Some first novels proclaim immediately that you are in the presence of a new, distinctive voice. So it is with Ghana Must Go, which has recently been published in French as Le Ravissement des innocents (literally,'the ravishing of the innocents'). It was written by a young author whose own life is something of a saga in itself. Taiye Selasi was born in London to a Nigerian mother and a Ghanaian father, but was brought up in the United States and now lives in continental Europe – in Italy to be precise. In a 2005 article she coined the word 'Afropolitan' to describe her status as an “African of the world”. She wrote: “You’ll know us by our funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes. Some of us are ethnic mixes, e.g. Ghanaian and Canadian, Nigerian and Swiss; others merely cultural mutts: American accent, European affect, African ethos. Most of us are multilingual: in addition to English and a Romantic or two, we understand some indigenous tongue and speak a few urban vernaculars.”
Selasi herself writes in English which is, in fairness, the only language that can pull together her multiple roots; not only is it spoken in Britain, Anglophone Africa and the United States but also in India, another of the countries where she has spent time. The author says the language used in Ghana Must Go is the product of these various cultures, and like the novel itself the prose is unclassifiable, poetic and fragmented as it sketches one family's story in the three days following a bereavement.
The novel starts with the death in Ghana of Kweku, the father of the family, who “dies barefoot on a Sunday before sunrise” with his “slippers by the doorway to the bedroom like dogs”. This image, both unusual and rich with references to Homer's The Odyssey, is a recurring one in the novel, as are other “omnipresent” details that punctuate the novel. Why did Kweku die there? Why had he chosen to return to Ghana after a brilliant and abruptly-interrupted career as a surgeon in the United States? Why had he left his wife and children with not so much as a backward glance? What would the consequences of his death be for his family, his ex-wife and four children, Olu, Sadie and twins Taiwo and Kehinde?
The novel flips between characters' memories, secrets and revelations, describing episodes which lead us to the climax of the story, fleeting instances that seem unexceptional in themselves when experienced but which carry within them a part of our destiny.
This idea of ordinary events concealing - and sometimes revealing - important truths is a feature of the work. As teacher and artist Renée C. Neblett says in words that Selasi chose as an epigraph to her novel:
A word forgot to remember
what to forget,
and every so often
let the truth slip
Kweku's death leads to revelations and also binds people together, encouraging each character to rediscover a far-distant past and an unknown identity.
What is unsaid is as important as what is said in this novel as it moves inexorably towards its climax amid veiled threats and moments of tension. Along the way it explores the failings in our lives, those personal separations that make us what we are: estrangement both of a geographic and emotional nature. The novel explores the gap between what we wanted to be and what we have become, as well as “other kinds of distances ... like heartbreak and anger and calcified grief and those questions left too long unasked or unanswered and generations of father-son silence and shame”.
Taiye Selasi excels in describing the things which elude us, which haunt us, and in her description of both political and inner exile, written in a language of incredible beauty. Everything is described through sensations; the smell of a mango, the snow in an American suburb, the chafed skin of Kweku's feet or “the kind of moment one never knows for what it is. An end. A warning shot. A boundary mark”.
The lyrical narrative formed by each character's “archives” - their memories, desires and mourning – and the echoes between one person's life and another's, takes on a chaotic nature because the “Man from the Story”, Kweku, has died at the start of the book and so the family has lost its core. Those left behind meet each other in Ghana and it is through revisiting their own past that each of them gradually inches closer to the heart of the novel, to one of the dramas that sparked off the chaos: what it was that happened to the twins in Nigeria.
This immense novel of family links and ties, which explores the collective and personal stories that make us who we are, follows the difficult paths trodden by characters who are seeking to carve out their own story between two continents and two cultures. It charts the progress of two generations who are experiencing at first hand this gulf, a gulf which is above all a source of richness and heritage, in which the protagonists are torn between leaving and returning, a desire to be elsewhere and a need to return.
Taiye Selasi, Le Ravissement des innocents, translated from English by Sylvie Schneiter. Published by Gallimard 'Du monde entier' series. 369 pages, €21.90 (€14.99 for digital versions).
Published in 2013 in the English original by Penguin as Ghana Must Go. Price £14.99.
The French version of this article can be found here.
English version by Michael Streeter