If it’s good, stay there

Adam Mars-Jones

  • Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
    Viking, 318 pp, £14.99, April 2013, ISBN 978 0 670 91986 4

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.

The central situation is simple. Kweku left his family in the mid-1990s and has now died of a heart attack in Accra. Fola independently moved to the same city not long before, but their children, now adults, must travel from America for the funeral of a father who has been missing from their lives for a decade and a half. Fatherlessness has pushed Kweku’s children in a number of contradictory directions. Olu, the eldest, has followed him professionally by becoming a surgeon, but made a radically different choice of partner in Ling, who is Chinese. The two met at an Asian American Cultural Center Open House at Yale, to which Olu had been invited by mistake thanks to the misleading signals given by his surname, Sai. Astringency, very far from being the dominant tone of the book, makes a welcome appearance in a description of Olu and Ling on their high-minded travels: ‘Ling-and-Olu, tall, tiny, a study in contrasts, their photos like print ads for Benetton clothes: Ling-and-Olu in Guam building homes for the homeless, Ling-and-Olu in Kenya digging wells for the waterless, Ling-and-Olu in Rio giving vaccinations to vagrants.’ The sting of lemon juice is all the more valuable after the heavy flavour of so much of the writing.

The twins were sent to Lagos to continue their schooling in the immediate aftermath of their father’s desertion. They clung to each other, then flew apart. Now Kehinde is a famous painter and a recluse, while Taiwo has been having an affair with the dean of her law school. Sadie, the youngest child, whose twentieth birthday coincides with the news of her father’s death, resents being expected to form a sort of couple with her mother but hasn’t forged a separate identity. She relies on her best friend, Philae, to provide her with a love object and a fantasy family. Again some refreshing tartness:

Philae and Sadie: the inseparable, the invincible, Miss Popularity in partnership with Most Likely to Succeed, a high school match made in heaven relocated to New Haven … The loyal, the indispensable, the wing beneath, etc. A role Sadie plays as if made for the part: the Nick to Philae’s Gatsby, the Charles to her Sebastian, the Gene to her Finny: there is always the friend, Sadie knows, any freshman who’s done all her reading knows the narrator of the story is always the Friend.

(Gene and Finny from A Separate Peace, ‘the wing beneath’ presumably meaning ‘the wind beneath my wings’ and courtesy of Bette Midler in Beaches.)

Here, though, there is no equivalent to the Friend and the narrating is done in a free indirect style that channels each family member in turn, an awkward arrangement, particularly in scenes featuring more than one of them. A novel with half a dozen overlapping points of view is like one of those perforated puzzle jugs which soak the tabletop when you try to fill a glass from them. There’s a loss of pressure when the narrative is dispensed from multiple spouts, and a real risk of interest dribbling away.

How to deploy the point of view when a number of characters are experiencing essentially the same thing? By making it uneasily plural, apparently. The siblings, newly arrived in Ghana, reach Fola’s house:

half of the bodies moving busily, lugging suitcases, half of the bodies looking awkward, out of place, trying to help, to be of use but not to get in the way of the bodies who know where to go, what to do. With the lightly frantic energy of awkward introductions, with no one quite knowing what to say or to whom, smiling at no one, shifting positions, making lax observations. Where’s the bathroom? Longing suddenly to be on one’s own.

Better to skip the scene altogether, pleading jet lag on behalf of your characters, than give up so completely on the task of differentiating them.

Point-of-view writing strikes a bargain, aiming for depth of insight and accepting some loss of immediate impact with the shift of emphasis from event to reaction. The bargain can’t be renegotiated at short notice to jazz things up, which is what happens at the mid-point of this book. For ten pages we’ve been following Sadie’s thoughts about family and belonging, while she hides in the bathroom from the birthday party Philae has thrown for her. Then Taiwo phones with the news of their father’s death. Sadie, without hanging up, ‘thinks suddenly of Kehinde, of the card’. ‘Frantic and silent’, she sorts through the trash ‘until she finds the FedEx envelope in which the card came’. She has already started spinning a tale, making out that she has a deadline that requires her to deliver some work to a professor’s house, so that Taiwo will volunteer to make a detour on the way to the airport. The return address on the envelope shows that Kehinde, who was assumed to be based in London, is living in Brooklyn. It’s him they will call on.

The sequence of events here is clear, but it makes no sense. Sadie opens her card from Kehinde and throws away the envelope without reading it. If she had read it, after all, she wouldn’t have thrown it away. Yet she starts concocting the story about her non-existent errand before she locates the envelope in the trash, so she must already know the address (or at least the name of the city, the crucial point) that is written on it. These details could be harmonised with a rewrite, but the underlying problem is stubborn. If Sadie had really learned the secret of Kehinde’s whereabouts that day her thoughts would be ringing with it. It’s the most important family event for years (she hasn’t yet heard about her father’s death when she opens the envelope) and it’s impossible for her to be thinking of anything else, particularly as it’s she, who seems to play no part in the family’s drama, she and no one else, who can put the pieces together. It violates a basic law of literary dynamics for the news to pass through her without touching her thoughts and feelings. The bombshell has been tactically defused because Selasi prefers to delay its emotional charge, building the reunion between Taiwo and Kehinde instead. This is only a simulation of point-of-view writing. Sadie, the afterthought and ugly duckling, is left out in the cold even by her creator. By wanting to tell everyone’s story Selasi risks telling no story at all. The soap-opera premise – family gathering, eruption of secrets – has to be followed through or there’s no point using it. There are some conventional confrontations, but it’s hardly efficient to drag Olu halfway across the world only to give him a flashback (‘Only now does it dawn on him …’) that could have been prompted at any time.

