editor and author is behind many of the coolest literary events happening in the UK like the African Writers’ Evening Series at Poetry Cafe in London. His debut novel, Tail of the Blue Bird (2010), is a detective thriller that pulls apart the delicate ties binding urban and rural space, community and difference, mysticism and modernization in Ghana.
Check out what Mr. Parkes had to say during our rap session.
5 Questions. 5IVE ON IT.
ADA: How did you fall in love with the word (spoken + written)?
Parkes: I grew up in a loud household – everyone’s always talking and cracking jokes, laughing, so it was natural. I was born in England. I grew up in a house where Ga was spoken and outside English was spoken so there was a curiosity about languages that came out automatically as a result of that contrast between indoors and outdoors. My parents spoke English and everything but at home they spoke Ga with us and I do that with my kids, too.
We moved to Ghana when I was four and again it was a huge contrast because suddenly there was ten times more languages and I think because of that I would repeat things and you fall in love with words – with the music of words – by repeating things. Someone would say something in Ewe and I’d want to repeat it and then in Twi and I’d want to repeat it and I think that’s where it started.
Parkes: The novel is told in two voices – a first person voice which is a transliteration of Twi and a third person voice which is standard English. Even though it’s all in English there are words I believe came into usage as a result of contact with the English or any other foreigners [words such as driver, Sundays, minister, khaki, pure water]. So what I’ve done is to italicize those words but because the entire text is in English, my editor and a few people just could not get it and wanted to completely understand what was going on.
But the amazing thing is readers just read it and they get it and I think there’s something about people wanting to understand everything whereas I don’t think literature is really about that. It’s about evoking a feeling, sending a message across. But it’s not word-for-word understanding. I don’t think we as writers even fully understand that.
ADA: On the subject of writing, what do you think of the contemporary art + literary scene in Ghana?
Parkes: It’s a very small child but it’s growing! One of the most refreshing things is I’m seeing people coming back. And those engaged with the arts are coming back and starting things off and I think that is really important. What happened in the past was there were people who were on the administrative side of things who’d been involved in the arts outside, who came and tried to do exactly the same thing here without really kind of getting a sense for what’s going on. But I think it’s different when it’s the artists themselves because artists take the pulse of the society and respond to it. The initiatives that are coming out of the artists themselves are slightly more dynamic and responsive to local tenor.
ADA: You’ve created a Writer’s Fund here in Ghana. What’s the vision for this work?
Parkes: The vision is to enable writers more. We are just starting a laptop bursary so every year we’re going to have open submissions and have some aspiring editors from within the country to judge. For the top three winners – I’ll get two top novelists from around the world to look at their editorial choices. The person that they choose as the best editor, we’ll get them an E-internship with a U.K.-based publisher and the work that is chosen, they’ll get a laptop so that they can work more freely. That’s one of the schemes that we’re gonna kick in.
ADA: You come to Ghana at least twice a year. What do you look forward to each time?
Parkes: Space. Just light! The food…and not having to explain myself so much. I think there’s something about being home…where a lot of things you find yourself explaining when you’re not at home you don’t have to explain here.
One example is, I did a reading, it was a poem and I refer to a joke in it and in England I find myself having to explain the whole thing. And over here [at a book reading in Accra earlier this year] somebody said, “Oh, I know that joke!” And that’s the thing that is so…it was such a relief.
So I look forward to relief, if I had to sum it up. It’s familiar, it’s comfortable, I have all my siblings around me.
Wax poetic with Nii Ayikwei Parkes | @BlueBirdTail