In 2005, Taiye Selasi wrote in her essay, ‘What is an Afropolitan?’ that ‘Afropolitans’ are ‘not citizens, but Africans of the world’; perhaps ethnically mixed, perhaps culturally diverse through living in different countries and speaking different languages, but linked by having ‘at least one place on the African continent to which we tie our sense of self‘. Selasi herself has one Nigerian and one Ghanaian parent, was born in London, and has lived in Accra, Berlin, New York and Rome. Her own experiences are mirrored in the Nigerian-Ghanaian family at the heart of her debut novel, Ghana Must Go (2013). All four children are primarily brought up in New York, but the eldest, Olu, has only been to Ghana as an infant, while the youngest, Sadie, has never been there at all. In contrast, Taiwo and Kehinde, twins, spent part of their adolescence there after their father left the family and their Nigerian mother, Fola, wanted to give them a better start in life.
Ghana Must Go hovers between richness and cliche. High-achieving, Yale-educated Olu is the ‘good son’, marrying young and pursuing a career as a doctor. Middle daughter Taiwo, whom we first meet in a white fur coat on the streets of New York, pursues troubled relationships with unsuitable men, while remaining supernaturally close to her artistic twin, Kehinde. ‘Baby Sadie’, the youngest, feels disregarded and ignored by the rest of the family, and has developed an eating disorder. As Ghana Must Go goes on, all four of these characters, who begin as a familiar set, develop greater depth – but it’s a shame that it’s only really in the last fifty pages that we feel we get to know them properly. In particular, a twist near the end of the novel could have been positioned earlier, allowing us more of a handle on Kehinde, who’s very distant for much of the narrative.
Because of this, for the majority of Ghana Must Go the parents feel more original and engaging than their offspring, because we already have their backstory. The wayward Ghanaian father, Kweku, who dies at the beginning of the book, is an early example of an ‘Afropolitan’, training in Poland, moving to New York, then returning to Ghana when he loses his job after a racist accusation. He describes the pressure that rests on him after Fola gives up her studies in law to support his career: ‘he knew that her sacrifice was endless. And as the Sacrifice was endless, so must be the Success.’ Meanwhile, Fola is an especially vibrant character, combining modernity and tradition with her mysterious ability to sense the mental states of her four children, her determined independence and her bell-bottom jeans. Of all Selasi’s protagonists, she challenges Western myths about ‘Africa’ most directly. Studying in the US after the Nigeria-Biafra civil war, she reflects:
She sensed the change immediately, in the tone people took when they learned that her father had been murdered by soldiers; in the way that they’d nod as if yes, all makes sense… Never mind that the Hausas were targeting Igbos, and her father was a Yoruba… her classmates and professors… somehow believed that it was natural, however tragic, what had happened… she’d stopped being Folasade Somayina Savage and had become instead the native of a generic War-Torn Nation… Surely, broad-shouldered, woolly-haired fathers of natives of war-torn nations got killed all the time?
Stylistically, I found Ghana Must Go to be a little too poetic and elliptic for my liking; I was rarely able to become properly immersed in the story because of its distracting, mid-sentence shifts in point-of-view, or between present and past. The rhythm of Selasi’s sentences is wonderful, but often reads more like a prose-poem than prose, and I found myself being lulled into reading forward without always taking the meaning in, as when Olu finds out about his father’s death while sitting in his white bedroom: ‘He sits in his scrubs with the shirt in the dark, with the moon making ice of the floor and the walls, and thinks maybe she’s right, all this white is oppressive… In the sunlight it’s gorgeous, hard angles and harder the light crashing brilliantly against its own shade, to an eerie effect, white on white, like an echo, the sun staring at its own reflection.’ In contrast, when Selasi’s prose occasionally breaks up into fragments, the text becomes much more immediate. Nevertheless, I was impressed by this debut, and sorry to see that Selasi has written nothing since.