In my life, I have surrounded myself with books. From before I could even read, I was drawn to the smell of the pages, the look of hundreds of words gathered together to form something beautiful. And as I've gotten older, I've applied this romance to my choices in education, choosing to delve into a double major of Journalism and Literature, and then an MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature and Culture. But the thing is, when you constantly surround yourself with something, you become desensitized to it. I read constantly, and so sometimes... when a truly magical book falls into my lap... it takes me a while to realize it. So was the case with Taiye Selasi's Ghana Must Go.
Selasi -- who was born in England but raised in America and of Nigerian and Ghanian descent -- is a gift to modern literature. Seriously, she is every lit student's dream -- so much so that I want to contact every professor I have ever had and force them to incorporate this novel into the curriculum along with lessons on metaphor and sentence construction and the art of making every word count. I cannot even fathom how this is a debut novel, by a woman who earned her degrees in American Studies and International Relations, no less. And yet it is.
Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) says it best: "Taiye Selasi is a young writer of staggering gifts and extraordinary sensitivity. Ghana Must Go seems to contain the entire world, and I shall never forget it." In its 300 pages, it does contain the whole world -- the realities of this world. To quote the book, this is "a token of the absurdity of the world in which [we] are." To those living white-picket-fenced-lives, oblivious to those realities because they've been lucky enough to remain sheltered and strangers to raw pain, Ghana Must Go is a slap in the face. An uncomfortable reminder of the divide between the First World and the Third. An unapologetic account of the lives of an Afro-American family, torn apart (at the core of things) by the white privilege penetrating their every-day lives in Boston -- white privilege that results in the patriarch's (Kweku Sai) systematic firing and subsequent abandonment of his family, unable to confront his shame: leaving behind his wife (Folasade), his eldest son (Olu), his twin son and daughter (Kehinde and Taiwo) and his baby girl (Sadie).
As someone who grew up stretched between Third and First Worlds, in a broken family with seven siblings scattered across the globe (each facing their own demons), there was a lot in this book that resonated with me on an intrinsic level -- things difficult for anyone to read, because of the unfiltered, unedited truth behind them. There were few characters I couldn't relate to, either from my own perspective or that of my family. There was Olu, unable to truly trust in love and be honest with his emotions. Kehinde, scarred by perceived past mistakes, immersing himself into creative outlets as escapism. Taiwo, cold, hardened -- a victim of the worst kind of hardship. Strolling through Washington Square Park on the N.Y.U. campus (where I got my BA) falling into the trap of false comfort, false security, false hope in another person. Sadie, ten years their junior -- the unexpected baby -- and the black sheep, not unlike myself. I saw a piece of me in them all, and perhaps that's presumptuous (or even self-centered), but it's true. I saw my mother in Fola -- an immigrant to the First World: a woman who had to sacrifice so much of herself to make sure her kids succeeded... and my subsequent fear of failure.
He had held up his end of the bargain: his success for her sacrifice, two words that they never said aloud. Never success because what were it's units of measurement (U.S. dollars? Framed diplomas?) and what quantity was enough? And never sacrifice, for it always sounded hostile when she said it and absurd when he attempted, like he didn't know the half.
In Kweku, too, whose life and death frames the novel, I saw my own dad. Proud. Intelligent. But prone to running away.
The feeling of wanting to appease, and yet wanting with all your might not to want to appease is also extremely prevalent in this text. It's described as the "African Filial Piety act":
Lowered eyes, lowered voices, feigned shyness, bent shoulders, the curse of their culture, exaltation of deference, that beaten-in-impulse to show oneself obediently and worthy of praise for one's reverence of Order (never mind that Order is crumbling, corrupted, departed, dysfunctional; respect must be shown it).
Although described as a familial African trait, I'd argue this is a theme of Hispanic culture just as much, and one I've fought with time and time again. Wanting to appease because you must; not because you want to. Because no matter the corruption or dysfunction amongst those around you (be it your parents, grandparents or other such elder), you cannot help but want their respect; their admiration; and dare I say, their love.
Selasi has this uncanny ability of analyzing the world -- making bold claims about it along the way -- but not sounding pretentious or phony whilst doing it. There's this line, describing the female doctor who ultimately fires Kweku from his role as a surgeon. She had the "four-piece Harvard Box Set (B.A., M.D., Ph.D., M.B.A.)" -- and that one line alone reminded me of this ivy-league BS so prevalent in our culture: one where having so many degrees from an elite school excuses you from firing a black man for fake reasons in an epic demonstration of white privilege and sheer human shitty-ness, with no regard for how it will destroy his family.
And then there's this thing Sadie says: "The bathroom of a mother. A chamber of concealment. A chamber of secrets, insecurities, scents, crystal bottles with spray pumps and baby blue bottles, an undue proportion of labels in French." My mom is still a mystery to me -- someone I'll never really figure out. And though I had never thought of it in this way, her bathroom (her bedroom, too) are clearly symbolic of that sentiment.
Ghana Must Go isn't an easy read. Nor is it the equivalent of a feel-good-flick. Yet I would recommend it to anyone, and mostly to those in need of lessons in different cultures and different ways of life to their own. The first part of the book will keep you on edge -- its non-linear format confusing, rambled and chaotic (like the confused, rambling chaos of the real world). But as the novel proceeds it becomes easier to follow. Selasi begins and ends with a death, but the life in her words is incomparable to anything I have read in a good, long while.
This book was read as part of the Nerdsville Book Club. For more thoughts on Ghana Must Go, check out reviews by:Suggest a correction