Nothing Lush, Soft or Verdant

Taiye Selasi’s first novel runs circles around the ‘African story’ you’re used to
Ghana Must Go | Taiye Selasi | Viking | 320 pages | Rs 499
Africa
Selasi’s storytelling only bears fruit when you allow yourself to be rocked by the sometimes choppy wave motion of her prose—gushes, pull-backs, slowly building undercurrents—and surrender to the way she plays fast and loose with punctuation and sentence-structure.

Ghana Must Go poses an immediate challenge to those predisposed to groan at a glossary—not another attempt to translate a corner of the ‘Third World’ for the forum of the First. Behind every glossary lurks the Oldest Literary Argument In The Colonised World, about to rear its wizened head, asking, ‘Why is this book in English?’ It’s a tiring, circular argument, made even more tiring by its persistent relevance. And a glossary of exotic words is its surest omen.

But author Taiye Selasi’s glossary is a taunt, a bizarre assembly of cultural references, only glancingly decoded for the reader. It won’t help you navigate the exotic marketplace you might have expected to find in an ‘Africa book’. This is a fitting fake-out—both conforming to and subverting convention—from an author who just last year responded to a question from an interviewer about writing in English with a strident, “Get over it.” Instead of assisting the usual italic defamiliarisation a reader must contend with in any novel that straddles two (in this case, multiple) linguistic universes, Selasi’s glossary helps normalise non-English words. Each word is broken down into phonetic syllables, then paired with an English word from which it borrows a cadence—‘Kehinde, ky in deh, yesterday’—until it is an easy, rhythmic string of sounds. This is how Selasi seems to use all her words, English or otherwise: like beats or sounds, to be clustered, rhymed, alliterated, layered, one on top of another. Chunks of Ghana Must Go are almost slam poetry:

‘The 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 cosmopolitan asceticism, ritual, clean lines. The slipper.’

The slippers in question are Kweku Sai’s, found abandoned on the morning he dies of a cardiac arrest in his garden in Accra, thousands of miles away from his family. They become a nagging, inexplicable detail in the story of his death, especially to his cherished daughter Taiwo, as the scattered family gathers in Ghana after his death.

It takes a while to get used to Selasi’s style. Bizarrely complex compound sentences are often bookended by a series of emphatic fragments. Some passages, notably an early description of a garden to which we keep returning, are so thick with homonyms that it takes a few readings to unearth what’s being said. Certain sentences and phrases read like writerly indulgences—‘prodigal prodigy’, ‘the sun rose, ferocious, less a rise than an uprising’—overthought, overwrought. A string of alliterative adjectives that might have felt neat in its formulation feels too convenient once on the page, being read by someone other than the person who wrote it.

But if you are to receive from Selasi’s writing the gifts it has to give, you have to, in her words, get over it. Selasi’s storytelling only bears fruit when you allow yourself to be rocked by the sometimes choppy wave motion of her prose—gushes, pull-backs, slowly building undercurrents—and surrender to the way she plays fast and loose with punctuation and sentence-structure. The looping of motifs, the circling back to key moments and images to layer them with meaning, will be familiar to those who read The God of Small Things when its word-architecture was a new experience—Selasi’s slippers are like Arundhati Roy’s ‘old roses on the breeze’.

Such a surrender might make it possible to see what, for instance, the frequent tussle between tropically-damp description and crisp American colloquialisms is supposed to enact. In his contemplation of his garden—which he so resisted and in which he sees the beauty and fragility of life, moments before his death—Kweku repeatedly says he had wanted ‘nothing lush, soft, or verdant’. The house he dreams of and later builds for himself in Ghana, after leaving his family behind in the US, is intended as ‘a kind of rebuttal to the tropics, to home: so a homeland reimagined, all the lines clean and straight’.

If the author were any more explicit, she’d be conducting a course on imagery in ‘African literature’—a course that would likely begin with a deconstruction of the use of ‘African’ as a catch-all descriptor for any and all literature, no matter how diverse, coming from or having to do with an entire continent. Selasi sets up her Africa-Abroad binary early in the book, before anyone can accuse her of falling into it, and then goes about confusing it in various—albeit sometimes heavy-handed—ways. This is the same dance as with the glossary: a nod to expectations of ‘African literature’, and a simultaneous shake of the head.

Selasi knows what has come before in the conversation and neither ignores nor repeats it. In the waiting room of a Massachusetts hospital, while Kweku’s wife Folasadé gives birth to their fourth child Sadie, 14-year-old Olu, their oldest son, reads Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart—it is Achebe, not his archetypal African male protagonist Okonkwo, who exists in the world of Selasi’s novel. In The Sex Lives of African Girls—a short story and the author’s only other published work of fiction—another young reader, Edem, reads copies of Richard Wright and Edith Wharton handed down from an older cousin.

Selasi’s project with Ghana Must Go appears similar to what she achieves with Sex Lives—the telling of a different kind of ‘African’ story. In her essay Bye-Bye Barbar, Selasi outlines the potential for a new kind of African identity: ‘For us, being African must mean something. The media’s portrayals (war, hunger) won’t do. Neither will the New World trope of bumbling, blue-black doctor. Most of us grew up aware of ‘being from’ a blighted place, of having last names from countries which are linked to lack, corruption. Few of us escaped those nasty ‘booty-scratcher’ epithets, and fewer still that sense of shame when visiting paternal villages.’

Implicit in the ‘African story’ we’re accustomed to hearing is horror—horror at poverty, at violence, at death, disease and injustice. In Selasi’s writing, encounters with horror become imaginative opportunities, doors to deeper understanding. In Sex Lives, Edem sees Ruby, one of the ‘house staff’, kneeling between her uncle/foster patriarch’s legs, and feels that ‘something was possible under this roof, in this house; something different from—and you wondered, was it better than? preferable to?—the thing you lived out every day.’ In Ghana Must Go, when Taiwo finds her father passed out on the couch in the middle of the night, drunk and slumped over, his slippers off, revealing the horribly bruised, calloused, raw soles of his feet, she is afraid, but also experiences ‘an opening up’—‘The fact of her father here slumped in the moonlight meant something was possible that she hasn’t perceived…’

Selasi writes in the space opened up by such newly-perceptible possibilities. As for the old ‘African story’, she tackles it deftly, early in her novel. In a quick, procedural paragraph, she runs down her version of the classic poverty narrative that she, as a writer of the African diaspora, is expected, if not to recreate, then at least to address in some way, whether she likes it or not. This she does, but with a great, bitter eye-roll for the staleness of the story, which makes it untellable again, and also for its genericness, which leaves so much untold: ‘This was one perk of growing up poor in the tropics. No one ever needed the details. There was one basic storyline, which everyone knew, with the few custom endings to choose now and again. Basic: humming grandmas and polycentric dancing and drinks made from tree sap and patriarchy. Custom: boy-child Gets Out, good at science or soccer, dies young, becomes priest, child-soldier or similar. Nothing remarkable and so nothing to remember. Nothing to remember, and so nothing to grieve.’

This is the worn dilemma of the African writer writing, inevitably, for the rest of the world—to risk telling the same old story, or not to tell at all. This, perhaps, is why Selasi uses her language so thoroughly—to exhaust all the possible ways of saying something, to write circles around that something, so as not to leave it unsaid.