If it’s good, stay there
If Taiye Selasi’s debut novel was as fascinating as its acknowledgments pages the book would be a triumph. Acknowledgments in books have gone the way of Oscar acceptance speeches in recent years, with ever more exhaustive tributes – though in the case of a book no prize has yet been awarded. Selasi’s list contains more than 150 names, and begins: ‘I am so very grateful to God, and (in alphabetical order, from the bottom of my heart) Andrew Wylie …’ It’s an unusual version of alphabetical order that gives Andrew ‘the Jackal’ Wylie pride of place and the proper proximity to God. (If Wylie was actually a god he would be Anubis, near the top of the list without any fancy footwork.) In fact the tributes here are arranged by alphabetical order of first name or, more eccentrically, title. There’s a run of family accolades: ‘Dr Juliette Tuakli my beloved mum, Dr Lade Wosornu my brilliant father, Dr Wilburn Williams my dearest dad’. Three parents, and all of them doctors. If there isn’t a novel in that then there’s no justice – but it isn’t this one.
The other end of the alphabetised list feeds into one element of the story that is told here: ‘and, above all, the first person I ever loved, Yetsa Kehinde Adebodunde Olubunmi Tuakli-Wosornu, my extraordinary and eternal journeymate’. Here’s the Yoruba myth of twinhood, as explained in Ghana Must Go:
ibeji (twins) are two halves of one spirit, a spirit too massive to fit in one body, and liminal beings, half human, half deity, to be honoured, even worshipped accordingly. The second twin specifically – the changeling and the trickster, less fascinated by the affairs of the world than the first – comes to earth with great reluctance and remains with greater effort, homesick for the spiritual realms. On the eve of their birth into physical bodies, this sceptical second twin says to the first, ‘Go out and see if the world is good. If it’s good, stay there. If it’s not, come back.’ The first twin, Taiyewo (from the Yoruba to aiye wo, ‘to see and taste the world’, shortened to Taiye or Taiwo) obediently leaves the womb on his reconnaissance mission and likes the world enough to remain. Kehinde (from the Yoruba kehin de, ‘to arrive next’), on noting that his other half hasn’t returned, sets out at his leisure to join his Taiyewo, deigning to assume human form. The Yoruba thus consider Kehinde the elder: born second, but wiser, so ‘older’.
You might think that twins must be especially rare to be accorded so much significance, but the Yoruban incidence of twins is the highest in the world.
The family in Ghana Must Go is headed by a Nigerian mother, Folasadé, fair-skinned thanks to a Scottish ancestor, and a Ghanaian father, Kweku. They meet in America in the early 1970s, refugees from their turbulent countries, with Folasadé ‘on the run from a war’ and Kweku ‘fleeing a peace that could kill’. They have four children, while Kweku works as a surgeon and Fola sets up a flower stall, which prospers and expands. Parents and children are all Americanised to various degrees, and African mythologies are both affirmed and contested. Fola’s entrepreneurial flair marks her out as a ‘Nigerian’s Nigerian’, yet it’s possible for her husband to find her acting-out of her rich ancestral culture a little mannered: ‘She’d become kind of precious about her Yoruba heritage after becoming iya-ibeji, a mother to twins.’
Still, the twin myth is perfectly accurate in this case (‘And so it was’), just as Fola’s mysterious ability to feel the emotions of her children in different parts of her body never fails her. ‘She touches her stomach in the four different places, the quadrants of her torso between waist and chest: first the upper right (Olu) beneath her right breast, then the lower right (Taiwo) where she has the small scar, then the lower left (Kehinde) adjacent to Taiwo, then the upper left (Sadie), the baby, her heart.’ Taiwo and Kehinde have the spooky interconnectedness attributed to twins by many cultures besides the Yoruba, but their mother’s sensitivity enfolds all four. Kweku has his own version of her ‘four quadrants’, but it’s bloodless by comparison: the ground plan of a dream house he sketched on a napkin in his third year as a resident and waited twenty years to build, a family home where his family would never live.
By having so obvious a representative in the text, under the variant form of her own twin-name, Taiye Selasi would seem to be announcing (even without the supporting evidence in the acknowledgments about her real-life Kehinde) Taiwo as her book’s central character. In fact the structural weakness here isn’t that there is too much investment in a single figure but too little, with the author giving her characters an artificially equal access to the point of view.