Begin, inevitably, with Uncle.
There you are, eleven, alone in the study in the dark in a cool pool of moonlight at the window. The party is in full swing on the back lawn outside. Half of Accra must be out there. In production. Some fifty-odd tables dressed in white linen table skirts, the walls at the periphery all covered in lights, the swimming pool glittering with tea lights in bowls bobbing lightly on the surface of the water, glowing green. The smells of things – night-damp earth, open grill, frangipani trees, citronella – seep in through the window, slightly cracked. You tap the glass lightly and wave your hand, testing, but no one looks up. They can’t see for the dark. It rained around four for five minutes and not longer; now the sky is rich black for its cleansing. Beneath it a soukous band shows off the latest from Congo, the lead singer wailing in French and Lingala….
She has the most genuine intentions of any woman out there.
…Rich African women, like Japanese geisha in their wax-batik geles, their skin bleached too light. They are strange to you, strange to the landscape, the dark, with the same polished skill-set of rich women worldwide: how to smile with full lips while the eyes remain empty; how to hate with indifference; how to love without heat. You wonder if they find themselves beautiful, or powerful? Or perplexing, as they seem to you, watching from here?
This should be a difficult story, confusing to read. At 30 pages, it’s a little longer than most BASS selections. It’s told in a set of flashbacks to a variety of times, from years earlier to that morning and afternoon, before ending in the same present in which it began. A few possibly unfamiliar African words, names, locations, crop up. Several characters are referred to by two names. We don’t know the name of POV character until the last page. And, oh, by the way, it’s in second person.
But I didn’t notice any of that as I was reading. It’s positively gripping; it takes you along and makes you desperate to read the next sentence, the next paragraph, to find out what happens. Though you know, really, all along, what’s going to happen.
Selasi uses repetition beautifully. In the first section, the rain at four in the afternoon is mentioned three times; it’s just a matter of finding out what happened when it rained at four that afternoon, which turns out to be not what I’d thought. A slap in two different places between different characters demonstrate the hierarchy in a way an eleven-year-old can understand. Twice, the idea of a place being “not forbidden but not invited” comes up, as well as, coincidentally, the refrain “Enter Uncle.” And of course the most tragic repetition: the sex lives of African girls. Which, as the first line of the story says in the opening passage quoted above, continuing the title, begin, inevitably, with Uncle.
As I read the first page, I jotted a note in the margin: “Lyrical. Musical prose.” How interesting to read Selasi’s Contributor Note:
One day in April – in the shower at noon – I heard, as if remembering it, “The sex lives of African girls begin, inevitably, with Uncle.” A bit like song I’d heard somewhere, the bridge of which I’d forgotten. “There you are, eleven, alone in the study in the dark,” the song went on without music. I raced to the laptop, still dripping wet, and wrote – or wrote down – the stanza. “‘You’,” I thought. “Okay. Second person. Really? Try. Worked for McInerney. ‘Alone in the study.’ Okay. Why alone? Where are you? Who are you?”
The voice is beautiful. Perhaps too sophisticated for an eleven-year-old – but this eleven-year-old, Edem, reads Shakespeare in the group Uncle started for the house staff and can quote Othello, so maybe not. In other ways, she’s very naïve. We catch her on the day she first becomes aware of her nipples, the day she firsts sees a naked man, the day she learns several secrets about the people with whom she lives, Auntie and Uncle and their daughter Comfort, who’ve taken her in until her mother gets her act together. There’s a web of relationships with the “house staff” that comes to fruition when Edem witnesses three events that change her view of everything in her life.
And, of course, Enter Uncle.
And that’s when it hits you. Your mother isn’t coming. Wherever she’s gone, it’s a place without life. What life there was in her was choked out by hatred; whatever light in her eyes was a glint of that hate. And whom did she hate so? Her brother? Her mother? Your father? It doesn’t matter. They live. She is dead.
This is what you’re left with: a life with these people. This place and these women. Comfort. Ruby. Khadijeh. Who – it suddenly occurs to you, with an odd kind of clarity, as you watch from the window – mustn’t be left to die too.
So you go to her, stumbling over the hem of the garment as you cross the Persian rug… You put your arms around her waist. It is softer than you’d imagined it. You hold her very tightly, and she holds you as if for life. You wish there was something you could say, to comfort her. But what? In the peculiar hierarchy of African households, the only rung lower than the motherless child is the childless mother.
Selasi didn’t choose second person as much as it chose her. In an interview with Granta, she credits the POV with keeping her focused: “This ‘you’ voice appeared in my head from the beginning and guided me through the text, limiting my view of things to her view: I rarely looked where she wasn’t looking.” I didn’t find the second person pov particularly prominent, since the story involves the girl narrating many events between others. Then again, I don’t have any problem with second person. Here, I think of it in terms of distance, as so often happens with second person: in this case, a character’s distance from herself, something like a state of shock, as she struggles to re-evaluate the day’s events and understand grim truths.
NPR has a terrific interview with Selasi about the story, both the subject matter and how she came to send it to Toni Morrison (which in itself is a great story). It’s her first published story (though she has a novel, championed by Morrison and Salman Rushdie for god’s sake, coming out in March 2013). Addendum: Melissa Harris-Perry interviewed her about the book, complete with a (very good) short reading, on 3/9/13 on the MHP Show, making me very happy. [another addendum: I’ve read and commented on her novel Ghana Must Go, and it’s terrific.
The story isn’t available online [Aha, yes, it is as of April 2017, thank you Granta]; there’s a video of her reading the first section, about three pages, at a Granta launch – but I can’t actually recommend it: she’s a mediocre reader, at least of her own work at that particular moment. She reads the way I read my own work, as though she’s embarrassed and wants to get it over with as quickly as possible without seeming to take her work too seriously: it’s just a stream of words. This story deserves so much more. It’s a story good enough to justify buying this anthology (which has been pretty strong all along), or at least a back issue of Granta. It reads like a page-turner, and of course it’s a heart-breaker. But it wasn’t until I went back and re-read a few times, straightened out the time line, looked at the repeated phrases and actions, the subtle phrasing, that I realized it’s also exquisitely crafted.
Enter Taiye Selasi. Kicking Uncle’s butt.