TBBNQ Reads: Ghana Must Go By Taiye Selasi

BY ASSUMPTA

Guest edited by Ráyò.

 Image:  Zaynab .

Image: Zaynab.

I

n Ghana Must Go Taiye Selasi explores the complexities of relationships - familial, amorous and platonic; the devastating effects of breakdowns in such connections; the immigrant hustle; loss; the consequence of shame; and the significance of belonging or feeling as though you do. The novel opens with the death of Kweku Sai in his birthplace - Ghana. The narrative then unfolds through flashbacks that allow the reader experience how each member of the Sai family deals with the news of his death.

Unsurprisingly, it was the title that attracted me to Ghana Must Go. I was curious to know what was being offered by a novel provocatively named after a blue, red and white striped bag that came to prominence in Nigeria in the 80s. The title leads one to expect a story linked to the expulsion of migrants from Nigeria in 1983; this was, however, not in any way related to the plot. Instead, Ghana Must Go tells a story about a family struggling to operate as one and stay together in the face of adversity.

Though the author, Taiye Selasi, uses poetic-prose that is beautifully arresting in parts and original, it often served more as a hurdle rather than a driver of the story; making the first few pages a drag. One sometimes gets distracted by convoluted descriptions and sentences like:

...dewdrops on grass blades like diamonds flung freely from the pouch of some spirit-god who’d just happened by...

Now the whole garden glittering, winking and tittering like schoolgirls who hust themselves, blushing, as their beloveds approach.

 

The Ephemerality Of Home

The concept of home is prevalent throughout Ghana Must Go. Ghanaian doctor Kweku and his Nigerian wife Folasade (Fola), both leave their home countries to study in America, where they meet, fall in love and marry. Kweku and Sade strive to build a home for their four children - Olu, Taiwo, Kehinde and Sadie - in Massachusetts.

They settle in a “perfectly lovely…red brick” colonial that Taiwo finds lacking compared to the other massive houses on their street. This is a metaphor for the plight of many an immigrant in reality – although the life you craft may be perfectly lovely, it could still fall short when compared to those of indigenes, yet that does not abate the desire to keep trying.

When Kweku deserts his family, and moves back to Ghana to build a new home, the one he had created with Fola falls apart, leaving her and their children devoid of a safe-haven when things get tough. This is evidenced later in the book when Taiwo hears the news of her father’s death while in a taxi “and is thinking to ask [the driver] to drive and keep driving, to wherever, not here, not this house-not-a-home, but to where?”

For many, home has always been where their family is, but when families fracture, it is interesting to consider what becomes of said space. In her TED talk, Selasi speaks for people who do not have a singular concept of home. For the people “who feel at home in the town where they grew up, the city they live now and maybe another place or two." For those whose daily experiences and rituals shape their locality and home.

In Ghana Must Go, Selasi gives the reader insight into the transience of the concept of home through the Sai family. Even when Kweku builds his dream house, the picture is not complete because of the lack of family. Rather tragically for the Sais, it takes his passing and their return ‘home’ to Ghana for his funeral, to unite them after years of partial estrangement.

 

The Consequence Of Shame

When Kweku is dismissed from his job and overcome with embarrassment, he leaves “the life of the man he wishes, to be who he has left to become”. In doing so, he becomes the architect of his family’s misfortunes and the humiliation visits them all in some way, shape or form. The use of Kweku as a scapegoat, after the death of a wealthy patient, could be said to be responsible for what happened to the Sais. Ultimately, he had a choice, and instead of sharing his burden with his family, or at the very least his wife Fola, Kweku chose to leave.

“His children used to… intentionally…test him, to weigh the devotion of his profession against his devotion to them.” When Kweku lost his job, it appears as though he lost his devotion to them. However, Selasi does write that “...his devotion to his profession kept a roof over their heads. It wasn’t comparative, a contest, either/or, job versus family… The hours he worked were an expression of his affection.”

While Selasi’s characters are (mostly) believable, she fell short of fully realising some of their potential. For example, after Kweku leaves, Fola is unable to cope with the financial burden. She is too proud to ask a prep school for scholarships for the gifted twins Taiwo and Kehinde, but not too proud to ask an estranged brother for help. While it is understandable that people reach out to family during emergencies, Fola’s actions, in this instance, were a stretch.

The results of humiliation manifest differently in the twins, yet both of them succeed in managing their shared shame, - the cause of which is the most harrowing part of the book - enough to become well-regarded in their fields. Having said that, all the Sai children are not able to fully integrate in the world and sustain relationships in the way average people do.

Sadie, the baby of the family, who always feels as though she is falling short of her exceptional siblings, develops an eating disorder. She seeks solace by periodically immersing herself in a more (seemingly) functional family that is not her own. When thinking of Sadie, the phrase, “trauma is contagious”, springs to mind. She knew Kweku the least and has no real memories of him but is deeply affected by his absence. Despite getting the affection Taiwo believes their mother withheld, Sadie feels like she is dwelling in the shadow of her siblings – given how academically, creatively or aesthetically stunning they all are.

Although there was little room for in depth exploration, given the overwhelming characters, it would have been interesting to see Sadie’s eating disorder further explored. Sadie’s desire to change physically seemed like an attempt to renounce her heritage in order to be more like her best friend's family, deep rooted and weighted in history. This starkly contrasts with her family: “It is that they are weightless, the Sais, scattered fivesome, a family without gravity, completely unbound”. The hint at Sadie’s ambiguous sexual orientation was also glazed over.

 

Life Is A Losing Game

According to Kweku, “frustration is self-pity by another name”. Ghana Must Go is beset with frustration and, more notably, loss. Whether it is the loss of youth, as evidenced by Fola and Kweku’s decision to have their son Olu and become a family. There is also the loss of a dream, as demonstrated by Fola giving up her growing legal career to support Kweku’s ambitions of becoming a surgeon – and a top one at that.

It was frustrating to read Kweku tell Fola that one dream was enough for both of them. One would have hoped she would challenge him, to fight for her right to be a woman who ‘had it all’ – a thriving career and a family. Instead, Selasi chooses to highlight what is sadly still a reality for many women – such regressive rhetoric – particularly in Africa. It brought to mind what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie states in her TedX talk, “we teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man.”

Taiwo’s aspirations, very much like her mother, are eventually derailed by a man. Her losses are grave – loss of a father, her innocence, her best friend, and perhaps a promising career she had worked so hard to build. Selasi leaves Taiwo’s future career prospects fairly open so all is not lost. Her twin, Kehinde, almost loses something far more irreplaceable but is saved by his assistant.

It is as though Olu, the eldest of the Sais, loses his capacity to feel when Kweku leaves. Everything in his life becomes clinical and practical. Even his long-standing relationship with his wife comes across as being devoid of passion and merely functional – save for their lusty moment in Ghana. I personally found Olu the least interesting of Selasi’s characters, yet well drawn in the sense that it is perfectly plausible for someone to turn out the way he does, given what his family goes through.

Overall, Ghana Must Go is a sound debut for Taiye Selasi. The movement between space and time was both ingenious and confusing at points but told well enough for one to invest in the characters and appreciate the story. Selasi has an innate ability to bring subtle observations or character traits to life but this beautiful gift can also hinder the narrative.