African novelists aren't travel guides
For our inaugural episode of Africa: Stories in the 54, we spoke to award-winning Ghanaian author Nii Parkes, who speaks about his love of language, his frustration when African authors are considered 'travel guides', and his upcoming projects, Tales of the City, a collection of short stories, and Azucar, his upcoming novel.
Changing languages is an everyday thing for most of us in sub-Saharan Africa.
Your first novel, called Tail of the Blue Bird, which was shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Prize, has just been translated in France under the title Notre Quelque Part, which roughly translates to “Our Somewhere”, and it has already won two awards here in France. Language is so important in this novel. How was it dealing with the two Ghanaian languages that feature in the book?
Africa: Stories in the 54 Episode 1
I think what was lucky in that sense, for French particularly, is that in Ghana for instance, we share languages with Cote d’Ivoire, a francophone country, so you do have that kind of shift between languages that we have, but also in French. And my translator born and grew up in Benin. Even though she doesn’t speak Twi, she speaks Gbe, so there’s a kind of similar structure to the language. So she was able to understand some of the games I was playing in the language, and some of the changes that happened, and the fact that changing languages is an everyday thing for most of us in sub-Saharan Africa. When you’re buying something you’re speaking one language, you’re talking to your teacher you’re speaking another language. Talking to one grandmother, you’re speaking one language, talking to another grandmother you’re speaking another language. So she understood that so it made it possible to get a great translation.
In your book, you give snippets in two different languages. Can you speak these languages?
My first language is actually Ga. And I wrote Tail of the Blue Bird in the hunter’s voice, Opanyin Poku’s voice, I wrote it thinking in Twi and transliterating it into English. So the English structure is very odd. So the French translator, Sika Fakambi did a great job of doing something similar in French. I read the first chapter that she translated and I said, “You’re going to translate the book. No one else is going to translate this book.” And yes, language is vitally important to me. I was born in England where my parents were studying. And so I went to Ghana at the age of 3 or 4. At this time I spoke English and Ga. And then I was in this place - and first I was struck by how much light there was. Because I thought the amount of light you would get in England was the amount of light you would get in life. (Laughs) But also, the first day in school, just the number of languages around me, and I would listen. And I didn’t understand it but they all had a music. And for me, that’s the thing I love about language - the music. So even languages I don’t understand in Ghana I still like to learn phrases of, and in other countries as well. So yes, I do speak Twi and Ga, but also in there there’s Pidgin English, our own elevated version of English which we use in Ghana. And all of that was very important to me because I feel like there is no true way of rendering an African city if you tell a story in just one language, because that’s not what happens in those cities.
When I was reading this crime thriller, I loved the attention to detail, to the tiniest details that could send somebody back to another place. And there was one piece that I really liked. Could you just read it for us?
I remember when I was a kid, when a bottle of coke was opened, it wasn’t for one person, ever. Even if you could afford it, it was something that was poured into a few glasses. And now a bottle of pepsi or a can of pepsi is opened, and it’s just for one person, and they might have a couple. And it wasn’t an African thing, per se, that’s what it was like all over the world.
You’ve worked on a collection of short stories that is coming out called The City Will Love You. Some of the stories have already been published in magazines, but not all of them. Here’s an excerpt of “When We Were We”, which deals with immigration:
The idea of writing this collection came when I was staying in a very tiny studio in London. And I realized my own habits were changing because of the space I was in. And the thought extended then to the city to look at people’s behavior and lifestyle has changed when they live in cities, and so, a collection of studies started to come together, there were already three stories and then I started to build… and it was an exciting project to work on. And I’m looking forward to it coming out and hopefully it will be a bridge between this novel which is out already and the next novel, Azucar, a very weird novel about a non-existent Spanish-speaking Caribbean island.
What has inspired you? Because this is different from what you’ve just presented.
The novels are about all sort of ideas. I like using non-existent places because nobody can argue the placement of a streetlamp, when I want them to think about humanity. It’s a particular problem of African authors, because our work is read as travel guides very often. I mean, the number of people who have said to me, ’I’ve bought your book because I was going on holiday to Ghana.’ You know, it’s astounding! And then I always have to tell them that that village does not really exist, I hope you didn’t go looking for it. (Laughs) So it’s a particular problem and I do want to talk about ideas, so the first book, Tail of the Blue Bird, is very much about power. But of course, you’re also a storyteller, you want to entertain.
With Azucar, I’m looking at belonging, with the idea of how you come to belong to a place. So there are two main characters in that story. One, whose parents are from the island but were born elsewhere, and one who migrates to the island, but comes to feel like they belong there. And so there’s a love story. And the sugar part I always like a touch of the outrageous so there person who’s born outside the country but whose parents come from the island, inherits some land on the island but the land is saturated with sugar. So nothing can grow. That has to be resolved. And I was playing on that as a metaphor for places that have lots of riches, but people don’t benefit from them...It’s about the Caribbean. So it’s both about the love of Spanish and the Caribbean. It’s also the fact that our histories are so tied in sub-Saharan Africa to the Caribbean and that is not explored enough. And so, the character that migrates is from Ghana, of course. But he’s in a country, where he may not have grown up speaking the language, but he doesn’t look like he’s not from there. It’s not overt in the writing, but it’s there. The fact that you can walk into a place, or land in a place in the Caribbean and no one will actually question you until you start speaking because of the slave trade and related issues, because you’re at home in this body of water with lovely beaches and no one will question you.
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