By Taiye Selasi
318 pp. The Penguin Press. $25.95 (Amazon)
“Ambitious” is one of those words that shift shape as they cross the Atlantic, as Taiye Selasi is certainly aware. Born in London of Nigerian and Ghanaian parents, and raised in Massachusetts, Selasi has written an ambitious first novel — and I mean that in the best, American sense of the word.
“Ghana Must Go” tells the story of Folasadé Savage, who leaves Lagos for Pennsylvania, where she meets her Ghanaian husband, Kweku Sai, a brilliant surgeon. Fola, as she is called, gives up her dream of going to law school in order to raise their four children. After losing his job, Kweku abandons them all and returns to Ghana; when the book opens, the family has splintered, with no one in regular communication. The news of Kweku’s death in Accra brings the five remaining Sais together for a bittersweet trip to his homeland.
The suggestive title refers to the expulsion of Ghanaians from Lagos in 1983, and the book is first of all an immigrant story. It shows us an African family that has succeeded in the conventional sense — albeit at punishing cost. Every member of this family is talented: the eldest boy, Olu, becomes an accomplished surgeon like his father; Kehinde is an international art star, whose paintings sell at auction for staggering sums; his beautiful twin, Taiwo, is “always at the top” of her class, as well as “prodigiously gifted at playing piano.” (The novel explains that the name Taiwo is a variant of the author’s name.) Sadie, the baby of the family (she only got into Yale off the wait list), looks nothing like the “gorgeous” twins, but is nevertheless a natural dancer with a photographic memory — it’s almost a relief when we learn that she’s bulimic.
Selasi has a tendency to overwrite, even for someone drawn to baroque prose: “Now the whole garden glittering, winking and tittering like schoolgirls who hush themselves, blushing, as their beloveds approach: glittering mango tree, monarch, teeming being at center with her thick bright green leaves and her bright yellow eggs.” Sentences like this one contribute to the book’s very slow start; Selasi spends a great deal of time on the quality of the light in Lagos, Accra and Boston, in a way that fails to distinguish these very different cities and feels a bit like a writer catching her breath before she confronts the complicated story she has to tell.
This focus on the view out the window can also take us away from a character at a crucial moment. When Sadie tells her mother she has to live her life, thus breaking the only remaining bond between members of the scattered family, Fola stares out the window, “the light in the leaves at that hour like oil, like the light on that evening in the autumn” — the evening that her husband, Kweku, left them. There must be a qualitative difference in being left by a husband as opposed to a child, but this retreat into landscape and abstraction leaves the reader guessing as to what it might be.
Fola is experienced in both leaving and being left: her mother died when she was born, and her father was killed in an anti-Igbo pogrom when she was 13. Selasi doesn’t dwell on Fola’s grief, which is something of a relief given the amount of crying the major characters do over the course of the novel. When the cranky village coffin maker snarls at Kehinde, near the end of the book — “Now you’re crying. You Sais, all the same” — it’s hard not to take his side. In Fola’s case, she simply wishes that her wealthy father had died as he lived, “in his beloved Deux Chevaux, or . . . puffing Caos, swilling rum” — rather than in a historic, and therefore “generic,” episode. This wish, one of the best moments in the novel, hints at Selasi’s project of particularizing the African experience for a Western audience, of showing the many different Africas that exist alongside the grim newspaper stereotypes.
After Kweku leaves, Fola makes a devastating decision — one that’s plausible if you consider her in the context of her “generic” history, but unconvincing if you rely on what Selasi has shown us of her personality. Fola concludes that she can’t handle four children on her own, and sends the twins to live in Lagos with her half brother, a wealthy drug dealer. Even before the twins arrive and meet Uncle Femi — “sprawled loosely on a leopard-skin water bed” — heavy foreshadowing has indicated what’s going to happen to them. In her short story “The Sex Lives of African Girls,” published in Granta in 2011, Selasi made something new of the familiar fictional theme of childhood sexual abuse, showing how the complex and violently patriarchal web of relations in one Nigerian household led to a cycle of molestation. Perhaps because her aim is different here, because she wants to show us a family estranged “from all context,” the terrible thing that happens to Taiwo and Kehinde in Lagos feels sensational, a predictable plot point rather than a tragedy that might resonate beyond the world of the novel.
Part of the problem may be the author’s unwillingness to explore her characters’ motivations fully. It was hard for me to believe that Fola — who gets into law school but doesn’t balk at selling flowers on the street when times are hard — was once too proud to ask a prep school for scholarship money for her twins so that they could stay with her (and equally difficult to imagine the school not falling over backward to award it to such candidates). Similarly, it seemed unlikely that for almost an entire year Kweku could hide from his family the fact that he had lost his job in a baldly discriminatory incident involving the death of a wealthy patient. In a peculiar moment, the woman responsible for Kweku’s firing, Dr. Michiko Yuki, is described as behaving like “a Hong Kong mobstress” — a cartoonish (and inexplicably off-base) ethnic stereotype in a scene intended to show the intractability of bias.
“Ghana Must Go” does offer a more interesting explanation for Kweku’s departure: that something about cutting one’s ties to an entire life makes it easier to do it a second time, and a third. Selasi suggests that the enormous psychic strain of emigration might take its toll later on, producing a kind of torpor. Was Kweku simply “too exhausted to explain it, too exhausted to think: of other hospitals, of starting over, . . . of being reasonable, of being responsible, of being a father, of being forgiven?” Here one wishes the author would slow down and explore this chain of psychological events, rather than simply gesturing toward it with an alliterative list.
As the novel follows the Sais to Accra, and to Kweku’s native village, Selasi’s descriptions of people and landscapes take on a new energy. At the village, Kweku’s half sister comes out to greet the new arrivals: “She stands like a woman of 70 hard years: with her elbow on the wall and her head on her fist and her hip pushing out, other hand on that hip, as if seeking to rest the full weight of her past on this crumbling brick wall for these one or two breaths.” That lovely sentence shows what Selasi is capable of; this return to a place that we suspect will never be “home,” for either the author or her characters, allows her to write with insight and confidence.
The Africans who left their countries in the 1960s and ’70s, the “brain drain” Selasi refers to in her 2005 essay “Bye-Bye Babar,” were dutiful immigrants who sought out secure careers in medicine, banking and law. Their accomplished and glamorous children, whom Selasi calls “Afropolitans,” are doing all sorts of other things. I think there is a large audience eager to hear their stories — so eager that agents, editors and publishers may have rushed a young writer’s book into print before it was ready. That’s a shame, because Selasi’s ambition — to show her readers not “Africa” but one African family, authors of their own achievements and failures — is one that can be applauded no matter what accent you give the word.