American Dream

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.

 

TBBNQ Reads: Behold The Dreamers By Imbolo Mbue

BY AFOMA

Guest edited by Ráyò.

Imbolo Mbue's Behold the Dreamers begins with a chapter that had me making my way into the story with a curious heart and a slow smile. Jende and Neni Jonga are a young couple whose love has weathered the storms of a teenage pregnancy, and parental disapproval, which led to Jende being briefly imprisoned by Neni’s father. Their relationship survived a subsequent long distance relationship while he lived in America for a couple of years without Neni and their son Liomi. Still, theirs is an enduring love, and my heart fluttered every time they referred to each other as bebé.

Jende is introduced as an eager man from the small town of Limbe in Cameroon - one with crowded teeth and a desperation to survive. After Jende and Neni have spent the previous night preparing for his interview for the role of a chauffeur, he is overjoyed at being hired and at the beck and call of Clark Edwards and his family. Unbeknownst to him, this relationship with the Edwards will be a catalyst for many changes in his life.

Mbue’s debut novel chronicles the Jongas’ struggle for a better life in America, as we learn that Jende is seeking asylum in the US, whilst Neni is a pre-pharmacy college student. When he is denied asylum, the couple begin an emotionally draining battle to stay in America - one that causes them to question their values, and exposes personality cracks that threaten their marriage and happiness. 

 

THE AMERICAN DREAM

Jende Jonga goes to America determined not to return to Cameroon until “he had claimed his share of the milk, honey and liberty flowing in the paradise-for-strivers called America.” After he secures a job with the Edwards, things begin to look up for the Jonga family. The story, however,  appears to lull for a while, and my interest is carried along solely by the conversations Jende has with Clark Edwards about Limbe and America.

In near-florid detail, he describes all he remembers about his hometown, from ‘welcome’ signs to the smell of the ocean breeze. When asked why he has left this town that he so obviously loves and misses, Jende tells a heartbreaking truth to which most Africans will relate, about countries that do not care for their own:

Because … because in my country, sir,” Jende said, his voice ten decibels lower, far less unbound and animated than it had been before he heard that someone was in danger of being fired, “for you to become somebody, you have to be born somebody first. You do not come from a family with money, forget it. You do not come from a family with a name, forget it. That is just how it is, sir.

As I read, I drew parallels between Cameroon and my country, Nigeria — two different African countries that appear to suffer a similar problem. Nigeria is supposedly the giant of Africa, yet, in my opinion, far too many people lack the support they need to attain their fullest potential. Instead, these people have to deal with nepotism in workplaces and are forced by circumstances to accept positions that pay wages too meagre to support a family.

When his asylum application is denied and the road to American papers becomes fraught with difficulty, Jende begins to think of America less as the land flowing with milk and honey, and more as an unbearable way to live. His wife, however, is staunch in her love for America and even for New York, with which Jende has a love-hate relationship.

For Neni, “America [is] synonymous with happiness.” Her perspective is understandable because most African children, especially from the nineties, grew up consuming American media, from books to movies and sitcoms. So, like Neni says, when “every picture you’ve seen of [fellow countrymen] in America is a portrait of children laughing in snow or at a mall with shopping bags”, how could you ever imagine that, maybe, America is two parts struggle and one part happy for the average immigrant?

I oscillated back and forth, seeing both sides of the coin as the push and pull between Neni and Jonga raged regarding staying in America. Like Jende, I really did not see the point of suffering just to remain an immigrant in a foreign country, but what is there to come back to in a home country that does not offer its citizens the opportunities they deserve?

Nigeria, for instance, is one of the top ten countries currently facing a massive human capital exodus with more professionals, especially doctors, moving to Europe and North America for better pay and superior working conditions. For some Nigerian immigrants, their situation is like that of Americanah’s Obinze. They leave home just to resort to doing menial jobs outside the country. Still, many of these ones are glad to have improved healthcare, constant electricity and, better quality of life than they did in Nigeria.

 

NO PLACE LIKE HOME

In her Etisalat Prize for Literature winning novel We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo paints a tender portrait of her character’s longing for home when Darling says, “There are times, though, that no matter how much food I eat, I find the food does nothing for me, like I am hungry for my country and nothing is going to fix that.” I recall this as Jende’s longing for Limbe feels palpable after the loss of his job with the Edwards and the ensuing financial and emotional hard times his family encounters.

African immigrants leave home despite the love they may have for their culture, food and the energy of their towns and cities, in search of a better future for themselves and their children. When they then arrive at these new territories, the homesickness they feel is compounded by the stark inability to fit in - a feeling that is not new to any African who has lived outside the continent. The lack of acceptance is, sadly, never imagined.

