In her gorgeous debut novel, Ghana Must Go , London-born Taiye Selasi traces the residue of sacrifices we make in the name of family.
Although your title refers to political unrest (and a shopping bag!), the story focuses on the emotional lives of the Sai family. Was it a conscious decision to stay away from the political?
I barely feel fully conscious writing fiction, much less capable of making what might be called “a conscious decision.” Truly. It’s only after I’ve sat there trying to hear the music that I become fully aware of what I’ve written. Fola, reflecting on her childhood in Nigeria, speaks of “the sense of self surrendered to the senselessness of history, the narrowness and naïveté of her former individuality.” I still remember typing this, some 100 pages in, and thinking: right, this is why I abandoned international relations for literary fiction—narrowness. So often literature about African people is conflated with literature about African politics, as if the state were somehow of greater import or interest than the individual. While it’s true that the politics of young states and poor states have grossly exaggerated effects on the lives of their citizens, those lives contain nevertheless the very complexities of human experience that have always given rise to the novel.
Although you were born in England and raised in Massachusetts, both your novel and your recently published story, “The Sex Lives of African Girls,” center on African families. Do you consider yourself an African writer?
I consider myself West African, among other cultural identities, and a writer, among other creative ones. But I struggle a bit with this notion of continental literature. The writer presents himself to the blank page not with an open passport but an open heart. The identity of consequence is the writing’s—not the writer’s. It’s convenient to categorize novels by the countries from which their characters come, but the practice rather misses the point. Music seems to have cottoned on faster than fiction in this regard: we no longer speak of “contemporary Asian music,” “contemporary American music,” without specifying a type of sound. For instance, the singer Berry and the rapper Diam’s are both young, female, French, but nothing about their music is illumined by those facts. I’d love to flatter myself by likening my “sound” to Teju Cole’s or Chris Abani’s, or certain Indian, American, Czech, and British brothers-in-arts.
When did you know you were a writer?
For Christmas, my mum framed a poem published in a Brookline newspaper in 1989; in it, I describe myself as “a piece broken off of the written world.” I was four when I announced my ambition to write, eight when I began publishing such claims. It’s the only thing I’ve loved this much, this desperately, this long.
In what way did your own life experiences help you write Ghana Must Go?
They clarified—persistently, beautifully, painfully, and finally, utterly convincingly—that I’d never be truly happy until I gave my life to writing.