The Birth of Azúcar by Nii Ayikwei Parkes

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Azúcar by Nii Ayikwei Parkes

By Nii Ayikwei Parkes

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.

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.”

(c) Nii Ayikwei Parkes

About Azúcar:
Azúcar by Nii Ayikwei Parkes

Azúcar (sugar) is a novel about belonging in a world where all things are on the move: people, ideas, foods and not least music. Oswald Kole Osabutey Jnr, henceforth Yunior, leaves his family in Accra to travel to the mythical Caribbean island of Fumaz where the revolutionary philosophy of peopleism just about keeps its flame alive against the forces of a USSRs-inspired political bureaucracy and a stifling trade blockade from imperialist USAs.

Yunior brings the knowledge of the scientist, the skills of a farmer and the heart and invention of a musician to life in Fumaz. He must find some way of rescuing the island’s famed sweet rice industry from collapse; as farmer, he sees how much of his West African food has journeyed across the Atlantic to make the island’s unique cuisine; as musician he becomes part of the spirit that puts the island on the world stage, out of all proportion to its size.

This is a novel of ideas – how much is accidental in the world? How much can be planned? – but it is love and death, harmony and conflict and the motives of vividly drawn characters that are the drivers of this zany narrative whose prose is as flowing, elegant and heartfelt as the music that moves freely back and forth across the seas between Africa and the Caribbean.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Nii Ayikwei Parkes, born in the UK to parents from Ghana, where he was raised, is a writer, editor and socio-cultural commentator. A recipient of Ghana’s ACRAG award for poetry and literary advocacy, he is Senior Editor at flipped eye publishing. Winner of multiple awards, notably the Prix Laure Bataillon for the French translation of his novel Tail of the Blue Bird, he splits his time between Ghana and the UK, where he produces literature events and teaches.

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