It takes a gifted writer to illustrate the intangible. In her new debut novel Ghana Must Go, writer Taiye Selasi does just that, painting a stark landscape littered with deft strokes of brokenness, trauma, and isolation. The story centers on the Sais, an academically and professionally impressive Ghanaian-Nigerian family whose past and present familial ties extend to New England, New York City, Accra, London, and Lagos. At any moment, the reader might find herself in a Yale dorm room with a bulimic introvert, in a John Hopkins Hospital with an enraged surgeon, in a Lagos mansion with a set of anguished, hazel-eyed twins, or in an Accra compound with an ambitious young boy dreaming of foreign shores.
Selasi’s heralded 2005 essay “Bye-Bye, Barbar (Or: What is an Afropolitan)” and 2011 short story “The Sex Lives of African Girls” both serve as precursors to Ghana Must Go, a modern-day look at the familiar experience of loss and sacrifice that enterprising immigrants of color often experience in North America and Europe. “What is manifest is the extent to which the modern adolescent African is tasked to forge a sense of self from wildly disparate sources,” wrote Selasi in “Bye-Bye, Barbar.” “Ultimately, the Afropolitan must form an identity along at least three dimensions: national, racial, cultural – with subtle tensions in between.”
With a confident disregard for chronological order and a distinctive, lyrical voice, Selasi unveils exactly what is at stake when the brilliant surgeon Kweku Sai and his formidable wife Folasadé Savage decide to provide their four children with the American dream. EBONY.com tracked down the ever-traveling Selasi to speak with her about her acclaimed first novel, her thoughts on writing about issues so close to home, and her upcoming film “WHITE GIRL” starring Keke Palmer.
EBONY: You've mentioned before that Ghana Must Go is not your autobiography. Yet, your family structure and your upbringing mirrors that of the Sai family's in several areas, such as twin siblings, ivy League education and a half-Scottish grandmother. As an author, what were you able to achieve in weaving together a fictional story that you would not have been able to do in a memoir?
TAIYE SELASI: It's an interesting question. I absolutely understand whence the questions arise about the similarity between my family and the Sais; I rather brought it on myself in mirroring so many details. But they're just that: superficial details, "demographics," if you will, the names of streets, buildings, towns, schools—and not very much more. By using familiar details, I freed myself to explore unfamiliar terrain: the interior lives of husbands and wives, siblings, lovers, doctors. This is the work I love to do, observing and exploring human beings.
EBONY: In a recent personal essay, you wrote about confronting the shame you felt about your "family saga: poverty, polygamy, one stereotype of African dysfunction after another." Shame, family secrets, and brokenness also play a significant role in the development of each character in the novel. How taxing or therapeutic (or both) is it for you as a writer to dive into these harrowing narratives draft after draft?
TS: When I'm working, I'm so narrowly focused on sound, language, rhythm, flow, that I rarely feel the emotion of the text. It's only after—long after—I've finished a piece that I can experience in any way its emotional charge. Perhaps this is a form of protection, a sort of creative wetsuit that allows me to dive into the darkest of places feeling only the light and joy of language? I've written fiction for as long as I can remember; it's always been my preferred form of play. Catharsis happens, but it's not the goal. Suffering happens, but it's unimportant. I write essays to clear my mind. I write fiction to open my heart.
EBONY: Which scenes were the most difficult to write and why?
TS: The opening of Part II took a long time to come. In retrospect, I think so many things were going on. I'd fallen madly in love with the wrong man, and was desperately trying to leave him. I'd signed a two-book deal with the editor of my dreams, and was terrified of disappointing her. I needed to grow as a woman—spiritually, emotionally—before I could write in Fola's voice. And so, for months on end, I didn't write at all.
EBONY: Have you received many memorable responses from readers who identify with the characters and story lines in Ghana Must Go?
TS: Oh, so many! I've been told by several readers—German, Nigerian, Dutch, English, Jamaican—that this novel helped them understand their parents, their families. Nothing means more to me than this.
EBONY: The concept of an Afropolitan consciousness appears repeatedly throughout Ghana Must Go. Eight years have passed since you wrote that essay. Has your perception of the Afropolitan identity changed? And if so, what events or experiences sparked these changes?
Selasi: In 2005, I wrote of a very particular experience, one shared by the younger members of my family and, as it turns out, thousands of others around the world. It was this experience that I described as "Afropolitan," and it hasn't changed: this is how we grew up. I think the word itself has come unhooked from my little essay, floating into the choppier waters of label politics. And I've let it go. As a writer, one is obliged to release her words, to let them live in the world on their own. But my experience—and the perspective, the identity it has informed—remains my own. I'm still absolutely fascinated by the people who share this experience, be they Indian, South American, West African, West Indian: we're all living between cultures. I proudly call myself Afropolitan—and Yoruba, Ewe, American, British, Nigerian, Ghanaian, "Newyorkese"…all of it. It's all me.
EBONY: Where in the world is Taiye Selasi right now and what can EBONY.com readers expect from her next?
TS: I've just returned to Rome after two months on the road—the States, the UK, Germany, Holland—and there's nothing like being home. I've been living in Rome for a year and a half, and absolutely love it. Next up: movies! I co-wrote a screenplay called WHITE GIRL with the genius Heather McGhee; it's a John Hughes-style story about a Black girl at an all-White prep school. Keke Palmer is attached to star, Kasi Lemmons to direct. It's going to be amazing. Any brown girl ever teased about "acting White" will get this film. And Keke's character sings at the end! And the child can sing.
Patrice Peck explores the complex intersection of culture, entertainment, race and gender as a multimedia journalist. Follow her musings at Twitter and Facebook, and visit her at http://www.speakpatrice.tumblr.com for more of her work.