The Responsibility of Being Other by Nii Ayikwei Parkes
On occasion I am asked to explain why I support Newcastle United Football Club. The short answer, the one I usually give, is that I inherited it from my father. The longer answer is sometime in the early 1960s my father, sent by his father to study medicine in Newcastle, dropped out of school to become a musician. My grandfather cut him off immediately and my father found himself knocking on the doors of clubs and pubs in the North East of England, looking for gigs for his band.
Given his dark skin, the cross-continental fame of musicians like Miles Davis and the emerging Jimmy Cliff (to whom he bore a slight resemblance) and the scarcity of musicians of that ilk in the North East, my father got gigs. Having just bought the saxophone that he played, Pops was literally learning by day and playing by night, yet getting the kind of adoration that better musicians in London and New York City could only dream of. His being Other in that specific context was beneficial to him. Yes, there was racism, but there was a lot more non-malicious well-meaning curiosity, so much so that, after his death, I found amongst Pops’ papers a poem entitled ‘I Am a Geordie’.
Half a century later, I find myself caught in the other masquerade of being Other. Founded on identical presumptions of Sameness, it can be well-meaning, but comes with a requirement for vigilance that is – quite frankly – exhausting. The situation is perhaps best summarised by the two covers of my forthcoming book of Tales from Africa (under my pen name K.P. Kojo) for Penguin Random House’s Puffin Classics Series.
One (seen here above), I flat out refused to have, the second (further down in this note) I just let go because it was the least-bad cover that could come from all the cultural clichés that we Others have to endure daily for the act of leaving the comfort of our beds. Even getting to least-bad, is a sign that that I have a great, supportive editor who is willing the battle for the author. I didn’t want a lion on the cover, but I was emphatically informed that, “a Tortoise/ Jackal as the cover image visually says enough about Africa at a glance on a bookshelf… a Lion might be a cliché it is almost subconsciously embraced and built in as African and recognisable”. I’ve never heard as adamant an argument for perpetuating clichés.
The thing is, the fact that the first cover was deemed fit to send to me is a marker of the enormity of the problem we face as Others; it’s like a game of how many African clichés can you fit in 293,657 square pixels. It’s got those colours, silhouettes of the entire safari dream – giraffes, acacia trees, elephants, birds, hippos – the lion’s face a la Lion’s King poster, designed to look like a mask, the type face… If you really interrogate the design, far from engendering a love of Africa though tales, it is a subtle juxtaposition of scary elements to ensure that the young reader’s fascination with Africa is seeded in FEAR. (This Washington Post article speaks of covers art, and my friend, polymath extraordinaire, Koranteng Ofosu Amaah blogged on typefaces a while ago. Well worth reading!) For context, I recommended young illustrators from Africa such as Hanson Akatti Illustrates and I thought that they would at least be asked to send project-specific ideas, but NO; what I got was this cover. I remind you again that I am a writer WITH a supportive editor and my concerns were sent on to the art department. The response on illustrators was (I’m paraphrasing): We’ve considered a variety of African and African-based illustrators, including ones you put forward but their overall aesthetic, when it comes to cover illustration in particular, were not a suitable fit. Now, I know I write completely differently when I write non-fiction, so considering my non-fiction work when you want me to write for theatre is hardly going to work in my favour. So, two questions arise: why not ask for ideas? And why not consider them for chapter head illustrations? The questions will remain ‘arisen’ like undecided rain clouds.
So, why am I sharing this? Because I want people to understand that sometimes when a young writer produces a book and you just can’t figure out how they could portray their city, country, continent the way that they have, these are some of the battles they have to have just to reach not-terrible, let alone least-bad. I am a fairly established writer, editor and lecturer with a pauper’s appetites; I don’t need money badly so I can fight, I can put the pay cheque at risk. Other writers may not have the luxury of contemplating protest. As you can imagine, my battles continued in the text. I love copy editors for fact-checking, but unfortunately few of them check their embedded prejudices. To get asked to put explanations for the length of some characters’ names and for polygamy (within a story!) I think takes a certain level of centralised entitlement that I find hard to understand. But I was prepared for these battles. My first novel Tail of the Blue Bird was full of neologisms and Ghanaianisms and transliterations and ‘neo-formatting’ so I’ve had those sorts of conversations hundreds of times. Also, the text is where having a supportive editor really helps you (and I have had a lot of luck, starting with Ellah Allfrey at Random House). Most of my concerns were taken into consideration and the text has retained its integrity. In fact, as far as text goes it is a book I am very proud of. I managed to select tales from less covered, less ‘cliché’ parts of Africa – Madagascan, Berber and Ambundu tales, for example – and from known cultures like the Asante, less known stories. I know African children will read it and not question their hair or the varied hues of their skin, that all readers will be exposed to a world of greater possibilities and empathise with a wider range of cultures. Because of conscious choices I made to subvert the misogyny coded in many traditional stories across the globe – think witches vs wizards, saviour princes vs helpless maidens – I hope that children who read the stories will feel at least marginally differently about the world. Plus it’s for the Puffin CLASSICS series. My kids can’t wait, my late father would be ecstatic – and so am I. However, it is tragic that with so many stories that feature real people, our art team managed not to illustrate a single human!
I’ll let you reflect on that.
And I won’t even start on what happened with the end notes (but I assure you I was in full battle mode again) because we would be here for the rest of my career. Let’s just say that the re-engineering of history begins in children’s books so be mindful of what your little darlings are reading!
(The article was first published as a Facebook Note by Nii Ayikwei Parkes.)