‘Glittering'. ‘Unforgettable’. ‘Stunning’. ‘An astonishing debut’.
These are some of the words, prominent and unmissable on the cover, that goaded me to buy Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go (2013) – who won’t? I proceeded to find a “table for one” in a quiet corner of a restaurant, as I couldn’t wait to get home to start reading it. And I remember my avidity screeching to a halt in a few pages from the start.
I was struck first of all by the beautiful, poetic sentences seemingly not wishing to accommodate idle words in them. Each and every word, it seemed to me, was placed with fastidious care to serve some purpose in the structure of the sentences, to enhance and enrich them with meaning and beauty. Picture this:
“The carpenter... Who built the house in two years working impeccably and alone, smoking hash on the job, rolling blunts during lunch, singing prayers of contrition for any harm done the wood: who came to work in swami clothing (saffron, barefoot, hip-slung tool belt) looking less like a sage than an elderly stripper with his hammer and chisel and bare chiseled thighs: an ancient soul in a younger man’s body with infant eyes in his old man’s face, some seventy odd years old with his cataracts and six-pack…”
At the same time, perhaps to achieve a sustained poetic, maybe even dramatic, effect, Selasi employs a writing style that results in many convoluted sentences loaded with descriptive and narrative meaning. Many passages hence feel overwritten, with many stand-alone phrases laced together by commas. For instance:
“The four quadrants: a nod to symmetry, to his training days, to graph paper, to the compass, perpetual journey/perpetual return, etc., etc., a gray courtyard, not green, polished rock, slabs of slate, treated concrete, a kind of rebuttal to the tropics, to home: so a homeland re-imagined, all the lines clean and straight, nothing lush, soft or verdant.”
The net effect is that one is forced to adjust one’s reading, to slow down and draw on reserves of patience in order to fully understand these passages of prose-poetry. I had to put the book down for a while in exasperation. Yet it is through a combination of these beautiful and overwritten sentences (not forgetting numerous one line paragraphs) that Selasi weaves a rich and deeply emotional story about a family – the Sais.
The patriarch, Kweku Sai, long having abandoned his family in a moment of shame and perceived failure following an injustice against him, suddenly dies. His family – his beautiful wife Fola, who quit pursuing a career in law to support her husband and raise their family; Olu, his first born son and a brilliant surgeon like him; Taiwo and Kehinde, his beautiful/handsome and talented twins; and Sadie, his last born daughter, who perceives herself as different – scattered in America, London and West Africa, and haunted by their patriarch’s abandonment, are forced together again. What ensues is an emotional journey of self-discovery, forgiveness and renewal of family ties.
Ghana Must Go, a title that derives from the expulsions of Ghanaians from Nigeria in 1983, is not only a story about family; it is also about an immigrant experience (Kweku and Fola, from Ghana and Nigeria, meet in the United States while studying and settle there), fatherhood (Kweku’s abandonment of his family may have been influenced partly by his own father’s act of abandonment), belonging (Fola’s father was Nigerian but she doesn’t feel that she belongs there), and failure – Kweku’s “failure” as well as Fola’s failure as a mother. In the midst of all these themes, Taiye Selasi makes a point against generalizations of the African experiences, that in talking about Africa, the world must take into account specificities.
Arising from the title, Selasi makes use of the word “go” as a motif to denote various meanings. For instance, Kweku’s mother, “plucked from school at age seven to fetch firewood and water”, and “frozen in time pounding yam into paste”, is wistful and, “above all things, wanting to go”, that is, she wanted to get a better life and see the world. Kweku, in his moment of “failure” and giving up, just wants to go – to leave his failure behind. “Go”, “going”, “gone” have therefore been used to imply departure, abandonment, and death (for instance, “[Kweku] is gone”). This twins well with the theme of the immigrant experience – immigration itself is an act of arrival following a departure, a “going” and leaving, as Kweku and Fola themselves confess to each other that their mistakes, perhaps, are in keeping with their identity as immigrants: “We were immigrants. Immigrants leave.”
Ghana Must Go is slow to start. Part I of the book (Gone) is a tough read, partly because of the continuous huffing and puffing of the language, and partly due to the slow revelation of the plot. If you haven’t read it, prepare yourself for endless flashbacks, constant scene setting, and in-depth descriptions of the characters’ emotions, sensitivities and motivations. The book’s speed picks up especially in Part III (Go), and, evidenced also from other reviews I’ve read, it is the part that leaves the longest lasting impression and ultimately saves the book. So if you feel jaded from Part I, don’t give up!
I think the book’s greatest strength is the delicate, sensitive and emotive portraits of the characters – flawed, fallible and ultimately human as they are. Selasi delves inward into their thought processes to lay bare their motivations and feelings in a delicate and sensitive manner. One ends up needing to reach out to Olu, for instance, when he faces “betrayal” from his father; or to Sadie, as she tries to craft out her own identity; but most of all to Taiwo, who is traumatized by what happened in Lagos at his drug dealing uncle’s place – I found that scene awful. If you haven’t read this gem of a book, prepare yourself for deep emotional investments in the characters.
Yet, from purely a subjective, non-literature point of view, I found the book a little too melodramatic. There is too much crying. Seriously. There is too much emotion, a sustained, constant humdrum of melodrama, emotion, and crying. Also, I found it hard believing (despite Selasi’s best efforts, I believe) that Kweku could hide from his wife, for eleven months, that he had been unjustly fired, all the while undertaking a court case against the hospital, and upon failure (again, not his fault – he had the best lawyer, who in fact mentions that Kweku can “practice wherever”) he is crushed enough to abandon his family, leaving them broke, with Fola long having quit her career. I imagine that fiction should possess a realistic measure of believability, unless of course it’s science fiction, fantasy or similar genres.
Nevertheless, Ghana Must Go is an amazing debut work of fiction, a mesmerizing display of great, poetic writing, rich characters, and deeply emotional stories within the story.
Picture credit: Goodreads