Taiye Selasi: Ghana Must Go (Penguin NY, 2013) [IBR]

[Kweku] How could he have known? That a life that had taken them years to put together would take weeks to break apart? A whole life, a whole world, a whole world of their making: dinners, dishes, diapers, deeds, degrees, unspoken agreements, outgoing answering machine messages, You’ve reached the Sais, we’re not here right now. Beep. And won’t be here ever again. Leave a message. Until nothing was left but the statue of the mother in the trunk of the Volvo and the painting, two forms. Oil on canvas. Kehinde Sai, 1993. Signed by the artist. The Bigger Person.

It’s archeology, this book: a dig through the levels of this family, through the lives of these six people. You think you’ve got the picture, then you read on and find out you didn’t know the half of it. You see things through multiple sets of eyes, and you get a sense of who these people are by the things they do and don’t see.

Last March, on the day it was published in the US, I requested it from my library, having been awed by Selasi’s short story “The Sex Lives of African Girls” in BASS 2012. I was the first borrower when it (finally!) arrived. Within a half hour of finishing that library copy, I ran to my Fiercely Independent Local Bookseller, my face still puffy from the crying I did during the last three pages. I told the bookstore guy that I’d just finished my library copy and knew I had to own it. “It’s that good?” he asked. “Yeah,” I told him, “it’s that good.” And then some.

[Taiwo] It occurs to her suddenly how stupid she must look to this driver from Ghana in his sensible coat as he watches her, waiting to see that she gets from his cab to her building and safely inside. She teeters up the stoop in the platform stilettos and turns to look back at the driver, the snow.
Downward it dances and lands on her shoulders and nose and his windshield, the hush of a storm, with the street emptied out of all seekers of warmth and a wind blowing gently. She holds up a hand.
They are angels in a snow globe, both silent and smiling, two African strangers alone in the snow: kindly man in a cab in a bulky beige coat waving back as he pulls from the curb and honks once and a girl on her steps in a short white fur coat crying quietly watching him go.

The language is exquisite. I was reading To the Lighthouse for a class at about the same time, and I kept thinking that both Woolf and Selasi really know how to use nontextual material – sections, chapters, division, and above all, punctuation (I so love a writer who isn’t afraid of the outer edges of the keyboard). I’m also a big fan of non-standard syntax. The sentence fragment. Nested clauses. All the stuff they tell you not to do in English class. I ended up dictating what may be a quarter of the book into a Word document – just to hear it out loud, though I told myself it was to have quotes readily available for a post. I really didn’t need seventeen pages (!) of quotes for this post. And I had a terrible time whittling them down to just these few.

[Kehinde] His siblings and their parents belong to a People, bear the stamp of belonging.
He and Taiwo do not. Their features are a record, yes, but not of a People, the art history of Peoplehood, constant and strong, but the shorter, very messy, lesser history of people, small p, two at least, who one day happened to make love. As children they’d decided they were aliens, or adopted.… It wasn’t until later, at thirteen, in Lagos, just arrived at Uncle Femi’s, ushered into the lounge, that they’d see, from the threshold, standing frozen with wonder, the face that theirs came from, there, white, on the wall.

Given the title, I’d expected the book to be about the 1983 expulsion of Ghanaians from Nigeria, but it’s barely mentioned; the Sai family is in the US in 1983. Leaving, however, is the lens through which everything is seen. “We were immigrants,” says Fola towards the end of the book. “Immigrants leave.” Leaving – and what remains – permeates the story.

Fola Savage and Kweku Sai are the immigrants, she from Nigeria, he from Ghana, who meet in Pennsylvania in the early 70s, marry, and over twenty years build professional success and beget four children: Olu, the twins Kehinde and Taiwo, and the baby Sadie. Selasi has helpfully provided a little primer in the front of the book with pronunciations and translations for these and other names, as well as a family tree. The “present” of the story is fairly simple (sixteen years after abandoning his family, Kweku dies, and the scattered family gather for his funeral, bringing with them the echoes and effects of past events), but it’s told in fairly complicated fashion: the POV jumps from character to character, the timeline zigzags and includes “remembered past” in the present as well as flashbacks told from the perspective of the characters at the time, the “archeological” effect that involves multiple passes over crucial events in increasing depth and from different points of view. That may be one of my two faint complaints (the other is the parade of epiphanies in the final chapters): it’s a bit more complicated than it needs to be, I think. Still, that’s pretty much a reality check – I loved this book, so I need to be sure I still have some perspective by finding some flaw, no matter how small.

