Nii Ayikwei Parkes Talks … Book ‘Azúcar’

Award-winning author, poet, editor, writer, broadcaster, educator and socio-cultural commentator Nii Ayikwei’s latest book Azúcar is only his second novel.

Azúcar is set in a world which interweaves Caribbean & African cultures into a socio-political-satirical-romance story.

Parkes tells about how he brought his latest project to life, the importance of debunking global misrepresentations of Black people, and how he’s become a better lover …

Please introduce yourself …

I’m Nii Ayikwei Parkes, a Ga-speaking man born in the North of England, raised in South East London and Ghana, and claiming heritage from Ghana, Sierra Leone, Jamaica, Equatorial Guinea, Guadeloupe, Canada and the United States of America. I’m a Pan-Continental, Pan-African, writer, an editor, a father, and a full-time dreamer.

Describe your life right now in a word or one sentence

Full.

Tell us about your latest book Azúcar

Azúcar is about belonging. I like to think of it as a “coming to love” story, embracing all the bruises and scars life brings and finding loves in the midst of it all. It’s a book about loss, but there is joy in the undercurrent of it, because loss creates new spaces for joy. It’s a love story between two people who learn that belonging has a cost, but what you’re willing to pay to belong, to keep any myth in your story, is your choice to make.

What triggered this story?

There were a number of triggers. A major one was a conversation with my late uncle, Kofi Awoonor (who was murdered in the Westgate Mall attack in Kenya) about our Sierra Leonean roots; then I had a sudden realisation that my having an aunt called Esperanza was not random – my great grandmother was Spanish-speaking and I had been impacted by Spanish Imperialism as well as English; and, of course, as you can see by my earlier answer, my
heritages are multiple and for my children, it’s even more so, so belonging is a question that has lived with me for a long time.

How does Azúcar follow your first novel Tail of the Blue Bird? 
All my novels (he says as though he has more than two) share the use of fictional spaces, which is a tool I employ to try to avoid the specific geographic readings mainstream Anglophone culture can bring to writing from the Global South and keep the focus on ideas. They also share a concern with the dignity of characters of African heritage, unrelated to Western perspectives, and, in hindsight, the notion of belonging is touched upon in Tail of the Blue Bird in the way assumptions are made about the second major character, Kayo because he has studied outside of Ghana.

How did you and why did you marry ‘socio-political satire with romance?

One of the freedoms of creating a new land in which a story is set is that you create the history of that land. The satire comes in because if you consider the history of the West logically so much doesn’t make sense. For example, you can’t buy refined gold (which requires a complex chemical process) from people and call them savage at the same time. So the satire is around politics, leadership and international trade, drawing from ironies such as the historic US embargo on Cuba and the concurrent use of Cuban cigars by the most powerful politicians in the country enforcing the embargo. The romance is in the music and the relationship between the people and the land, and, of course, some of the characters.

Setting the story in a fictional Caribbean island with a Ghanaian-born protagonist there’s something about the unification of African and Caribbean cultures that is important for us historically and politically when you consider today’s climate, discuss … 

The connection has always been there. The tragedy is that it has been hidden, partly because of how history is taught and partly because of trauma. There are many families in Africa that have long-standing heritage connections from Africans from the Caribbean and Latin America who settled in Africa while colonialism and slavery still persisted. That’s because even under colonialism, Africa was generally a safer space for black bodies in the world at the time.

In many families, the history wasn’t spoken about and has become buried. For example, in Ghana, people are more likely to have a discussion about whether my European surname, Parkes, comes from Cape Coast (where many Europeans had children with local women), or from Accra (where many ex-enslaved migrants from Sierra Leone, Brazil and Liberia settled). However, yes, it is absolutely important that our connections are discussed, and that individual circumstances, cultural adaptations and innovations are respected and recognised, while
acknowledging the foundational African philosophies we share.

I recently visited St Lucia, where my host, Auntie Mary, remembered clearly that her grandmother’s name was Yaa Yaa – a very Asante (Ghanaian) name. I have also visited Grenada, Cuba, Guadeloupe and Trinidad and I am constantly amazed by the parallels I see with my upbringing in Ghana – from the way we show love, to the way we cook, to the way we shape language. Understanding our connections and the wealth of our shared history is important in debunking misconceptions and strengthening our resistance to the discrimination we face globally as
Black people.

When you write, are you in the stories or are all characters removed from who you are?

