April 12, 2013 6:22 pm

Continental drift

A fine debut novel of emigration, return and families left behind
An illustration depicting what it means to be a stateless immigrant©Daniel Mitchell

Ghana Must Go, by Taiye Selasi, Viking RRP£14.99/Penguin Press $25.95, 336 pages

Ghana Must Go, Taiye Selasi’s feted debut novel, begins with a death.

Kweku Sai, ejected from his charmed life as a doctor in Massachusetts, has abandoned his adopted home and returned to Ghana. (“I’m letting you go,” he told his wife Folasadé on the phone.) His career sacrificed to appease a blue-blooded Bostonian clan whose matriarch was too frail to make it through heart surgery, Kweku has learnt that in America success and skill do not trump race. Now, years later, as his own fractured heart slows down, he leaves behind a family scattered across borders and wounded by his betrayal.

 

Olu, the perfect eldest son, also a doctor, finds himself shamed by his father’s weaknesses. A brilliant surgeon who cannot diagnose and arrest a simple heart attack, Kweku seems to conform to the grossest stereotypes – the African dad who walks out on his kids, who keeps spare wives, who lives aimlessly and without ambition.

Then there is Taiwo, who shares more than just a name with the author (in the Yoruba language, Taiye and Taiwo are variants given to the firstborn of twins). After a disastrous affair, Taiwo is asked by a therapist why she thinks she is being treated pro bono: “And why would I do such a thing? Your unique family background? Your remarkable accomplishments? Your formidable intelligence? Your stunning good looks?” It is hard not to think of Selasi, herself a firstborn twin of Nigerian, Ghanaian and Scottish provenance, born in London and living in Rome, where she is a film-maker, photographer and novelist.

But Taiwo’s many blessings do not protect her. Her life unravels heartbreakingly as the novel explores the Sai family’s shames, defeats and secrets. Her twin Kehinde, an artist and the only witness to his father’s fleeing, wrestles with the question all his siblings face: how do we love? How does one belong to people?

By far the most compelling of the four Sai siblings is Sadie, the youngest. Anxious, bulimic Sadie is Selasi’s finest character and the author’s explorations of her longing and alienation are some of the best sections in the book. As the siblings face up to their loss, Selasi writes elegantly of what happens to our memories when they are confronted by the un-arrestable – death, grief and displacement.

Yet Ghana Must Go is not a novel about the immigrant’s dream, the claiming of new space; rather, it is about limbo and what it means to be stateless. (The title refers to unwelcoming chants aimed at Ghanaian refugees in Nigeria during the 1980s.) That third space, the gap between inside and outside, of belonging and home, is something Selasi describes intuitively. Immigrants don’t just arrive and settle. They also leave and disrupt. They disturb and unnerve the people they leave behind.

Kweku cannot bear for his family to see him humiliated, to see the shine cast off his success story: the boy from the village who leaves home for America, a country so far away, so enormous that it is the only place capable of holding dreams as large as his. When Olu visits him in Ghana and is horrified at the conditions of his new life – a “hot, half-finished apartment” with stained walls that smelled of chipped paint and urine – Kweku’s pride has returned home. “You are better than this”, Olu shouts angrily. “This is what I come from,” Kweku softly replies.

Selasi is a sensitive, poetic storyteller but Ghana Must Go is not without its affectations. It begins with a pronunciation guide – “Lagos = Lay-goss (as in famous), Femi (as in Emmy)” and so on. Furthermore, the first half of the novel is home to spiralling, dancing sentences that slow down its pace in favour of style (“ ... glittering mango tree, monarch, teeming being at center with her thick bright green leaves and her bright yellow eggs; glittering fountain full of cracks now and weeds with white blossoms ... glowing sky the soft gray of the south without sunlight, glittering clouds at its edges. Glittering garden. Glittering wet.”).

Much has been made of Selasi’s coining of the term “Afropolitan” in a magazine article in 2005 to refer to a new generation of African emigrants, beautiful people who spin fusion music at Paris nightclubs, run banks in London and subscribe to New York fashion. They are not citizens but “Africans of the world”. But Ghana Must Go avoids this new glamorisation. It is more heartfelt, more powerful, more concerned with the things we wish to hide – failure, loneliness, shame – than the glories we would revel in.

Fatima Bhutto is author of ‘Songs of Blood and Sword’ (Vintage). Her first novel, ‘The Shadow of the Crescent Moon’, will be published by Penguin later this year

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