Review by Ekene Oboko
Those of you following HopeRoad Publishing’s Facebook posts may have noticed that we have developed an adulterous obsession with a non-HopeRoad author – the delectable and ridiculous witty, Taiye Selasi.
You may be even more shocked to know that this post will be dedicated to Selasi because, here at HopeRoad we are not only passionate about our wonderful writers and their sublime stories, but our enthusiasm stretches also to novelists who attempt to capture an aspect of the black disaspora experience. This is what Selasi began to do in her 2005 essay, “Bye Bye Babar (Or: What is an Afropolitan?)” which brought her an underground following. The issues of migration, home(lessness) and cultural interactions are again dealt with in her novel, which has been eagerly anticipated since the publication of her short story, “The Sex Lives of African Girls” in “Granta”’s 2011 summer issue.
Selasi dropped into the Southbank Centre this month to promote “Ghana Must Go” – a transcontinental family saga set in Nigeria, America and Ghana and which, in the author’s own words, tackles “loss, love, home and shame”. Selasi, described by the event’s chair – journalist and novelist – Hannah Pool, as “incredible”, began the evening with a reading from “Ghana Must Go”. For those of us intrigued as to why Selasi had selected a title that conjured images of blue, white and red checkered square-shaped nylon bags, stuffed with excess clothes or piles of plantain rather than the associations of the aforementioned themes, Pool attempted to clear this up by asking Selasi how the title had come about. Selasi confessed that she wished when she thought of the title she was cognisant of the 1983 political mandate issued by the Nigerian government which forced more than two million immigrants, many of them Ghanaian, to leave the economically strained country, but she was more familiar with the “coherently imported from China”, Ghana-Must-Go bags. However, she felt compelled to think of a name for her book when she came to save her manuscript and realised it would not do to save it as the novel’s eighteen word first sentence usefully suggested by her computer. On discovering the contentious social narrative behind the phrase, although she had thought to change the title, her publisher deemed it unnecessary.
Taiye also spoke on how the idea for “Ghana Must Go” came to her while on a yoga retreat in Sweden. She revealed that although she is unable to pinpoint the creative source of her ideas, it was just as she was about to step into the shower that the novel’s “entire world appeared”. The novel, which due to a six month writer’s block brought on by the pressure of a having a two book deal, took her two years to complete. When asked by Pool whether she felt burdened under the expectations of producing the ultimate “African novel”, Selasi responded that this pressure had eluded her since for her “the African novel doesn’t exist”, continuing Telasi said she did not “believe in continental literature”. As an aficionado of classical music, (Selasi learnt to play the cello at an early age) she wanted literature to be perceived in the same way as music, where significance is not placed on its national origins, instead listeners are interested in “the creative intentions” behind the form. Taiye explained that as well as being inspire by music, her muses also took the shape of the classical architecture of Rome – where she resides – Caravaggio’s paintings, Arundhati Roy, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ayei Kwei Armah among others and also the fiction of her advocate, the Nobel prize winning, Toni Morrison. (Morrison ‘discovered’ Selasi and acted as her mentor).
The discussion moved on to publishing industry’s marketing of “African” writers. Possibly, with recent literary sensations like Chimamanda Adichie and Chibundu Onuzo, in mind, Pool asked Selasi whether she felt herself to be a “publishing fetish”, a marketable “African writer” due to her residency in the West rather than being based in an African country, with a nod to Marxism, Selasi did acknowledge that since “few controlled the means of [book] distribution”, this may be the case. However, she added that to counter parochial representatives of African novelists there needed to be more support for writers of African descent. She touched on the concerns her family had when she expressed her desire to be a writer as since her mother, her father and her twin sister “being the good immigrant child she was” embarked on medical professions, they were not sure how to advice her on how to succeed in her more aesthetic vocation. “We need to get more of us to tell our stories” Selasi told the audience, as once this happens, “we’re moving in the right direction”.
We at HopeRoad would like to think that in our passion for Caribbean, African and Asian fiction, we have begun moving in the right direction.