After watching Masterpiece, the made-in-Italy talent show for aspiring writers that during the last season aroused every kind of criticism all over the world, I obviously was curious to read Taiye Selasi’s work. I would like to spend a lot of words about Masterpiece itself, but now I only refer you to the interesting description of the TV show written by this blogger. Taiye Selasi – a 33-year-old writer and photographer who was born in London to a Nigerian mother and a Ghanaian father, grew up in the States and now lives in Rome – surely was the exotic beauty of Masterpiece. She stood between the two (white, male) judges like an African queen and gained my full attention. She wrote a short story in 2011 titled The Sex Lives of African Girls then burst on the literary scene with her first novel, Ghana Must Go. As The Guardian said a year ago, she was mentored by Toni Morrison and endorsed by Salman Rushdie. I will quote the same page from The Guardian to introduce you to the story.
As the novel opens, Kwaku Sai, a Ghanaian surgeon who emigrated to America and later returned home, is dying in the garden of a house whose design he once sketched out on a napkin. The sketch was materialised by an old yogi in swami clothes whom he found living in a perfectly built beachfront treehouse, his cataracts “glowing bluish like the bellies of candle flames”. The death, by heart attack, is rendered slowly, threaded with Kwaku’s memories of the births of his children, of his unjust professional fall from grace, and of Folasadé, his first wife, who is brought to mind by “dewdrops on grass blades like diamonds flung freely from the pouch of some sprite-god who’d just happened by”. His second wife, Ama, is sleeping nearby, oblivious, and Fola, her heart broken many years before by Kwaku’s sudden abandonment of her, is in another house, on another beach, smoking cigarettes in solitude.
Across the ocean in America their children learn of the news. They have their own pre-existing pockets of grief. There is Olu, the oldest, responsible, neat, also a surgeon, married in Las Vegas to Ling, a Chinese-American for whom his love knows neither beginning nor end, yet whom he finds it difficult to accept as his family. There are Taiwo and Kehinde, the beautiful hazel-eyed twins, whose relationship and self-image were skewered by a horrific episode in Lagos when they were children. Taiwo, a gifted writer, sulky and aloof, is studying to be a lawyer, but flounders into a scandalous affair with the dean of her college. Kehinde has become a successful painter, hidden away in a warehouse studio in Brooklyn with scars on his wrist. And then there is Sadie, the youngest, her mother’s favourite, the most insecure of all and bulimic with it, studying her hardest at university to shine as brightly as her siblings. It is the reunion of these children, on a Ghanaian beach, towards which the tale unfolds in its opaque and fragmented fashion.
On my opinion, the most interesting aspect of the novel is the description of the world we live in through the eyes of Afropolitans. Who are Afropolitans? They are sophisticated, smart, and cosmopolitan young Africans. Like Taiye herself, they have lived in different countries and now defy every stereotype about Africa. They invent themselves creating a new category and their condition forces them to face innate contradictions that we European and American people still try to avoid. They are well-educated, attractive, and intelligent. And they are the contemporary version of the post-colonial diaspora. The rootlessness of generations of immigrants is the underlying macro-theme of the story, but the novel presents itself with a freshness of pure modernity. We already know many great authors who wrote about rootlessness (I was thinking of Naipaul’s The Mimic Men just a few days ago) but Taiye really is young. Most of all, she is a strong voice speaking of the present time, of something happening right now.
Her writing also is original and sometimes naturally flows into poetry. First of all, the concept of family is described in its infinite shades of feelings and emotions. Secondly, each character offers the opportunity to investigate aspects of the human soul under the new perspective of globalization. On the one hand, Kwekw’s children have to face the complex system of family. On the other hand, they have to confront themselves with the feeling of belonging (both to geographical places and biological ancestors).
The highest form of morality is not to feel at home in one’s own home,
wrote German philosopher Theodor Adorno. Under this point of view, Taiye Selasi’s work of art really is great. The arrival to Ghana described by Ghanian-American adults who now fail to perceive themselves as entirely African or entirely American, really is wonderful. And this condition of unfamiliarity is strongly linked to the title. In 1983 the Nigerian government enacted an expulsion and about 700,000 Ghanaians were returned to their country. During the exodus, the Ghanians used a peculiar type of bag to move their belongings; the bags were popularly termed by Nigerians as ‘Ghana must go’ bags. Thus this bag also symbolizes this new Afropolitans who were once expelled from Africa and now are no longer African… but both African and cosmopolitan. They come back to Ghana with their bags of belongins, but are irremediably different.
The symbol of the house is also very important. The house is place-for-the-soul and is dreamed by everyone in different ways. It becomes a universal condition of the human being, an Ithaca-region that we all long for and never reach. Kwekw draws his dream house on a napkin at the beginning of his life and in the end builds it in Ghana, his very native land. However, the house is empty until his death. This house was so present in the novel that at a certain point I began thinking that it was the real protagonist. However, the house really is important for the human beings (it is a Freudian symbol for the Self as well), and that’s why we all make this sort of mistakes. We think we can draw the future of our sons and relatives but don’t realise that we’re meddling in the affairs of History, which has different plans in mind. Every sort of emotional and physical event has to happen before each element of a family can find its place in the original constellation.
I the end, I must admit that some lines of the book made me think of another great success published in 1997, The God of Small Things by Arundhaty Roy. Perhaps it was a mere suggestion, but I couldn’t avoid remembering the Indian author and her wonderful pages about twins “whose lives are destroyed by the “Love Laws” that lay down “who should be loved, and how. And how much.”