Real families have showdowns from time to time, but the family showdown as it appears on stage or screen, whether in Festen or EastEnders, is a convention developed by forms that, unlike fiction, need to drive emotions out into the open, being poorly equipped to track them where they lurk. Point-of-view writing and the family showdown, in other words, start from opposite assumptions about what constitutes the dramatic.

Flashbacks have their uses, but they produce a disruptive effect when triggered in the middle of a scene, still more so when they contain flashbacks of their own. The idea here must be that the emotions revealed somehow feed in to the scene when it resumes. This would have a better chance of working if Selasi’s writing wasn’t so full of clumsy poetic effects: ‘Bodies. Familiar. She never told him how familiar, she is thinking, thoughts drifting as thoughts will in heat as one waits standing still with still time all around one, a space into which enters Past, seeing room.’ ‘The nucleus, of nuclear family fame – Future – with rings fanning out from the core, a new order, decentralised, disaggregated efforts to climb up the mountain each man for himself.’ Sometimes there are positive obstructions to understanding: ‘a way out of the hurting, for her, who is life-full, who lives and has always lived fully on earth, in the world, in and of it, not grounded nor grounding but ground, in her person, the canvas itself.’ It takes labour to deduce that ‘ground’ here isn’t a verbal form (from grind perhaps) but an article-denuded noun, and by then ‘wordplay’ seems too blithe a description for the dogged grinding through parts of speech.

The surprising thing is that all these formal and stylistic defects don’t do the book in. Ghana Must Go doesn’t come together as a family drama but it has plenty to say about being a first-generation African American. There’s a pronunciation guide at the beginning of the book so wonderfully patronising it may in fact be mocking the problems non-Africans have with names they consider exotic. If you’re called Taiye Selasi there must be many countries in which you are constantly required to spell and explain your name, which is bound to feel like defending your right to exist. So for instance ‘Babafemi’ is spelled out as ‘bah bah feh mee’ then has its rhythm described in terms of a familiar English word (‘as in absolutely’) in case that’s not enough help. Selasi gets some small revenge in the text, when Olu struggles to remember the name of Ling’s brother-in-law, which is ‘standard-issue Caucasian, like Brian or Tim, a Californian, beige hair and beige skin and beige trousers’.

Even with the disaster of Kweku’s desertion the Sai family makes its way in the world. Sadie is the closest the family has to an underachiever, and Sadie studies at Yale. Yet racism is part of the air they breathe, at home and abroad. (A taxi-driver in Ghana would rather be ferrying ‘some tense blond-haired couple’ than people who resemble him physically but have such obviously different lives.) Sadie sees herself as part of a generation, and a group, that has moved beyond definition by ethnicity:

For all of the hoopla about race, authentic blackness (which, as far as she’s concerned, confuses identity and musical preference), it is obvious to Sadie that all of them carry this patina of whiteness, or Wasp-ness more so: be they Black, Latin, Asian, they’re Ivy League strivers, they all start their comments with overdrawn ums, and they’ll all end up working in law firms or hospitals or consultancies or banks having majored in art. They are ethnically heterogeneous and culturally homogeneous, per force of exposure, osmosis, adolescence. She accepts this without anguish as the price of admission. She doesn’t want to be Caucasian.

If Sadie is comfortable with her skin tone she certainly feels differently (she’s bulimic) about the stocky build that isn’t logically a separable part of her inheritance. In dance class she was able to make her body perform but not conform visually: she

could do all the steps in her sleep, no mistakes, but had stood at the barre in a line that September and noticed the palette, the pinks and the whites, light brown hair, light brown wood, clean-straight lines in the sunlight, and noticed herself, neither long, straight, nor light … she was great at ballet but was no ballerina.

So she stopped. Sometimes cultural homogeneity isn’t enough.

Inherited characteristics are prized within the family, just not by the person who happens to possess them. Sadie covets the twins’ eye colour and Taiwo’s fashion-plate glamour, though Taiwo is conflicted about her looks – naturally enough, since they polarise the reactions of men and women alike. Being envied doesn’t give her immunity from little envies of her own. She delivers a pleasing semiotic rant about dreadlocks on campus:

Think about it. Barring Rastafarians, the real ones, religious ones, what kind of black girl grows locks? Black girls who go to predominantly white colleges, that’s who. Dreadlocks are black white-girl hair. A Black Power solution to a Bluest Eye problem: the desire to have long, swinging, ponytail hair. The braids take too long after a while, the extensions. But you still need a hairstyle for running in rain. Forget the secret benefit from affirmative action; this is the white woman’s privilege. Wet hair. Not to give a shit about rain on your blowout. I’m serious.