[Taiwo] There was the other one, the first one, the one they’d deleted, the one who backed down a sunset-lit drive while she watched from the window obscured by darkness, having played with the lights to bid Kehinde inside: first off, then on, then off, then on: just sufficiently dark now to see in the car, the man’s face through the windshield, soft, narrow eyes narrower, fighting: then filling with, tears – but resolute.
He would know, too, she thought… She would find him and tell him. He was somewhere in Ghana (according to Olu); she’d go there and wait. She’d be seated on his stoop when he came home from work, in a Volvo as she saw it, the sunset full swing. He’d seen her from the driveway and slow to a stop with that look on his face for that seen in such films when a man on the run returns home before dark and the hit man is waiting, at ease, in plain sight, with his boots on the railing, a gun in one boot where the man in the driveway can see it. Like that. He’d stop, kill the engine, and stare from the car with his eyes meeting hers, hers unblinking, his wet, for he’d see in her face that the light had gone out and would know without words that his daughter was dead, that the girl he had left on a street in North America was not the one sitting on this stoop in West Africa, with boots propped on the railing and pistol in boots, that she’d died because no one would save her.

I think it needs to be that complicated, to tell the intertwined stories, to show them in various combinations, to show events from multiple points of view. It’s necessary to spiral around, getting closer and closer to the truth (I came up with a little graphic, combining this spiral structure with Fola’s tendency to “feel” the well-being of her four children in separate quadrants of her abdomen, to know when something’s wrong by physical sensation). That’s how we live, after all, going through things over and over, thinking about seminal events at various points in our lives, and, with a little luck, learning more about them, more about ourselves, along the way. That’s how these characters progress.

[Fola] She touches her stomach as she does when this happens, when fear hovers shyly, not showing its face yet, when something is wrong but she doesn’t knowo what or with which of the offspring that sprang from this spot. And the stomach answers always…
Sadness, tension, absence, angst – but fine, as she birthed them, alive if not well, in the world, fish in water, in the condition she delivered them (breathing and struggling) and this is enough. Perhaps not for others, Fola thinks, other mothers who pray for great fortune and fame for their young, epic romance and joy (better mothers quite likely; small, bright-smiling, hard-driving, minivan-mothers), but for her who would kill, maim, and die for each child but who knows that the willingness to die has its limits.

It’s a pretty audacious choice, to start a book with the death of a main character, but it provides a road map of where the story’s going, and given the complexity, I think provides a degree of orientation. In the first section, Kweku shows us his life from his perspective. In the second, as his ex-wife Fola and the four offspring are notified, we see how he has affected them, particularly his leaving. In the final section, the family gathers for the funeral, for a gripping round of “force your characters up against each other where they can’t escape and see what happens.” Kweku’s absence from the family is the origin of the story; it’s also the axis around which the rest been spinning for decades, so it’s fitting the book should start – and end – with his literal exit from life.

[Olu] For all his life when he looked for his father, like this, scanning quickly to spot Kweku’s face in the bleachers at meets or the seats at recitals, he’d scanned for the contrast, first and foremost for brown. A bluish color brown appropriately likened to chocolate and coffee, the complexion that he had himself – and that no one else had, no other father in Boston. He could always pick out Kweku in an instant by the color. Here at the airport his eyes, as conditioned, scanned quickly for contrast and blinked at the shock: they were all the same color, more or less, all the fathers…

We find out more about Olu, who walks in his father’s footsteps with trepidation; Taiwo, who sees father figures everywhere without realizing it; Kehinde, the artist, entwined with his twin Taiwo in an unspoken bond of guilt and shame; and Sadie, with the privileges and disadvantages of being, at age twenty, “the baby.” At the center is Fola, an unspeakably strong woman who can’t make up for a mistake borne of self-doubt, and Kweku, whose leave-taking is the center of everything.

So much symbolism: Kweku’s imaginary cameraman, carried forward in Taiwo’s mental movie. Fola’s flowers. Sena, who fixes things, who gets people out – or brings them back in. Mr. Lamptey and the mango tree he would not chop down. Slippers, oh god, the slippers, the slippers that protect, that cover the bruises… it was the slippers that undid me at the end.

It’s a very visual book. I can see the portrait of Somayina (and the generation-spanning hatred Femi directs towards it); the basket of slippers by the door; the statue of the Mother of Twins, “iya-ibeji;” the night of uncharacteristically playful, joyous sledding Taiwo mentally edits over time to remove Kweku after his departure; Kehinde’s art, the canvas he signs then gives his father, unaware of the moment as it happens; the photograph that so puzzles Sadie, until she realizes its significance. And the battered brown leather slippers.

[Sadie] She wants to tell Fola that she loves her, that she’s sorry, that she didn’t for a moment mean to say those horrid things, and that however it appears from that apartment in Coolidge Corner, whatever Fola may think, that she isn’t alone – but can’t: for two of the four things aren’t true, and she doesn’t have Fola’s new number.

What she couldn’t tell Fola is how much less hurtful it is not to belong to a family not her own than to sit there in Boston, just the two of them smiling, rehearsing all the reasons that no one comes home.

