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The Spider’s Bird

“A bird is living its life – if you let it be the world continues to turn; if you insert yourself into its world, reality changes, the story changes, just the way the Ananse stories I was told altered with my input.”
My storytelling begins from Anansesεm, the Akan collective noun for Ananse stories. Often, when people hear that reference, they think of it in terms of trickery because of Kwaku Ananse’s history of guile that has travelled the world through the transatlantic slave trade, morphing into folklore via new names: Brer Nancy, Anansi, Kompa Nanzi as he settled in Suriname, Jamaica, the USA, Curaçao and other parts of the exploited world. However, in my case, the inspiration comes from the philosophy of the telling of Anansesεm, as I was told them as a boy. I was struck by the way the teller would ask for names and responses to questions, and incorporate them into the story, as if the story were responsive to its audience rather than a ready-made world they had to learn to inhabit.

The point of departure for my novel Tail of the Blue Bird (2009) is exactly that: a bird is living its life, if you let it be the world continues to turn, if you insert yourself into its world reality changes, the story changes just the way the Ananse stories I was told altered with my input. It is a starting point fuelled by humility, and that attitude informs everything else in the novel: no worldview can assume superiority, it can only answer questions or not. Interestingly, in the editing process my open-ended conclusion was challenged, until I revealed that I am myself a Western-trained scientist who thinks about what he does. What that editorial hesitation illustrated to me is that a West-centric ‘logical’ approach to story structure is so ingrained that to not assert it is considered a challenge to its primacy. So the novel’s posture, its willingness to be in conversation, is its first protest: I am story, not theory, not a rationale.

The responsive, conversational heritage from Ananse goes on to inspire the rest of the novel. What if… what the city considers a crime is not recognised as a crime in the village? What if the village were a character in the conversation? I wanted the experience of reading the novel to be akin to the power of the proverbs that often sum up Ananse stories. For me, the African proverb is the ultimate eternal conversation. Where Western thought has rooted itself in theorems and laws, the village of Sonokrom in Tail of the Blue Bird is rooted in proverbs. Proverbs maintain the villagers’ conversation with the world because they have no obsession with an ultimate version of events; the proverb’s meaning unravels according to individual experience. Let me give an example. We can sum up Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation by saying that two objects attract each other less when they are far from each other and more when they are near, and bigger objects have stronger attraction. Now, if we take that to the apple and the earth, as the earth is bigger than anything on it, it has more pull than any apple, person or object on it, so we all fall downwards – and a physicist could calculate the speed of your fall from your weight – except it also depends on your shape, except it also depends on what you’re wearing, except it depends on wind resistance… it could go on forever, so we are only usually told the first part and science retains its ‘authority’ to speak, or not. A proverb would summarise the whole thing by saying, how you fall depends on what you fall into – or something along those lines. It is easy for some observer with no grounding in the culture to dismiss it as a quirky local saying, but those who know will tell you that based on your experience it could mean so many things. Someone who has fallen on hard times and been bailed out by a friend might say, ah, that’s why the elders say ‘how you fall…’; a kid that trips and ends up in a patch of grass instead of the concrete slab adjacent might say the same thing; a reflective student, hearing Newton’s Law for the first time, might also make the connection. That is the power of the proverb, its very nature giving it an inherently wider currency in human experience than the didactic posture of theories that emerged from what we have come to know as the Age of Enlightenment.

Also presented as conversation, rather than clash, as is often the case in Western narratives, is the gap between the city and the village. Those of us with hybrid heritage have always known that we don’t feel any loud clashes in our bellies as we walk the street. We are not torn or confused; we simply know the world in more ways than people who claim a single heritage. In the same way, people in the city carry elements of the village, and vice versa. Kayo (one of the protagonists), for example, is the product of three cultures filtered through particular meshes – Akan through his mother, Ga through his father, and a hybrid of Western cultures through his education. The hunter, Opanyin Poku, who is the mouthpiece of the village, can be identified culturally as Akan, but the particularity of hunting shapes his worldview, giving him a unique voice that, unlike an Akan person in the city who may espouse a more exploitative approach to the use of natural resources, can see the environment and its degradation and laments the loss. The particular twist in the conversation that the village in Tail of the Blue Bird has with the world is that while they are aware of Western colonialism – indeed very tangibly through the presence of a Kenyan settler, Gawana – they have had no direct contact with colonisers. It was a twist inspired by an article about a community discovered in the Amazon in 2001 [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/1267845.stm], which led me to thinking about how that community would now have to inherit the ‘national’ history of Brazil into which they had been colonised, when they had never in fact encountered the colonisers.

So what do all these conversations do to a crime novel? Well, they alter the nature of questions that we ask as we read the story. They add nuances that we don’t expect. For example, except for wealthy country-folk narratives where murder is enacted for financial gain or to gain revenge, most crime novels are set in urban areas, because the killer often needs to appear unconnected to the victim (at least initially). What happens, then, if we know every character that could possibly be connected to the victim? What becomes of the mystery in the murder?

