Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Tail of the Blue Bird

I've just finished reading Tail of the Blue Bird by Nii Ayikwei Parkes.

I can't remember how I stumbled upon this, but I have been searching for African-authored literature lately. I do remember listening to a really interesting interview with Parkes, but now I can't find that particular interview. 

I did find another, though: Ghanaian poet on quest to nurture African writers, in which he said:

One of the most interesting things about writing is it is up to the individual writer to decide how their career can go for them. Ultimately, it is up to each writer to do their thing.

Which is rather good advice for any writer, and something I'm taking to heart in my present situation.

I absolutely loved this book. It was brilliant. It begins as a sort of whodunnit, deeply steeped in Ghanaian culture. Reminded me a lot of Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri crime series. Only - without spoiling it - it's not at all what you expect. 

I must admit, I learned a lot about music, as Parkes likes to throw tracks in there: Hugh Masekela's Zulu Wedding, Stevie Wonder Too HighJewel Ackah, Egya Koo Nimo's Akora Dua Kube (which I couldn't find, but Efie ne Fie).

I love a good book you can groove to.

Also, lots of mention of food, including fufu, which is a dish known throughout Africa, and always good with meat sauce. Other dishes included: palaver sauce, apem and kenkey. I wish we cooked in East Africa as well as they do in West. Mouthwatering memories of Sierra Leone: peanut butter chicken, jollof rice and palm wine.

I also learned that, apparently, if you add bonsamdua (distemonanthus benthamianus) extract to palm wine, it makes it stronger. I assume that wasn't entirely fiction.

I've had more trouble looking up animals of the forest, though. If anyone can let me know what aburuburu, ndanko, otwe and duiker are in a comment, I'd be grateful. 

This was such a fun story. All about a UK-educated forensic investigator returning home to Ghana, encountering frustration at the nepotism and corruption of furthering his career, ending up being forced to work on a crime out in a rural village. Completely pulled me in. Parkes is also a renowned poet, and it really came across. I'm starting to think that poets can be seriously impressive when they turn their hand to prose. There's a certain quality there.

Love this little simile:

The obsidian from the water pot was lying under the kete like the lost eye of a bat.

As always, I honed in on the parts about stories and storytelling, of which there's quite a bit:

That is the story. Like all stories, it is a story about forgetting, for if we didn't forget there would be no mistakes and there would be no stories.

On this earth, we have to choose the story we tell, because it affects us - it affects how we live.

Kwaku Ananse is employed by one of the storytellers, and I almost dropped the book when the hunter telling that story came out with this:

...in the tradition of our elders, maybe I will put myself in the story but it is not me, you hear?

The reason it hit me so, is because people say the same here in Rwanda. You tell stories after dark, because they bring bad luck in the daylight, and you're always careful to make it clear that it is the characters in the story, not you, the storyteller, lest you become trapped within the story you are telling. There is an example here in Maguru and Insibika. It was fascinating to see that this is a pan-cultural thing across Africa, and I wonder whether we find it in other cultures around the world? 

Talking of pan-cultural, one of the characters, a lady, good-naturedly says "Oh, get away." That took me right back to my nana in Carlisle - such a northern phrase in the UK. Interesting to hear it in Ghana. I wonder whether it's a traditional turn of phrase, or whether it arrived with the colonists? 

The story was strewn with proverbs and canny observations. I particularly enjoyed these ones:

When fear catches you, it returns you to screaming, your first language.
You do not light a fire under a fruit baring tree.
Book law and gun power can never teach you how to deal with human beings. 
Man has his plans and the ancestors have their plans, and sometimes they are not the same. 
Even ghosts, when you get close enough, are our kin.

I think my favourite was:

My mother used to tell me that it was good to finish your business before the sun sets, because then the sunset was not the end of the day, but the beginning of the night.

This is a brilliant book. I was really sad to hear him say in the interview I listened to (but can't find!) that it was a stand-alone and he wasn't planning to write any more. I hope that changes.

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