Sunday, 6 April 2014

Ghana Must Go, by Taiye Selasi

There’s a scene in Ghana Must Go where Olu Sai is asking his girlfriend’s father for her hand in marriage. Dr. Wei doesn’t say no exactly; rather, he begins a speech on what he views to be the downfall of the African male:

“The fathers don’t honor their children or wives,” he says. “I’m assuming – and it is just as an assumption, I acknowledge – that your father left your mother to raise you alone?” 

It’s an unfortunate truth that Dr. Wei is correct in his latter assumption, but Olu stands his ground wonderfully. He doesn’t defend his father or try to provide explanation, instead he turns the tables on Dr. Wei, pointing out that despite his insistence that children follow their father’s example, Dr. Wei’s children, in their very choice of mates, are not.

It’s a fabulous moment. For a second you’re thinking, what a horrible man… but wait, he’s hit the nail on the head there – and then: but that’s got nothing to do with Olu… and then Olu steps up to the plate and takes back the power. Ghana Must Go is full of moments like this, Taiye Selasi weaving in and out with her characters, twisting and turning, all in exceptional prose and – it may seem strange to say it – just brilliant, brilliant use of punctuation. I’m a bit of a stickler for punctuation, and there are lots of perfectly enjoyable writers who don’t really understand it. Not Taiye Selasi; it’s like she has some sort of symbiotic relationship with punctuation, breathing it into her writing to create wonderful, unusual, thoughtful sentences that were just a pleasure to read and pick apart and consider. Taiye Selasi is a writer’s writer.

Told in three parts – Gone, Going, and GoGhana Must Go is the fictional biography of the Sai family. Their father, Kweku Sai, is Ghanaian; their mother, Folasade, is Nigerian; the four children, Olu, twins Kehinde and Taiwo, and the late surprise Sadie, are American. As we enter the story, Kweku stands in the garden of his house, alone, dying, but remembering. Remembering the construction of this house, the construction of his family, and then the simple, single act that tore them apart.

As Selasi takes us into the minds, thoughts and memories of each of the family members, we see the ripple effect of this event, how the Sai family have spread apart from one another, physically, emotionally, just the most tentative of threads keeping them together over the distance: the bond of being a family. This thread is stronger between some of them than it is between others; an elastic thread, stretched to almost breaking point, yet primed to bounce back into it’s centre point if only it’s given a hint of slack. And as the news of Kweku’s death reverberates along it, it’s given a chance, a contraction, an opportunity, not for the past to be rewritten, but for a new future to be sketched out. Can these grown children, like Olu does in his confrontation with Dr. Wei, confront their personal terrors, grieve for their father, and then take back their power?

Chosen as a Waterstones Eleven title in 2013, and a Waterstones Book of the Month in 2014, Ghana Must Go is a story of love almost gone wrong, of people making choices in the belief that it’s the best thing for everyone involved. The trouble is that climbing out of this trap is a lot harder and slower than falling in, but it’s worth it in the end. “Ghana Must Go” is a phrase coined in Nigeria in the 1980s after millions of Ghanaian refugees flocked across their borders to escape from political unrest; I’m not sure why Selasi chose this for her title, but I think perhaps – other than the obvious Ghanaian/Nigerian connection - it’s because it’s sentiment represents how difficult it is to do undo a thing once done. What you won’t want to do undo is your reading of this story, though you might want to check your pocket for a packet of tissues as you near the final pages.

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