Nii Ayikwei talks poetry, publishing

Saturday May 5 2018

Ghanaian award-winning writer Parkes Nii

Ghanaian award-winning writer Parkes Nii Ayikwei. PHOTO | DANIELA INCORONATO 

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Ghanaian award-winning writer Parkes Nii Ayikwei singles out established publishers who refuse to adapt to new ideas and governments that do not support local creativity as the biggest drawbacks to the development of the publishing and creative industry in Africa.

Nii Ayikwei who was recently in Kampala on the invitation of the African Writers Trust, said; “we need new companies with new ideas in the industry, the likes of Cassava Republic and Parresia publishing houses in Nigeria.

“Governments too need to put in effort at restocking their national libraries regularly and updating their school reading lists. This would be nowhere near what is needed to improve creativity but its an important starting point.”

Nii Ayikwei had a poetry performance at The Mackinnon Suites where he read a couple of his poems such as Dark Spirits, Those Who Bathe with Cold Water and Bottle. He also read a short story titled The First Shampoo Hair Show.

Although he is an editor, novelist, publisher, socio-cultural commentator, broadcaster and performance poet, he is best known for his highly acclaimed hybrid literary debut novel, Tail of the Blue Bird (published by Random House, 2009), which was shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Prize and translated into German, Italian, French, Japanese, Spanish, Dutch and Catalan.

His short story, Socks Ball was highly commended in the 2009 Caine Prize for African Writing competition. He has won France’s Prix Laure Bataillon. In 2014, he was selected one of Africa’s 39 most promising authors of the new generation.

Love for music

On stage, Nii Ayikwei is known for his versatility and his love for music and especially jazz collaborations. He has performed on major stages like The Royal Festival Hall in London, Java in Paris and Paradiso in Amsterdam as well as at the London Jazz Festival in 2005.

In an e-mail interview with The EastAfrican, he said he wears many hats. “I was actually employed as a food technologist before I quit to become a writer and, given how much I love food, I might still have been doing that if I hadn’t chosen to try this particular dream.”

His love for languages, wordplay, detail, music and the fact that he questions everything, inevitably led him to poetry.

He writes in a range of genres, but mainly poetry and fiction. He argues that “there is always something new to discover and because you create and exist in imaginary worlds, all knowledge is interesting and valuable when you are a writer.”

Nii Ayikwei says that his creative writing and poetry have themes, rather than messages per se.

“Humans are complex so there’s no telling what they will get when you think you are sending a particular message. My primary theme is the opposition between humanism and capitalism, and perhaps almost as important is the reinterpretation of language. Having grown up multilingual and reading books like Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Decolonising the Mind, I am acutely aware of the place of language in shaping thought. If you can reshape language, you can reshape the way people think and that’s a powerful idea.”

“In poetry, I explore reinterpretation through the structuring of phrases, line-breaks, stanzas and, occasionally, creating new forms of words; in prose I have so much more text to play with so I am able to explore language through the voices of the character’s that populate the work,” he adds.

Commenting on how we in Africa should exploit our strong oral literature tradition in the contemporary world, Nii Ayikwei noted, “Everyone will have their own way to do that; it’s not for me to prescribe. What I will say is that it’s important for people to believe in the integrity of their stories.”

Asked if he has encountered any challenges in his work, he said, “None, really. There are hurdles one has to negotiate as an outsider operating in a largely Western-dominated publishing world, but those are par for the course. If I could extend the hours in the day - that would be a huge challenge overcome. There are so many stories to tell and too little time.”


Nii Ayikwei Parkes was born in 1974 in Lincolnshire, in the United Kingdom. He lived and worked in Europe early in his career, but currently lives in Ghana.

As a person of colour, he speaks out on racism because it affects him. “I have experienced racism on several occasions and my response depends on the situation. I think I’m most militant when it affects my children, but in a case where people make ignorant comments about my command of the English language at readings or conferences, I usually respond by calmly pointing out the implications of what they are saying, the related history and what it says about themselves that they feel entitled to comment on my command of a language,” he said, adding that, “one of the odd things in the world is people are comfortable being racist, but are very uncomfortable being called racists.”

As an editor, he formed the London arts organisation Tell Tales with Courttia Newland in 2001, combining music and storytelling to provide audiences with interactive short story readings. Tell Tales also produced compelling anthologies of diverse groups of contemporary UK writers.

He worked as a contributing editor to The Liberal, and has had work and opinions published in newspapers, magazines and journals, including Wasafiri, Poetry News, The New Writer, The Guardian, Poetry Review, Storyteller Magazine, Mechanics Institute Review and Sable.

He thinks his best work is yet to come but is “proudest of the work I have done as an editor.”

Nii Ayikwei counts Margaret Busby as a great influence in publishing, but as a writer his eldest daughter Okailey’s appetite for reading has certainly played a huge part in his focus on writing for children.

He has published several poem pamphlets including the Michael Marks Award-shortlisted pamphlet, Ballast: a remix (2009), described in The Guardian newspaper as, “An astonishing, powerful remix of history and language;” and The Makings of You (Peepal Tree Press, 2010).

He also has a full collection of poetry, The Makings of You (Peepal Tree). He is currently completing a book of short stories, The City Will Love You to be published by Unbound as well as two projects for stage.

He holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Birkbeck (University of London, UK) and is a 2007 national Arts Critics and Reviewers Association of Ghana (ACRAG) Award winner for Poetry and Literary Advocacy.