GHANA Must Go, Taiye Selasi’s feted debut novel, begins with a death. Kweku Sai, ejected from his charmed life as a doctor in Massachusetts, has abandoned his adopted home and returned to Ghana. His career sacrificed to appease a blue-blooded Bostonian clan whose matriarch was too frail to make it through heart surgery, Sai has learnt that in the US success and skill do not trump race. Now, years later, as his own fractured heart slows down, he leaves behind a family scattered across borders and wounded by his betrayal.
Olu, the perfect eldest son, also a doctor, finds himself shamed by his father’s weaknesses. A brilliant surgeon who cannot diagnose and arrest a simple heart attack, Sai seems to conform to the grossest stereotypes — the African dad who walks out on his kids, who keeps spare wives, who lives aimlessly and without ambition.
Then there is Taiwo. After a disastrous affair, Taiwo is asked by a therapist why she thinks she is being treated pro bono: "And why would I do such a thing? Your unique family background? Your remarkable accomplishments? Your formidable intelligence? Your stunning good looks?" It is hard not to think of Selasi, a first-born twin of Nigerian, Ghanaian and Scottish provenance, born in London and living in Rome, where she is a film maker, photographer and novelist.
But Taiwo’s many blessings do not protect her. Her life unravels heartbreakingly as the novel explores the Sai family’s shames, defeats and secrets. Her twin, Kehinde, an artist and the only witness to his father’s fleeing, wrestles with the question all his siblings face: how do we love? How does one belong to people?
By far the most compelling of the four Sai siblings is Sadie, the youngest. Anxious, bulimic Sadie is Selasi’s finest character and the author’s explorations of her longing and alienation are some of the best sections in the book. As the siblings face up to their loss, Selasi writes elegantly of what happens to our memories when they are confronted by the unstoppable — death, grief and displacement.
Yet Ghana Must Go is not a novel about the immigrant’s dream, the claiming of new space; rather, it is about limbo and what it means to be stateless. (The title refers to unwelcoming chants aimed at Ghanaian refugees in Nigeria during the 1980s.) That third space, the gap between inside and outside, of belonging and home, is something Selasi describes intuitively. Immigrants don’t just arrive and settle. They also leave and disrupt. They disturb and unnerve the people they leave behind.
Sai cannot bear for his family to see him humiliated, to see the shine cast off his success story: the boy from the village who leaves home for the US, a country so far away, so enormous that it is the only place capable of holding dreams as large as his. When Olu visits him in Ghana and is horrified at the conditions of his new life — a "hot, half-finished apartment" with stained walls that smelled of chipped paint and urine — Sai’s pride has returned home. "You are better than this," Olu shouts angrily. "This is what I come from," Sai softly replies.
Selasi is a sensitive, poetic storyteller but Ghana Must Go is not without its affectations. The first half of the novel is home to spiralling, dancing sentences that slow down its pace in favour of style ("glittering mango tree, monarch, teeming being at centre with her thick bright green leaves and her bright yellow eggs; glittering fountain full of cracks now and weeds with white blossoms … glowing sky the soft gray of the south without sunlight, glittering clouds at its edges. Glittering garden. Glittering wet.").
Much has been made of Selasi’s coining of the term "Afropolitan" in a magazine article in 2005 to refer to a new generation of African emigrants, beautiful people who spin fusion music at Paris nightclubs, run banks in London and subscribe to New York fashion.
They are not citizens but "Africans of the world". But Ghana Must Go avoids this new glamorisation. It is more heartfelt, more powerful, more concerned with the things we wish to hide — failure, loneliness, shame — than the glories we would revel in.
About the author
TAIYE SELASI Selasi is a writer and photographer of Nigerian and Ghanaian origin. Selasi was born in London in 1979, the elder of twin daughters. Taiye means first twin in her mother’s native Yoruba. Selasi means "God has heard" in her father’s native Ewe. Her parents split when she was eight and she met her biological father again when she was 12.
She was raised in Brookline, Massachusetts, in a family of academics. Selasi’s mother, a pediatrician in Ghana, is widely known across Africa for her advocacy of children’s rights. Her father, a surgeon and public intellectual, has published numerous volumes of poetry, one included in the literature curriculum of Ghana. Selasi has also lived in Delhi and Rome.
She graduated summa cum laude with a BA in American Studies from Yale and holds an M.Phil in International Relations from Nuffield College, Oxford.
In 2005 LiP Magazine published Bye-Bye, Babar (Or: What is an Afropolitan?), Selasi’s seminal text on Afropolitans.
Last year, Selasi launched the multimedia project, 2154, setting out to photograph and film 20-somethings in all 54 African countries. This year she was included in the Granta list of 20 best young writers. Ghana Must Go is being published in 15 countries.