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By Juanita Cox Westmaas

 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013.

 

The title of Taiye Selasi's book Ghana Must Go (2013) caught my attention for several reasons.  Firstly when economic crises in 1983 and 1985 resulted in the expulsion, at short notice, of approximately 2 million Ghanaian immigrants from Nigeria, the bags most readily used as ‘suitcases’ were christened ‘Ghana Must Go’.  These large rectangular plastic bags – plaid in design (often white, blue and red) and made in China – were and still are available in most parts of the world.  Generally associated with refugees or traders, they have as a result of being transnational acquired a wide variety of names.  In Trinidad they are, for instance, known as Guyanese Samsonite and in Germany, “Tuekenkoffer” (i.e., Turkish suitcases).  In 2006 the bags having been given the Louis Vuitton stamp of approval then morphed, somewhat unexpectedly, into desirable fashion accessories.  As possible metaphors for migration, displacement, exile, social mobility and transnationalism the title of Selasi’s book appeared to be a stroke of genius.  

 

I was intrigued but wondered never having previously heard of Selasi, if I would enjoy her debut novel.    I had listened to her reading a passage from Ghana Must Go on the popular American Diane Rehm NPR Show but was left slightly irritated by a description of her Ghanaian character Ama: she sleeps heavily, ‘like a cocoyam.  A thing without senses’ and dreams about ‘sugar plums and Tchaikovsky.’  ‘Cocoyam’, lovely metaphor but ‘sugar plums and Tchaikovsky’?  Really?  The possible authenticity and timeliness of Selasi’s book only became clear to me after researching her background. The product of an increasingly transnational world, Selasi is a self-described Afropolitan.  She explains in her 2005 article ‘Bye-Bye Barbar’ that this term applies to many African people who work and live in cities around the globe: ‘they belong to no single geography, but feel at home in many’; most are multilingual, speak an indigenous language, some sort of urban vernacular and find a sense of self in at least one place on the African continent (‘nation-state, city or ‘auntie’s kitchen’’).  In their cultural hybridity they are ‘Africans of the World’.   

 

In a moment of self-reflection, I wondered if perhaps I was an Afropolitan?    I speak Hausa and English, a smattering of Twi and French, was born and partially-educated in Nigeria, have a Ghanaian mother, an English father and Guyanese husband; am as comfortable in Guyana as I am in America, Nigeria, Ghana or Britain.  I know London like the back of my hand and am constantly switching between provincial-English, London-English, Nigerian-pidgin, Ghanaian-pidgin and Guyanese-Creole (the latter in a very bad accent) and all depending on whom I’m talking to, or where I am.  More tellingly I am just as likely to dream about listening to Fela Kuti, Florence and The Machines or Beethoven: to dream about eating Kenke and Fish, Gari and Okra Soup, Metegee, or a Sunday roast.   

 

Perhaps I had unwittingly internalized the notion that identity could only be authentic if bound to a single nation. When I first moved to Britain in 1980 – more specifically the Northern town of Wigton - I found life as a person of dual heritage frustrating and alienating: most people insisted on knowing exactly where I really came from; the question of course implying somewhere other than Britain.  Evidence of this otherness was reinforced by a variety of clichéd refrains: sambo, coloured, half-caste, golliwog, wog, fuzzy-wuzzy or nigger and comments like: “How do you cope with all those flies?”  Back in Nigeria and Ghana my status of mulatto, half-caste, Bature, Jan Kunne, Oyinbo and Obroni Koko had similarly been reminders of my not-quite-being-ness.  With the added mix of motifs - ‘You’ve got a chip on your shoulder’, my father’s instruction to be ‘stiff-upper lipped’, and the Shadists, ‘Is cos you is light-skinned, yuh tink you is better dan me?’ - whatever I felt (injustice, alienation and the negation of my black-white heritage) was silenced by the shame of self-pity.  Shadism, predicated on one’s approximation to white people of course still exists in the black community and in different forms (e.g., the prevalence of skin-lightening and ‘not-Afro-hair’ hairstyles, straightening chemicals, weaves and wigs, that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addresses in her new novel, Americanah).  That said it might be as much to do with Western ideals of beauty and their continuing global dominance where means of production is concerned, particularly within the fashion industry.  It certainly seems to me that the effects on ordinary white women are at least, to some extent, similar.   But that is a whole other essay!

 

In hindsight I had become attached to notions of ‘authentic’ in terms of the ‘authentic’ Nigerian, ‘authentic’ Briton or the ‘authentic’ Ghanaian I later, and for complex reasons tried to be, before realizing I could not.  Perhaps I was also so used to the boundaries of African literature and African people being set by ‘outsiders’ that I had not been able to consider the possibility of presenting my hybrid Afro-Anglo-Sometimes-Wannabe-Caribbean-Human identity as valid literary fodder and in some related way had not been able to accept the literary proposition of Ghanaian Ama dreaming sugar plums and Tchaikovsky.  Adichie’s welcome and prescient warnings about the dangers of being limited to a single story and the need to change the broken record of starvation, war and corruption had seemed obvious to me.  These narrow and warped images of Africa had long been the source of irritation.  But what I had not understood was that the culturally-hybrid voice of transnationals with African roots (though perhaps born elsewhere) would be a welcomed addition to that mix.  