With American immigration laws tightening recently, Bulawayo’s words have never been more relevant. She says, we leave our countries and families -

- despite knowing [we] will be welcomed with restraint in those strange lands because[we] do not belong, knowing [we] will have to sit on one buttock because [we] must not sit comfortably lest [we] be asked to rise and leave... knowing [we] will have to walk on [our] toes because [we] must not leave footprints on the new earth lest [we] be mistaken for those who want to claim the land as [ours].

Reading Behold The Dreamers, I wondered, why then do we leave in droves? Are there ways to make our home, more home? Home enough to hold us up? Support us? Keep us safe? Discrimination, while in the throes of displacement, worsens the heartbreak and loneliness that one already feels outside one's country as an immigrant; a realisation that complete assimilation is near impossible because they will have names too hard to pronounce, cultures too different to completely comprehend. They will always have to make do.

It is hard not to feel like the motherland has failed her children, as one reads on. Yet, one must acknowledge, as Neni does, that America and other first world countries provide our children with numerous opportunities that they would not get at home, unless they were part of the elite class with access to quality education, or wealthy enough to cushion against the many infrastructural deficiencies in their home country.

So, while she misses the exuberance of the open air markets and having a big house and yard in Limbe as compared to the “weirdly serene” grocery stores and a rat infested one-bedroom apartment, Neni knows that “in Limbe, Liomi and Timba… would lose far too many things...the chance to be awed and inspired by amazing things happening in the country, incredible inventions and accomplishments by men and women who look like them. They would be deprived of freedoms, rights, and privileges that Cameroon could not give its children.”

 

SECOND CLASS CITIZEN

Jende's love for Neni is apparent: from the late night nuzzling to words of endearment and, even in how long he fought against the odds to bring her to the States. Yet, unlearning patriarchy is a long, arduous journey for which many African men lack the patience or desire. So it is that Jende calls the shots in the house, and makes decisions - without discussions - on how Neni spends money she earns; so much so that when she returns to college after having a baby, he pushes her to retort that the child is not his! 

A partner in a two-person relationship with equal stakes should be equally valued and regarded. I, however, find that in reality and in literature, African marriages seem to lean more toward a dictatorship than a partnership. While reading Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen, I remember most of all feeling annoyed at the derogation of Adah with each passing page. It is pitiable that the girl child is considered of less value than her male counterparts.  

Women are told, as Neni says:

Woman, oh you want so many things, why do you want so many things? When I was young my father said to me, one day you’re going to learn that you’re a woman and you should not want too many things.

Even outside the walls of marriage, women are treated like second class citizens who should sacrifice everything they want for themselves on the altar of marriage and family. Making sacrifices for the things you love is truly an imitable quality, but, again, in a partnership, should only one partner make all the sacrifices? 

 

IT’S A RICH MAN’S WORLD

A sizeable part of Behold The Dreamers is a behind the scenes look at the lives of the wealthy; the Edwards’ rich people problems, and how prioritising work and money-making over family affects the lives of loved ones. The Edwards have two sons - Vince and Mighty. Vince, who has “seen the light”, drops out of Law School and decides to move to India where he can get away from the ‘consumerism’ of America, and his family’s privileged existence - for which he insists has trapped them on a path of pointless material successes and achievements.

While the rich have extravagant parties and spend summers dining and lounging in Hampton houses with excessive bedrooms and luxury, real happiness eludes them. The Edwards’ children are happier spending time at the Jonga’s than they are in their own homes. Cindy Edwards, on the other hand, though she is all smiles outside, needs copious amounts of wine and prescription pills to endure her life with an absentee husband.

 

TILL DEATH DO US PART

Marriage and family are key themes in the novel, and the subtle contrasting manner the Jongas and Edwards are held up to the light shows that Mbue is an astute observer of the intricacies of married life and couple dynamics,. While Jende comes home to a nice meal and a wife who is eager to hear everything about his day, Clark Edwards is home too late to talk to anyone and when he’s early enough, he and Cindy only quarrel.

Neni and Jende’s marriage is far from perfect, especially as Jende’s frustration with America mounts and Neni’s love for the American lifestyle deepens. The two begin to have quarrels into the night and the nuzzling and cuddling disappear into the air of their small Harlem apartment. Their marriage is a lesson that life changes people. It also makes one wonder about 'forever' and whether the person one chooses would like who one becomes.

In Behold The Dreamers, Mbue intertwines the pursuit of greener pastures in a foreign country with homesickness and nostalgia for the past. The novel is encompassing in scope and yet manages to remain an easy, moving, and frequently funny read. It is almost impossible not to think deeper about what constitutes your values and the things that truly bring joy, while reading it. If you’re looking for something that discusses heavy issues without being preachy or drawn out, I highly recommend it.