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A new African voice

Reviewed by Huma Yusuf

Taiye Selasi’s debut novel, Ghana Must Go, is weighed down by expectation. Selasi was named by Granta magazine as one of the 20 most promising young British novelists, a once-in-a-decade forecast of literary prestige. Her book launch comprised a 21-city publicity tour. And since it coincided with the passing of Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist, it was littered with claims that newcomer Selasi would inherit Achebe’s mantle as the voice of Africa.

Selasi has contributed to the hype by identifying herself as ‘Afropolitan’ rather than African, emphasising newness and complexity over inherited identities. She coined the term in an earlier essay to describe those with “some unbreakable bond to some country or countries in Africa … a global perspective [and] a desire to effect change, however that manifests, in Africa for African people — in some way, somehow, at some point.” Selasi herself was born in London to a Ghanian mother and Nigerian father, raised in Boston, educated at Yale and Oxford, and currently lives in Rome.

The media fanfare surrounding Selasi and Ghana Must Go may bring readers to the book expecting deep insight into the contemporary African condition. But they will find themselves misled. At worst, the novel is a clumsy attempt at defining the outer boundaries of the Afropolitan identity that Selasi herself has coined. At its best, it is a universal tale of migration and family, which when divorced from overbearing identity politics can make for a touching read.

The novel tells the story of Folasadé Savage (Fola), who leaves Lagos for the United States, where she meets and marries a brilliant doctor from Ghana, Kweku Sai. Fola and Kweku have four children: the eldest boy Olu; twins Kehinde and Taiwo; and the precious baby, Sadie. The Sais are living out their high-achieving version of the American dream when Kweku loses his job, abandons his family, and abruptly returns to Ghana. The novel opens with Kweku suffering a fatal heart attack. His funeral reunites the remaining members of his family who have grown apart from each other and suffered individual, life-changing traumas, since his departure.

These traumas make up the bulk of Selasi’s tale. Each character’s story is involved and overwrought, making the novel at times seem soap operatic. Fola is still mourning her father, who was killed when she was a child in an anti-Igbo pogrom in Nigeria — the violent loss of her father making her husband’s spur-of-the-moment decision to leave her with four children even more cruel.

Olu, meanwhile, is struggling to live up to Kweku’s reputation as a surgeon in an effort to mitigate the latter’s poor performance as a father. He is also involved in a cross-cultural relationship with Ling, a Chinese-American woman whose father has pinned the worst stereotypes of African manhood upon him — a lack of moral backbone. “No respect for the family. The fathers don’t honour their children or wives … That’s why you have the child soldier, the rape,” says Ling’s father in an effort to explain why Africa remains “backward,” his assessment stinging in light of Olu’s own experience.

The twins have the most dramatic stories: having been dispatched in their early teens by Fola to Lagos to live with her half-brother, a drug dealer and pimp, they are still reeling from a childhood trauma that is heavily foreshadowed but revealed near the end of the novel. What is clear is that the trauma has left them damaged, both as individuals and siblings: Kehinde, a world-famous visual artist, is recovering from a suicide attempt and living in anonymity in a Brooklyn warehouse; Taiwo, a child prodigy turned law school dropout is recovering from a scandal following her affair with a married faculty member.

For her part, the youngest daughter, Sadie, suffers from more familiar self-image problems. She desperately wants to be more like her privileged, WASP college roommate, or at least as beautiful as her twin siblings who have inherited the features of their Scottish great-grandmother. Her self-hatred leads to battles with bulimia and questions about her sexuality.

No doubt Selasi’s goal is to cover the variety of African experience — across both the continent and the diaspora — through the complicated trajectories and debilitating quirks of her characters. But this is a lot of socio-political commentary to put on the shoulders of just one family.

As a result, Kweku emerges as the most interesting character. His story is simple: he escapes the desperate poverty of his childhood in a village in Ghana and succeeds in America, only to fail and return full-circle where he came from. Put another way, he leaves one family to make another one, but is eventually forced to leave that one too. Kweku’s trauma is that of the immigrant: the ability to no longer feel connected, or feel trapped; to move on; and to forgive oneself for abandoning the things that were meant to be integral to identity, existence and meaning: family, home, country. In telling Kweku’s story, and describing the terms of his relationship with his second wife in Ghana, Selasi is at her best, capturing nuanced emotions and inner conflicts with evocative prose.

Otherwise, Ghana Must Go suffers from the writing style. Selasi’s prose is overwrought, alliterative, loosely punctuated — excessive in every way. Here’s her describing Kweku’s slippers: “battered slip-ons, brown, worn to the soles. Like leather pets with separation issues, loyal, his dogs. And his religion, what he believed in, the very basis of his morality: mash-up cosmopolitanism asceticism, ritual, clean lines. The slipper. So simple in composition, so silent on wood, bringing clean, peace and quiet to God’s people the world over, every class and every culture, affordable for all, a unique form of protection against the dangers of home.” Prospective readers can only imagine what literary meanderings the treatment of the characters’ emotions entail.

That said, for those looking for a powerful take on the immigrant experience, and an occasionally poignant deconstruction of familial loyalty, Ghana Must Go is worth wading through.

Ghana Must Go


By Taiye Selasi

ISBN 978-0-670-9189-1

Viking, UK