The routine gets an extra sweet and sour flavour by virtue of being performed for the entertainment of her older-white-man-academic-father-figure lover.

Kehinde, Taiwo’s twin, equally glamorous, develops a private mythology of racial distinctiveness that values ‘aboriginal intransigent’ features, marking ‘a people with a sticky set of genes’. The examples he gives include ‘Ethiopian eyes, Native American cheekbones’ and ‘the black hair/blue eyes of the Welsh’, a flattering stereotype that might not survive a weekend in Colwyn Bay. Inside the family the intransigent aboriginals are Olu and Sadie, representing their maternal (Yoruba) and paternal (Ga) ancestry respectively: ‘The face keeps repeating, the one face, over and over, across ages and oceans and lovers and wars, like a printmaker’s matrix, a good one, worth reusing … He envies them this. His siblings and their parents belong to a People, bear the stamp of belonging.’ Beauty confers many privileges, but identity isn’t one of them. He and Taiwo are the record not of a People but merely of people, ‘who one day happened to make love’.

Sadie is one of the lucky ones, according to this self-oppressive ideology, except that she has had no familiarity with the context that might connect her with her good fortune. There’s a rather pat scene, after Kweku’s children have arrived in Ghana for the funeral, in which she is singled out and invited (‘Please sees-tah, please come’) to join a traditional celebration, and her self-hatred melts away at least for a while: ‘Before they all knew it, she was dancing in the clearing as if she’d been born doing traditional Ga dance.’ The scene has been prepared for, by that account of Sadie’s dance training, but it still risks – in conjunction with Fola’s physical awareness of her children – presenting Africa as the home of body wisdom, of instinct and intuition. (It’s true that Africa, Nigeria rather than Ghana, is also the home of corruption and abuse in the book.) Perhaps Sadie is just experiencing in an intensified form what Olu felt on his first visit: ‘It was back to the colour, the newness of majority, seeming familiar to oneself, chancing to catch his reflection in the window of a passing car and thinking for a moment he was looking at the driver.’

Any children that Olu and Ling might have would be the products of people rather than a People, but there’s no resistance to their relationship in his family. Opposition comes from the other side. Ling’s father Dr Wei displays the insistent open-mindedness that is virtually a guarantee of prejudice. ‘When I was in grad school … I befriended a fair number of Africans … They’d come from all over, some wealthy, some destitute, but all of them brilliant, pure genius … the hardest-working men in our cohort.’ The insidious praise goes on: ‘I admire the culture, your culture, its respect for education above all. Every African man I have ever encountered in an academic setting excelled, barring none.’ Then he goes in for the kill: ‘Why is that place still so backward? I ask. And you know what I think? No respect for the family … I’m assuming – and it is just an assumption, I acknowledge – that your father left your mother to raise you alone?’ Olu points out that Ling and her sister have both chosen to marry out of their racial group – their father is the prime example of what they don’t want. Ling and Olu leave, and are exchanging vows in the Little White Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas six hours later.

Racism in its classic form features only once, but since when it arises it’s the determinant of the entire plot it needs to be portrayed convincingly. While working as a surgeon at Boston’s Beth Israel hospital in the early 1990s, Kweku is asked to operate on a 77-year-old smoker with a ruptured appendix and a well-established blood infection, a hopeless case, but also as it happens a Cabot. Jane ‘Ginny’ Cabot, patron of research sciences, socialite, grandmother, alcoholic. It pushes the situation towards caricature to select the Cabots to demonstrate benighted attitudes, not merely Boston Brahmins but members of the family that talks ‘only to God’. The patient’s family (financial supporters of the hospital) want everything possible done, though the medical authorities understand that this is just for form’s sake. They propose Dr Sai to perform the futile operation. ‘But he’s a –’ Kip Cabot protests, and is interrupted before he can articulate his prejudice with: ‘Very fine surgeon. The finest we have.’ Kip askes Kweku:

‘And where did you do your “training”?’ Air quotes.

‘In the jungle, on beasts,’ Kweku answered genteelly. ‘Chimpanzees taught. Great instructors. Who knew?’

Racism has learned to disguise itself better than this. When the operation fails, as it could only do, the Cabots want a scapegoat and Sai is dismissed. He doesn’t tell Fola what happened but pretends to go to work every day. Over a period of months he spends all their savings on getting a lawyer, Marty of Kleinman & Kleinman, to sue for wrongful dismissal. The case is unanswerable, but goes against him because the judge is the dead woman’s cousin. This is the point where the weakness of the plotting becomes absolute. The story may require Kweku to be sacrificed on the altar of racism, but there’s no excuse for the knife being rusty. Marty of Kleinman & Kleinman, far from being a ‘lawyer’s lawyer’, ‘one of the best in Massachusetts’, hardly counts as a lawyer at all if he doesn’t exploit such a glaring abuse of process, and save Kweku from the plot-imposed obligation to drive away from his family one evening, condemning them all to years of painful and instructive wandering. Any editor who pointed out this patch of metal fatigue in the story mechanism would have earned a place on the long list of the acknowledged.