 

It was perhaps personal experience that led me to the spurious belief most people were still unwilling or unable to accept - in undiluted form - the complex nature of hybrid identities.  Less than ten years ago it was not uncommon for people to ask me which race – black or white – I identified with.  The notion that I had embraced both and was unwilling to reject one or the other was constantly challenged with: ‘Yes, but that doesn’t make sense’.  What Selasi’s ‘Bye Bye Barbar’ imparts, at least for me, is permission to partake in public expression of my own cultural ‘uniqueness’: that my cooking-pot of influences and experiences is a valid dish of its own.  However, having lived outside a clearly identifiable category for so many decades the Johnny-come-lately adoption of the funky new label, Afropolitan, does not feel particularly appropriate for me.  It may just be that while Nigeria, as the place of my birth,  has a special, unbreakable claim on my heart, the equal love I have for both of my late parents, means that I will always prefer to define myself as a person of dual heritage.

 

The important point however is that the reception of Taiye Selasi’s Afropolitan novel has been, by and large, extremely positive.  This would appear to be one of several markers that times are changing; that publishers are now more open to, and interested in, complex cultural/ethnic identities.  The same applies to the Caribbean where the canon of literature (as prescribed by academics) has until recently given precedence to the folk culture stories of working-class Afro-Caribbeans at the expense of, for instance, those previously classed as ‘Coloured middle-class’ or middle brow (ref Belinda Edmonson’s Caribbean Middle-Brow).  This was in many ways a valid response to the history of enslavement, the colonial demonization of African culture, the need to develop a Caribbean identity and to redress the hegemonic imbalance of the ‘races’.  

 

But the truth is arguably that the Caribbean community was and remains, one of the most transnational in the world; and that they have much in common with ‘Afropolitans’, particularly in terms of the diverse cultural resources at their disposal.  In the context of globalization, real or virtual transnational migration is on the increase and there is no doubt that we are likely to see more writers like Selasi, asserting their right to embrace the cultural cookie-jars of their various ‘homes’, while remaining deeply attached in some way to their ancestral roots.  That said, it is important to remember that only 3% of the world’s population lives in a place other than the country of their birth.

 

When I heard that Selasi would be in conversation with Hannah Pool at London’s Southbank Centre on 7th April 2013 I seized the opportunity to meet her.   Selasi – the epitome of Afropolitan pizzazz – did not disappoint.  Her smooth Boston-accent, rich infectious laughter, her fabulously coiffured raven-black Afro-hair, lithe-figure, clean-lined black top and trousers, and flamboyant high-heeled fuchsia-pink shoes bore the mark of confidence, elegance, and a ‘joie-de-vivre’.  As her conversation with Hannah Pool progressed I discovered that Selasi had a BA from Yale and an MPhil from Oxford; that she had been encouraged to write her highly-applauded short story ‘The Sex Lives of African Girls’ by Toni Morrison whom she’d met while still at Oxford and that, as though she were not talented enough, had launched in 2012 a multimedia project to photograph and film twenty-something-year-olds in all 54 African countries.  Born in England, raised primarily in Massachusetts (hence the accent), Selasi - of Nigerian (Yoruba), Ghanaian (Ewe) and Scottish heritage - has for now, settled in Rome.    Captivated by her charm I somewhat inevitably bought her book and proceeded to read it on the bus home.

 

    So what did I think?  As the vast majority of the reviews have attested Selasi has every reason to be proud of her debut novel.  The story focuses on the interior lives of Kweku Sai and his family.  Kweku, an accomplished Ghanaian surgeon is the husband of Folasade Savage, a Nigerian of Yoruba and Igbo heritage with some Scottish ancestry, whom he had met in the United States.  Together they sired four children: Olu, the eldest son; Taiwo and Kehinde, twins; and Sadie, their last born daughter.   In the opening sentence of part one (entitled ‘Gone’) the narrator explains that: “Kweku dies barefoot on a Sunday before sunrise” and proceeds to replay over and over again the moments before his death in the manner of a musical refrain.    I should clarify that each ‘refrain’ offers incremental insights into the years building up to his death by shifting to-and-fro between different periods of his life.  

 

In many respects this technique - used by other authors such as the pioneering Guyanese novelist, Edgar Mittelholzer (1909-1965) - is analogous to a sonata, in that the harmonic possibility of the exposition is explored, revisited and developed.  The desire to understand Kweku’s life compels the reader through to the end of the novel.  The second part (‘Going’) focuses on the family members: the impact of their father leaving home without explanation or prior warning 16-years earlier, and their response to news of his death.  The final part (‘Go’) focuses on the arrival of his children in Ghana and the role that this plays in healing the wounds that had been precipitated and/or exacerbated by his first sudden departure.   