I can only tell stories using the vocabulary I have so there is always a bit of me in them in that sense, but otherwise, I tend to write partly as a quest to learn, so that characters are very different from me. I keep certain connections because they are useful starting points in imagining alternate inner worlds; for example, I write female characters by starting with elements of the women I know. I come from a pretty big extended family so I have a whole range to pick from.

Through poetry, commentary and books, you’re very much a storyteller – which story had the most impact on you personally, and what’s your intention behind being a storyteller?

The Ananse stories I was told as a child are foundational to my storytelling. I loved the way that we (the kids listening) were always included, the way the narrative was flexible enough to make space for us and how humour remained at the centre even while the story was teaching lessons. I carry those intentions in my work, but as poetry is my first love, perhaps I pay even more attention to language. Having said that, even the language element comes from the local songs I listened to. I mean a Twi phrase like Odo ye wu (love is death) is so layered, you can’t help but try to replicate that energy. In novel form, the story that had the greatest impact is an epistolary one – Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter which I first read as I was becoming a teenager. It altered my perspective, revealing to me the expressive authenticity that comes from speaking within a specific experiential vocabulary (in this case, a West
African woman practising Islam). I have never thought of any situation from just a man’s viewpoint since – that’s lifelong learning.

Anansi the Spider

Highs, lows, solutions

Phew. What a question. I started the initial writings around Azúcar soon after the birth or my third child so finding time was a challenge, but I managed to work around it and I got a three-week residency in Italy that I was able to take up with support from my ex, who had to solo-parent for that spell. After that initial period I slowly got through it, taking music classes along the way so I could write about the musicians in the novel with more confidence. The
real challenges came after I finished; so many publishers wrote the most complimentary feedback on the book, commenting on how evocative and compelling the prose was, but would say they didn’t “know how to sell it”, which is basically shorthand for “it doesn’t cater enough for who we imagine white readers to be”, so the book sat with me and my agent for a long time, until I suggested we speak to my poetry publishers Peepal Tree, who are invested
in stories from the Caribbean and Black Britain and I knew would judge the work on its merits and not its perceived marketability. In all of this, I am truly grateful for my very supportive agent, David Godwin, and my French publishers, Editions Zulma, who pre-empted and signed the book before I even finished it. Their faith sustained my belief in the story and allowed me to complete it.

GETTING TO KNOW YOU
What’s your current plan B?

My plan B is to grow old disgracefully. Stories are my world.
What’s made you Sad, Mad, Glad this week?

I always miss my kids’ physical presence during the week and that makes me sad, but it’s bittersweet because I talk to them, and they make me laugh. I’ve been mad for close to two years because race-based targeting of my son and my ex by a Kensington & Chelsea primary school has still not been resolved and it takes up my energy. This has been a week full of gladness: I had my book launch, caught up with old friends and drank some good rum.

What are you watching right now?

I don’t own a TV, but I occasionally binge-series to unwind. My most recent ones have been Black Ops (BBC iPlayer) with Gbemisola Ikumelo, whom I love, and The Afterparty (Apple TV), which is kinda like Only Murders in the Building in one night.

What are you reading right now?

Stuff that I need to edit, but I recently re-read Niki Aguirre’s 29 Ways to Drown and completed Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Open Water.

What are you listening to right now?

Ooh, a totally mad podcast by York and my friend Kemiyondo, called How Red Is Red? It’s about relationships and red flags and it’s hilarious.

The last thing you saw on stage?

It’s been a while. I think the last thing was Slave Play in New York. My family friend Ato Blankson-Wood was one of the co-leads. It opens with a lot of shock elements, but it’s a haunting play.

What’s on your bucket list? 

Going on a heritage trip to Jamaica with my kids, visiting Zanzibar and playing a minor part in a film.

Where’s your happy place?

In bed, the lights off, music playing.

Celebrate someone else …

I just discovered a musician called Thabo; I really love what he’s doing incorporating
traditional Bantu music with contemporary and futuristic sounds – and he has a great voice.

Celebrate yourself …

I’ve become a better lover in my old age; I mean that I’m so much better at loving the people in my life, letting them know they are valuable and making the time I have with them count.

Whose footsteps are you following in?

All my ancestors.

What’s Next?

I spent last year attached to the Hutchins Centre at Harvard University for a research fellowship. I’ll be spending the next year or so making sense of all I learned in the last year, but I expect a book or two might emerge from that.

Where can we find you?

In the kitchen, trying stuff out. I’m a little obsessed with food.

We want to buy your latest book …  

Azúcar is in bookstores all over the UK now. I write articles too, for the likes of National Geographic and the Guardian, so perhaps it’s best to follow me; Instagram is best @niiayikweiparkes.

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