Azúcar, the latest novel by British-Ghanaian writer, Nii Ayikwei Parkes is a story as sweet as the title suggests. Set across the fictional Isle of Fumaz, Ghana and the USA’s ‘Sun Coast’, Azúcar explores themes of belonging, grief, legacy and community through protagonists Yunior and Emiliana. Ghana-born Yunior moves to Fumaz as a teenager, escaping the perils of drought that have befallen his country. In Fumaz he becomes a man, solidifying his place in the former Spanish colony as a skilled agriculturist whose talents prove indispensable in the republic’s plight for self-sufficiency.
Emiliana hails from one of the Island’s most prestigious bloodlines, a family started by an ambitious pig-farmer (the son of a freed enslaved woman) that builds a fortune over generations by growing rice in sugar-soaked paddies. Born and raised in Florida’s Sun Coast, Emiliana visits her ancestral home for the first time as an adult and instantly falls in love with Fumaz’ vibrant landscape and hospitable culture.
In an interview with AZ, Parkes describes his eclectic portfolio of poetry, non-fiction, fiction and children’s literature as “Little explosions of imagination” rooted in the rhythms of his first language, Ga. A “day dreamer” since childhood, he tends to lament on his ideas for some time before putting pen to paper. Azúcar began as homage to his own trans-continental lineage: “My grandfather is from Sierra Leone and his grandfather had migrated from Jamaica… when you have all these elements of who you are, are you supposed to choose one or are you all of those things?” he said. In writing the book, however, he went on to explore his own relationships with loss, land and diasporic identity.
“I lost my father when I was 19 and I hadn’t quite come to terms with how I was living with the grief. I was doing it but it wasn’t conscious… I think there’s a way in which, when you’re westernised, you approach death slightly differently from how we do traditionally at home and having experienced some of that alongside the way things are done in the West, I think I had to find my own, hybrid way.”
This idea of hybridisation is a constant thread throughout the novel, showing up most notably in the geographic and political history of the main setting Fumaz. Parkes describes the Island as an “amalgamation” of countries like Cuba, Colombia, Nicaragua and Venezuela. He chose to place the Island in the Caribbean and to make its inhabitants Spanish speaking because that part of the world represents to him a space “where somebody can come from anywhere in the world, where nobody will ask where you’re actually from.” It was also an opportunity to celebrate Latin American music, which bears so many similarities to the African music he grew up with, to discuss Spanish imperial expansion and to bring to the English-speaking world the poeticism of the Spanish language that he first fell in love with by reading translations of works by Latin American writers like Colombian novelist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
The focus on agriculture and the way the book mounts the inseparable relationships between food, land and structures of class and wealth provides great commentary on why hunger is a problem faced by most former colonies in the Global South, where sustainable practices of subsistence farming were put aside in favour of “mass production of cash crops”. “There’s exploration of what it means to take care of yourself with the land around you.” He said. The resulting story acts as a love letter to careful cultivation of land.
Underlying all this are critiques of political ideologies on both sides of the spectrum, though the author deliberately refuses to use the existing terminology. He writes of ‘peopleism’ instead of socialism and ‘capitalites’ instead of capitalists “To remind readers that it’s about people… what it means to eat, to dream, to survive” beyond the divisive labels to which we’ve become so accustomed. Ultimately, Azúcar is a beautifully crafted narrative with humanity at its heart, each challenge faced by the protagonists is overcome through communal solidarity, between friends, family and friends that become family. In the end we see that the characters are loyal not to place or politics, but to the bonds which sustain them.
For those of us in the diaspora who read this book, Parkes wants us to take from it a sense of wholeness and pride in “the multifacetedness of our existence.” “We are not half of things”, he said. “We are the only people who can operate in as many dimensions as we can. It gives us more power, it’s a beautiful thing that we need to hold on to and celebrate.”
Azúcar is published by Peepal Tree Press and is available for purchase at all major retailers.