Nii Parkes: a Ghanaian storyteller
Nii Ayikwei Parkes is a writer. Or rather, he is a storyteller because he does a lot more than write. Nevertheless, it is his writing that has started drawing serious global attention with his short story ‘Sock’s Ball’ being highly commended by the Caine Prize committee last year. This year, his debut novel ‘Tail of a Blue Bird’’ has been nominated for a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book.
We caught up with the storyteller to hear his own story in ten answers to ten questions.
How would you describe what you do?
I tell stories… in many ways. Sometimes storytelling is not about the existence of the story but rather about the broadcasting of the story: where you tell it and who hears it. Everybody receives the story differently, in a manner painted by their own experience. That’s why I am involved in publishing, editing, live events as well as writing.
What did you start out wanting to do?
I just wanted to have fun. In primary school, I threw stones, I played football, I stole mangoes, pawpaw… I grew up in this area (North Kaneshie) and I was almost a kubolor but my parents were a little too strict to allow that to happen. I roamed the streets. For me, Ghana was all mystery beauty and magic and I think that’s because I came to Ghana when I was five. There were all these languages, all this dust, trees I could climb, chicken, sheeps and goats… it was just incredible. I did not think much about a profession. When I was eight or nine, I started making ice lollies for the boys in the area. I had influence. People owed me money. I could get people to wash my clothes at home because they owed me money. I never really thought about what I wanted to do until Achimota School where I joined the drama club. I loved acting. I think that is where my love of language crystallized.
I finally decided that what I wanted to do wasn’t in Ghana. I didn’t even think of going to do something in the arts. You know you don’t even talk about that even with parents like mine (even though I think they would have been fine. I realized with time that my father was involved in arts when he was younger). I applied to do technology but I entertained thoughts of changing to drama. Unfortunately, my father fell ill with cancer so I had to postpone going to university for a year. When he died, I figured I could not do anything as risky as drama so I just went ahead and did technology. But at the point when I thought about it, drama was the thing I wanted to do. I wanted to be an actor.
Is that when the telling stories began?
Coming to Ghana was when it began. I was always a talkative kid. There was all this stuff around me and I wanted to talk. I made up stories. My mom would say I had an excuse for everything. There was always a back story for me. I wasn’t conscious of it but that’s probably where it started.
My father used to wake up early in the morning to read before he would go to work, around 5 or 5.30. There were four of us and I was guarded my relationship with my father and I was the one kid who could wake up early, so I would do that so it was just me and my father. The thing was he was reading so I could not talk to me. So he would hand me paper and I doodled. At some point, that became writing stuff down. I never gave it a name. I was probably just ten or eleven when I showed him something and he said ‘oh, you’re writing poetry now’ and so that became something which had a name. From that time, I started to save the things I was writing. It was just my thing.
Going back to the UK, did you experience culture shock?
Not really. My parents lived there for quite a while and my mother went every year. During the drought, my younger siblings were there for a couple of years before they came back so there was always a direct line to London. There was a temperature shock, but not a culture shock. My mom would bring videos and my father probably had the one of the best collections of cartoons in Ghana, because he was addicted to cartoons. We would see the films but we would not be subject to the hype, like Star Wars or the Top of the Pops craziness. That was the difference between us and our cousins abroad.
So what did you absorb from Britain when you went?
When I returned to England I saw everything (about England) clearer. I would say hi to people in the street and get the stone cold face. I started to notice things. I noticed the library and joined all the local libraries. I was there every day borrowing books. In one week I went through all their Alice Walker books; the next week, Toni Morrison.
I admire certain writers but I don’t know if I’m conscious of the influence. I don’t read them to imitate. But I always mention Mariama Ba, James Baldwin… I was struck by the range of his writing. People can’t get their heads around the idea that a black guy wrote a story about a white guy. It says that you can write anything. Then, of course, Ngugi. I read and liked his work when I was in Ghana but I read his essays when I was in London.
Locally, there’s Atukwei Okai, who I read when I was kid, but didn’t understand then. His work is very much about the music of language. It took me a long time to say ‘Logoligi Algorhythms’. In drama club school, we did the plays by the Nigerians – Soyinka, Rotimi – and by Kobina Sekyi and De Graft. We also did Ama Ata Aidoo ‘Anowa’. Most striking of the Ghanaian writers I read was Kofi Awoonor. He had a book called this ‘This Earth My Brother’ and I love that book. Not just because of the Accra it paints of its time and showing the variety of people’s origins but also the dual approach where he would write something that was quite abstract and alternate
I probably ended up reading more than I would have read than I would if I’d just stayed in Ghana. It became a bit more embedded. When you’re in England, people say “what writers are in Ghana?”
