Nii Ayikwei Parkes on his novel Azúcar – Belonging and the Birth of a Novel

words Nii Ayikwei Parkes

My new novel Azúcar is about belonging. I like to think of it as a “coming to love” story, embracing all the bruises and scars life brings and finding loves in the midst of it all. It’s a book about loss, but there is joy in the undercurrent of it, because loss creates new spaces for joy. It’s a love story between two people who learn that belonging has a cost, but what you’re willing to pay to belong, to keep any myth in your story, is your choice to make.

Nii Ayikwei Parkes book

So how did it come about?

When I first read the Mexican-American writer Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street in the early 1990s, I was enchanted by the incredible storytelling, but, also, one little detail jumped out at me – her narrator’s name, Esperanza. I have an aunt called Esperanza! We call her Auntie Espie, and in the Ghanaian tradition of absorbing ‘foreignness’ we had never questioned the name. In much the same way that the argument over my European surname Parkes in Ghana would be about whether it comes from Cape Coast (where a Portuguese castle sits, and many Europeans had children with local women before and during the slave trade), or from Accra (where many ex-enslaved migrants from Sierra Leone, Brazil and Liberia settled), Espie had become part of the landscape – I had never once considered the name’s Spanish lineage.

Auntie Espie, for us, was that über glamourous aunt who acted in plays, worked for the broadcasting corporation, did catering on the side (and cooked amazing meals), had razor sharp wit, and had held the national Discus Throw record for a decade before it was broken by Ghana’s multi-discipline athletics legend Rose Hart. She was part of the fabric of our childhood, where Jimmy Cliff played in the background on weekends, the vegetable garden ran wild, funny stories were told of our great-grandmother’s energetic Krio outbursts; we ate and ran and danced and climbed mango trees. Even when I realised that Auntie Espie’s name was Spanish, I didn’t think much of it until over 20 years later when I was in conversation with my late uncle, Kofi Awoonor about our family’s Sierra Leonean roots one evening in Kenya. It was the last time I sat with Uncle Kofi – the next day he was murdered in the Westgate Mall Attack. However, a seed was planted.

I knew from Sierra Leonean history texts (as a result of my great grandfather J.C.E. Parkes being a political figure there), that I had family roots in Guadeloupe and Jamaica, but I had never explored beyond that. After Uncle Kofi’s death in 2013, I started a document to establish timelines and approximate the times and dates of migration (voluntary or forced), birth and death for my scattered global ancestors. I also began to write down musings on belonging and the wealth generated by exploiting African people, which became the foundational notes for my latest novel Azúcar. Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes that “in general, black authors do not admit to a line of literary descent within their own literary tradition”. Although he is referring to African American writers here, the inclination still persists to some degree globally. In the case of Azúcar, I subvert that notion and claim narrative descent from oral histories and related speculations. I remembered that my father often spoke of his grandmother coming from Fernando Po (a former Spanish colonial island, now known as Bioko and part of Equatorial Guinea), so I did some research and found that amongst the population of the island were a group known as emancipados – Africans, some descended from freed Cuban slaves, who had arrived on the island as administrators as a result of their Hispanic Catholic educations. I have no information that suggests that my great-grandmother was from this Cuban community, but I took it as a third connection to the Caribbean and a platform for the creation of Fumaz, the fictional Spanish-speaking island at the heart of Azúcar, which also mines from the histories of Nicaragua, Colombia and Venezuela.

Nii Ayikwei Parkes

I also used the Spanish Caribbean as a platform to pay homage, in the storytelling style, to both the trickster character Ananse, whose tales I had grown up on and survive to this day in the Caribbean, and Latin American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez whom I’ve long admired. Placing a large map printout on my wall, I drew an island right in the middle of the Caribbean sea, where the fury of hurricanes would probably wash it away if it ever existed, and began to play son, calypso, salsa, reggae, merengue and bachata music, creating the visual and sonic world from which I would imagine the novel, for which I completed my first draft in early 2021 without ever finding out if my great grandmother spoke Spanish.

Then, in the summer of 2022, I took my British-born kids to Ghana and went to visit Auntie Espie, their now octogenarian great-aunt. She took one look at my youngest girl’s bangle-laden arms and laughed.

“You know my grandmother loved bangles – just like you!” she said.

“Really?” my daughter jumped up and down, with the kind of energy only kids seem to have. “What else did she like?”

“Red wine,” laughed Auntie Espie. “She used to walk around the house with a glass of red wine in one hand, her walking stick in the other, chattering in Krio and Spanish, and telling off my dad.”

Azúcar by Nii Ayikwei Parkes is published by Peepal Tree Press and available to buy online here: https://amzn.eu/d/halkYyI

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