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Ghana Must Go, By Taiye Selasi
Can this fanfared debut live up to its billing? After a few wobbles – yes, a new star is born
Friday 29 March 2013
This arresting first novel comes garlanded with mighty expectations: translated into umpteen languages already, the author mentored by no less than Toni Morrison, advance approval from Salman Rushdie and cover quotes from Penelope Lively and Teju Cole. Is the hype justified? The generous answer is yes, though I worry about how the talented Taiye Selasi can follow this stunning opening act.
She can surely write, treating her readers to a superior range of linguistic turns - prose that goes from the bluntly compacted to the poetically nuanced, and best of all is just musical. The book's very first sentence sounds like a scrap of song lyric: "Kweku dies barefoot on a Sunday before sunrise, his slippers by the doorway to the bedroom like dogs."
From this start, Selasi puts together a moving story of a fragmented family, salvaging resolution from the secrets and lies of the past. At its heart is the impact of the death of the absent father, Kweku Sai, on those whom he left behind.
Kweku has been a respected Ghanaian surgeon in the US, with a loyal spouse and four children – an aspirational family living in Massachusetts in a house that emanates the sense of "ongoing effort, of an upswing midmotion, a thing being built."
Things fall apart when Kweku suffers the shame of wrongful dismissal and tries to hide it. He abandons America and his Nigerian-born wife Fola to return to his native land, leaving her to raise their offspring: Olu, following in his father's footsteps; boy/girl twins Kehinde and Taiwo, differently brilliant; and Sadie, reaching for an identity beyond being the last-born. They are a complex, convincingly drawn group of individuals, their characters tempered by separation and, eventually, the healing possibility of reunion.
The dramatic consequences of Kweku's first departure are apparent only after his final exit, with the gathering for the funeral. The narrative, steeped in emotion and all kinds of love and betrayal, swirls with revelations that span generations and cross national boundaries, from West Africa to New England, London, New York. Flashback and remembering are key to the structure.
I wish Selasi freedom from the burden of anthropological analysis of her novel in terms of "Africanity" (the guide to Pronunciations may not help; I never read a novel with a glossary spelling out that Cholmondeley rhymes with "dumbly"). While insightful about migration in general, Ghana Must Go (the title refers both to the 1983 episode when Ghanaians were expelled from Nigeria - Ghana did something similar to Nigerians in 1969 - and to the nickname of the ubiquitous red-and-blue checked plastic holdall beloved of travelling market women) deals with its own creative particularities.
It is the uninhibited risk-taking with language and allusions that sets it apart. Back in 2005, Selasi wrote an inspirational essay in which she coined the term "Afropolitan" to cover those - like herself - whose geographical and cultural hybridity allows them to shape-shift fearlessly, carrying with it the need for constant self-definition.
By and large, Selasi totes her baggage elegantly, and every so often throws out a phrase to stop one in one's tracks, as when Fola awakes from a dream of drowning in the ocean: "Sparkling fear foam, and roaring." I became increasingly fond of her almost perfectly balanced rhythms (often in 6/8 or 12/8 metre): "Kehinde is listening to Saint-Saëns's Danse Macabre, the screaming of a kettle and the heat's steady whir." By contrast, she favours a literal breathiness for effect: "It works. The spell breaks. The pang ebbs. He snaps back. Short of breath."
It has to be said that the opening section of the novel ("Gone") takes time to find its feet, as it were; by Part II ("Going") the author is well in her stride, and with Part III ("Go"), it is practically a dead cert there will be no stopping Taiye Selasi. Prize-winning material, I'll wager.
Margaret Busby is chair of the board of 'Wasafiri' magazine: wasafiri.org
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