Welcome to the Tea Interviews.
I devised this feature to edify fellow artists and to share that edification with you readers/participants. I've seldom met an artist, particularly a writer, who didn't tend to gab or spill opinions or offer musings on his/her own work and worldview. Therefore I'm tapping into this common tendency.
(Most of the questions are tailored toward the featured interviewee.)
Tea Interview with Nii Parkes
D: When and how early did you catch what Faulkner would call the writing "demon"?
Nii: My demon was embodied in morning wind, tea with lime and the smile of my father. Early each morning my father used to sit outside and write and I used to go and sit beside him and imitate him. I don't remember exactly when I started writing. I have writing saved from the age of 11. I started well before that, though. I was one of those kids everyone said talked "funny"!
D: You were born and raised in Ghana, as I understand, and later educated in Manchester, England. Was migrating to Manchester a cultural shock?
Nii: I was actually born in England and lived in London until I was 5. We moved to Ghana partly because my Dad didn't want us to grow up in a racist environment (I was becoming quite violent at school). Thus in a way, London was never a shock, but Manchester (where I studied) definitely was. It was a total "student" city, everyone was drinking like a fish and there was so much to learn. I wasn't used to people getting hitched and breaking up at such alarming rates!
D: Surely you recall your first performance-poetry gig. Care to briefly share the experience?
Nii: I think I have to answer this on three levels. My very first public reading was in Achimota School in Ghana, but I was reading someone else's poetry (John Pepper Clark). I wasn't very nervous, but I was very conscious of what I was reading, how I sounded, and how well - there was no microphone - I was projecting, since I had quite a small voice. My first public reading of my own work was in Manchester after two friends (Helene and Shelley - to whom my book is dedicated along with my father) unearthed some of my poems and forced me to read at a Valentine's Day reading in 1996. This time, I was as nervous as hell and my little notepad was shaking like a washing machine in spin cycle, but I got a great crowd response and that's probably what got me to start sharing my work. That's why I'm so thankful to Helene and Shelley. And my first paid gig was in London quite recently in 2001. For that I was as cool as can be.
D: Please tell us a bit about Manchester's Black Writer's Group of Commonword.
Nii: Commonword is a group that's been going for 10 years. Maybe more. It's simply a collection of Black writers that meets on Wednesday evenings to discuss and share their work. The power of the group lies in the brutal honesty and constructive criticism of its members and the loyalty we share. Out of the group have emerged Black science fiction writer Peter Kalu and superb poets Lemn Sissay, Dike Omeje, and Sonia Hughes. Without Commonword, I probably wouldn't have succumbed to the writer in me. They watered the seed and even though I ran it grew.
D: You contribute to your Ghana's literary scene. What does this involve? What is the state of literature---and art in general---there?
Nii: The literary arts are dying in Ghana. A country that has produced the likes of Kwesi Brew, Ayi Kwei Armah, Ama Ata Aidoo, Kofi Awoonor and Atukwei Okai, should have at least one author in International Bestseller lists every other year, but that's not the case. We don't even produce any decently edited books locally. In many developing countries the arts are not funded or supported although talent abounds. That is my main concern. I have many ideas for contributing to the rebirth of the Ghanaian literary scene, but to date the only initiative in motion is a Writers' Fund which I conceived in 2000 and have been networking for ever since. I hope to have it launched officially in 2005 with awards for writers who show promise - either for workshops, or to buy time to complete works in progress. Ultimately, I believe my biggest contribution is doing what I do and making others believe it's possible.
D: I noticed a reference to "muslin knees" in your splendid piece "Grandma's Feet". Is this your religion and/or your heritage's chosen faith? A few words, if so/if not?
Nii: Islam is not my religion. In fact, although I respect many religious teachings and I feel a strong connection to God, I do not have a religious affiliation. My family is Christian, but that reference emerged from the time I spent teaching in Northern Ghana in a Muslim community. I likened the religious way in which we gathered at my grandmother's feet to hear her speak to the religious dedication of my students to their faith.
D: Your poetry collection, eyes of a boy/lips of a man, wonderfully melds nature (particularly African) and contemplative emotion---also allowing humor and unaffected romance. If you were asked if you devised a definite theme for this book (and you just have been asked - HAH), what might that theme be?