The Ananse-inspired dialogic and spiritual core of conversation makes it inevitable that the village bar should be an important axis to tie together past and present, urban and rural, private and public, honourable and shameful. All around the world the hubbub that emerges when one opens the doors of a bar is a familiar sound, punctuated by the slosh of liquids, the occasional infectious laugh and, now and then, the slap of bodies in conflict. But Akosua Darko’s bar is more than that; it is a portal where one slips between folklore and what is happening in the present; it is a metaphorical representation of Sankofa, one of the wisdoms of the Adinkra symbol scribing system of the Akan. Sankofa translates as San (return) Kofa (go and take it) and is represented either as a bird with its head turned backwards with an egg lodged in its beak, or a stylised geometric sign that looks like a cross between a womb and a heart. In essence, it asserts that we must go back in order to go forward; we must understand the past before we can understand the present. Akosua Darko’s bar is where spirit, heartbreak, healing and abundance huddle; where Opanyin Poku’s knowledge holds its greatest sway as posturing yields to dialogue in the thrall of potions; where a Western-trained scientist learns that there are versions of life beyond what he has studied.

It is Opanyin Poku with his experienced voice of reason, delivered on the page in an English that is derived from transliterated Twi, who helps Kayo realise that his European scientific approach only teaches him to ask how, but never why. This insight dislodges a hitherto Cartesian axis of inquiry and inserts a new axis that sits closer to the spiritual. The new axis is reflective of a broader cosmology that encompasses both the scientist and the diviner; an axis that expresses the reality of a man who wields the power of life and death as he hunts yet understands that he is subject to fate; an axis that is expressed in an English lexicon grafted onto the particular experience of an Akan hunter.

Indeed, the entire book is a conceptual mirror of the language that welcomes the reader into the novel – Opanyin Poku’s monologue of observations, history, omens and humour. In that, it is the manifestation of a quintessential ‘Roaring Twenties’ Western entertainment format, the crime novel, transposed onto West African, specifically Akan, sensibilities. Within that voicing, the dignity of any existence cannot be questioned, because unlike the chauvinistic approach beloved of normative capitalist ‘shoot-em-up’ fiction, the Akan view is that all things have dignity: people, languages, animals… Even a tree cannot be cut down willy-nilly. For that reason, the natural world sits proud in the wings of the story coming forth to hold court, as with the moment when Opanyin Poku questions Kayo’s ability to explain deaths, and at the very opening of the story, where a bird leads a woman to the hut that becomes the primary crime scene. Also indicative of the Akan view is the arrival of Gawana, the Kenyan Mau Mau migrant, who is welcomed and whose grandson is referred to as ‘this young Gawana… one of us.’

The appearance of Gawana is a nod to the constructed space in which the main drama unfolds, a space inspired by the Brazilian first-contact story I mentioned earlier, of a people outside the scope of the history peddled in schools, where the colonial framing of indigenous lives holds no sway; what I like to call an extra-colonial space. In that world, the tools of authority from the colonial and imperialist playbook, such as the police, are robbed of their power because they are not recognised, creating a need for a more discursive approach to crime-solving.

In the realm of dignity and discourse, we return to Ananse. If your listener or reader has dignity, then you open channels of discourse, as the hunter does at Akosua Darko’s bar, as Kayo does after he becomes attuned to the needs of the village of Sonokrom. In that discourse, we can also question the very premise of the crime novel: has a crime really been committed, or not? In Tail of the Blue Bird, that question is asked through the mundane – through the steady, uninterrupted everyday lives of its inhabitants, continuing without pause. In this way, the story lives in its community, in the same way that communities can come alive in Ananse stories, in dialogue with the generosity of the teller.

Nii Ayikwei Parkes

Nii Ayikwei Parkes is a Ghanaian-British producer, editor and writer who has won acclaim as a children’s author, poet, broadcaster and novelist. Winner of multiple international awards including Ghana’s ACRAG award, his novel Tail of the Blue Bird was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize, going on to win France’s Prix Baudelaire and Prix Laure Bataillon in 2014; and his latest book of poems, The Geez (2020) is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, was longlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize, and shortlisted for the Walcott Prize. He was the founding director of the Aidoo Centre for Creative Writing in Accra and is the founder of flipped eye publishing, a leading small press. Nii Ayikwei serves on the boards of World Literature Today and the Caine Prize, and has served as a judge for several literature prizes including the Commonwealth Prize, the NSK Neustadt Prize and the Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize. As a producer, he is the founder of the African Writers’ Evening series of talks and serves as the current Producer of Literature and Talks at Brighton Festival. He is currently a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of West London.

© Nii Ayikwei Parkes
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