Death, separation, shame, otherness, betrayal, rage, connection, need: it’s all in there, in these people with their strengths and flaws. And some beautiful reading; the individual sections and chapters are wonderful little stories in themselves, and make more sense, deeper sense, as you continue to read. For most of us, it’s a multi-read book. On first read, Taiwo’s comment on pg. 41 – “Relief that she knew, that she’d gotten it right, tinged with terror at what might happen were she one day to be wrong” – only meant what it said. On second read, it leapt off the page. I barely noticed the mention of the scar on Fola’s abdomen the first time through; that, too, had new significance later. I love a book with a good second read – and I suspect this one will have good third, fourth, and fifth reads as well.

In 2005, Selasi (then writing as Taiye Tuakli-Wosornu) wrote “Bye-bye Babar,” an article about the “Afropolitan” – the descendents of educated African 1960s emigrants to Europe or the US, grown up now, globally comfortable, who bear the imprint of Africa yet struggle to answer the question, “Where are you from?” Her earlier story, and this book, are continuations of that thought. I still have a hard time wrapping my head around “African-ness” since Africa is a big place, a diverse place. But so is the US, so is Europe, so is Latin America, and I don’t have trouble wrapping my head around those concepts. I’ll have to try harder.

[Kehinde] he can’t read her thoughts.
For years he had. Read – or more accurately heard – them. As if they were words in her voice in his head, only snippets but clear ones, and clearer the feelings that went with the thoughts; he could feel what she felt.
He still doesn’t know when he lost good reception. It wasn’t in Nigeria, for all the horror. After college for the last time he saw her or earlier? He doesn’t trust his memory when he tries to think back. The wrist-slitting scrambled his memories, rearranged them. The archives remain but are all out of order. He can’t tell what age he was when such-and-such happened; couldn’t say in which country he was in which year. He knows that at some point the line filled with static, then little by little went properly dead. He senses his sister – still experiences her presence like the space between magnets to a finger passing through – but can’t hear, so he doesn’t know, her now.
Radio silence.
“He’s gone” made her laugh, and he couldn’t hear why.

As silly as it sounds, the book smells good (oh, my, I’m really smitten, y’think?). I’ve become quite enamored lately with the sensory aspect of reading material. Tin House remains my best-smeller, with What the Zhang Boys Know and the 2013 Madras Press collection of four teeny tiny books taking first prize for the warm, diffused matte cover I so love. Ghana Must Go is right up there, with a pleasant smell and a wonderful dust jacket: slightly parchment-textured on the outside, high-gloss on the inside, the embossed title written in Selasi’s own hand (really: the two a’s and the two G’s are different; it’s not a handwriting font, though it probably should become one). I’m a little concerned I’m developing some strange book fetish.

Selasi is multi-faceted: she’s a screenwriter, photographer, essayist, and, by the way, pianist (Rachmaninoff to Coltrane) and cellist. But she can’t add, which fully endears her to me. Interviews can be found all over the ‘net: I already referenced Melissa Harris-Perry‘s wonderful sit-down with Selasi last Spring in a previous post (“this is the white woman’s privilege. Wet hair.” MHP turns hair into sociopolitical gold every time). She also spoke with Diane Rehm on NPR (there is autobiographical material in the book – Selasi’s father is Ghanaian, her mother Nigerian, she was born in London, has a twin sister, her parents separated when she was young, after which she grew up in Brookline and went to Yale before Oxford – but “the hurts, shames, loves, motivations arose from the fictional world”), and Ellah Allfrey of Granta (she lives in a “cd-shuffle” of New York, Delhi, and Rome).

To him, who could name grief by each one of her faces, the logic was familiar from a warmer Third World, where the boy who tails his mother freshly bloodied from labor (fruitless labor) to the edge of the ocean at dawn – who sees her place the little corpse like a less lucky Moses all wrapped up in palm frond, in froth, then walk away, but who never hears her mention it, ever, not once – learns that “loss” is a notion. No more than a thought. Which one forms or one doesn’t. With words. Such that one cannot lose, nor ever say he has lost, what he does not permit to exist in his mind.
Even then, at 24, a new father and still a child, a newly motherless child, Kweku knew that.

In the Granta interview, Selasi says, “Somehow I would have to earn my family’s forgiveness for not being a doctor.” Yep, I think this should do it.

3 responses to “Taiye Selasi: Ghana Must Go (Penguin NY, 2013) [IBR]

  1. Pingback: BASS 2012: Taiye Selasi, “The Sex Lives of African Girls” from Granta 115, Summer 2011 | A Just Recompense

  2. I’m afraid I will get too emotional if I start pouring out my sentiments on this book. Great Review.
    I must admit, I cried. Couldn’t put this book down for two days straight – mind you I had my final exams.

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