Another Heart of the Matter: An Interview with Nii Ayikwei Parkes




THE NOVEL Tail of the Blue Bird is set in a remote Ghanaian village where nothing is quite the way it seems. A chunk of human flesh found in the home of an older man named Kofi Atta has sparked the curiosity of a high-ranking police official, who drags an unwilling pathologist named Kayo into the case. He dutifully collects evidence but soon encounters a hunter named Opanyin Poku, who makes him question the evidence, and hears the faraway sound of a xylophone that throws his rational scientific certainties into doubt.

The author, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, is one of the rising stars of West African literature. Born in the United Kingdom to Ghanaian parents, he grew up in Ghana, studied chemistry, and later became an accomplished poet. Parkes served as a writer-in-residence at California State University, Los Angeles, before relocating to Ghana. Tail of the Blue Bird was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 2010 and was the winner of the Prix Laure Bataillon upon its French publication in 2014. He spoke to LARB in the lobby of the Ibis Hotel near the airport in Accra, Ghana.

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TOM ZOELLNER: Why did you choose the mode of a detective story?

NII AYIKWEI PARKES: I certainly read a lot of classic detective stories growing up. Sometimes they didn’t have covers because they were passed around a lot. In 1993, when I moved to England, I read Walter Mosley, James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard. There’s a paying of homage to this form, which came primarily as a problem-solving element for the story-within-a-story.

For the mystery at the center, there’s a statist explanation based on Western science and another explanation from the hunter Poku.

For me, the book is about power, on many levels. Different versions of the truth are the power of one narrative over another. I wanted to write a book where everyone’s version of the events was valid and not judged, but also to uncover the root of the story. It’s not a whodunnit. It’s a howdunnit. I like books in which the questions live on.

One of the great surprises of the novel is that the Western narrative is a corrupt lie.

I am struck by the fundamental human capacity for filtering information as it suits us. This happens on an individual level. Two of us look at a painting and describe different things, as a result of our vocabulary, our perception, our experiences in the world. What I find with history and the way that it becomes institutionalized is that we take one perspective, publish it in a book, and that version becomes the definitive history. Ever since I was little, I’ve always had issues with that. I was trying to say every history, no matter how true it is, is always a lie to someone. You look at a fight in professional sports in a replay and it looks completely different than when you saw it at normal speed. If I’m a five-year-old in the middle of a war, what do I see that’s important to me? If I’m a 26-year-old, what do I see? If I’m a 90-year-old, what do I see? Which of these histories is more important? Which of these histories is truer? I think none of them.

Readers often look for a single voice of reason in these stories, and it doesn’t emerge here. We’re primed to think of Kayo as a hero, but in the end, he succumbs to pressure to create a false narrative.

Nobody can be 100 percent clean in a world that is essentially about compromise from birth. You’re born into a family with two parents who may tell you different things. There are always competing narratives from the very day you’re born. For me, the village was a character.

Kayo gets drunk on palm wine and hears a xylophone. What was the narrative purpose of that?

The bar is important because it is the veil through which things can shift and be slightly murky and we can accept it because there’s drink involved. As readers, we’re more likely to believe something slightly out of the ordinary if it’s told by someone who is slightly compromised in their objectivity. The xylophone was almost like a conscience: you hear it and not sure where it comes from, but it makes you act. It makes you come back and question what you were certain of.

The reader finishes this novel reasonably sure there wasn’t a murder in Kofi Atta’s house and that the biological remains were something else. Did you intend that inference?

What we end up with, however we construct it, is not an old man who had a child who had a grandchild. So whether it’s the lung of some vagabond from across the border, or something more mysterious, it’s not Kofi Atta.

Is a reasonable reader led to believe incest has taken place?

There is a foundation for that, but we don’t know.

Comparisons to William Faulkner are inevitable.

Yes, I suppose: an isolated community with its own rules. When I was doing the writing at Cal State L.A., I spent a lot of time talking with a colleague about Faulkner. But there’s also Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, where there’s a community of isolated religious men and the answers can only come from within.

On some level, science breaks down.

The point I was making is not that science cannot hold up, but that it asks completely different questions. They are questions of a different order. I’m a scientist by training, and I didn’t feel like I was betraying science because I always had questions as I was studying it. We talk about coefficients of heat transfer that are given for certain materials, but we know that any material with a blemish does not follow the formula 100 percent. If we accept that nothing is perfect in the world, then there is no coefficient of heat transfer that is going to be 100 percent accurate. All the traditional faiths that we ridicule, they get people close to peace. If we’re going to say that if anything is not 100 percent true, it’s not true, then nothing is true. Then we’re in this space in which we say there are many different ways of looking at the world. Let’s not disdain one just because we have a set of figures that allow us to approximate.

But Poku still expresses admiration for Kayo?

If you talk to people who practice any kind of faith or ritual, they have a respect for tradition and procedure and process. I don’t believe there’s anyone we would call religious who wouldn’t go into the lab and respect them. I used to go to an Anglican church, and you’ve got these chants and this culture that’s been built, and you fall into it to the point where you don’t question it. Science has a liturgy, too.

It’s hard to read this novel without thinking of two Ghanas — the tension between modern societies and traditional chieftaincies.

That’s the reality. It goes beyond this nation, because we all have it in us. We have words — serendipity, charm, luck — but it comes down to our inability to be completely in control of our world. Some of us may find it harder to admit than others. People in villages are so much more relaxed about things, because they don’t find the need to explain everything. And I find the same thing in every country I visit. There are two Englands, two Americas: a sliding scale from the urban to the rural. All novels even in their specificity are about the human condition. I have met Russians who will read coffee grounds in a way that’s at odds with the space program. People solve their problems with what’s closer to them. And in Ghana, the state structures of justice don’t reach into the villages. Somebody in a village is almost guaranteed not to seek redress in court.

Sometimes novels written by poets are held in suspicion, because the readers assume that it’ll be off in the atmosphere, and about language, and about things that are not grounded. But whenever Kayo is on the page, it was extremely straightforward.

I had a great mentor in England, Courttia Newland, who had a residency at a theater. He returned one of my first stories with a bunch of red marks. And I realized that the language wasn’t necessarily a problem, but it had to have a focus, a directionality. Once I understood that, I think I gradually honed what is I suppose an already prevalent tradition of storytelling in Ghana. When I was a kid, I would describe a film to my friends who hadn’t seen it, and they would do the same, and so we had to be very detailed. Yes, I was exaggerating at times, but it was driving the story forward.

Can you say here what that biological material was in Kofi’s house?

I’m not sure I know myself. Books get their ballast from the reader’s interpretation brought to the text. It’s one of the things you have to learn to relinquish as a writer.

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Tom Zoellner is LARB’s politics editor.


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