Nii: With hindsight, the underlying theme of eyes of a boy is duality. I didn't conceive it though; it just happened. Perhaps it was because I had just returned to Ghana and been struck by the easy way in which we reconcile blessings and curses, good and bad, without having to resort to definitive, classifying labels. Perhaps it was because I was a scientist trying to rediscover myself by writing my way into my soul. I don't really know. All I know is I had to write it to break out of the cycle of talking about writing and not actually doing it.
D: Trivial curiosity causes me to ask this next question. I seem to recall Sakumono being a lagoon or being an area containing a body of water. You refer to the name in "Sakumono Magic" in your book.
Nii: Sakumono IS a lagoon, and I happened to drive past it every day on my way to work... One day, I stopped to watch the fishermen at work (yes, I was late to work!). The result is "Sakumono Magic".
D: I'm quite fixated on mortality and how the human foreknowledge of its fact plays with our worldviews, art, and mental health. I was oddly delighted to see you end the book with "Rendezvous With Death". So I ask you: Beyond the poem, what is your honest assessment of death, particularly your own demise? (In the piece you write: "I wish I was the kind who could look death in its many eyes and bid it come." Should this imply that you do fear death to a degree and to eradicate such fear is an important wish?)
Nii: As a child I had a mortal (ironic phrase, huh?) fear of death, and gradually - thanks to several chats with my father - I came to understand it as an inevitable transition stage. In fact I went beyond that. I no longer fear death; I only fear not living my life to the full. That is what embodies my fear of death, but I also want my death to be pleasurable, or at least spectacular! And I definitely want death to surprise me. Where's the fun otherwise? That's what I was playing with in "Rendezvous With Death"
D: Is there inherent evil in Humankind, countered by a Standard of Good? (And might that good involve a creator God?)
Nii: This comes back to the issue of opposing dualities which I touched on briefly before. I do believe in God, because I don't believe I would be a creative being if there wasn't a God. In many ways I think I'm simply a vessel. However, I don't subscribe to the concept of an inherent "evil" in humankind. The very words "good" and "evil" are defined by humankind and therefore I question such concepts. We are different people at every moment of our lives and our standards are a sliding scale dependent on so many things that our claims of logic are illogical. In my world there are dreams and compassion. Some people's pursuit of their dreams leads them to harm others. Other people are more compassionate in the pursuit of their dreams.
D: Briefly, your favorite author(s)/favorite book(s)/why?
Nii: For language, Yeats, Neruda, Conroy, Soyinka, and, recently, Arundhati Roy; for structure, Faulkner, Armah, Shakespeare, and Mariama Ba; for characterization, Saul Bellow, Walter Mosley and Zora Neale Hurston and for atmosphere, Ben Okri, Alice Walker and Hemingway. My favourite book changes all the time, but The Prince of Tides (Conroy) and So Long A Letter (Ba) are always in the top 5.
D: I've noted that you are working on a novel. Care to share some brief words about it? (Titles are crucial to me, as a writer who loves creative language and names. Have you a title in mind?)
Nii: I'm waiting for the title to come to me, but the novel is a coming of age novel, where the hero marks his life changes with funerals (surprise, surprise!). It's a bit more complicated than that but it's hard to explain...
D: In your poem "A Walk Through Philadelphia" (featured on SubtleTea.com) you use the image of the fractured Liberty Bell as representation of American Forefathers' hypocrisy in regard to accepted slavery.
I happen to agree that the antithetical nature of that day's acceptance of human subjugation next to the Constitution's grand defense of liberty could not rationally stand time's test. Something had to give---and did, though gradually and reluctantly.
But would you agree that this disparity was more problematic than simple, popular history tells? Consider Thomas Jefferson's candid words:
"The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him...And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever..." [Italicized by interviewer for focus]
I think it was inevitable that slavery crumble in America OR the liberty experiment would undoubtedly have crumbled instead, as in the rest of the historical world. What do you think of such a thought?
Nii: It's interesting. A statement from a President who thinks and has a point of view! Well, undoubtedly it takes two to tango, but when one person's life is on the line are they really hearing the music? And do they have the choice to stop? In any case, interesting point on liberties; history has shown that he was right to tremble... And the volcano is only temporarily dormant.
D: Nii, I'm impressed with your poetry in particular, and your overall energy, spirit, and drive. I wish you blessings on your path. Any last words for the readers/fans?
Nii: Thanks for reading! And if there's anything I've learned don't believe everything you read (including this!). Filter everything and only keep what's real.
click on the photo to visit Nii's site
[back to top] [home]
© 2003 SubtleTea Productions All Rights Reserved