What do you think defines Ghanaian writing (the good and the bad)?
I don’t think I know. There’s an incredible range of social and linguistics experiences in Ghana that change how a person sees the world so I would be hesitant to say that this is the Ghanaian voice. You have people like Lesley Lokko and Mohammed Nasiru Ali who writes his stories based in the Kumasi zongo. His stories are like a new country to me. What he’s choosing to write is an experience I don’t know. I’ve always been wary of labeling things. But I would say a Ghanaian novel should have some indication of linguistic range because that is most Ghanaians’ experience. You can’t live in Ghana and not hear two languages in a day.
I’ve been quite worried that because of the lack of libraries people haven’t been aware of the evolution of the English language. People still write quite stiffly… in a very Bronte sisters type of language, which is not the right costume for the Ghanaian experience. I try to tell people to look at slang in English novels: they are the ones who brought this to us. I really feel like when people stop apologizing for who we are and start to write language the way we speak it then you will start to see in writers from Ghana the kind of muscularity you see for example in Latin America. We own the language in speaking, but we don’t in writing. It’s almost like we are apologizing for what we speak.
Is there anything that defines a Nii Ayikwei Parkes book?
I have my obsessions and they may not all appear in the same work. I’m very interested in micro-conflicts: the notion that a man differs from his brother significantly. Their experiences are different so as much as they are brothers, they’re different. That’s one of my themes.
I also play with the idea of love not being reversible. I don’t believe that if people have loved, they can take that love away. Even if they call it hate, it’s a kind of love. That’s something that recurs in my work.
My socialist leanings also come through in my work. I portray the non-human pursuit of wealth as a kind of path to destruction. It’s very directly used in one of my short stories ‘The Smell of Petrol’ in which this guy is trying to hold onto a car that he bought. The car is pulling him into a ditch. But he’s stayed for so long to put that car on the road, his family is there but he doesn’t care about them. I let the work take its own path.
The Tail of a Blue Bird is an exploration of power. The other one is that you can never escape your family. It’s a very claustrophobic notion but I think a lot of Ghanaians will recognize it. People around the world even. If you’re not talking to your brother and he goes to do something, people will say that was your brother.
In that story there’s a woman whose father beats her. When she marries she moves away from him. But when he’s ill she feels compelled to come back to him which gives him the option of beating her again. So she can’t escape her family. But the love is irreversible comes into it because she miscarries several times because of these beatings but her children come back to her. They are otherworldly beings but they come back to her.
Have you come across any local Ghanaian talent that you’re really excited about?
I haven’t been out there to see what’s out there. Mamle Kabu was nominated for the Caine and I think that’s good and a good direction. It would be good to see more Ghanaians write short stories because it’s part of their gestation into writing more meaty stuff. Kenya’s gone that way and we’re starting to see novels. A lot of the guys who started out doing that ten years ago are now starting to write longer pieces.
I’m thinking about doing a short story workshop at the Ghana Association of Writers before I go where I teach the workshop method where three or four people get together and review their work.
I’m still a growing writer. The work I’ve done already could fall into a couple of phases. The next phase from childhood writing was secondary school when I wrote love letters for people for a fee. The transition from that was into love poetry. When I was touring there were parts of America I even became known as the guy who does love poems though I never saw myself as just that.
Then there was the performance period where I would amend the beauty to mix with the message because when you are performing, people want the message in there sometime. I was influenced by the practicality of being a performance poet and making a living that way.
Then there were the early short stories, very focused short stories. Those gradually developed more layers and nuances. I think that’s what then leads into the novel approach.
How would you define Accra?
Accra is a place about finding balance. I think you can see it when you are driving. The taxi driver will insult you and then he will laugh. They very rarely take their rage to the point of confrontation. Look at flirtation with the market trader to get a discount. She doesn’t expect you to take it to the next level and you don’t expect her to. It’s like a see-saw and you could tip it where you want to. Accra gives you the opportunity to be yourself and impose your own character on any situation. If you wanted to be enraged that taxi driver would fight with you and if you wanted to go further with the market woman, she just might go there.
To find out more about Nii, visit his website: www.niiparkes.com
By Kobby Graham