Author: Nii Ayikwei Parkes.
Overview of my thoughts: I think this book was downright brilliant.
Synopsis: Some minister’s girlfriend comes to a village called Sonokrom, where she’s freaked out by some inexplicable remains of what appears to have once been a living creature. (There’s a blue bird feather in the same room.) An egotistical maniac of a police Inspector recruits a Ga forensic pathologist who calls himself “Kayo” to investigate and solve the case. The rest of the story is about what Kayo did and discovered.
The plot is beautifully strange.
Tail of the Blue Bird is the first/only novel of its kind I have ever read. If there are several detective/crime/mystery novels on the Ghanaian literature market, it would seem my eyes have been circumstantially closed – because I’ve not been intentionally avoiding them. But this novel isn’t unique simply because of its genre in cultural context: it’s the way the mystery genre is executed that I think makes it so distinctively Ghanaian. (I say Ghanaian for the smallest unit of specificity I am willing to narrow down to, but I could have said West African, African, or even Black). Two defining features I think make it a success in this regard are (folk)lore and magic. Those were the things that excited me the most.
“It was my grandfather, Opoku, the one whose hands were never empty, who told me that the tale the English man calls history is mostly lies written in fine dye.” – Opanyin Poku
There is no good reason why there shouldn’t be magic and absurdity in a Ghanaian mystery novel. In fact, I see every reason why there should be. Speaking as someone who, in 2016, entered a committed relationship with African history both as a personal and academic interest, I can honestly say there’s a good amount of our history that is mildly to heavily magical. I consider it a large contributing factor to why wypipo have treated accounts of African histories – especially oral ones – as illegitimate. In a European paradigm, there is history, and there is folklore/mythology, and they are kept in two different places. In a (West) African paradigm, history and folklore/mythology can be and are often legitimately considered the same thing. I’m not sure any Ghanaian who has done JSS Social Studies would need convincing of this, when we’ve been taught in our schools about golden stools dropping from the sky and about entire ethnic groups emerging from underground or being led to their claimed lands by elephants. Et cetera. Tail of the Blue Bird is exactly the kind of mystical Ghanaian (hi)story that excites me, in novel form! (Can you see me transforming into the heart-eyes emoji right now?)
Let’s talk about the story’s style. It’s one thing to have a brilliant idea (the plot). It’s another to have the genius to determine the right style for it, and even multiple styles, if that’s appropriate – as it is in this case.
I think Ghana in its modern state (the book is set in 2004, and I’m a teenager who considers every year I have memory of as “modern”) exists in a kind of duality. I admit it’s probably more spectral than binary. One end of the duality includes metropolitan cities – the Accras, Temas, Kumasis etc. – and the other end includes what we casually refer to as “the villages,” the places we continue to connect to our ancestral traditions, and the places where “the witches in [my] village” try and fail to accomplish our downfalls.
Tail of the Blue Bird was a reflection of that duality, both in setting and in style. On the metropolitan side, we had the modern Accra settings, with the scientific labs and offices, the places police have influence, the kind of setting in which an England-educated forensic scientist can almost comfortably exist, and the novel’s plot being interpreted as a mostly logical and systematic attempt to solve a real-world crime case. But we are frequently removed from the metropolis and transported into the other side of the duality, where we’re in the Sonokrom village, reading first-person narration from Opanyin Poku, a septuagenarian hunter-storyteller who has spent his whole life in said village, thinks in parables, and speaks truth through Anansesɛm, revealing the very same plot through a lens that processes a world where magic and curses aren’t merely fun, made-up fables. Reading this novel was like having a superpower of double-vision: reading the exact same story through two wildly different filters. Crazy.
Perhaps the most interesting character to me was Opankyin Poku. I thought his slightly verbose tendencies were very appropriate. He would sometimes drop proverbs and deep memories in the middle of his narrations that I thought were rather irrelevant to the plot itself, but extremely relevant to our understanding of his character. He was authentic in that I know people like him in real life, who really do be droppin’ proverbs left-right-center at the slightest opportunity. Opanyin Poku’s narration made the reading experience so much richer and more enjoyable for me, for its denseness, its unabashedly Ghanaian rhetoric, and its musicality. It’s the kind of musical narration that you get when you translate Twi (which is what Opanyin Poku actually thought and spoke in) to English but leave the semantics as untouched as possible.
“It is no mystery that when something leaves your hand grief can take its place; it is the same way that rain takes the place of clouds. What we cannot understand is how heavy the rain can be.” – Opanyin Poku
But perhaps the one thing I think this novel did exceptionally well was to marry the Ghanaian oral storytelling art with the art of the genre novel. The truth only comes out in folkloric story form, and it is only spoken. The spoken truth is never written anywhere but in the mind of the ones it is spoken to. Tail of the Blue Bird is a testament to what I think is fact: that African history and (folk)lore are intricately tied and are probably not going to get divorced for a while yet, if ever.