 

The titles of the three distinct sections: ‘Gone’, ‘Going’, ‘Go’ offers a new spin on the clichéd phrase, ‘Going, going, gone’ and alerts the reader to Selasi’s love of wordplay (including metaphor, alliteration, assonance, consonance and repetition) - e.g., “Dewdrops on grass.  Dewdrops on grass blades like diamonds flung freely […]” (Selasi: 2013, pg 8).   Her technique of playing with lexical tenses adds to the musical-cum-poetic nature of her novel.  For instance when Taiye suspects that her estranged artist brother Kehinde has been living without her knowledge in a street near her home, the narrator asks:

 

“But how could he tell her […] that he doesn’t, doesn’t “live” here, or lives without “living”, […]; that it is […] a way out of the hurting, for her, who is life-full, who lives and has always lived fully on earth, in the world, in and of it, not grounded nor grounding but ground, in her person, the canvas itself? (ibid: pg 165)

 

Selasi’s choice of often-repeated words appear to be carefully selected for their relationship to the keynote theme of ‘Death’ that runs throughout the novel (e.g., life, ground, gone, leaving, left) in its various forms.  The ‘death’ of Kweku and Fola’s marriage reminds us how quickly a relationship, which takes years to build, can disintegrate in seconds, and indeed echoes many of the novel’s references to the fragility or passing of life.  

 

But what I like the most about Selasi’s novel is the way in which she subtly highlights the damage created by ‘silences’; the fractures that are wrought by her characters’ inability to communicate openly with each other.  So that while we are told: “So often one knows, without seeing, the truth” (ibid: pg 117), and while ‘knowing’ is presented in some ways as one of the esoteric wonders of human life (e.g., Fola instinctively knows when her children are in pain, as their pain manifests itself in different parts of her body), we soon learn that the divisions in the family have been created by misunderstandings and the lack of open, frank discussion.   Kweku’s son, Olu, provides a classic example of this.  He implicitly interprets his father’s, and grandfather’s, abandonment of their respective families in terms of the prevalent stereotype: the adulterous, irresponsible black man.  This adds to the shame he feels about Africa and leads him to promise his Asian wife, Ling, that he will be better than them.   What he does not recognize is that his father and his grandfather before him had strived to do their best as providers for their families but had been emasculated by their ultimate lack of power within the context of a racist world.   

 

Kweku had been unfairly sacked for the inevitable death of a patient because the hospital needed to quell the patient’s racist family’s call for ‘justice’.  Olu’s grandfather had similarly been jailed for attempting to protect his grandmother from the sexual abuse of a white officer.  Their crime, if it can be considered that, was an inability to transcend their sense of shame for the greater good of the family.  These episodes are a reminder about the importance of knowing and of talking about our history.  They also operate as an indictment of those who bemoan the ‘state of African families’ without acknowledging the role that institutional racism has played in destabilizing them.   

 

Selasi’s novel as importantly – and I had not anticipated this – begins a discussion on the issue of authenticity.  Olu is for instance, mocked by Taiwo because he travels with a backpack: she sees it as ‘further proof of the “white boy” who lived inside’ him (ibid: pg 249). Taiwo is herself subjected to the question of authenticity when a Ghanaian cab driver in the US asks: “W-where are y-you from? […] What are you? […]  What are your eyes?”  It is her accent, appearance and ‘strange’ eyes that confuse him: the latter being “an inheritance, the color, from the Scottish great-grandmother” (ibid: pg 137).  

 

The narrator provides further examples of how easy it is to jump to the wrong conclusion about an individual’s identity and belonging.  For example Taiwo accuses her sister of wanting to be white just because of the company she keeps and the way she speaks, without ever understanding the nuanced nature of Sadie’s inner desires – i.e., to be part of her best friend’s family not because of their race but rather because of the security and stability they offer.  

 

Similarly when Kehinde offers a hawker in Ghana, 5 US dollars, from the window of a taxi, the driver attempts to discourage him by stating that they are Mauritanian thieves who steal from tourists.  The driver laughs when Kehinde makes the assertion: “We’re not tourists” (ibid: pg 209).  

 

The irony however is that the driver would “rather be ferrying some tense blond-haired couple in his taxi than them” (ibid: pg 210).  The theme of authenticity is clearly directed (but as relevant to other ethnic communities) at Selasi’s black / African readership.  Though never explicitly stated she is surely asking that we attempt to transcend narrow, divisive judgements about the identity of individuals based on the often-times misleading signifiers of ‘shade’, phenotype, accent and class.  I, of course, could not agree more.  Will I be eagerly awaiting another novel by Selasi?  Most emphatically yes!

 

Juanita Cox Westmaas is a London-based academic and writer.

 


BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

Adichie, C. “The Danger of a Single Story” in TED Talks

Available at: http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html

(Posted October 2009)

 

Edmonson, B. Caribbean Middlebrow (Cornell University Press: Ithaca and London, 2009)

 

Mittelholzer, E.  The Life and Death of Sylvia (Peepal Tree Press: Leeds, 2010)

 

Selasi, T. Ghana Must Go (Viking: London, 2013)

 

Tuakli-Wosornu, T. “Bye-Bye Barbar” in The Lip Magazine Available at: http://thelip.robertsharp.co.uk/?p=76 (Posted 3rd March 2005)

 

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